Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.
Despite being one of the best known, most popular characters in the world, the Spider-Man of the MCU sometimes feels like an also-ran. Not just because he’s the third iteration of Peter Parker (Tom Holland) we’ve seen since 2002, but because he seems to exist in relation to (and in the shadow of) the larger MCU generally and Iron Man in particular.
To some, making Marvel’s signature character almost a supporting player in his own story is an unforgivable sin. However, by shifting that focus, the two MCU movies have also presented Spidey as the hero he was originally intended to be, a child in a world of adults. And in doing so, the movies end up exploring some real-world kid issues in ways one doesn’t usually see in superhero blockbusters.
2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home is steeped in legacy. It’s about what happens after a catastrophic change and how you pick up the pieces of your life and figure out how to move on. The Infinity War is over, the people killed in the Snap (sorry, “The Blip”) are back, and Thanos has been defeated. Five years have gone by; the restored folks have to figure out how to reintegrate into a world that kept moving without them, and the core Avengers have been decimated. Order has been restored, but it’s fragile and unsteady. How does the world just pick up and move on after such a calamity? What if something like that happens again?
Nature abhors a vacuum, and people need to feel like someone is watching the store, so in Tony’s absence his protégé is the public’s natural choice to take his place. That Tony’s protégé is a 16 year old boy, uncomfortable with the massive responsibility being laid at his feet, isn’t something they’re necessarily aware of. All Pete wants to do is enjoy his class trip to Europe and to tell a girl in his class that he likes her, but his other life keeps getting in the way.
It would seem that the events of the Infinity War have broken reality to the point where apocalyptic threats from alternate realities have leaked into their reality and now element-based monsters called, well, Elementals are rampaging across Europe and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) needs Spider-Man’s help to stop them. And to complicate matters even more, Pete learns that Tony left him sole control of a massive A.I. program/orbiting weapons cache.
This is where Pete’s youth and relative position to the other characters really comes into play in a way that the previous Spider-Man films could never address. For ten years, audiences watched an MCU populated by adults with adult problems (or adult for action blockbusters anyway). They dealt with the military-industrial complex in the Iron Man movies, government overreach and the surveillance state in the Captains America, and Thor was ultimately about the struggle for power in succession. Now all those problems are still around but the adults are gone.
The two MCU movies have also presented Spidey as the hero he was originally intended to be, a child in a world of adults.
Spider-Man: Far From Home, and returning director Jon Watts, takes all three of those themes, mixes them together, and drops them in the lap of a child. It’s overwhelming, and it’s not fair, but it’s also no more than a shade removed from the real world scenarios of having an eighteen-year-old remote pilot a drone bomber or asking them to face down a global environmental apocalypse.
Like a lot of kids his age, Pete’s stressed, and is understandably anxious for a way out when a new hero appears on the scene, one who might be able to ease his burden. Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal) purports to be a refugee from one of the alternate realities, one already ravaged by the fierce Elementals, determined to stop history from repeating itself in his new home. Powerful, charismatic and intelligent, Beck seems to be a perfect replacement for the absent Tony, both as superhero and mentor.
Perhaps Pete can leave Earth and Tony’s A.I./cache in Beck’s hands and just get to be a kid for a while. The audience is presented with a similar temptation – RDJ is gone, but now here’s handsome, charming Jake Gyllenhaal to take his place! Why, he even almost took over for Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man back in the Raimi movies! Who doesn’t want to watch him be a superhero for a half dozen movies?
We’ve all seen the movie though, and we know Beck is a fraud. He’s a former Stark employee who feels discarded and underappreciated by Tony and he employs other similarly-disgruntled ex-Stark employees. Beck capitalizes on society’s need for security and how the desire to return to normalcy can make even the most cautious people (Nick Fury, for instance) susceptible to charlatans.
But he’s also another example of the problem of youth: we’re all born into a world already in progress and are often swept into the ongoing drama of those who came before us. The whole point of Beck’s con, and all the death and destruction that came with it, is to gain control of the guidance system Tony left for Pete.
Both of the conflicts in Spider-Man: Far From Home and Homecoming are, at their core, about Pete having to clean up Tony’s messes. How even victories like the Battle of New York in Avengers and Tony’s attempts to reconcile with the death of his parents in Civil War can inadvertently cause collateral damage that end up cascading and hurting even more people.
Pete gets the privileges of having a successful mentor, he gets the cool tech and the good advice and the bitchin’ contacts, but he pays the cost too. He gets to be the guy who sees the wreckage Tony leaves in his wake, and weigh that against the good he’s done to try to figure out how to do better moving forward. It’s a weight we as the audience have the opportunity to calculate too, because we invested in and rooted for Tony (and the rest of the MCU heroes) for a decade.
So yeah, there’s an element of Iron Man Jr. to the MCU Spider-Man. The payoff in that loss of independence is a rare opportunity in commercial blockbuster filmmaking, to think about how complex life is and how hard it is to grow up in a constantly changing world. The best MCU movies are often about causality and how solving one problem leads to all new problems, and how our heroes are villains to someone else. Spider-Man: Far From Home is no exception. There are no total victories in life, and nothing ever really ends because there’s always another generation coming up behind the last.
Far from diminishing him, the fact that this Peter Parker has to find his way in such a complicated place where he’s so young and so in over his head, only underlines his bravery and heroism. In so doing, he symbolizes how heroic any kid is who tries to understand the compromises and contradictions of adult life and still tries to be a good person.