[Writer’s Disclaimer: I’ve loved Spider-Man since I was an itty bitty spider. So there “may” be “some” bias in the following. Also, spoilers. You’ve been warned. Enjoy.]
In Peter Parker’s world, there’s always a girl. For Tobey McGuire it was Mary Jane-Watson. For Andrew Garfield it was Gwen Stacy. For Tom Holland, it’s Liz. Or, Michelle. Depends on who you’re asking and if they’ve seen Spider-Man: Homecoming yet.
My point is…well, I’m getting there.
With all these wimmins running around Pete’s life, there’s always a daddy. Because the parental unit must be complete in these heroic narratives! And no, not like, a kinky daddy. But a Dad Figure™. Granted, they aren’t always a direct daddy. There’s Stacey’s pappy in The Amazing Spider-Man, and then Dr. Connor. In Tobey’s Spider-Man, you’ve just got Uncle Ben – and later – Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2. In Tom’s Spideyverse, you get…Tony Stark and Adrian Toomes.
I’m being exhaustive here to be very clear: Spider-Man has daddy issues ya’ll. And a core part of his heroic arc is based around an almost neurotic need to fulfill promises to familial connections. Namely Uncle Ben.
Uncle Ben Dies At The
It’s a story as old as time: Peter Parker’s rise to heroism is built on the grave of Uncle Ben Parker’s untimely death at the hands of a robber. With Ben’s parting words of “with great power comes great responsibility,” Peter skyrockets into a life of superpowers, difficult decisions and a lot of grief. Peter never really knew his parents, and thus Aunt May and Uncle Ben are his parental units. With the loss of Uncle Ben though, he’s left astray in the ways of manhood and superheroism (because superheroism is just a graduated form of masculinity, amiiirght?)
This leaves him deeply wounded, as evidenced in Tobey’s spiderverse, wherein he nearly kills the man who murdered ol’ Uncle Ben. The Amazing Spider-Man iterations try to sideline this story by quickly shifting focus to Pete’s parents…and it doesn’t exactly work. And In Tom’s world, Uncle Ben is actually excised completely so that Tony Stark can be the dysfunctional dad we all knew he could be. Anyway, this is all to say that Spidey’s development on the big screen (and the panels, and the tv screens, etc.) have all hinged on grief and father figures. Which, when you think about the bonanza of Homecoming, makes Uncle Ben’s absence and Toomes’ presence very, very interesting.
In Homecoming, Uncle Ben is never mentioned by name. There are allusions to “everything going on with May” and whatnot. But the man is legitimately nowhere to be seen. After beating his ragged corpse in the name of character development for so many years, Disney/Marvel decided to revamp Spidey’s story in a way that didn’t involve the gratuitous “omigod Ben’s gonna die” feelings bucket again. It’s an interesting choice and an effective one. For one, it makes Homecoming worth watching twice because – if you’re not up on your Spider-Man trivia – you forget Ben is even supposed to be around during your first watch. It’s in that second viewing that emotional depth is added to Holland’s increasingly chatty, energetic and desperate-for-daddy-approval version of Peter.
Here’s why: when you think about it, he’s a kid struggling with the responsibility of his powers and the crushing weight of grief. In the wake of losing his immediate father figure, his need to prove himself – and to be included in a complete familial unit (see: the Avengers) – is paramount, because his own unit is decidedly ruptured for the time being/broken (see: by heteronormative standards, at least.)
In this, Homecoming provides a certain level of pathos that most movies with teenage protagonists – let alone superpowered teen movies – fail at. Since being a “normal kid” is never an option, Peter’s actions are motivated by his need to either A) be approved of by Tony, a father figure or B) create a cohesive family unit by joining the Avengers. Note these two aren’t mutually exclusive, but they do present the most powerful impetuses. So much so that the majority of the movie is spent bouncing between these two: Peter goes above and beyond in Queens in order to be considered for his “next mission” with Iron Man; Peter goes out of his way to track down Vulture’s weapon’s dealers; Peter uses his own decathlon competition as a cover to apprehend Vulture. In each of these moments, Peter’s not just trying to save the day: he’s trying to save himself. Powered by grief and youthful naiveté, Peter finds danger – big and small – is the crucible he’s willing to engage in order to find some semblance of family.
Bad Daddy Day Care
This need for family is supported by the strained dynamic between Peter and Tony. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is snarky, crass and blindingly arrogant. But he’s come a long way from the fully irredeemable, freewheeling playboy of Iron Man. Does that make him a good father though? Ehhhh…probably not according to Child Protective Services. But this is a fantasy, so fuck it.
Thus Homecoming makes him the De Facto Daddy. Which leaves Peter with a seemingly singular outlet for his issues and need for approval. In nearly every scene they share, Tony is the well-meaning-but-hard-nosed-father and Peter is the spunky-but-too-green-behind-the-ears-to-know-better son. In this dynamic, their banter is almost constantly a dependent situation; Peter needs and wants Tony to love and appreciate him/his efforts and Tony punches down in order to teach, misconstruing most of it as some kind of tough love. Despite his belief in Peter, Tony admits on-screen that everyone around him doesn’t support bringing Yung Spidey into any kind of inner circle. And, potentially for good reason: Peter’s impulsive, naive and – if we take our previous conversation into account – emotionally compromised due to the loss of a family member. Yet, even as Tony says this, he spends the entire film treating Peter as a nuisance and inhibiting his ability (literally with the ‘training wheels protocol’ and figuratively via Agent Happy’s babysitting.)
Additionally, if we’re to put a microscope to Tony’s fatherhood, it’s important to question his steadfastness as any kind of role model in the first place. This is because this dynamic – of babying and punching down to Peter – only changes at the end of the film….wherein Peter saves Tony’s shit from being stolen by Vulture. In this we have a very interesting bifurcation of experiences.
We, the audience, feel that Peter has proven himself because we have first-hand knowledge of his tribulations to become a hero, pushing past the “I’m nothing without the suit” Peter of Act 2. However, there’s some serious tea to be sipped when you realize that Tony’s approval of Peter is most likely selfish in nature. Of course Tony would finally accept Peter after he single-handedly saves Tony’s toys and Tony himself from public embarrassment. It’s in line with his character, no matter how noble he’s become over the length of the MCU. For, let us not forget Civil War, where he pettily tried to kill Captain America over a 50 year old lie that was more complicated than it seemed. Or any number of stunts he’s pulled throughout the MCU to turn a profit or benefit himself. Sadly, this makes Peter’s pining for him a strange affair, even when he chooses his own path at the end of Homecoming. Because we know he’ll be back in Infinity War, and lord knows how many other movies.
Anyway, point here is that Tony is a terrible father but Peter looks to him because he doesn’t have much else. Sometimes you play the cards you’re dealt, yeah?
Dancing With The Devil In Queens
But wait! There’s more! In this messy web of fatherhood and family, we have Homecoming’s keystone villain: Adrian Toomes aka The Vulture. If Tony Stark is positioned as the Good Father, Toomes is most definitely our Dark Father. Granted, his standing as a father isn’t directly revealed until that last third of Homecoming, which is packed full of juicy shit to get into.
Peter’s feelings for Liz (Laura Harrier) are immediately and tragically complicated once he discovers that Vulture is in fact, her pappy. Which, on its own feet is an exceptional bit of writing. Until Homecoming, I hadn’t had a “lean forward” moment –where I was truly floored by a scene or a twist – when watching MCU movies. With each new addition, things have become ever more predictable and have even made us, and our peers, question if there are any *actual* consequences in the Marvel Universe. That’s to say: these movies are pretty rote for a well-vested cat like myself. And yet, Homecoming delivered on something new. Per our convo earlier: the movie sidelines the majority of the generally angsty teen shit to focus on superhero adventures. So to see that story suddenly become relevant in every way possible, and to not even really see it coming, is kinda dope.
But I digress…
Where Tony Stark is a selfishly wounded father who’s big on being hard-nosed and neglectful, Toomes is a look at a more genuine, albeit darker, fatherhood that’s also central to the movie itself. At every key moment, Homecoming iterates upon his motivations and character. In fact, the movie opens with his origin story: after being screwed over by shady governmental agencies in New York, he goes underground, stealing alien tech to provide wealth for his family. It’s the kind of Robin Hoodian, anti-establishment shit that appeals to Trump voters and American idealists alike. The best part is that Keaton sells it well. There’s a blue-collar grit to his performance that’s balanced only by his clearly sociopathic streak. [Writer’s Tin Foil Hat Note: extra-textually, it’s an interesting foil to the very establishment (of rich, freewheeling billionaire playboys like Tony Stark) he represented as Bruce Wayne in 1989’s Batman.]
All that said, he is a dynamic and clear reflection of Peter: he too is invested in family, but he’s older, wiser and selfish in that he’s singularly focused on providing at any cost. Contrast this with Peter’s constant deathwish when it comes to proving himself in the field and you’ve got a tango of character development that’s delicious to watch. To be specific though, I’d like to focus on two scenes: the car ride to the homecoming dance and their final battle.
In the car ride, the dramatic tension of Peter’s situation is magnified tenfold. While the initial reveal that Toomes is Liz’s father is shocking, the ride intensifies the shock by reversing the reveal. In a sequence of nonchalant admissions, Liz dry-snitches on Peter’s various absences throughout the past month. These absences of course line up with Toomes’ run ins with Spider-Man. While Peter squirms uncomfortably, Toomes’ entire demeanor changes, thus changing the happy-go-lucky tone of the ride.
It’s an incredible bit of acting and scripting because of the talent involved and narrative knowledge: Harrier’s almost careless listing of Peter’s sins is beautifully ignorant as she zones out into her phone, completely unaware of the smoldering of her father; Keaton’s playful banter with Holland is Joker-esque in its darkening joy, which progressively becomes more murderous as he realizes who Peter is; and of course, Holland is completely absorbed in conflict and fear, cornering himself in his seat.
In terms of narrative, this reveal is incredible because it enforces the power dynamics at play: Keaton is already the tough-to-impress father. But the moment Peter sees him, he is – for one of the few times in Homecoming – purely a hapless teenager. There’s no plan, no brilliance and no powers to use. At this very moment as he rides with his high school crush, he’s helpless in the hands of Toomes. It’s a deft way to flip an overused trope into a high stakes situation.
Bravo, Homecoming, bra-fucking-vo.
Ultimately, this scene solidifies that the shit has hit the fan and specifically creates space for negative interactions with a father figure. This complicates things because Peter’s entire experience with fatherhood has to this point leaned chaotic neutral, so to have a solidly “evil” force that’s also a father in front of him creates a litany of complex moral and development issues. Many of which are touched on in the final battle. The final battle is kind of three parts: Peter confronting Toomes at his lair, Peter fighting Toomes on Tony Stark’s plane and Toomes and Peter jumping around on Coney Island. In a grasping attempt at brevity here, let’s zoom to Coney Island.
After finally tapping into himself vs. the suit (and a very hamfisted “Simba, remember who you are” voiceover moment,) and downing the Stark Enterprises plane, Toomes and Peter fight on the sandy beaches of Coney Island. In the midst of this fight, Toomes gets the upper hand. But, instead of killing Peter, he attempts to still run off with some booty from Tony’s tower. Peter however is able to apprehend Toomes while saving him from his own machinery; the Vulture flying suit was set to blow and Peter rescues Toomes from the ensuing fire. There’s a lot going on there.
First off: Toomes refusing to kill Spider-Man adds a layer of complexity to his villainy. He’s a sociopath, but he’s not that murdery. His primary imperative is still to provide for his family first. And while it may have been all consuming – almost to the point of masquerading as greed – it’s clear that Vulture is just out here trying to make a dollar outta fifteen cents by any means possible.
Couple this with Peter’s saving him. He didn’t have to. He sure as hell probably didn’t fully want to. But let’s look at context: Toomes is still a father. And, while he’s not Peter’s blood father, he is Peter’s Dark Father, by way of the narrative mirroring between Tony and himself. Additionally, he’s Liz’s father. If we acknowledge and accept Peter’s own traumas and dependencies tied to father figures, this web of intersections behooves Peter to save Toomes. Not just because he is supposed to believe in saving lives, but because Toomes’ death would mean an added trauma to Peter…and Liz. Peter knows the pain of losing a father, so why would he put his crush through that? Better to have a living father in prison than a dead one, yeah?
Interestingly enough, this kindness is paid in full in a stinger sequence, wherein Toomes doesn’t snitch on Spider-Man’s identity to fellow criminals. It’s an opaque moment that SETS UP SEQUELS (see: The Sinister Six most likely.) But more importantly, it shows that Toomes is complex and, as the Dark Father, has established a relationship of some kind with Peter, as both figurative son and as a nemesis. Thus the cycle of fatherhood progresses and a new family, by way of oppositional relationships, emerges.
It’s A Family Affair
So what do we have here? A solid movie, for one. And, I think we have one of the most salient examples of how to handle adult topics with a teen audience, without dumbing down the material to a level of inane one-liners and terrible acting. Additionally, if you put on a tin foil hat with me: I think we have a good example of media that positions fathers and adults in morally and emotionally complex positions that go beyond “this person is bad, this person is good” language, both cinematic and literal. If you grab that hat and pull it over your forehead: Adrian Toomes is the father Spider-Man needed and not the one he deserved. While Tony’s words of wisdom about the Spider Suit help Peter realize his potential in the moment, it’s Toomes that moves the needle. His complex connection to the everyday people in his life, and Peter’s own traumas, ultimately push Peter to accept the responsibility of small-town heroism that will help him become The Spider-Man™. [Writer’s Note: this is the part where I’d play a lot of Funk Flex bombs.]
This revelation aside, that earlier bit about emotionally complex positions is important, because Homecoming is clearly packaged to be consumed by teens (and adults). But also because the concept of family structures is pretty central to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Looking back on the last few years, many major dramatic shifts and events have all been tied to familial figures and ties: the entire saga of the Iron Man movies hinges on Tony’s wounded relationship with his parents; the Captain America’s movies are deeply vested in brotherhood with Bucky and the wayward traumas associated with the loss of the Avengers’ father figure Nick Fury; The Avengers films at first are about an odd pairing of siblings and then Tony’s failings at being a literal and figurative father figure to Ultron; and Black Panther’s rise is specifically linked to a Lion King-esque loss of his own father, T’Chaka.
Granted, this isn’t exclusive to superhero movies. The death and tension of family is dramatic material that’s as old as time. But often, superhero movies use them to the nth degree because somehow the cost of superpowers should be paid with a heavy debt. And what’s heavier than losing Uncle Ben on-screen? When it comes to Spider-Man, it’s often the narrative price of admission. Luckily, it’s not the only way to catch our favorite webhead become the man he’s meant to be, and in my humble opinion, Homecoming figured most of it out.
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter