Spider-Man: Homecoming and the Amazing Technicolor Spidey Suit

Costumes are always key in superhero movies, but they’re particularly crucial to Spider-Man: Homecoming, the latest reboot of the comic-book character with newcomer Tom Holland in the title role.

At the start of the film, Holland’s Peter Parker is wearing the high-tech Spidey suit that was given to him by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in Captain America: Civil War. Peter was recruited in that film to help out the Avengers, but has since been told by Stark to go back to Queens and be a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” This doesn’t sit well with Peter, who no longer gets quite the same thrill from thwarting bike thieves.

This is the central struggle of Spider-Man: Homecoming—a kid reaching for adulthood before he’s ready—and it’s nicely captured by the use of costumes in the film. Ignoring Stark’s advice, Peter hacks his suit to unlock its enhanced features (including a cool gliding mode that enables him to take a magnificent leap off the Washington Monument). Emboldened, he leaves his neighborhood watch behind to take on a dangerous weapons dealer known as Vulture (Michael Keaton). When one of their encounters nearly results in the deaths of dozens of civilians on a ferry, Stark takes Peter’s suit away, essentially grounding him.

All of this emphasis on costuming made me think of what might be the most famous “costume” in the Bible: Joseph’s coat of many colors. (Peter’s suit isn’t exactly a Technicolor dreamcoat, but when he wears his school blazer over it, we do get a dash of yellow to the usual, red-and-blue color palette.) A gift from Joseph’s father that ornately set him apart from his brothers, this coat was both a blessing and a curse—a sign of stature he was not yet mature enough to live into. Along with his dreams of dominance over his brothers (which he freely shared), Joseph’s insistence on wearing the coat was part of his undoing.

If the direness of Joseph’s situation—being sold into slavery by his brothers—was ceremonially marked by their stripping him of his robe, something similar takes place in Spider-Man: Homecoming when Stark takes Peter’s outfit back. “I’m nothing without this suit,” Peter tells Stark after the ferry incident, begging him to let him keep it. “If you’re nothing without the suit, you shouldn’t have it,” Stark replies.

From Joseph’s robe to Peter’s suit, costumes serve as markers, status symbols, emblems of authority and ability. They’re meant to prop us up as much as they are meant to clothe us. As such, they’re potentially idolatrous, something emphasized by the fact that Peter’s enhanced costume includes a built-in digital assistant. (He at first names it “suit lady,” but later goes with the more Siri-like Karen.) As the movie proceeds, there are times when he literally puts his life in “her” hands. Peter believes his fancy Spider-Man costume makes him invincible and beyond reproach.

After being reprimanded by Stark, however, Peter is left with the “crappy costume” he had made himself (thin, baggy, with dorky goggles for eyes). Yet he nonetheless continues to pursue Vulture. In a warehouse showdown (spoilers ahead!), Vulture manages to pull the roof down on Peter, burying him under a pile of debris. At this point even Peter’s homemade mask has been ripped off, and he lies there whimpering, looking less like a superhero than a boy wearing a cheapo Halloween costume. Peering into a puddle on the warehouse floor, Peter sees his reflection. Imagining half of his face bare and half as Spider-Man, he gathers his strength and manages to rise from the rubble. In his most crucial moment, Peter relied on the supernatural power that had been given to him as a gift, not a costume he had fashioned (or enhanced) for himself.

Joseph didn’t really benefit from his costume either, despite the stature it offered. When we think of Joseph’s story, that robe is one of the first things that comes to mind, but it hardly represents his character. Rather, Joseph’s defining act is his reconciliation with his brothers years later, after he had become Pharaoh’s trusted adviser. At this point he is dressed even more ornately, but in garments that had been bestowed on him by God’s providence. And, given the gestures of forgiveness Joseph offered, one imagines they were worn with more humility than he wore the infamous coat of his youth.

It’s interesting that the Bible pays attention to the loss of garments as well as the gaining of them. Disrobing as an act of vulnerability is a motif throughout Scripture, from Joseph’s rent coat to Job’s faithful mourning. You could follow it all the way to the cross, where Jesus was given a mock robe, stripped of it, and then deprived of his own simple garments so they could be divided among the soldiers. Clearly what we wear—especially when it’s been fashioned by ourselves to propagate a sense of idolatrous self-importance—doesn’t matter. Clothed with Christ, we are free to disregard worldly pursuit of status and stature and instead rest in the gift of God’s purpose for our lives, no matter how humble that purpose might appear.

On this point, the analogy with Spider-Man: Homecoming breaks down a bit, as the movie offers a climax that strikes me as confused. Although framed as a scene of reconciliation, not unlike that between Joseph and his brothers, the finale essentially rewards Peter for doing the very same thing he had been punished for earlier. At any rate, another costume is involved—sleek, pristine, molded precisely to Peter’s form. Maybe what matters is not so much whether he’s earned it, then, but that he’s come to understand—as Stark said, and as Joseph would learn about his own dress—that he didn’t need the Spidey suit in order to be his authentic—one might say, ordained—self.

Comments (5)

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**Spoilers Ahead!**

Interesting write-up from a perspective I hadn’t considered! The suit as a framing device was a great move on the part of the writers and directors. Something about seeing Spiderman take on Vulture in the homemade suit instead of the teched-out Stark version made it feel like he was a real human being beneath the outfit. If Cap and Iron Man are legends, Spiderman is a normal human being confronted with real problems and real evil. I think it added the kind of “personal stake” to the movie that Marvel often lacks. Tony Stark in an Iron Man suit with an army of drones isn’t really in any danger. A fifteen-year-old in a hoodie and goggles? That’s a fight the viewer can be invested in.

The costume ark- Peter gaining powers, using them in an irresponsible but well-meaning way, and learning to protect his community independently of his super-suit actually made me think of Homecoming as a kind of counterpoint to Watchmen (2009). Watchmen focused deeply on the character of those behind the masks, and feared that power in the hands of a concentrated few was a bad thing specifically for that reason- humans have a tendency towards bad, and often do bad even when they try to do good, so power is ultimately a dangerous thing.

Homecoming had the same fear- that power can be abused, even by the well-meaning, but added the concept of virtue in as a sort of counterargument. Peter did a lot of damage by being too immature to handle the power he was wielding but was able to learn and do better. In Watchmen, character is fixed, so bad people with power do bad things, and good people with power still do bad things on accident. Homecoming has these presuppositions about power (early film Peter Parker functions almost like a light-hearted Rorschach), but is more optimistic in its idea that humans can grow into wiser, more virtuous people.

I suppose that philosophical difference- character as fixed and character as moldable through virtue- has bigger implications, especially in the way we think about political power and criminal justice. But this is a comment on an article, not an essay :)

Anyway, really enjoyed the film and really enjoyed your write-up

Also, if you haven’t yet, buy Josh’s book. I’m a book critic for a few publications and I’ve lost track of the number of books I’ve read this year, but Movies are Prayers is easily one of the best. Check it out, you won’t be sorry!

In Reply to Jake Raabe (comment #30490)
You’re too kind, Jake! Thanks for the good thoughts on the movie.

In Reply to Jake Raabe (comment #30490)

Ditto on Josh’s book. You think Homecoming works more as a prayer of joy or a prayer of submission, obedience, or joy? (Or all three?)

In Reply to JKana (comment #30492)

I can see ways this works as a prayer of obedience, for sure.

Fun article, Josh.

I too find the film a bit thematically confused, despite being loads of fun.

It want Peter to ‘grow up,’ but often finds itself unclear of its expectations for this maturity. Does it mean relying on his own powers as opposed to his fancy Stark suit? Maybe a motivation tweak: doing what he does out of a sense of justice instead of a desire to impress? It’s significant, I think, that he explains his web-slinging activities using the “Stark internship” excuse - sure it’s a fun plot device, but also conveys the sense that he expects his actions to be monitored and evaluated in the hope of an eventual hire.

None of the options really get a focus, though your analysis has given me a new appreciation for the use of costumes in the film. Definitely more to look for in a second viewing.

I talk a bit more about this in an essay of my own, if you’re interested:


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