Fifteen years, six films, and two reboots. That’s what it took for Spider-Man, one of the most popular fictional characters of all time, to finally resonate on the big screen as he has on the page since 1962. In Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, a teenage Peter Parker (Tom Holland) returns from a once-in-a-lifetime adventure with the Avengers to resume life in Queens, swinging between his exciting new gig as a superhero and the responsibilities of high school.
In the comics, Spidey hasn’t been a teen in 30-plus years, but that didn’t stop the new film from recreating one of Spider-Man’s most iconic moments from his younger days. And unlike most other fan-service homages in blockbuster superhero movies, there’s actual meaning behind the splash page. Holland’s Parker recreates the watery “lift” from 1966’s The Amazing Spider-Man #33, with slight re-contextualizing to emphasize Spidey’s maturation and growth.
Spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming are below.
It’s the night of Midtown High’s homecoming dance when Peter is forced to leave his date Liz (Laura Harrier) to fight — of all people — her dad, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who operates by night as the Vulture. A salvage worker with a bone to pick against the rich and powerful, Toomes runs a black market operation that sells alien tech to criminals. That attracts the attention of the wall-crawler, who has just begun his superhero career and wants to win the admiration of his mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, who keeps him on a tight leash.
After a brief but intense brawl, Toomes leaves Parker to die underneath some heavy rubble. For most of Homecoming, Peter — who relies a bit too much on a fancy, high-tech, Stark-made suit — is eager to prove himself capable and ready for the big time. But in this moment, without the suit and with the weight of debris crushing his body, he screams for help like a lost child. It’s a sad and actually uncomfortable moment in what is otherwise a lighthearted action movie. We’ve forgotten, through the fog of all the thrills and witty jokes, that our protagonist is still a child, and that criminals have tried to kill him. Without an Infinity Stone to collect, we actually give a damn about Peter’s well-being.
Eventually, by sheer force of will, Peter summons all of his strength to lift the debris and free himself. Visually, the tension of the moment is punctuated by flowing water that douses Peter, baptizing him as “reborn” after a scary moment where the audience could believe Peter might actually give up.
As one of the movie’s best scenes, it should be no surprise it was lifted from an iconic comic book. In issue #33 of Amazing Spider-Man, written by Stan Lee and illustrated by the legendary Steve Ditko, Peter is desperate to deliver an antidote that could cure his Aunt May of a rare illness. But a vicious fight with Doc Ock in his underwater base leaves him exhausted and trapped beneath heavy machines. Peter is just a few feet away from reaching the antidote, but the weight of the wreckage is overwhelming. Motivated to save May, Peter pushes his body to the limit, breaking free, and again, water cascades over Peter. After four pages of Spidey seen only in tight, claustrophobic panels, a huge page with a free Spider-Man gives the page a sense of release and a tinge of sexual energy.
In both cases, Peter is not motivated by romance, either in the comic or the movie — Peter’s only wish is to break free. But in Blake Bell’s 2008 book Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, he notes the comic’s visual metaphors of water and release, writing:
“Issue 33 features one of the most famous scenes in superhero comics. Spider-Man is trapped under mountains of machinery as water drains into an undersea lair, the serum just out of reach. In five thrilling pages, all of Parker’s life lessons come together as he pushes beyond his limits to save himself and his aunt. When he finally throws the machinery back, streams of water cascading down, the sense of release is nearly orgasmic.”
Spider-Man as a representative for adolescence permeates throughout his stories, in all mediums. It’s no accident co-creator Lee envisioned Spidey as a teen to differentiate from the adult superheroes that populated the medium. He’s a hero whose body changes with awesome physical abilities but engineers a bracelet that shoots white, gooey webbing. In issue #33, there is a repeated mention of the pain being inflicted on Spidey’s teenage body. A recurring problem in the comic is Spider-Man needing a moment to heal, but he’s too overwhelmed by Doc Ock’s goons for that to happen. Soon enough, Spidey flails wildly, and blindly, with a strength that outmatches grown men.
The movies are obsessed with Spidey’s body, too. In the mid-‘90s, director James Cameron wrote a script for a Spider-Man movie that plainly emphasized the pubescent undertones. In one scene, Peter wakes up to “a pearlescent white fluid” that is “gluing him” to his bed. In 2002, Sam Raimi found a less messy but no less subtle way of communicating this theme.
As a four-quadrant superhero movie in 2017, there isn’t any emphasis on sex in Spider-Man: Homecoming beyond Peter’s crush on Liz. But it’s absolutely a coming-of-age story, a structure the film spends an abundant amount of time getting across: Zendaya’s Michelle (a reincarnation of Allison Reynolds in The Breakfast Club) reads the 1915 Bildungsroman classic Of Human Bondage during gym; a neighborhood chase shamelessly plays Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; and its title, Homecoming, so named after the first major social function in virtually every North American high school.
From the fan’s perspective, being part of the Disney-owned MCU means comic book characters are done “right.” Be it conceptual (Captain America is a nonagenarian who slept through most of the 20th century) or in execution (casting the troubled Robert Downey Jr. in a career-defining role), being made by Marvel Studios has proved these characters will, at the very least, feel like they’ve jumped from the page. While both Raimi, and to a lesser degree Marc Webb, did their darndest to translate Spider-Man to film, no one has quite done whatever Spider-Man can like the MCU.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is in theaters now.