My last movie reflection was inspired by Jo and Laurie from Little Women. Today’s friendly neighborhood blog originated with Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Far From Home, because I cannot be bound by the constraints of genre. Despite being extremely different in subject matter and original source material, these stories, like all stories, contain that quality of character-driven narrative that invites us to find ourselves in them. Rather than being mere escapist daydreams, even these fictional characters can encourage us to pursue some goal by their (often idealized) example.
Peter Parker is one such character. Tom Holland’s portrayal of the personality seems specifically designed to garner the audience’s affection. (A result of Marvel’s perfecting their comic-book movie formula, no doubt.) But despite the emphasis on his best traits – intelligence, kind-heartedness, and youthful innocence – Peter remains almost universally relatable to the target audience. The reason for this is simple: the superhero is not stripped of that very human quality, weakness. The audience’s circumstances may not match the particulars of Parker’s, but because the base struggle is the same, they can see themselves in the rose-colored reflection of the silver screen. Peter Parker makes heroism look attainable because we can identify with his plight.
“He protects the neighborhood and, you know, he’s inspiring. He inspires me to be a better man.” – a classmate of Peter’s describing Spider-Man
Throughout this movie, Peter’s duty to heroism and his desire for home are in conflict. His home is found in his close relationships, but heroism (and his secret identity) demands that he take the path of solitude.
Since Far From Home follows the events of Avengers: Endgame, a major focus of the movie is how Peter responds to and copes with the loss of his mentor, Tony Stark. (If this is a spoiler for you, you should’ve watched the movie by now. Sorry.) Peter is missing a role model who is quite completely beyond reach, although his image remains ever present in memorials around the world and in Peter’s own memory.
In addition to searching out this role model replacement, Peter is caught up in some good, old-fashioned pining after his big crush, MJ. This romance is the primary distraction from “hero stuff,” as he calls it. For a while, his hopes even for this romance are dashed; MJ hides her own feelings by saying she was only interested in his secret identity. Duty trumps desire again.
The villain of this movie spends much of the first half leading Peter on, falsely fulfilling Peter’s desire to find the next Tony Stark. Peter falls for it without suspicion, distracted because, as he says, “It’s pretty nice to have someone to talk to about superhero stuff.” Between this manipulation and Peter’s hope to be free of his great responsibility long enough to spend time with his friends, it was too easy to derail him from duty. As a result of Peter’s mistake, his friends’ lives are threatened. (He also gets hit by a train, but that’s beside the point.)
The path of duty is a solitary one. It’s also the path of the most risk – the path closest to danger. In order to save the day (and his friends), Peter must learn both to take initiative on his own and to rely on support when it’s available. This is the great risk: that he will seek someone else to do what only he himself must.
So does the completion of duty mean the fulfillment of desire, then? If you live in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then yes, at least until the second end-credit scene. But what about those of us who live in the real world?
Peter has a villain to defeat, a mission to accomplish. My goal is not so clear-cut; the stakes can seem lower because the struggle is so ill-defined. My enemy does not show up wearing a goblin mask or leading an army of alien soldiers, but in the creeping quiet my own mind. The battle, then, is not marked by a positive presence, but by what surfaces in utter isolation.
If I might permit myself to write like someone older than twenty: I believe the path to greatest adventure will also be the road of greatest weakness. When desire is held in tension with duty, things get risky! But avoiding the discomfort of risk eliminates the possibility of true fulfillment. The longer we stay on the path despite the risk, the more we desire things that work towards the path’s end. Pursuing these sanctified desires is as much a part of the struggle as persisting in duty.
We truly are far from home. Still, there may be some measure of fullness to be found in hero stuff along the way.