The immortal words that closed out Amazing Fantasy #15, Spider-Man’s first comic book appearance, have become as synonymous with the character as has his iconic red and blue costume. After failing to stop a robber, Peter Parker learns the consequence of his inaction when his Uncle Ben is killed by the very same robber he allowed to get away. He learns the lesson that “with great power, comes great responsibility” and pledges to never let another person die on his watch (with mixed results).
The phrase is famously spoken by Cliff Robertson’s Uncle Ben in 2002’s Spider-Man, while a variation shows up in The Amazing Spider-Man 10 years later. Both times, this represents the last piece of advice Peter will receive from his father figure and one that will shape him for the rest of his life. But when Marvel Studios struck a deal with Sony Pictures, allowing them their own version of the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they were understandably trepidatious about covering similar ground.
So, it made sense that 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming did not feature scenes of Peter’s spider bite or Uncle Ben’s death, but what it also lost is the backbone of every good Spidey story: the lesson of great power and great responsibility.
Early in the film, our hero (Tom Holland) spots a bank robbery in progress. He swings over and fights off the Avengers-themed goons, but his carelessness causes one of their Chitauri weapons to fire off uncontrollably, destroying the deli across the street (the same deli he visits in an earlier scene and of which he shares a friendly rapport with the owner). It’s a classic Spidey scenario; his actions have direct consequences, and he must take responsibility for those actions.
And then the situation is immediately solved. Director Jon Watts does very little to play up the intensity of the moment — the entire rescue is shot outside the deli and lasts all of a few moments — and the script doesn’t give Peter any lasting consequences for his actions. The owner (and his cat) walk away with barely a scratch, and we never hear from him again. Nothing about how this man, with whom Peter has a connection, has lost his livelihood as a result of his actions. Does he resent Spider-Man for playing a part in this? Is he just thankful to be alive? The film never thinks to explore any of this.
This is also reflected in the trip to Washington, in which Peter gets stuck in a high-security facility having lost a fight with the Vulture. He’s late to the academic decathlon and is eager to return having already ditched his classmates the night before. Peter breaks out and races back, as Watts cross-cuts between his journey and the ongoing decathlon.
Again, it’s the sort of scenario that Stan Lee would have reveled in — Peter’s Spidey antics get in the way of his personal life, he gets caught up in something and misses an important engagement (think Peter racing to deliver pizzas or missing Mary Jane’s play in Spider-Man 2). All that does play out, but the decathlon team wins anyway and his classmates have no hard feelings over the situation. The duality that makes up the character is virtually non-existent here, with Spider-Man representing more of a hobby than a burden for Peter.
Which brings us to his secret identity. In Homecoming, Peter’s alter ego is treated as little more than a punchline. When best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) discovers who’s really under the mask, the moment is played entirely for laughs with no dramatic punch or sense of dread in sight. They have a brief back and forth about it before the film carries on as it was, the revelation itself having little to no impact on the story. There’s no concern over how this could put Ned in danger, no reason for him to even remotely disapprove of Peter’s actions, and their relationship remains exactly the same as it was before.
Compare this to Harry Osborne’s big discovery in Spider-Man 2, where he understandably despises the web-slinger for (in his mind) killing his father but is conflicted due to his friendship with Peter. The film milks the moment for every bit of drama it’s worth, having intricately built up to this moment, knowing their friendship with never be the same again. Homecoming, on the other hand, treats the same situation as a throwaway gag.
The same goes for the final moment of the film, in which Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) walks in on Peter, mid-hero moment. She yells “what the fu-” before we cut to “Blitzkreig Bop” over a colorful credits sequence. The tone of this is just off. May has discovered that her nephew has been out risking his life, throwing himself in harm’s way day after day, while Peter has just dragged his mother figure into his crime-fighting lifestyle.
This is pretty heavy stuff, especially considering the apparently recent death of Uncle Ben (only alluded to in the film). But the jokey framing of the moment shows just how little this iteration of Spider-Man seems concerned with the consequences of his actions. His secret identity is kept not only to keep him safe but because he cannot risk those he cares for being involved in his second life. It’s his gift, his curse, and it’s his responsibility to keep his loved ones safe. And by casting that aside, the film robs itself of some of its richest dramatic material in favor of a cheap laugh.
Now, it’s entirely possible that these were all intentional choices on behalf of the filmmakers made in order to subvert the traditional story beats associated with the character. This certainly fits with many other decisions made in Homecoming, but to remove the melodramatic interpersonal relationships and to present us with a hero that never has to take responsibility for his actions is to water down the essential ingredients that have made the character a staple of popular culture for nearly 60 years. Spider-Man is fun, sure, he’s bright colors and quips too, but he’s also about the underlying tragedy and sense of responsibility that comes with having such great power. Without that, he’s indistinguishable from the rest of Marvel’s vast catalog of characters.