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The Perpetual Adolescence of Peter Parker

With ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming,’ Marvel finally gets its hero’s formative years right. It took only six tries.

(Sony Pictures/Ringer illustration)
(Sony Pictures/Ringer illustration)

While watching Spider-Man: Homecoming, an objectively fun movie, I had a sober and unfun thought: Peter Parker’s appeal endures on a myth. Or myths, plural. There’s a slim-to-nonexistent chance that Tom Holland, who plays the cheerful, nerdy Parker, wouldn’t be one of the cool, popular kids in school, for starters.

I haven’t been in high school for eight years, but I’d imagine the new cool kids still have cool handshakes to go along with their appreciation for British fuss rock and would opt for leather Chuck Taylors over wingtips for school dances. Holland’s doe-eyed optimism and charming affability would be easy enough for anyone to fall in like with, and he’s been in both Locke and The Lost City of Z. Get in with him now before he stops returning texts, you know? The rub here is that this is neither real life nor how any of this works. And though the boxes say "appropriate for ages 14 and up," assembling a 3,000-piece Lego Death Star replica with the homie is not a cool, popular choice for a Friday night at the age of 14. Or at any age after that, for that matter. But Peter Parker needs to view and interact with the world in a specific way, as all the vigilantes that patrol the streets from the rooftops do. Homecoming takes its cues from him.

Think about how most superheroes you know seem to hover around the age of 30, somewhere past getting their own sets of keys and credit cards but miles away from self-acceptance or emotional adulthood. Bruce Wayne is still a narrative-shaping bachelor (not that getting married has any bearing on "growing up"). Clark Kent rents a one-bedroom apartment (to go along with his Fortress of Solitude, which is too far removed from the real world to keep Superman human in the ways that count). Tony Stark wears Black Sabbath T-shirts under his blazer. While things change and the world is destroyed and rebuilt on into perpetuity, our heroes are supposed to stay the same.

Comforting timelessness is one of the draws of the comic genre, and it’s in Marvel’s best interests to keep Parker young, an underdog. Both a wide audience and an elusive "relatability" must get tougher and tougher to wrangle with each passing milestone in this character’s maturation. A high school diploma. His first paycheck. Fumbling over his words and his inability to directly say anything, trying to deal with being dreadfully, disconsolately in love. Eventually, following a young life’s worth of continuous mishaps and short-lived triumphs, a marriage.

(‘<em>Spider-Man: One More Day’</em>)
(‘Spider-Man: One More Day’)

Speaking of marriages, 2007 was a down year for the Spider-Man brand. Editor-in-chief Joe Quesada had a problem that had been plaguing Marvel since 1987. Peter Parker and his high school crush, Mary Jane Watson, were happily married, and this would not do, he told David Colton at USA Today:

So Quesada took a hacksaw to the longstanding status quo. In December 2007, Marvel wrapped up a four-part Spider-Man story line called One More Day, and it was divisive to say the least. A synopsis: As a part of superhuman registration in the Civil War arc, Tony Stark convinced Peter Parker to reveal to the world that he’s Spider-Man, giving Parker assurances that it would be fine. It was not fine, and almost immediately Kingpin orders a hit on Parker, but the gunman misses Parker and hits Aunt May. With Aunt May on her deathbed, Parker, crippled with guilt, turns to Mephisto — or Marvel Satan — and makes a deal in exchange for her life.

But instead of Peter’s soul, which is normally the tender for these sorts of deals, Mephisto asks for Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage instead. As a result, the whole world forgets Parker’s secret identity, both Parker and Watson forget they were ever married, and Quesada got his single and nerdy Parker back. The first issue of the following run, literally titled "Brand New Day," starts with Peter in Aunt May’s house, trying to sniff out an apartment he can afford. Things with Mary Jane are frosty and uncertain.

It was a big, fat factory reset, and people hated it. People still hate it — because the writing was a little ornate and dramatic, but mostly because the plot choice was cynical, convenient, and obvious. And because, again, Peter and Mary Jane had been married for 20 years.

Meanwhile, in the Sony-branded Spidey cinematic universe, Peter had just begun to think about popping the question.

(Screenshot via ‘<em>Spider-Man 3’</em>)
(Screenshot via ‘Spider-Man 3’)

2007 also brought writer-director Sam Raimi’s third outing with Spider-Man, Spider-Man 3, which was regrettable. We can start with Tobey Maguire, who, 31 at the time, looked and felt a little old to be convincing as a 20-something on a sputtering moped, still ducking his landlord and trying to finish his undergraduate studies. Sure, there was the alien parasite attached to a meteor that turned his costume black, and Peter himself into the fifth member of All Time Low. But there were also three villains — Sandman, Venom, and Green Goblin. In an effort to make the franchise dark and serious enough to establish it as something people who don’t read comic books should pay to see, Raimi made Spider-Man messier and goofier, eschewing the believable miseries that made it great.

Spider-Man 2, however, was an exercise in exploring the finer points. The plot was simple, which afforded the film time to be complex. The movie borrowed from Stan Lee’s 1967 comic "Spider-Man No More!," which was basically about life heaping misfortunes onto Peter until he buckles, wanting to give up the Spidey mantle for good. These adversities take the size and shape of missed deadlines, missed extensions for those deadlines, and general disappointment expressed by his friends, family, and employers. It’s a moody but not totally distressing meditation on the moral tug-of-war that is living two lives at once, and the larger, more difficult question of whether it’s possible to be both dutiful and happy. In one particularly brutal scene, Peter gets slapped in the face — twice — by his once-best friend Harry Osborn, who believes Peter either killed his father or knows who did. Naturally, this happens in the middle of a well-attended cocktail party. As if it weren’t enough that he couldn’t retaliate, Peter also has to watch Mary Jane get engaged to a better-looking and generally more eligible man, who is an astronaut to boot. And then he has to take the engagement photo.

I can’t say for sure if this is Maguire’s best piece of acting, but the defeated look that washes over his face as he has to stand there and suffer nobly is perfect. His eyes widen with shock and shame, waffling between how could you and is Peter Parker gonna have to choke a bitch? And then, as he lets the moment pass, Maguire’s eyes narrow into something more contemplative, resigned.

He doesn’t say anything toward the end of this scene, but you don’t need him to talk to grasp the pain and indignation of being the most powerful man in the room and not being able to use all that strength. And that feeling, of the city’s dispassionate churn not stopping for its savior, is achieved with small knife twists. An empty long-stem glass on a cocktail tray; one open-palmed slap, and then another; a brass band playing along to Peter’s anvil chorus. Parker is "young" in Spider-Man 2, but he’s small, too. He swings high above the city fighting a talented villain in Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, but when the stakes are most credible, when Peter is most relatable, when the movie is at its best, is when it’s closest to the ground.

In the 10 years since Spider-Man 3, there have been two other movies. Paul Giamatti wore an Adidas tracksuit, and Jamie Foxx turned in a performance as Electro that was too cartoonish, even by cartoon standards. But the scenes that stood out were rarely the ones when people fought, or when things blew up. The climactic battle with Rhys Ifans’s the Lizard on the rooftop in The Amazing Spider-Man was harrowing, but it was Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone’s chemistry as Peter and Gwen Stacy that saved everything.

This attention to the human — even in a superhuman context — is also what makes director John Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming great. Well, one of a few things that make it great. Holland is barely 20, far younger than Maguire’s debut as the webslinger at 27 or Death Cab for Andrew Garfield at 28. He’s more than capable of bringing Jonathan Goldstein’s scrappy, wink-filled script to life as a 15-year-old Peter Parker: incorrigible, psyched about everything because he can do anything. One of Mephisto’s sadistic flourishes in One More Day is showing an unwitting Spider-Man alternate futures of his life, all products of small changes to his past or present, or of choices he’s yet to make. The big one is the daughter he might’ve had with Mary Jane but for saving Aunt May’s life. The important one, though, is that in which Peter never gets bitten by a genetically mutated spider and instead becomes a game developer who rarely ever feels moved to leave the house.

As Mephisto explains to Spider-Man, most people never get the chance to affect real change in the world, and almost all of them would be grateful for the chance. Your loved ones would always be in some sort of danger, but how awesome would it be to be able to save lives? To catch a bus with your bare hands? To climb the Washington Monument? To swing freely between skyscrapers on spider webs?

(‘<em>Spider-Man: One More Day</em>’)
(‘Spider-Man: One More Day’)

The Homecoming in the title has three meanings:

  1. This is the first Spider-Man movie made under Marvel’s stewardship.
  2. Spider-Man returns to Queens, his ancestral home. He’s friends with the bodega cat and uses what little Spanish he learned in class to razz the owner while ordering a chopped cheese. It’s the first time in six movies that "friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man" feels like an ethos, and not a corny tagline.
  3. The most pivotal scenes of Homecoming happen in or around Peter’s school’s Homecoming dance.

It’s not one of the intended meanings, but Homecoming also ushers in a return to the finer notes that made the Spider-Man franchise interesting in the first place. He’s not trying to save the world, just his neighborhood. He isn’t concerned with relations between metahumans and humankind, or the surveillance state, or anything more than not being treated like a kid. Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton being Michael Keaton in a flight jacket — it works, and well) didn’t want to be a supervillain, or even "Vulture," for that matter. He was just a scrap metal scavenger who stumbled onto a bureaucracy that didn’t care about his livelihood. So he stole enough stuff from the suits that run the world, which afforded and sustained a picket-fenced life in the suburbs for his family and himself. And then he lost touch.

About halfway through the movie, Peter ducks out of a house party to bust a gun buy and meets Donald Glover, a permanently zooted felon who just wanted something to stick somebody up with, not an alien-mod weapon that could level a city block. The second time they meet, Glover agrees to help Spider-Man’s cause not in service to some nebulous Greater Good, but because Glover has a little cousin who plays on the streets that Toomes’s goons are flooding with weapons of mass vaporization. It’s believable because it’s small.

The big reveal is also small: Zendaya’s Michele, who is basically Daria, warms to Peter and the gang after his other love interest — who is also black, an amazing and important thing to note — leaves town. "Call me MJ," she says. I yelped.

With Spider-Man: Homecoming, Marvel gets Parker’s formative years right. Enough shots — six, exactly — and it was bound to crack.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly spelled the last name of a Spider-Man character (it is Gwen Stacy, not Stacey); misidentified a screenshot of Spider-Man 3 as being from Spider-Man 2; and mischaracterized Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson’s high school relationship in the comic books (they did not date until after high school).