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Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t just make comic book references — it earns them

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The Amazing Spider-Man #33
Steve Ditko/Marvel Comics

With the advent of Spider-Man: Homecoming, everybody’s favorite friendly neighborhood superhero is now in his third cycle of movie reboots in 15 years. That might feel exhausting for moviegoers, but it’s nothing compared to the 55-year legacy his comic book adventures have amassed. Luckily, Homecoming proves that there are still plenty of stories within that legacy that have merit, and it brings one of Spider-Man’s most beloved, character-defining moments to the big screen in a way that replicates its original emotional impact — a feat that not every superhero movie is able to accomplish.

Reader beware: This post contains plenty of spider-spoilers!

During the third act of Homecoming, Spider-Man finds himself at a severe disadvantage during a final face off with the Vulture. Not only does the villain know his secret identity, but Spidey's Stark-manufactured Spider suit has been taken from him, on the grounds that he’s not mature enough to have it. The Vulture isn’t about to outright shoot a kid in cold blood for various reasons, so instead he traps our hero under fallen rubble as he makes his escape, hoping his opponent will either die on impact or simply give up. Naturally, it doesn’t work; after a brief and earnestly riveting minute of panic, Spider-Man remembers how Tony Stark scolded him for relying too much on his suit, and dramatically wills himself to lift the concrete over his head and escape.

This tableau evokes a famous 1965 story arc called “If This Be My Destiny,” in which Aunt May becomes terminally ill and Spider-Man must retrieve a serum from the underwater hideout of Doctor Octopus to save her life. The conflict comes to a head in The Amazing Spider-Man #33, where Spider-Man finds himself at his weakest point imaginable: He’s exhausted from his battle with Doc Ock and trapped under “tons of fallen steel" in a room that’s quickly taking on water. Unable to reach the serum he needs to cure his dying aunt, the ghostly visage of May and Ben (of course) loom in front of him for maximum angst. It takes him four agonizing pages to lift the machinery off of himself, and in all that time he waxes poetical about overcoming his desperate plight.

“Within my body is the strength of many men…!” he says. “And now, I’ve got to call on all that strength — all the power — that I possess! I must prove equal to the task — I must be worthy of that strength — or else, I don’t deserve it!”

Steve Ditko/Stan Lee/Marvel Comics

According to Stan Lee, the issue was jointly plotted by him and artist Steve Ditko, but the long, drawn-out pacing of the scene was all Ditko. When Lee saw the art, “I almost shouted in triumph,“ he recalled in an interview for the book Stan Lee’s Amazing Marvel Universe (later republished in Alter Ego magazine). Lee later supplied Peter’s poignant soliloquy after the art was finished, as was common in the “Marvel Method” at the time. Now, the scene is legendary among comic book readers; it was named #15 in a Marvel Comics-sponsored poll of the “100 Greatest Marvels Of All Time” in 2001, behind the first issue of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man run, the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man, the Death of Gwen Stacy, and the very first appearance of Spider-Man in 1962.

This isn’t the first time a big budget superhero movie has borrowed visuals straight from the comic book page, but not every movie manages to nail the feelings and context that are supposed to go along with those images; as a result they can end up feeling hollow, more interested in style and spectacle over substance. At the risk of reopening old arguments with an example, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice lifts a moment straight from the 1986 Frank Miller masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns, where Superman is hit by a nuclear blast and miraculously restored by the sun. In Returns, this happens because Superman is guiding a Soviet missile away from a civilian population on a South American island. In Batman v Superman, it’s because the U.S. government launches the missile right at him.

Left: The Dark Knight Returns, Right: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Frank Miller, Warner Bros. Pictures

Sure, Superman ends up looking like a Frank Miller drawing come to life, but in stripping him so thoroughly of his agency (he doesn’t even have to fight to reach the sun in this version; as luck would have it, he’s already floating near the thing) the movie also strips our hero of what made him heroic in the first place. It’s not enough to just recreate an iconic moment in a movie; you still have to make sure the motivations of the character remain intact and relatable, despite whatever other changes you make to the text. Otherwise, you’re relying on fans’ memories rather than your own storytelling abilities, which makes for a poor cinematic experience.

To be fair, this a problem that many adaptations suffer from, not just those derived from comic — but that makes it no less important or necessary a challenge to overcome. If your movie relies on background reading material to achieve any kind of emotional resonance, then why bother watching it at all?

To be fair, Homecoming’s Peter Parker doesn’t find himself in the same circumstances as his comic book counterpart, either. Rather than being singularly focused on his family, he’s instead intent on making sure innocent people don’t get hurt by the Vulture’s machinations (which are compelled by much more complicated factors than standard super-villain greediness), and on proving himself to Tony Stark in the process. The absence of May and Ben in Peter's thoughts might bother some purists, but it’s not out of place in the context of the overall movie, which seems hesitant to have anything to do with Uncle Ben’s death as a way to differentiate itself from previous films.

Despite the ancillary differences, ultimately Spider-Man’s core motivation remains completely intact: he must push himself past his breaking point against impossible odds so he can be worthy of the powers he possesses. (Tony Stark even echoes the words of the 1965 Peter Parker in voiceover, saying “If you are nothing without the suit, you don’t deserve it”). It also certainly doesn’t hurt that Tom Holland acts the hell out of the scene, sputtering so frantically for help before he finds the strength to save himself that I started feeling claustrophobic in my seat.

Homecoming changes a lot about what people expect to see in a Spider-Man movie. Peter’s the youngest he’s ever been on screen; he has a wealthy benefactor and a gadget-filled super suit; Uncle Ben’s death is no longer an all-consuming obsession (or even a passing concern, to be honest). But while these elements inform Peter as a character, none of them are what truly make him special. Spider-Man is at his best when he’s a scrappy underdog grappling with responsibility; he struggles and complains and can’t catch a break (the ol’ Parker luck, they used to call it), and still gets the job done anyway.

That’s exactly the Spidey we got this time around, and that’s why the reference to “If This Be My Destiny” worked so well despite being so far removed from Lee and Ditko’s original framework. Like Spider-Man himself, the movie worked hard to prove that it deserves a moment of triumph — and it succeeded.

Victoria McNally is a Brooklyn-based writer who knows more information about Sailor Moon than you would care to have.

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