There was some concern leading up to the release Spider-Man: Homecoming about how much Tony Stark would be in the film. Of course, that shot of Iron Man and Spidey zipping through New York at the end of the first trailer was magic (even if it didn’t make it into the final cut), but some fans were worried that Stark’s presence would ultimately overpower Parker’s and make the film more about Iron Man than Spider-Man. Instead, Stark’s role is firmly in service to Peter’s character arc, and his involvement as a surrogate father to Peter is one that only strengthens the picture as a whole.
Introducing Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it had already been firmly established was a serious challenge. He’s famously one of Marvel’s most grounded and singular characters and, with so much ground-work already done, Marvel Studios needs to be careful about Peter’s world and his relationship to the other Avengers. Spider-Man is a friendly neighborhood superhero; he’s not a trained assassin or globe-trotting billionaire playboy or patriotic soldier – he takes care of New York City and watches over his Aunt May and his high-school friends. His introduction in Captain America: Civil War was, as Stark put it, a one-and-done deal. Fighting for and with the Avengers isn’t really Spidey’s thing, and unless it’s something catastrophic, he tends to keep it that way.
That said, Marvel couldn’t exactly pretend that this sprawling, carefully-crafted universe doesn’t affect the webhead either. Spider-Man is too iconic to just insert without having any other characters taking notice. Peter Parker, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark existing together in one shared live-action universe is a big deal for both fans and Marvel Studios, and it’s important to acknowledge that, and pay heed to how historic this is for comic books as a whole. For fans of the comics, seeing Spider-Man, Captain America and Iron Man leading the charge in a series of big-budget movies is a dream come true.
This is what the MCU has been built for. The endgame has always been to figure out how to emulate the way the comics crossover but within an ongoing film universe where each character also has their own realm and story to focus on. Up to this point, this has meant a series of solo movies before big blow-out, all-in blockbusters like the two Avengers instalments and Civil War. The nature of the movie business means that’s the easiest way to get all the actors and production crew necessary in one place. Gradual build-up before big pay-off, then gradual build-up again. Homecoming is demonstrative that Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios are slowly figuring out how to move beyond that into a place where almost every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will feel like it exists within an ongoing world.
Other characters appearing in different franchises are often either cameos or a compartmentalizing of the world certain heroes inhabit. Falcon and Black Widow belong to the Mission: Impossible-esque covert ops of Captain America, for instance, and Falcon’s scene in Ant-Man was more a fun nod than anything substantial. Homecoming places Peter in a world where the Avengers are an ongoing organization, and that means he’ll be running into them from time-to-time. Stark feels the need to keep a personal tab on Peter but even without that personal tab, the Vulture’s plan to steal a plane full of Stark-tech means Parker would’ve become inter-twined with the Avengers regardless. It’s Spider-Man’s movie but he’s only a bit part in a grander world.
More to the point, Tony Stark’s role as a father figure never extends beyond that. His scenes and dialogue are there to accentuate Peter’s journey and to add further weight to the themes of both Homecoming and Stark’s place in the wider MCU. Peter is just one thing Tony feels the need to deal with, and Tony is, despite Peter’s longing to be an Avenger, just one thing Peter has to contend with. In fact, part of Homecoming‘s story is explicitly about Spider-Man becoming his own hero and not being so defined by what the Avengers are doing or what they want from him.
In this way, Homecoming has the MCU feel more akin to the comics than ever before. Tony and Peter’s paths cross but neither is totally necessary to the other. Iron Man appears when he’s needed in the same way Punisher did in Mark Millar’s Civil War comic when Spidey was cornered. Heroes and villains existing simultaneously, serendipitously running into or bailing each other out in a universe just about keeping itself together while Godlike entities run amok. It’s the kind of spontaneity that makes reading Marvel and DC comics so interesting and exciting – at any moment, another superpower could enter the fray and change the scene entirely.
Marvel Studios have a ways to go yet before making this level of integration an ongoing thing. Thor: Ragnarok later this year sees Thor and Hulk come together, but this is all in service of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4. All the various story strands are being brought together so they can be tied up at once. Having the entire line of films be fuelled by characters intersecting from one adventure to the next will be difficult with the limitations of film-making. After getting the contracts sorted, there’s also the task of writing the films so that no-one is left under-used or undermined. The MCU is only getting bigger and more complex and with that comes more difficult creative choices. Homecoming is a reassurance that for the foreseeable future, Marvel Studios know exactly what they’re doing.
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