What Are You Without the Suit?
Frustrated and under the influence of a malevolent staff, Steve Rogers can think of no greater way to mock Tony Stark than to point out that he has no real superpowers.
“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away, and what are you?” he spits, emboldened by a feeling of superiority because his powers are innate, biological.
“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” Stark replies, displaying his signature quick wit:
In Stark’s mind, his Iron Man suit is something only he could have made. To him, it’s more impressive than simply being the first successful trial of some government-sponsored genetic testing. Which is why as Captain America gained prominence during Phase 2 of the Marvel cycle, his powerset — and its deeper meaning — became the opposing pole in Tony’s world.
And now, with Tony playing a major role in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the question of suits and powers — and their deeper meanings — arises again…
Marvel obviously recognized the untenable divide between biological and technological powers in their universe; and as a result, has introduced a character in Peter Parker that’s been tweaked just enough to represent a middle point in their grander divide.
However, the blossoming Parker of Spider-Man: Homecoming represents more than just a technological midpoint between Captain America’s enduring faith in humanity and Iron Man’s steadfast belief in the saving power of technology.
After a Civil War that tore its universe to the extreme, he is its philosophical center as well; compelled by both extremes equally, a new golden mean for this superheroic world.
Beneath the bluster, Tony Stark is pragmatic, practical; he thinks in probabilities and contingencies. He hedges his bets. He recognizes his superpowers as conditional; they come and go whenever he steps into and out of the suit. Sustaining damage can knock particular systems offline, leaving him to improvise with a diminished arsenal.
Steve Rogers, on the other hand, is sure of himself, committed; he thinks in values and principles. He pursues absolutes and refuses to compromise; and like his powers, his character traits are inseparable from him and irreplicable. He is the externalization of an unswerving moral center.
Peter Parker, meanwhile, is both a geek and an idealist; who loves to invent, yet also feels an overwhelming duty to put himself on the line for the sake of others. He designed his own web shooters, and in an act of canonical liberty actually receives the famous spidey suit from Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War#; though the physical changes brought on by his radioactive spider bite — wall-crawling, spidey senses, super strength — are undoubtedly the far more significant source of his superpowers.
A YouTube video of him catching a bus with his bare hands is what caught Tony’s attention in the first place…
And when Spidey and Cap found a brief moment in the heat of battle to make acquaintances, it was immediately clear there was a recognition of kindred spirits. Watching Peter struggle with an overwhelming obstacle but refuse to give in, Rogers can’t help but ask, “You got heart kid; where you from?”
“Queens,” Peter replies, causing Steve’s face to immediately morph into a mixture of amusement and respect as he acknowledges their shared roots with a quick “Brooklyn” before rejoining the fight:
For Steve Rogers, it can only be deeply affecting to see a skinny teenager holding his own in a fight, as he was once exactly that. But unlike Cap, whose transformation literally manifested his greatness of virtue in his muscle mass, Peter Parker’s gained comparable physical abilities while retaining his unassuming frame.
In this way, Peter literally reflects both Steve’s past and present at the same time.
Even as Tony recruits Peter to his side of the Civil War, he makes an effort not to openly disparage Captain America, realizing how similar the two sons of New York are deep down; telling Peter instead that Rogers is “wrong but thinks he’s right, which makes him dangerous.”
Just as Peter’s heart reminds Steve of himself as a kid, his mind does the same for Tony. In young Mr. Parker, Tony Stark sees another young genius with a talent for invention (he expresses genuine admiration for his web fluid) whom he can mentor and mold, counting on their mutual intelligence to forge a bond between them.
That’s why, when he attempts to build a relationship, it’s put in terms of a technological “upgrade, systemic, top to bottom”:
Yet there are nevertheless subtle character differences underlying this similar mental acuity.
Tony is hailed by Hawkeye, sarcastically, as “The Futurist” — an epithet that follows from his boundless desire to push technology and society toward an end only he can envision. In contrast, Peter is fascinated by retro tech; he looks backward to Apple computers and DVD players as sources of inspiration. He seeks to learn lessons from the past, instead of dismissing it as obsolete.
He possesses a capacity, and desire, for reflection that Tony has always lacked…
Though Peter is excited for the suit, it’s clear from the onset that what he really needs is guidance:
As he stammers through his first attempt to articulate the responsibility he feels now that he has superpowers, he is desperately seeking another perspective on the question (the irony being that this is exactly what Tony is grappling with too). However, by the time we’ve reached Spider-Man: Homecoming, the mentorship Peter hoped for has stalled out, with Tony largely absent and designating his valet Happy as Peter’s point of contact#.
Steve Rogers retains his presence in Peter’s life, but only through the disappointing medium of hokey school PSA videos shown during class:
Left to their own devices, Peter’s contradictory impulses soon begin to conflict as they attempt resolution; with dangerous results.
His desire to protect the people of his neighborhood leads him to pick fights with vastly overpowered opponents and nearly costs him his life multiple times, while his technical acumen leads him to disable safety protocols built into his suit’s operating system. He takes greater and greater risks, while relying more and more on the guidance and capabilities of the suit and its artificial intelligence.
The close-up shot of Stark inside his helmet addressing his AI companion is a hallmark of the Iron Man films, and there is always a sense that Tony is in control; he knows the full scope of his suit’s power and is ordering it accordingly:
But with Peter, in his ‘upgraded’ suit, we get the uncanny sense this is the wrong approach for him to take, jumping into situations beyond his own capabilities and counting on the suit to bail him out:
An approach, in a word, inorganic to his character…
After one of these outings results in near-disaster and Iron Man repossesses his suit, the effect on Peter is palpable and immediate: he is freed from a terrible burden.
He returns to his teenage life, and scores a date to the dance#. Removed from the suit’s pressures to use it, he can reconnect with who he is independent from Stark technology.
When he finally does return to crime-fighting, for his climactic battle with the Vulture, he does so in his original homemade costume — his only technological enhancements the ones he originally extracted from his own mind:
Stripped of computers and targeting systems, he relies on his own keen intellect knowing how to best use his superpowered body.
If it is unsatisfying to watch Peter Parker flip around while commanding his suit to act for him, the most triumphant moment of the film is him in his sweatpants using sheer strength and force of will to lift up a concrete slab the Vulture dropped on him — a visual that strongly recalls his position holding up the jet bridge when he and Captain America first met.
In a universe where heroes’ ideologies and superpowers so closely correspond, Marvel’s Spider-Man finds himself strung along its midpoint, as a character that can forge his own identity; not through a binary choice to emulate either Captain America or Iron Man, but by constantly adapting and improvising.
He can’t quite follow either of his idols, so he’ll always be torn between them.
Like what you read? Share it.
(That helps us.)
Love what you read? Patronize Danny Sullivan.
That helps us and the writer.
What is Patronizing? Learn more here.