Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Parenthood

By  · Published on May 4th, 2016

Why Tony and Peter’s relationship is the most important part of Civil War.

Warning: Mild spoilers for Captain America: Civil War below.

As you may or may not have gathered from the trailers in the wake of the hyperbolic example of Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the often happy-go-lucky Marvel flicks take a bit of a somber, self-serious spin with Captain America: Civil War. Then again, maybe you just ran into a Skittles ad mandating that you pick a side in the friend-against-friend battle. Either way, the human conflict has risen to much higher levels than in either of the two earlier alien- or robot-bashing ensemble Avengers films. This movie focuses on loss and family in a way that makes the plot inseparable from pathos, its consequences intertwined with that of its characters’ influence on the younger generation.

Civil War defines many instances of familiality over its (admittedly long) run-time: Peggy and her niece, Sharon Carter; the villainous Helmut Zemo and his wife and son; Miriam Sharpe and her son, a recent college graduate killed in the sloppy destruction of Sokovia; T’Chaka, king of Wakanda and father of T’Challa/Black Panther; and most importantly, Tony Stark and his parents. Some of these more tangential relations (Peggy and Sharon) seem to be more for interrelated fan service – winking to Steve Rogers fanatics that maybe he didn’t get with Peggy, but hey, at least his current flame is nearby in the gene pool – but the rest all serve as vital plot points driving the motivations of the characters.

Zemo’s motivations echo those of Sharpe, his emotions echoing those of the superhuman infighters, bringing to light the consequences of unmitigated and might-makes-right moral supremacy backed by supernatural strength. Stark, confronted with these hard truths, changes the most from this – hence the political schism. But, more importantly for his character and future films, he brings this to his interactions with someone young enough to evoke his incidental victims and powerful enough to warrant his recruitment: the newly Marvel-acquired Spider-Man.

Much of the film’s goofy pleasures come from dorky pipsqueak Peter Parker (Tom Holland) refining the mantle of Spider-Man and joining the fight between factions of the Avengers. His antics are just as exciting as the debut of digital web-slinging effects in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man while his boyish nervousness perfectly splits the difference between Andrew Garfield’s arrogant skateboarder and Tobey Maguire’s quiet romantic. The snot-nosed kid is full of effervescent one-liners and the need to impress, which makes his recruitment into the film both revitalizing and uncharacteristically nuanced.

The re-framing of Tony Stark from self-obsessed narcissist with a guilt complex derived from his weapons being used in genocide to hyper-aware (and still guilty) philanthropist brings him to a point where his decisions are driven by a moral compass not as strident as that of the hyper-idealistic Captain America, but just as powerful. That said, his need to beat Cap and enforce order within what he sees as a dangerous system leads him to a crossroads. He needs Parker, he wants to use Parker, but ultimately is fighting against the very endangerment of innocents that Parker’s recruitment would enact. At the same time, an early flashback to his paternal relationship shows the strain firsthand between the sarcastic genius kid and his domineering dad. This dynamic is clearly present in Stark’s mind when he visits the Parker residence.

Parker’s a kid. Tony Stark in his living room freaks him out considerably, especially when he convinces him to lie and blackmails him with the threat of NARCing him out to Aunt May. While Stark attempts to relate to Parker with science, tech, and morals – being a friend, an intelligent confidant – he also bullies him into commitment. Both factions seem to hold equal sway over him, especially as he continues to be star-struck throughout the climatic battle. His relationship with “Mr. Stark” is really the only factor allying him with one side over another. This gives Stark the opportunity to become a mentor – a father figure – something the Marvel universe hasn’t really ever had before. It’s mostly been about the loss of said figures (in the case of Thor and Stark) or their betrayal (Cap and the U.S. government).

But does it really matter? Well, with mom names and dead parents being so important (à la Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and the A-plot of Civil War), it’s probably smart to pay attention to how superheroes treat the next generation. That Stark seems to have developed a personal relationship with Parker, concerned with his physical, intellectual, and moral well-being, means character and relationship growth for both heroes, nurturing surrogate parenthood where previous superhero films merely exploit its absence. However, there are still flaws underlying the good feelings.

Stark is still selfish enough, not uncommon among Avengers, to drag a high schooler into a tiff with hardened super-warriors just to get the edge on his side. Narratively, I can understand that, but from a character standpoint I’m uneasy about the idea of an adult building a teenager a special suit so that he can be soundly beaten by a guy with an American flag shield. Hopefully this relationship will deepen and become healthier (or at least more complex) in the standalone Spider-Man film, because now that it’s been broached, the passing of the superhuman torch – whether it be as unhealthy and selfish as the Stark legacy or as warm and supportive as the lost parents that drive many of our heroes – is the most important and most interesting issue for the Marvel universe to cover.

Related Topics:

Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).