The Tragedy of Spider-Man

Growing up is hard. We all know it. I would venture to guess that anyone reading this has either have been through it or are currently going through it. I’m currently 37 and I’m still trying to find my way, after all. With anything that universal, there are movies about it. Lots of them. A safe bet would be that even some of your favorites are about this very subject. This is why Spider-Man, from his very inception, has struck a chord with fans. He’s just a kid trying to figure things out, but with the added bonus of being able to lift a car over his head. It complicates matters. More importantly, growing up while remaining a good person and balancing everything life throws at us is even that much more difficult. While the two previous modern adaptations (played by Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield, respectfully) certainly touched upon this theme, it’s the most current incarnation by Tom Holland that fits the bill just right.

When we first meet this version of Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War, he hasn’t been Spider-Man very long. He has a makeshift costume made of sweats and goggles. While they never specifically mention it, he has recently lost his Uncle Ben. They don’t have to show it, we all know. So, beyond the fact that he’s entering a new stage in life (I mean, there’s a reason why there’s that shot in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man which shows webs all over Peter’s room; gross, I know), he’s not only thrust upon with greater responsibility to go along with his new found powers, but he lost a father figure during a time when he arguably needs one the most.

This is where Tony Stark enters the picture. Tony recruits Peter to partake in trying to bring in Captain America and his allies during the Sokovia Accords Affair. And Peter holds his own against some big time hitters! Not bad for a kid from Queens. Afterward, Peter waits. And waits. And waits. He feels like he’s proven that he has what it takes to join the big leagues and he’s anxious for another mission. Tony feels differently, even though he doesn’t say so…nor does he have Happy Hogan say so as he doesn’t feel the need to contact or respond to Peter at all. And so, Peter is the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, doing good deeds around the community (and messing up along the way). Except he’s bored. He knows he can do a lot to help The Avengers if he’s just given a chance. More than that, he wants to prove to Tony that he can handle the very adult world of being a superhero, a nagging guilt which stems from the death of Uncle Ben.

Naturally, Peter jumps at the chance to take on The Vulture. Adrian Toomes is an interesting first villain for Spider-Man as he’s not trying to take over the world. He feels slighted by Stark after the events of the first Avengers film and in his mind, he’s trying to provide for his family in an ever changing world. But that doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous. He’s a grown man with very advanced technology who will do anything to protect his family. Peter defies Tony’s order to stay out of the matter. After severely botching things up on the ferry, Peter gets a scolding from his new father figure. No one was hurt, thankfully, and Peter knows he messed up badly. He’s still punished by Tony by having his new suit taken away. Spider-MAN by name only.

To further complicate things, Toomes also happens to be the father of Liz, the girl Peter has a crush on. The reveal was a gasp inducing moment in the theater. It’s hard enough for an awkward nerd (I can speak on this from experience) to find the guts to ask out the person you have feelings for. Even when they accept, it’s difficult meeting their parents. Now imagine that happening and you find out their father is the man you’re trying to take down. To make matters worse, Toomes figures out Peter’s secret, which makes the “Dad talk” even more nerve wracking than it already is. Indeed, one of the best things about Marvel Comics and, by extension, the MCU is how their able to make the characters relatable by going through things we all go through. Spider-Man is the poster child for this which is the reason why he’s the flagship of Marvel Comics. After the Dad talk, Peter is forced to make a decision and it’s a tough one: does he just go to the dance and have fun with his friends or does he put a stop to The Vulture’s plan? In his past, Peter chose to stand idly by when he could have done something. This indirectly led to his uncle’s murder. It’s this guilt that makes Peter walk out of the dance. Before doing so, he looks back longingly at what he knows he’s missing. Peter Parker can’t have nice things because he always does what’s right, usually to the detriment of himself.

While the initial post-dance confrontation with the Vulture is unsuccessful (Peter’s outsmarted badly), an important event happens when Peter is buried under the rubble. He cries out for help, how he’s stuck, and that he can’t move. You hear the panic in his voice. You hear that he’s a kid. But then he summons up all of his courage and reaches down deep, “Come on, Spider-Man,” he tells himself as he strains to lift the tons of concrete and steel on top of himself. He grows up a lot in that moment and is able to unify the idea that Spider-Man and Peter Parker are one in the same. After that, he saves the day and bails the adults out of making their own mistakes (although Liz leaves town due to the coming trial). Still, he makes his most mature decision to date as he turns down the very thing he’s wanted the entire film: he turns down the chance to become an Avenger in order to learn and to just be a teenager a little while longer. Tony is understandably shocked (he had a press conference all set-up for the announcement of a new Avenger), but we can’t help but to think that Tony is happy with Peter’s decision.

That doesn’t last as Thanos arrives in Avengers: Infinity War. Peter gets dusted in the snap/blip to the horror of Tony (“I lost the kid”) on Titan, something that sticks with Tony for the rest of his life. They’re able to share an embrace, the hug Peter wanted in Spider-Man: Homecoming once he’s brought back in Avengers: Endgame, and Peter plays an instrumental part in keeping the Infinity Gauntlet away from Thanos. When Tony sacrifices himself to save the universe, a weeping Peter tells him that they had won, that Tony had done it. And Tony dies, another father figure is gone from Peter’s life and it’s a void he’s looking to fill. Tony’s death and Peter’s cosmic adventure causes him to double down on wanting to be a normal kid. Peter has seen and been through a lot and could use just a bit of normalcy.

This takes us to Spider-Man: Far From Home. All he wants is to go on a summer school trip to Europe with his friends and tell Michelle/MJ how he feels about her. That’s as normal as you can get, so much so that Peter doesn’t want to bring any of his Spider-Man suits, though his Aunt May knows better when it comes to that. Since Peter is Peter, his plan begins to go quickly awry due to awkward travel mishaps and ultimately because of Nick Fury. No, there’s no time to be normal. There’s a world to be saved. And to do so, they’ll need the help of Quintin Beck, named Mysterio by Peter’s peers. In Beck, Peter finds another mentor. Peter is not handling Tony’s death particularly well (in fact, Tony’s shadow is all over the film in the form of murals) and Peter feels lost without him. Beck is someone who understands what it’s like to lose, to want to be heroic, even to be smarter than most people. In many ways, we see glimpses of Tony in Quintin. It’s all a ruse, of course, because, again, Peter is Peter and although his heart is in the right place, he screws up. A lot. But the reason he messes up this time is that he feels the pressure to fill in the very large iron shoes of Tony Stark and Peter can’t bring himself to do it. He’s just a kid. He wants to do kid things and he especially doesn’t want his family and friends to be in danger because of who he is.

Like with the Vulture, Peter’s first try to fix his mistake goes poorly: he ends up getting hit by a train, only to wake up in Amsterdam. He’s able to contact Happy Hogan to help piece himself back together. Happy gives him stitches which pauses Peter pain. Happy is surprised by this as Peter has super strength, but: “It still hurts.” For all of his powers, Peter feels every hit, still gets hurt and he keeps getting up. Very on-brand. Peter breaks down, lashes out, but this time Happy is there to give him the pep talk he’s needs to hear for a long time. Despite the hero-worship, Happy confides to Peter that Tony was a complete mess and always second guessed himself, except for one thing: his choice of Peter being his protege (scolding aside, naturally). Happy is the who tells Peter that he doesn’t need to be the next Iron Man, that’s not the point of it all. He’s supposed to be Spider-Man and that’s enough. With this in mind, Peter is able to once again save the day, but Beck dies in the process. It was a bumpy ride to get there, but Peter always gets there. 

And what of MJ? Well, Peter is able to ask her out and she accepts. No, it wasn’t perfect nor does it go remotely close to his original plan. Indeed, the black dahlia jewelry he bought her ends up breaking before he has the chance to give it to her, but she prefers it that way. Not only does that completely match her personality, but it’s mostly because it’s from Peter. In the process, Peter tells MJ that he is Spider-Man (something she had mostly figured out). By the time they land back in the United States, they’re holding hands in the airport, the great high school signifier of relationship status. There’s a reason why The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” still has a place in the world some 55 years later. The two share many cute yet awkward moments (including their first kiss in London; not a bad place to have one, to be honest) and…okay, let’s just be real here: they’re so adorable that it hurts. We end up being happy for the both of them as the movie ends. All in all, it is a rare happy ending for Peter Parker.

Until it isn’t. Beck has one last trick up his sleeve. As Peter finishes a swing-date with MJ (which she never wants to do again as that is terrifying), J. Jonah Jameson appears on television. He not only shows a video which indicates that Spider-Man is actually responsible for the drone attacks and murder of Beck. He also reveals that Spider-Man is in fact Peter Parker. This is a world shattering event for Peter. Now the public will view him as a villain. So much for the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. More than that, he can never have even the semblance of normalcy that he craves (no more going to high school) and it puts everyone he knows in danger. Ned. May. MJ. Everyone. We all know Toomes already knows his secret, but he’s a man of honor, though one could argue that he’s square with Peter already. Regardless, other criminals, such as Mac Gargan (the Scorpion) do not have that code of honor. And who knows who might be lining up to battle Spider-Man next. Or perhaps hunt, if I may make a suggestion to Mr. Kevin Feige. 

Peter was never going to be “normal.” He was born too intelligent for that and that was even before the radioactive spider bit him. But what makes Peter Parker who he is are the events that happened the fateful night he was selfish which led to his Uncle Ben’s death. From that moment on, his destiny was set. He can never just be a kid. He can never just be a student. He can never just be a friend or boyfriend. He’s Spider-Man. And although that makes him extraordinary, that perhaps makes him the most normal of all the Marvel superheroes. He’s someone we can relate to. We all feel like we make huge mistakes despite our best intentions. Sometimes it feels like life just wants to stomp on us, just like Peter. He might be a kid from Queens, but he’s all of us, and that’s why it hurts when things are taken away from him. He deserves so much and we want him to succeed, but can never really have any of it. No, Peter never gets the happy ending because it’s not his place to. As a wise man once laid out a doom-filled prophecy:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”