Spoilers to follow.
The climactic scene in the new Spider-Man film, Marvel Studios’ first solo creative outing with the character, involves a plane full of spare Avengers’ gear. The villain trying to pull off this mid-air heist? A disgruntled blue-collar everyman who’s spent eight years quite literally picking up after them. The hero trying to stop this minor Marvel mishap? A kid who got to hang out with them once and wants to join the team. It feels like something out of a spin-off comic, or perhaps a novelized prequel to a much larger movie, playing with in-world ideas that don’t usually demand explanation but end up a treat for fans who like their universes expanded and their lore incredibly detailed. It’s what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Netflix shows have only been able to pay lip-service to, but more importantly, it’s a functional way to re-introduce Spider-Man to an audience base familiar with his prior incarnations.
This Spidey doesn’t fight to figure out whether he wants to be a hero. His moral development in that regard (and the death that set it in motion; you know the one) has all taken place off-screen. Heroism is something of a pre-set for this Peter Parker, part Captain America in outlook, yet part early Tony Stark in desire for recognition, but his journey in Homecoming is all about walking the tightrope between those ideas, both in-world and in the meta-text of the MCU:
What kind of hero will Spider-Man be in a world of Avengers?
Social media has given us celebrity adjacency, and while that unfiltered access to famous figures is new for a lot of us, it’s always been the norm for the kids of today. Spider-Man: Homecoming is their Spider-Man the way the Sam Raimi films were ours, but the way the film opens – with a larger than life, distinctly cinematic repurposing of “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man” over the Marvel Studios logo – speaks to the larger lore at play despite this specific adaptation. The mission statement here is that this is the fast-taking, streetwise Spidey as he’s always existed in popular culture; cartoons, movies, comics and all, but he’s also a kid in the now, vlogging his way through his Civil War mission. He’s “the Spider-Man from YouTube,” adored by fellow teens the way he adores the Avengers, and the only reason he doesn’t post these videos is because he’s told explicitly not to. Were it up to him, he’d use the footage to further his heroic image, because that’s what heroes have always been to him. Like the kids watching these films, Peter Parker’s superheroes are larger-than-life media figures, a constant, inescapable cultural presence, and everybody knows their names.
The first crime we see Spidey thwart, after a long, boring day at his high school in Queens, is a bike robbery. It’s a minor street-level crime, the kind he’s been limited to by Tony Stark (not to mention the desires of both Marvel Studios and superhero fans clamouring for something smaller), but he isn’t satisfied. Action is not his reward quite yet; instead he sticks around to find the owner of the bike. When they’re nowhere to be found, he leaves them a signed note when simply putting the bike back on its rack would've sufficed. The end of his day involves calls and texts to figure out when he can join the Avengers, but he doesn’t even get to interact with Tony Stark himself. His point of contact is Happy Hogan, Stark’s head of security, an otherwise minor character around whom Spider-Man’s entire future now depends.
This story however, is not one of Spider-Man becoming an Avenger. It’s one of him rejecting that identity and returning to the Spider-Man status quo we know.
While the film's climax takes place on a beach, at the film’s outset Spider-Man can’t even function outside NYC proper, what is essentially Avengers territory. Place him in the suburbs and he stumbles through pool parties, getting winded as he runs across open fields until he finds trees just tall enough to hang on to. His power/responsibility dilemma revolves entirely around the scale of his heroism, and where in the Spidey movies we’re used to having him caught between heroism and a halfway decent personal life, this one sees him using his personal life as a stepping stone to jump from one kind of heroic identity to the next instead of trying to figure out how Peter Parker even fits into various social circles. Attending Liz’s party is all about being recognized as Spider-Man, and accompanying the school decathlon team to Washington D.C. is about thwarting a Vulture arms heist. This is Spider-Man trying to level up instead of having a life until he's eventually yanked back to the reality that he might need one, at least for the sake of others.
He isn’t even afforded the hurdles of your average superhero. To The Vulture, he isn’t a worthy adversary. Spider-Man is simply a business inconvenience who happens to be taking his daughter to a dance, and he even lets the little twerp off with a warning. Peter Parker is a kid in an adult world, one who doesn’t understand Toomes’ struggle of what it’s like to be forgotten by the man (he does, just in a different capacity), and Spider-Man’s problems, even in the realm of super-heroics, are largely self-created. His friends are in danger at the Washington Monument because of his and Ned’s overzealousness when it comes to handling Chitauri weaponry all by themselves, and the Staten Island Ferry is ripped in half thanks to Spidey meddling in an arms deal that the FBI would’ve handled after being tipped off by Tony Stark.
When he’s stopping petty neighborhood crimes, he’s functioning at his optimum. As soon as the task at hand enters Avengers territory – an idea introduced winkingly with the ATM robbery, as thieves disguised as Avengers use alien weapons to steal cash – things start to go awry and the locals suffer. Biting off more than he can chew has always been the M.O. in Spider-Man stories, and while initially trading in the films’ usual heroism-vs-personal-life dichotomy for one about figuring out his place among superheroes results in lowered emotional stakes (compared to, say, Spider-Man 2), it both separates Homecoming from its predecessors and allows for a Spider-Man who functions within the mechanics of the MCU before the film swings back in that direction. These are questions that wouldn’t come up if he were the only hero shouldering responsibility. Here's, he’s a kid who’s grown up with Avengers and aliens as a normal part of his world, and he's trying to figure out his place within it.
By the time we get to the film’s third act, Spider-Man’s suit has been taken away from him. He’s been forced to learn what it is to exist without it by a Tony Stark who’s had to re-establish his personal identity outside “suit of armour” over the last eight years (Tony, incidentally, has finally found some semblance of balance – he's still Iron Man, but he's back with Pepper Potts). In the interim, rather than trying to grow up too fast and leave school, friends and academia behind, Peter’s had no choice but to fall back on what semblance of a personal life he has. He asks Liz to homecoming for the sake of asking her as opposed to any Spider-Man related scheme, and once all his attempted Avenging falls by the wayside, it's here that he’s allowed to be truly tested. He bails on her like he did at her party thanks to similar logistics – getting weapons out of the hands of those who would misuse them – but this time it’s partially for her own sake, and rather than it being about proving his worth to Tony Stark, he states his reasoning plain & simple: “Because selling weapons to criminals is wrong.”
For Peter, stopping The Vulture from lifting the Avengers' gear now has little to do with the Avengers themselves. Between his conversation with Aaron Davis, Donald Glover as petty criminal The Prowler, who references the safety of his nephew (Miles Morales in the comics; a future Spider-Man who idolizes this one) as well as finding out Adrian Toomes is actually Liz’s father, the stakes of this weapons plan have now been recontextualized as distinctly personal – not directly for Peter, but for those around him. In a story about Spider-Man, the kid who takes on responsibility before he's ready, those may as well be one and the same. Liz, the point of connection between Peter and Toomes, becomes the point of disconnect when it comes to their perspectives. The Vulture sees his endeavors as something he’s doing for his daughter, whereas Peter sees this secret villainy as something being done to her. If there's one thing he knows for sure, it's how a secret double life might impact his loved ones, which is why Aunt May is in the dark about Spider-Man.
It’s during this conflict, when Peter is buried under the rubble of The Vulture’s hideout, yelling desperately for someone’s help (perhaps Tony Stark, who’s saved him twice already) that his journey to internalizing his superhero identity is fully articulated. He is still Spider-Man outside the Avengers, and as he stares at his reflection in the muddy water, his face half obscured by his homemade mask, he learns to stands on his own.
The Marvel movies have a habit of killing their villains, and even exceptions like Loki and Abomination end up bested by their heroes in battle. The difference here is that Spider-Man essentially loses. He’s left bloody on a beach as the Vulture is about to get away with the goods, and the stakes are personalized even further in this moment. He isn’t trying to stop The Vulture from escaping, but trying to stop him from incinerating himself by doing so – an act of heroism that, as we learn in the mid-credits scene, has a monumental impact on the villain’s own sense of morality.
This Spider-Man is firmly anti-lethal force (Karen, his suit’s A.I., is promptly turned down whenever she suggests it) and his big hero moment comes in the form of dragging his villain to safety even after he’s attempted to kill him. That’s where the plot culminates, with Peter standing apart from the Avengers in deed, perhaps unbeknownst to him, but the climax of his story comes later. During his goodbye with Liz, he apologizes for bailing on her once again, and she bids him luck with figuring his life out. She was one of the people who needed him, the way his friends on the decathlon team might need him going forward. Failing at this smaller, more personal form of non-Avenger heroism helps him realize this. There's more to being a superhero than saving the world.
When he’s finally invited to the new Avengers HQ, Tony Stark presents him with a gorgeous new suit that, no joke, made me utter the words “Oh wow” out loud. It's seemingly the movie version of The Iron Spider (what I wouldn't give to see it in action) and he’s even offered living quarters within their upstate facility. More importantly, Stark has set up a press conference to introduce him to the world.
Back in 2008, Iron Man broke the superhero mold by having him reveal his identity at a press conference. It set the rest of the MCU in motion, making superhero identity public knowledge and removing the classic cape element of secret duality. Captain America, Black Widow, Doctor Strange, Bruce Banner; all the Avengers are known to the public in this universe, and Peter Parker is presented with the opportunity to join them, much the same way he revealed his identity alongside Iron Man in the comic book Civil War.
Whether the plan was to have him unmask, or to simply introduce Spidey as part of the team, Peter rejects it before we even get there – although, in true screw-up-hero fashion, he does have his own "The truth is... I am Iron Man" moment entirely by accident right before the movie ends. What a dummy!
Recognition for his good deeds and Avenger approval were once all he wanted. Whether or not he would be “just another Avenger” in that regard, a second tier character in a universe populated by Marvel’s new A-listers, was a burning question. But by Peter no longer having the need to join the ranks of his fellow Marvel cohorts, his involvement in the next big Avengers movie no longer feels like a foregone conclusion. He will most certainly join up with the team for reasons we’re yet to see, but he’s no longer begging to be a part of this shared universe, no longer trying to fight alongside Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and no longer wishing for “Spider-Man” to mean the same thing as “Iron Man" and "Captain America."
This Spider-Man has the power to the be an Avenger, but he exists wholly on his own, knowing that his responsibility is to the little guys who need him.
Friendly neighborhood Spider-Man
Wealth and fame
Action is his reward.