Spider-Man is the breakout star of Captain America: Civil War. He’s also a blatant Mary-Sue. Is this a problem?
Early buzz coming out of Captain America: Civil War spoke of epic action scenes, emotional confrontations, and Chris Evans’ ridiculous biceps. Praise poured down like rain on Marvel fields still scorched from Age of Ultron — and, in my opinion, rightly so. It’s a damned good movie.
But one name floated above the happy babble, a butterfly of unanimous, unambiguous adoration. “Spider-Man!” they cried. “Spider-Man is perfect!”
Like the general accolades for Captain America: Civil War, this is also accurate. Spider-Man is perfect.
So perfect, dear readers, that I am compelled to break a personal rule. I am reaching into my terminological underwear drawer and pulling out a phrase I do not like to use. A term I generally disapprove of, that I usually argue with.
Spider-Man, dear readers, is nothing more than a Mary-Sue.
Yes, I said it. Baby-faced, big-eared Peter Parker is a wish-fulfilling insert. He is a flawless, one-dimensional, idealized daydream. He is too good to be true.
And no one will complain about it, because he is not a woman.
This is Spider-Man’s story in Captain America: Civil War.
Peter Parker’s perfectly ordinary life is interrupted when the world’s most famous billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, and Avenger arrives in Peter’s modest apartment. Tony Stark, genius inventor, is powerfully impressed with young Peter’s scientific brilliance and skill. Stark’s years of experience as the world’s first modern superhero, his days spent fighting war lords and flying alongside the God of Thunder himself have not jaded him to the tremendous brainpower of a high school freshman from Queens.
Peter, after all, is not merely a genius: He’s also a superhero! In spite of his cracking voice and spindly limbs, Peter’s secret identity is the super-strong, hyper-agile, crime-fighting, wise-cracking Spider-Man! And Tony Stark really needs his help.
Peter protests that he can’t help Tony — he has homework. Aw! But after inspiring Tony with wisdom beyond his years, Peter follows the lure of doing good. He flies halfway across the world to do battle against Captain American and the rogue Avengers — but not before he upgrades to a sexy new costume, custom made by Tony Stark.
In Germany, Spider-Man bravely joins the fight, and really does more than his fair share of the work. Peter successfully subdues Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson — at the same time — cracking jokes all the while! He also hatches an ingenious plan to take down the supersized Ant-Man, while adding his trademark hilarious commentary. And even though Captain America is on the other side, Rogers can’t help but be impressed by this scrappy superstar from Queens!
Peter is wounded at the end of the battle, but don’t worry. His injuries are just serious enough to make it clear how much Tony Stark cares about his 14-year-old ingenue.
The actual problem
The point of this (admittedly snarky) recap is not to delegitimize Civil War, or even Spider-Man. Tom Holland is genuinely endearing in the role, and might have more chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. than any other actor in the movie. Spidey is sweet and funny, and adds an appreciable lightness to the clash of the titans in Germany.
Spider-Man is not actually the problem. While I think it is fair grounds for debate whether or not this minor character warrants a 10-minute field trip to Queens (and hey, I’m a Queens girl myself!) I do not contest the general feeling that Peter — even in all his Mary-Sue glory — is an asset to the film.
The problem is that this level of sparkly specialness would not be tolerated in Spider-Girl.
In Peter, familiar, established, and oh so very male Peter, spider-bitten superpowers and 14-year-old genius is cause for laughter and celebration. In a female character, it would be cause for suspicion, rejection, and anger.
Less than a year has gone by since Star Wars: The Force Awakens gave us Rey, a careful, crucial, and indomitable heroine. Less than a year has passed since the character — who is no more or less awesome than Luke Skywalker — was slapped with the label of Mary-Sue and dragged through the Internet muck like the hem of your worst pair of jeans.
Rey’s “Mary-Sue-ness” has been argued, countered, debated, refuted. But the idea is still alive, haunting her, and invalidating the intensity of her importance. This is not an unusual experience for female characters in geek properties; excesses of strength, skill, intelligence, beauty, virtue, and any other attribute of power is picked down to the bones. Gal Gadot was “too skinny” to play Wonder Woman. Reviews of Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers were more concerned with her costume than her character. Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso is already battling accusations of being a Mary-Sue, on the strength of her appearance in one trailer.
These objections do not grow from a desire for realism, or for rounded characters in popular stories. If that were the case, we would be drowning in objections to Peter’s presentation in Civil War, and as you know, everyone thinks he’s delightful.
People object to characters like Peter when they are embodied by women, they whip the term “Mary-Sue” out of their smelly back pockets, because they do not want women to be too important. They want Peter to be important, Iron Man to be important, Captain America. They guard the familiar archetypes of power and fulfillment, a sphere in which women are theoretically welcome, but in truth barely tolerated.
And so the microscope for women is always switched on. Fanboys wait with pins and labels to stick female characters in place. Is she too strong? Is she too smart? Does everybody like her? Is she just too good?
It is a tiring conversation, but one that unspools endlessly, powered by its own regressive energy.
So while I bear Spidey no ill will, I just can’t let him crawl away from my judgement. The facts are clear, the case is closed. Yer a Mary-Sue, Peter — one of the most blatant and egregious in recent cinema.
Our culture is okay with that. I just hope they come to accept the girls in your class, too.
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