Spider-Man was introduced into the Avengers lineup to sell the Marvel Cinematic Universe to kids. It is necessary because the youngest Avenger they’ve got is the guy playing Thor who is in his mid-30s. Half of the team–Iron Man and Hulk–are edging over 50. This point was brought home to me, pun intended, when my students first saw the Spider Man trailer and perked up to see that it was at least partially set in a high school, and then saw Jeremy Renner–relatively young at 46–and whispered “Oh my God, he looks so old!” So Spider-Man, with its only-21-year-old-star, living in a world filled with Avengers and Star Wars merchandise, is specifically trying to be relate-able for the teenage demographic.
So I went to see it and I wish I’d had my students with me–the ones who scoffed at the algebra quiz reference in Captain America–to judge the validity of the school sequences. I got the impression that the half-dozen folks with screenplay writing credits (not joking!) were totally bullshitting their way through that part: Liz would have just asked Peter to the dance rather than prodding clueless boy to ask her, the senior girl from rich family would have her own car to get to the dance or they’d call a ride-share service rather than get a one-way ride from the dad on his way out of town, and the older girl wouldn’t be gushing on the younger boy’s intellect to the extent that she does. And while Spanish and Shop might have been common fare for the writers, it doesn’t appear that they’re common fare at a STEM charter school. But the movie does introduce the school well enough, flawlessly showing Peter’s tracking the time until he’s out of it and developing his adult role of Spider-Man.
I can’t say whether or not the film bothers to pass the Bechdel test; I remember one scene where girls are actually interacting with each other, but only to talk about boys–or, more specifically, which of the Avengers they’re crushing on, which is ironic because they’re supposed to be portraying the teenagers that look at Tony Stark and think “dang, he’s older than my dad.” There are several girls and women (with lines and in no unique form of peril), but this is fundamentally a Boy Story following a pretty typical Spider-Man arc. If you remember the 15-year old Maguire Spider-Man movie, you’ll see the well-executed plot twist coming in this one, and that’s your spoiler warning.
Tangent: Marvel introduces MJ, a Hermione-Granger-esque character who is in every way better than The Chosen Boy excepting that she’s not The Chosen Boy, because this is a Spider-Man movie. That said, this film knows that it is a Spider-Man film and makes direct reference to the old Maguire film. But the powerful scene from that movie that it glossed was when Norman Osborn turns his favor to Peter early in the film, working to align the children to their aptitudes. So the idea is this: what if the writers graft Riri Williams’s concept onto MJ’s character? Peter can introduce her to Tony, from whom she takes exactly no bullshit, thus promptly earning his respect and access to his workshop. Tah-dah, I just extended the longevity of the Iron Man franchise by a decade while negotiating Downey’s salary down a notch, you’re welcome. (Call me?)
This Spider-Man film’s biggest flaw is that it’s just Iron Man 3 again, except that it’s easy to sympathize with Michael Keaton’s character while Guy Pearce’s character really is a villain that takes too long to get killed. And there’s a worrisome element in there where the goodness of a character is tied to their being Tony Stark and the badness of the character is proportional to their wanting to be Tony Stark. So what we see seeping through is a cultural Calvinism, where the goodness of the character is baked into the character rather than related to their actions or intentions, and their heroism is signified by the material blessings they are endowed with. I’m going to have to come back to this point and a separate entry because it’s huge: neoliberal capitalism has a wobbly line back to John Calvin through Adam Smith’s cultural attachment to the Church of Scotland. Neoliberalism didn’t turn competitiveness into a virtue, it turned it into the signal of virtue at a metaphysical level, and when we watch heroes vanquish the bad guys over and over again at perpetual detriment to social infrastructure we buy into the heroic narrative even when we can plainly see that the super-heroes are actually super-dangerous.
But that’s the article I’m going to write later. This article is about why adults are always worried about you, because showing this point is what Spider-Man did particularly well.
After Peter wrecks an FBI investigation and the Stanton Island Ferry (miraculously killing nobody), they have the single best scene in the film: Sad Peter tells Tony that he wanted to be like him. Disappointed Tony tells Peter that he wanted Peter to be better than him.
See, Peter knows he can’t let Aunt Tomei know about his (poorly defined and context-defying powers) because she’d freak out. She would freak out because she is functionally his mother. And (all decent) parents are interested in the survival of their children first and in their thriving second. This isn’t to say that they don’t want to see you thrive; rather that they know that your survival comes first in that sequence and–if they’re taking their role seriously–they’re ensuring your survival first and foremost and will still love and cherish you as their offspring no matter what.
But Tony is in the role of mentor, which places thriving first and surviving as optional. The first thing he does after meeting Peter is put him in a fight with a bunch of other superheroes, inclusive of a reformed supervillain, not all of whom were properly introduced to each other and none of whom know that he’s just a kid. That is super reckless endangerment, but then Tony lets the clever kid keep the suit which actually is racked up with powers if he just thinks to plug it into a USB port, which isn’t helping.
This isn’t to say that mentors don’t want you to survive. Mentors do want you to survive. Rather, we expect you to survive because your parents are looking after that aspect of your development so we don’t have to. Instead, we interject when your survival is (almost) guaranteed to give you the breathing room you need to thrive. Remember Tony meeting Peter in Civil War? On a tight timeline, Tony takes a trans-Atlantic flight specifically so he can interject between the worrying Aunt Tomei and Peter, to be a wedge between parent and child so that the child can thrive.
For Peter, thriving comes to mean vandalizing a lot of property as a sloppy vigilante, breaking into and then out of a top-secret warehouse, almost killing everybody on the Staten Island Ferry on accident, almost killing all of his friends on accident, almost killing goodness knows how many people with a plane crash… really, he’s got a lot of extracurricular activities that college admissions will find super-impressive. But this is why adults are worried about you: Spider-Man used to have this saying that “with great power comes great responsibility,” only now we’ve increased our capacity for power to such an extent that we’d be surprised to find anybody who was wholly responsible for their power.
Now I know–or at least I hope–you’re not wrecking national monuments, so you Good Kids may not yet grasp how easy it is for a Good Kid like you to get into trouble. But consider your cell phone. If you sext your boyfriend or girlfriend, you are creating and then distributing child pornography and since it’s likely to cross a state line (what data center did it route through?) that’s getting into “federal felony sex offender” territory. Are you starting to realize how much trouble you can cause with just a couple of moments of naive behavior? This is why your parents are always worrying about you and, increasingly, are afraid of you growing up.
Not your mentors though. Tony doesn’t offer to hire Peter a good lawyer to defend him from criminal liability. He just takes the Spider-Man suit back and walks away. And this is a vital lesson: if you fuck up badly enough, your mentors will abandon you and look for kids they still have hope for. Your parents, your teachers, anybody who is substantially obligated to you, will stick by you.
But if you fuck up badly enough, your mentors will go look for better students.
Parents generally don’t understand this risk because parents don’t generally understand mentors. To be fair, there is some subterfuge here: we keep long lists of former students who are Totally Not Dead to persuade your parents that you will also survive, and they mistakenly think we prioritize your survival as they do. We do not.
But we’re also–usually–not giving you super-powered suits without training and hoping that your copious amounts of curiosity and spare time don’t turn them into a colossal liability for us. This is a key spot where Tony screwed up as a mentor, but it also made the film feel more real: from the lack of transition between training wheels and falling off a bike to the lack of transition between “under 18” and “18 and over” that shows up again at “under 21” and “21 and over” a surprising lack of advice on what’s about to happen or be allowed, acceptable, or even expected is normal.
It is entirely possible that a shortage of functional rituals accompanies this. Our culture has lost them. You can read about older cultures’ rituals–particularly tribal rituals–in Joseph Campbell’s work, or Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. It used to be that in order to gain entry to adulthood and the responsibilities and rights that were attached to it, the tribal elders would take kids off test them against a set of cultural expectations. This sort of practice still shows up sometimes–like in fraternity hazing–but is usually more expressive of a small-scale and petty power rather than indicative of the roles people are expected to play in a close-knit society.
Please refrain from objecting that you’re going to graduate from high school. A ritual gives you formal power in a society, but academic graduations are pageants designed to make everybody involved feel good about what they’ve done to get there. It is a formal reminder to your parents that they’ve successfully kept you alive this long.
Mentors don’t get invited to graduations because they don’t show us that you’re thriving. Yet.
And that’s very similar to the little charade that was put on for the Homecoming dance in Spider-Man, but more noticeably there was a particular ritual in Spider-Man: the naming of the suit’s AI, an AI apparently aware of the other Spider-Man movies and able to call out optional situations that could be treated as ritualistic between them–but an AI that’s not very good at preparing Peter to use his suit, in exactly the same way that the things adults create for teenagers almost accidentally echo the state of adulthood but then fail to adequately prepare the child for the transition into it. And that sounds bad; it sounds like we’re not doing our job.
But one thing I can’t fault my parents for was not knowing that my career would be on this newfangled “internet” thing my brother told them about from college. And I hope my students don’t fault me for spending more time writing to them about Spider-Man than about how AI machines are going to deform and reshape the economy they’re on the cusp of inheriting.
So that’s the final point: even if you’re a good kid and also not a federal felony sex offender, adults will worry about you. They’ll worry that they can’t possibly prepare you for the world that is just around the corner.