The Tangled Web of Spider-Man, Part VIII: Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

We’ve come a long way with Tom Holland’s Spider-Man in just a few short years. Beginning with 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, he has now played the character five times.

It’s amazing how his Peter Parker feels immediately of a piece with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His first scene with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is electric — there’s a palpable chemistry between the two actors. You believe in the mentor/mentee relationship that develops, even when it has very little precedent in the comics.

After all, Peter Parker only went to work for Stark Industries briefly during the Civil War era of Marvel Comics, circa 2005-2006. They had a falling out almost immediately, and writers (like Brian Michael Bendis, much to Dan Slott’s chagrin) in the years since have quietly brushed that relationship aside.

In these movies, however, it’s quite clear that Tony Stark is meant to be this Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. As everyone knows — to the point that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) offers just a glimpse of Ben saying his famous line to a young Peter — the saintly husband of Aunt May dies due to Spider-Man neglecting to stop a thief. Spider-Man’s selfishness leads to Ben being shot, and from that point on the wallcrawler decides to be a superhero not just out of altruism but also of guilt.

Transferring Peter’s motivation from Ben to Tony isn’t inherently a deal breaker. The problem — and this becomes quite clear in Far from Home — is the lack of guilt. Tony is the inspiration, but he’s an entirely different albatross around Peter’s neck. Peter wants to live up to Tony’s legacy, but without the element of responsibility for Tony’s death you lack the cursed aspect. As Chris Sims once argued, Spider-Man’s origin is essentially an EC horror comic:

Boy gets strange, creepy powers, uses them for personal gain, and suffers as a result of his own hubris. You can hear the Cryptkeeper cackling as Peter Parker walks off in tears in the costume he used to make money on TV. If there had never been a second Spider-Man story, if that was all there was, you wouldn’t think of him as a super-hero. You’d think of him as a weird one-shot horror character, and it wouldn’t be a tough leap to make — the other stories in Amazing Fantasy #15 are all from that mold, with titles like “MAN IN THE MUMMY CASE!” and “THERE ARE MARTIANS AMONG US.”

Spider-Man is damned. Sam Raimi recontextualized this in an Old Testament way with his trilogy. Being Spider-Man isn’t just a burden, it’s a fatalistic loop that Peter is forever trapped in.

That raises an important question: is Spider-Man a cautionary tale, or can he ever be aspirational? Tony Stark, by contrast, is certainly cool. “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” This is how he pictures himself, and it’s enough to impress Black Widow. Not only is Iron Man a popular fictional character, he’s the coolest person in his own story. “Even Dead I’m The Hero” is E.D.I.T.H.’s acronym, after all.

So while it’s certainly in Spider-Man’s nature to want to be a hero like Iron Man, should he want to be cool like Iron Man? There have been attempts to make Spider-Man cool in the past. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) leans very hard into Andrew Garfield’s smoldering James Dean-esque performance. With his skateboard and artsy photography, he’s more hipster than nerd.

Even that take still retains Peter’s outsider status. Though there are certainly attempts to make Tony Stark more of an everyman in his earlier movies, giving him an interest in cars and having him work with his hands, he’s still at any given moment the suavest, most chic guy in the room.

It is fascinating how screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (both returning from Spider-Man: Homecoming [2017] — minus the bloat of Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley and Christopher Ford — along with Jon Watts) mirror Peter’s story here with the first Iron Man (2008). Both the Tony of over a decade ago and the Peter of today (well, 2023, or maybe even 2024 since Far from Home is set eight months after Avengers: Endgame [2019]) are trying to live up to someone who died for them. They’re both betrayed by a friend, who is revealed to be a villain at the midpoint of the movie. And both have their secret identities outed at the end.

The major difference is that Tony outs himself while Peter is outed against his will. This is the starkest dichotomy between the characters, as Tony is fueled by the adoration of others while, as I’ve discussed before, Spider-Man more seeks to be the anonymous Good Samaritan.

It’s also Marvel’s disinterest in secret identities catching up to the cinematic Spider-Man. The moment that Tony declared “I am Iron Man” at the end of his first movie was a mission statement for this cinematic universe. Conceits like Iron Man being Tony’s bodyguard or Thor transforming into Dr. Donald Blake or Steve Rogers being an artist for an ad agency (and even, briefly, Marvel Comics) have been completely abandoned.

As Darren Mooney sums up in Escapist Magazine:

This makes sense for the core cast of The Avengers. Steve Rogers is a soldier and is inseparable from the persona of Captain America. Although Thor had a human alter ego as Dr. Donald Blake in the comics, that proved a logistical nightmare for writers and has long been abandoned. Tony Stark is a celebrity in his own right, and so there is no motivation for him to conceal his identity.

However, the MCU seems to have applied this logic across the board, even to characters for whom it would make sense to preserve a secret identity. Scott Lang might be the most obvious example here. He’s a working-class ex-con with an extended family including a divorced wife and her new husband, along with a wide circle of friends. Even then, Lang makes no effort to conceal his superheroic identity from anyone, including his parole officer.

Only Daredevil on the Netflix series has had to keep his identity secret, as part of his hook that he’s a lawyer by day and superhero by night. Although since two of his most famous storylines revolve around his identity being exposed, one assumes the show would have explored that if it hadn’t been canceled. Let’s hope it gets revived on Disney+ in a few years!

Taking that macro into consideration, Marvel’s ethos seems to be that secret identities are juvenile and outdated. If Peter’s character arc is to step up and be a hero for the whole world, then part of that is putting away childish things like masks. After all, Homecoming openly mocks, twice, the idea of using a fake “Batman” voice when in costume.

So what does it mean to grow up and fill Tony’s shoes in the MCU? Well, Tony did say he wanted Peter to be a better man, and superhero, so Spider-Man doesn’t necessarily need to be Iron Man Mark II. And the very construction of Spider-Man would seem to ever keep him from being as complicated of a character as the cinematic Tony Stark.

As I’ve pointed out in my analyses of the Iron Man trilogy, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is a ball of neuroses. He’s a thrill-seeking, germaphobic control freak with daddy issues. Peter Parker, by contrast, is just a bit too nice and normal. He’s certainly been a jerk before, in those early Lee/Ditko issues. But over the years he’s developed into a character that popular comic book writer Dan Slott recently called “universal.”

In the now-deleted tweet, Slott argued Peter Parker should never be portrayed as any specific religion, or really any specific anything, so that he can be relatable to everyone. This was in response to people pointing out that Peter has been coded as Jewish over the years, with Into the Spider-Verse even briefly showing Peter B. Parker and Mary Jane having a Jewish wedding. Slott, who is Jewish and recently wrote an issue of The Fantastic Four with the Jewish Ben Grimm aka The Thing marrying Alicia Masters in a Jewish ceremony, received a lot of pushback for the tweet. Ultimately he dropped the issue, saying only:

Slott, who wrote the comic book Spider-Man for a decade, is only somewhat right. Peter Parker in most iterations is a bit of a blank slate that allows audience members to project into him. But even the MCU version, who has been sanded down to be palatable for all four quadrants, has an aunt of Italian descent. Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is more than likely not his blood relative, but she’s raising him and her culture will rub off on him. Presumably that means this Peter, who lives in a incredibly diverse Queens, is open to experiences outside his own background. For instance, he speaks Spanish pretty well, as seen in Homecoming when he overhears Delmar the deli owner commenting about May, “La tía de él es una italiana bellissima.”

He’s also into old stuff — technology (as seen with the dumpster diving in Civil War), movies (“Hey, guys, you ever see that really old movie, Empire Strikes Back?”) and, apparently, music. This could be an attempt to take a character who has been around for almost 60 years, and is thus beloved by people of all ages, and make his 16-year-old iteration more likable for older audiences. Except they don’t want him to seem too old-fashioned, so he seems to be blissfully unaware that Empire Strikes Back and Aliens are some of the most popular movies of all time, and confuses Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. I guess part of making him universal is making him not quite fit in with anyone?

So he’s not going to be the literal next Tony Stark, because the characters just aren’t that much alike. But he does need to be worthy, according to Tony. That’s where E.D.I.T.H. comes in. E.D.I.T.H. is this movie’s stand-in for Mjolnir or Excalibur.

Which gets us back to the “Chosen One” trope that Into the Spider-Verse so thoroughly rejected. I’m not even going to get into the horrific implications of E.D.I.T.H. when it comes to modern warfare and the surveillance state, as that’s already been covered thoroughly. I’ll just say that there’s something antithetical to Spider-Man ever earning his father figure’s approval. The essence of Spider-Man is he’s never going to get that closure. He’ll never make up for Ben’s death.

So while I said I didn’t mind the specter of Ben being transposed onto Tony Stark, I’m not a fan of E.D.I.T.H. as a posthumous passing of the torch. Better to leave Peter with a sense of uncertainty that can never be alleviated.

But then that really wouldn’t be the MCU’s Spider-Man. The nature of the movies doesn’t allow for the same kind of silos as the comics. There’s going to be guest stars, and their presence needs to be justified. Spider-Man, consequently, just isn’t a loner anymore. It can sometimes be frustrating for this old fan, especially when Spider-Verse got Peter so right.

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