During one scene in Spider-Man: Homecoming, our hero gets trapped under a pile of rubble. He’s alone, helpless, and above all, scared.
No one is coming to save him, no passerby is within earshot, and none of his allies knows what’s happened to him. He starts yelling for help, but eventually, he breaks. He starts crying. And that’s my favorite moment of the movie.
Consider the other times we have seen Peter Parker cry during his two previous movie franchises (and, strangely, there have been too many of those moments). With Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield, it’s not believable. We don’t see a vulnerable kid; we see a grown man attempting to cry as a kid. It looks ridiculous.
When Tom Holland does it, you can hear the fright in his voice. It’s a moving moment in the story because he is brought down to reality: he’s been trying to fight the battles of his seniors, but if he dies now, he won’t die a hero: he’ll die a kid.
Given the long story of Spider-Man in the comics, someone should remind movie studios that they’re under no obligation to keep Peter perpetually in high school. He does get an adult life at some point. But if you’re going to do a high school story with this character, you should make it believable.
The recently-bitten Spider-Man is a kid, with all the confidence issues, homework, and curfew that come with it. When this iteration of Spider-Man is crushed by that rubble, we don’t fear for our hero; we fear for a kid who tried to fight a grown-up battle.
Earning his place among the grown-ups is Peter’s motivation in this story, as well as a meta-motivation for the Spider-Man franchise within the larger MCU. After an imprudent mistake that nearly cost hundreds of lives, Tony Stark tells Peter that all those civilian casualties would have been Peter’s fault, but Peter’s death would have been Tony’s fault.
I’m almost sure there was a boardroom meeting where Hollywood executives had the same conversation: after all the regrettable attempts at producing a decent movie, Sony is making a leap of faith by entrusting Disney’s Marvel with this character, and Disney surely understands how much rests on its effort: if Spider-Man as a franchise dies (again), it’s going to be Disney’s fault.
Fortunately, Homecoming promises a big future for this version of Peter. The comedy is goofy without disrespecting the audience, the action succeeds at being both fun and scary (bonus points for making me laugh at the prospect of being thrown into a plane turbine), and the stakes are serious without entering Zack Snyder territory.
And most importantly, Peter’s eternal lesson on great responsibility permeates every plot point without once being thrown in our faces. If Tony Stark were pressured into making it an explicit statement, it would be: Clean up your own mess.
Which is what the Avengers as a whole have entirely failed to do since their first ensemble movie, and the whole reason why the Sokovia Accords were needed. The consequences that big battles between demigods and killer robots have on ordinary people have been alluded to in subsequent films, but something resembling serious treatment has only happened in the Netflix shows.
Understandably, Tony wants to teach Peter to not make the same mistakes, but the only reason why Peter ends up having to clean up his own mess is that Tony has been terrible at cleaning up his own.
In true villain fashion, the Vulture’s response to having been wronged by corporate greed is more greed: he steals advanced weapons left over from the Avengers’ fights and sells them to gangsters. The creation of the Vulture is a reaction to Tony’s arrogance, and it’s that same arrogance which in the end leaves Peter alone to fight the Vulture.
Afterwards, when the day has been saved, it’s unclear whether Tony has any idea how much blame he deserves for Peter’s tribulations, but at least Peter has earned the respect of both his mentor, who is ready to officially welcome him among the grown-ups, and his enemy, who maintains a strong sense of loyalty inside. I won’t spoil how the final battle resolves, but it’s refreshing to see that this time victory is not earned by punching but by selfless heroism.
I must confess: I’ve never been much excited by Marvel characters other than the X-Men. Even Spider-Man has felt unrelatable the other times it’s been tried. But Homecoming does an excellent job of introducing a fresh Spider-Man to the MCU and to a demanding audience that has been too patient. Welcome home, Peter. You have earned your place.