In 2002, the Spider-Man movie apparently blew everyone’s minds by showing that a superhero movie could be good. By 2015, everyone agreed that Spider-Man movies were going to suck forever after a failed reboot by Sony assured that Marvel Studios would never get the character rights back. Somehow Marvel and Sony found a way to play nice and allowed Spider-Man to join the MCU, but what could Marvel make with a character so overexposed and mishandled? The same thing they’ve always made: cinematic gold.
So much of Marvel’s approach to Spider-Man was dictated by the mistakes of previous attempts. In both previous versions, Spider-Man was the only superhero in the world, but the MCU has already been up and running for nearly a decade, so Peter Parker would have been about 7 or 8 when Loki ripped a hole in the sky and flooded New York with an alien army that the Avengers formed to stop. His generation grew up in a world where superheroes are a given, and they regard them like rockstars. Being an Avenger is a childhood fantasy for Parker, so when he is in the suit he is having the time of his life and we see that expressed in his relentless motormouth, too excited to stop joking even for a second. With the casting of Tom Holland, Parker finally looks like a teenager because he is one, and his teenage decision making leads to him repeatedly fucking up in his desperation to be a superhero. Holland plays a bratty child, not an adult with an amused detachment like Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield. Marvel Studios vaults expertly over every dull, overdone point of the previous versions; they skip the spider-bite, Uncle Ben’s death, and the “great responsibility” speech since no one needs to see it again. Instead of having Parker masterfully tailor his own suit, they have Tony Stark make it for him, and use that to solve one of the biggest problems this character brings: the Spider-Man mask.
Before I explain, let me warn you that this is going to get geeky. You can skip this paragraph if you can’t handle it. Spider-Man is one of the few really popular comic book characters that wears a full face mask. From the beginning, illustrators would cheat it by making the eyes change from panel to panel, allowing emotion to come through an otherwise expressionless face. But when it came time to make the movies, they couldn’t have the mask moving around like it was magic. Compound that with the fact that the studio didn’t want their star’s precious face hidden the whole time, and the solution they came up with was to have Parker remove his mask or lose it as much as possible. It didn’t make sense for someone with a secret identity to keep exposing his face, and this just added to the disbelief we were supposed to suspend. Marvel wisely knew they were going to have to solve this if they were going to bring the best possible Spider-Man to the big screen. As a result of his spider-sense, Parker needs to wear goggles while Spider-Manning to focus his senses, and when Stark decided to build him a suit, he built mechanical apertures over the eyes that can also mimic facial expressions. It follows that Stark would dump a bunch of hidden extra tech into the suit, and when Parker decides to unlock it all at once to prove he’s not a child, (like a child would), it gets him deeper into trouble. Their solution to the mask problem brought consequences that add to the plot, and fit in perfectly with the character and the universe at large. Whereas Deadpool just decided no one would care and cheated it.
Spider-Man is a hero that stays pretty low to the ground. He is the only hero in the MCU that regularly rides a school bus, and has a unique perspective among the superpowered to see the affect the Avengers have on the lives of everyday people. As a working class kid with limited resources, he matches up pretty well for the movie’s villain: Adrian Toomes, AKA The Vulture. Michael Keaton knocks it out of the park as Toomes, wielding the quiet intensity of a seasoned actor like a goddamn flaming sword. Toomes was a blue collar business owner whose livelihood is threatened when aggressive political maneuvering by Tony Stark puts his entire industry of superhero-related clean up under government control. While Civil War recycled the narrative waste of the MCU into an explosive product, Toomes literally recycles the physical waste, stealing alien tech from the Avenger’s fights and building them into black market weapons. Spider-Man movies always attempted to show Parker failing to balance his two lives, but this movie takes it further by showing him repeatedly failing to keep his identity secret. Toomes is able to figure out who Spider-Man is on his own, but Parker’s carelessness with his mask cause his friend Ned and eventually Aunt May to learn of his big secret. It feels like a wink at Maguire’s and Garfield’s inability to keep their masks on, but it also fits into the MCU tradition of “no secret identities”.
Given Stark’s role in the foundation of MCU Spidey, it’s pretty reasonable that he would play an important part in this movie, supplanting Uncle Ben as Parker’s default father figure. Stark is all too happy to let Parker hold him in such high regard, but is too absent to mentor Parker away from his increasingly reckless behavior in his scramble to prove he deserves to be an Avenger. At least three separate times, Parker’s carelessness with powerful things lead to massive property damage and danger to civilians. After Parker causes the Staten Island ferry to get split in half, Stark swoops in to demand the suit back since Parker has proven he can’t be responsible. Stark is looking for some kind of redemption after the fallout from Civil War to prove to himself he’s not a shitty person, but the thoroughly shitty job he does mentoring Peter just kind of reinforces his insufficiencies. Peter is so devastated by his failures he walks away from Spider-Man and focuses on putting his personal life back together. Unfortunately, Spider-Man isn’t done with him, and when he finds out that his date’s dad is The Vulture, he feels it’s his responsibility to stop him since no one else will. Peter learns that it takes more to be a hero than just fighting criminals, so when Tony extends an offer to join the Avengers, Peter understands that he is not ready for that and passes on his childhood dream to stay where he belongs. If you were disappointed this movie did not include the iconic adage, you only have to look into the subtext to see it spray painted in giant letters all over the story. The writers snuck in the “great responsibility” speech as a theme instead of dialogue, and by showing Peter absorbing that lesson as he learns how to actually Spider-Man, they hid the fact that this movie actually IS an origin story. Clever bastards.
Maybe I was burnt out on Spider-Man when this movie came out, or maybe I was disappointed that this movie lacked the epic scope of recent MCU fare, but for whatever reason, I didn’t really appreciate this movie until recently. The story is fairly satisfying and there is plenty to like on the surface, but multiple viewings allowed me to see the sheer brilliance with which they reinvented this character. Marvel has again proven they know what they’re doing; they are not too precious with Spider-Man to drop or change whatever they need to make this character work in the MCU. By deviating from the core components of the mythos, they created a Spider-Man that feels more true to the spirit of the character than any previous attempt. The intricacies of the writing reveal just how intelligently this character and story were reconceived. They nailed it so hard that it’s going to come back to life 3 days later. This is, without question, the best Spider-Man movie that has ever been made. It’s so good that it comes very close to eradicating the memory of past misfires that weigh this character down. 4/5
Coming up next: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)