Punk Rock and Peter Parker: The Disctinctly Comic Book Politics of Spider-Man: Homecoming

At its core, Spider-Man: Homecoming grasps two fundamental truths that have largely escaped the Marvel Cinematic Universe up until now. First, that comic books and the masked avengers that inhabit their pages are intensely political—that superheroes not only embody the politics of their time, but that the best comics, the ones that remain relevant decades after their publication, are those that engage with those politics in the most subversive ways (see: Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills). The last (and only) superhero movie in our two decades of costumed crusader saturation to truly understand that basic tenet of comic book storytelling was X2, a film not only based on Marvel’s most outwardly political team of heroes but actually adapted from the pages of a graphic novel—the aforementioned God Loves, Man Kills—about the role of religion in marginalization and oppression. And while The Winter Soldier and Civil War may have tried to engage in larger issues around surveillance states and—stunningly relevant in 2017—Nazi sleeper cells in government organizations, they seemed content to buy into the MCU’s Randian envisioning of American idealism. Homecoming changes that.

And Homecoming also recognizes that the best comic book antagonists aren’t the most *evil*, or the scariest, or the slimiest—they’re those that resemble a twisted version of the heroes they try to fight. The Joker revels in Batman’s inherent insanity. Doctor Doom reflects Reed Richards’ megalomania and perfectionism without any of his self-control. And what would Professor X even be without Magneto—a sometimes-antagonist, sometimes-protagonist explicitly conceived as the Malcolm X to Xavier’s Martin Luther King Jr.

Now Peter Parker has Adrian Toomes—a reimagining of The Vulture for our political moment matched by a Spider-Man who, now that he’s swung his way onto a big screen in 2017, seems like he was made for it. Both showcase different visions of the working class and of the failures of 21st century America. Both have sympathetic origins and fraught relationships with the Marvel Universe’s resident billionaire, Tony Stark.

But while one becomes a vigilante, the other becomes an arms dealer.

Homecoming begins not with Peter but with Adrian, a contracted worker cleaning up the ruins of New York City in the aftermath of the battle from The Avengers. One morning, mere moments after starting the job, a group of well-dressed men in lily-white hard hats appears from the street to take over—telling him he’s out of his depth, “overextended,” ignoring his pleas that he needs the job to feed his wife and daughter.

Then, we move to a garage, to an undelivered shipment of alien power cells, and to the beginning of the Vulture—a dealer of Chitauri-powered weapons driven to crime not by some undefined *evil* or unexplained desire for power, but by the need to support his family. At this point—and surprisingly often for a film that ostensibly places Tony Stark in a mentor role—Iron Man becomes the villain, the out-of-touch billionare wrecking the economy for the people in the ground. Toomes sees himself as a working-class Stark—an arms dealer, a merchant of war—but paradoxically more valiant because he’s taken on the same criminal enterprise out of need rather than want, hunger rather than greed.

But while Adrian—who, it bears noting, is absolutely made by Michael Keaton’s electric, powerful performance—is one envisioning of the working-class ethos, Peter is another. Moreover, this incarnation of Spider-Man feels like his own political statement—one the film only needs to clue and hint at to make its message clear. This Spider-Man lives in a tiny Queens apartment watched over by a single parent (hi, Aunt May) and attends the Midtown School of Science and Technology—a preppy academy that actually makes the word “diverse” feel like more than a buzzword for me. Every single one of Peter’s friends and classmates feel three-dimensional and real—engaging and flawed in exactly the way insecure high schoolers should be engaging and flawed. Moreover, the movie has a kind of self-aware racial ethos that to me—whose high school was at least demographically similar to Peter’s majority-minority academy—felt extremely familiar. It never pointed at that diversity in the way a lesser film might have; yet it was there, noticeable every time Peter and Ned hatched a scheme or Michelle (the film’s true show-stealer) threw out a snarky quip or Peter stumbled adorably over his attempts to ask out Liz.

So, in other words, Spider-Man: Homecoming presents two distinct images of the—and I hate to use these buzzwords but here goes—white American working class. One is its titular hero, who gels with his classmates and surprises the guy who runs the corner store with a few lines of Spanish—the version of that ethos that doesn’t blame its failings on difference. And the other… well…

(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.)

(Seriously, I’m about to spoil one of the best-written cinematic twists I’ve ever seen, so if you haven’t seen Homecoming yet and you think you’ll end up watching this movie, please stop reading here.)

The real reason Adrian Toomes is, bar-none, the best villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet conceived—hell, one of the best villains superhero cinema has ever conceived—is not that he’s a sympathetic arms dealer. It’s not that he’s a well-developed working-class trope. And it’s not even that he adheres to a very human set of values.

It’s that he’s a suburban dad.

Spider-Man: Homecoming’s greatest scene happens when its high school half bleeds into its superhero half—when Peter knocks on Liz’s door the on night of their school’s homecoming dance, and, as they are wont to do, her father answers it.

In that moment, we’re faced with Michael Keaton’s smiling face, blissfully unaware that the fifteen year-old kid about to take his daughter to the dance is the same costumed superhero who’d been trying to take him down. He welcomes Peter—so shocked our friendly neighborhood-Spider-Man is barely able to speak—into a nice home with an open floorplan and marble countertops. A home that we all know is funded by eight years of arms deals.

Over the following minutes—the awkward pre-dance photographs and initial car ride to the school—I realized I knew Adrian Toomes. I knew about twenty different Adrian Toomes. All of his mannerisms—the way he talked, the way he said what he said, even the way he moved around the house—were exactly the same as my dad, and my friends’ dads, and every suburban dad I’ve ever known. That’s not only a testament to Keaton’s performance—which turns bone-chillingly potent in the following scene—but proof of just how familiar his character is, and proof of the political paradox that sits at his heart.

Because at the beginning of the movie, we see Adrian Toomes in a rubble yard tasked with cleaning it up. We get used to his gruffness, his brusque, no-nonsense, here-to-make-a-living nature that American culture always associates with that nebulous thing we call the working class. We hear about his family, his wife and daughter, but until that moment he answers the door, it never crosses our minds that he’s the quiet suburban father of a biracial daughter who attends one of the city’s preppiest of preps.

But here, we see who Adrian Toomes actually is: a guy who realized he could make a lot of money selling things that he knows will be used to hurt a lot of people—people very much like his own family—but justified it by a) saying that the rich guy who’d knocked him down already made a fortune doing it and b) romanticizing himself as a working-class hero out to build a better life for his family… even though he no longer is.

Instead, we get Peter Parker as the film’s real started-from-the-bottom hero—a spunky kid from a single-parent home in a little Queens apartment who first swings into action to the Hey! Ho! Let’s Go! of The Ramones’ best-known song. And while in another movie—say one with Andrew Garfield instead of Tom Holland, who in Homecoming feels just as perfect for his role as Robert Downey Jr. felt for Iron Man—that might have come off as corny, or hyperbolic, or unearned, that’s just this Spider-Man’s ethos.

Holland is punk rock Peter Parker in a punk rock superhero film—not just unafraid to stir 2017’s hair-trigger, polarized waters but actively and gleefully churning up a storm. He looks up to Tony Stark but not in the same starry-eyed way as he did in Civil War—in fact, one of his most powerful moments comes after his largest fuck-up when, almost in tears, he screams at Tony for not listening to his supposed mentee. Another comes when, after Stark repossesses the Spider-Man suit and Toomes realizes Peter’s identity on the way to the dance, he tries to take down Vulture in nothing but his old sweatshirt and jury-rigged hood. In a homage to an iconic scene from The Amazing Spider-Man #33, Peter lies buried under a pile of rubble, crying and alone, screaming for help in an abandoned, collapsed garage.

We know no one’s coming. And Peter knows it too. So with his hair dusty and mussed for the first time in the entire film, with tear-tracks still fresh down his face, he braces himself against the floor and, through a Herculean feat of effort and spider-endowed strength, manages to lift the rubble off his back.

That—that moment—is the only time the MCU’s extant political ethos crept into Spider-Man: Homecoming, that the Randian individualism that superhero comics inherently peddle in rose to the surface. But it was different here—tempered by a coming of age, by the fact that it wasn’t a rejection of help that Peter displaced, but a rejection of a specific kind of help: the help of a billionaire with daddy issues who hadn’t known how not to treat his mentee like total shit. Peter has his own moral code—in fact, one remarkably similar to Toomes’. When he carried Adrian out of the rubble of his suit and lays him out on the beach, still breathing, it’s a recognition of a mutual humanity, of a world that’s fucked up in so many ways and an affirmation that this Peter Parker—sent off in the end-credits by the same Blitzkreig Bop that keyed him in—understands that reality and wants to make it better his way. When he rejects Tony’s offer to become an Avenger to stay with his friends as a “friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man”—quite possibly the first time Tony Stark has ever been well and truly surprised in an MCU production—he embodies that same ethos.

And when Toomes, in a post-credits scene that pauses the future-film setups for some final character building, keeps Spider-Man’s identity secret from the first inklings of the Sinister Six, we see a reciprocation, and a final reminder that this villain was something special too—that twisted reflection that elevates these stories to their highest levels. I invoked X2 at the beginning of this post, and it’s no hyperbole to say that Holland and Keaton are as suited for their roles as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen were with 2000’s X-Men. And just like the X-Men—Marvel Comics’ most politically overt title—Spider-Man: Homecoming finally recognizes the need for the MCU films to join their source material and play to one of its greatest strengths: its politics.

Because just like the unapologetic punk that introduces Peter’s web-slinging vigilantism at the beginning of the film, the best comics—whether overtly, covertly, subversively, or even all three—are always political. And Homecoming not only grasps that essential fact, it revels in it, comfortably treading politicized ground in a way that’s both nuanced and subversive, becoming the first MCU film to fully embrace the nature of its source.

[Header image is production concept art by Ryan Meinerding, copyright Marvel.]

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