Spider-Man: Homecoming marks the character’s solo entrance into the MCU, but it also has to contest with the fact it’s the third iteration of the character on the big screen in a decade. As such, there’s been a lot of changes made to the character, both in reference to the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield versions, but also the core comics.
A lot has been made about how Jon Watts has ditched Peter Parker’s Spidey sense (or, rather, seriously played it down), but that’s small fry next to his other adjustments. While they still happened in this world, the instigating Spider-bite, discovery of powers, Uncle Ben’s death and “with great power comes great responsibility” are only oh-so-briefly alluded to (and hot Aunt May is a very different beast to what audiences have grown accustomed to). In place of that, you also a pervasive focus on the character’s high school years, with an overt John Hughes style and an actor within the ballpark of school age (Holland is now 21, whereas Andrew Garfield was 29 when he first played the part). And, of course, this Spidey is in a universe full of heroes, with Iron Man his substitute father figure and joining the Avengers his primary goal.
For all those changes, however, they all endeavor to bring us closer to the core ideals that make up Spider-Man. They’re oh-so-21st Century and fresh in reference to Maguire’s organic web-slinger and Garfield’s parent-mystery-obsessed faux-teenager, yet each of these feels like it’s bringing us closer to the Peter Parker Stan Lee and Steve Ditko first dreamt up in 1962. Although, while having him a fully-formed schoolkid-turned-superhero in a world of Miracles is certainly cool, none of these adjustments are the biggest change made.
That would be how he handles his secret identity.
The Importance Of Spider-Man’s Secret Identity
Secret identities are an essential trope of the superhero, perhaps second only to the actual existence of superpowers. They ground the fantastical in our world, showing the humanity behind the icon and allow the reader or viewer to directly relate to what’s happening in the panel or on the screen. And all of this is particularly true of Spider-Man, who’s had it be the essential facet of his character since his very first issue.
In Amazing Fantasy #15, Parker first started wearing a mask to save face if he failed at becoming a wrestler – his first move when getting powers was to make money – and the suit was later developed as a form of showmanship. In The Amazing Spider-Man #1, this extends into a desire to protect those close to him, first when trying to make money for Aunt May, then when J. Jonah Jameson starts slandering him across the press, and finalized when a price is put on his head. From that second issue on, Spidey protecting his identity for the benefit of those around him was his greatest sacrifice. Various friends and villains would discover it at points and he’d later unmask to the world in the Civil War crossover event (although that was later undone through a deal with the devil – don’t ask), but it was and always has been a key trait of the character.
It’s not just a legacy concern, though, but something at the center of Spidey’s theme. As conceived, Spider-Man was meant to be a different sort of hero – a real person who got superpowers – and his best stories have always reflected that. You come for the brightly-spandexed hero swinging through New York on the cover, but stay for the man underneath the mask. A big part of this was how Peter was closer in age to the comic readers and regarded superheroes with a similar wide-eyed wonder – two of Homecoming‘s excellent already-discussed additions to the movie canon – but the fact he had to actively balance real life and superheroics made him such a likeable, empathetic presence and powered key conflicts like The Night Gwen Stacey Died and Kraven’s Last Hunt. Even the maligned Clone Saga hinged on the question of identity.
Homecoming doesn’t completely do away with this – that would be sacrilege – but it does change the motivations behind the alter ego and how stringently Peter regards his relationship with Spider-Man. His main purpose for hiding his identity from May is a fear she’ll stop him having fun, and once Ned finds out it’s treated with a complete casuality as Peter discovers how cool it makes him.
Although it’s really just the latest step in something the MCU’s been chipping away at from the very start.
Next Page: The MCU's Subversion Of Secret Identities
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