(SPOILERS FOR SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, AND AVENGERS: ENDGAME — READ AT YOUR OWN RISK)
I’m gonna let you in a little secret that is probably not very secret. I love Marvel’s Spider-Man movies. And it’s not just because Tom Holland is cute, okay?
I mean… it’s probably part of the reason, let’s face it. But the other reason is Peter Parker’s character arc and how it relates to the movies’ themes. These movies are a masterclass in how to develop a character in a compelling way that enhances a meaningful theme.
Maybe I’m reading into them too deep, but whatever. Let’s do this.
Theme Interlocks With Everything
To me, the MCU Spider-Man movies are about growing up. And also about how growing up kind of sucks sometimes, even though it comes with a bunch of benefits.
To match the theme, Peter’s arc thus far has been that of a kid figuring out what it means to be an adult and then how to be an adult.
What I love about these movies is that theme seamlessly blends with plot and character development. Peter faces something that challenges his pre-conceived beliefs about adulthood, learns something new about what it means to be an adult, overcomes the challenges, and reinforces the theme.
In my opinion, stories that weave theme, plot, and character together are the ones that are the most powerful, the ones that stick with me long after I finish them.
Peter Parker’s Progression
Hehe, say that five times fast.
Peter follows a very clear character arc over the course of the four movies (not counting Captain America: Civil War) he’s appeared in, and breaking down that arc can teach us a lot about crafting compelling character arcs that also strengthen the theme of your character’s story.
So. Let’s start.
Spoiler summary: After the events of Civil War, Peter Parker returns home to Queens and grows into his role as Spider-Man, while constantly hoping to get called in to another Avengers mission. When he continues to feel sidelined and ignored by Tony, he investigates a group of illegal weapon dealers, but things spin out of control when he meets their leader, the Vulture. Against Tony’s instructions, Peter continues to investigate and inadvertently puts an entire ferry full of people in danger through his recklessness. Tony saves the ferry but confiscates Peter’s suit. Peter then tries to be a normal teenager and go to Homecoming with Liz, his crush, but everything goes wrong again when he finds out the Vulture he’s been fighting is, in fact, her father. When the Vulture puts the pieces together and figures out that Peter is Spider-Man, he threatens Peter and tries to get him to leave him and his crew alone. Peter ignores his threat and ends up preventing the Vulture from stealing a plane full of alien and Avenger technology.
Peter in this movie is very much a headstrong, reckless teenager who desperately wants to be counted among the adults. He wants to grow up, and he thinks he can handle much more than Tony Stark is giving him. But he doesn’t really understand what it is to grow up because, if he did, he would know he’s not ready.
Tony Stark gives Peter the duty of being a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” because he doesn’t think Peter is old enough for a seat at the Avengers’ table. Peter disagrees, and he spends the entire movie trying to prove himself but ends up getting in over his head.
Near the end of the movie, Tony loses his temper and takes Peter’s suit away, saying that Peter isn’t responsible enough for it. This crushes Peter, but it also shows him that he’s been foolish and is trying to grow up too fast.
The time without his suit gives him a chance to rediscover what a normal life looks like, and he starts to enjoy it. He still likes being a teenager, and that’s when he realizes Tony might be right. Being an Avenger, being an adult comes with a lot of responsibility, and, after almost getting everyone on the ferry killed, Peter’s beginning to understand that he doesn’t want that. Maybe being a normal kid isn’t so bad after all.
Except (and this ends up being a big theme running through each of Spider-Man’s appearances in the MCU) it’s not possible for Peter to just be normal. He’s too powerful, and he’s not the kind of person who is going to stand by and let bad things happen.
So when it turns out that Liz’s dad is the weapons dealer he’s been trying to apprehend the whole movie, Peter is faced with a choice. Take up the mantle of responsibility (without the backup the Tony’s suit) to stop the Vulture, or forget about being Spider-Man and go to Homecoming with Liz and be a kid.
Peter, being Peter, chooses the first option with almost no hesitation. He goes up against Vulture, almost dies, but manages to succeed. Manages to win. His way — not Tony Stark’s.
That’s important going forward, because, up till this point, Peter was trying to imitate Tony. Be like him, rather than like himself. But he can’t move forward into adulthood without learning who he is. And this is his first step — being Spider-Man, his way.
At the end of the movie, Tony offers to bring Peter in on the Avengers Initiative and let him live at the complex, but Peter has been changed irrevocably by the events of the movie. He has matured, to the point where he realizes that there’s so much good he can do on his own block as Spider-Man. He understands that the superhero life comes with huge stakes and heavy shoulders, and maybe he’s not actually ready for that.
So he turns down Tony’s offer (much to Tony’s shock) and goes home to Queens where he happily continues to be a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man”, even though he has proven himself to be capable of more.
Avengers: Infinity War
Spoiler summary: Thanos begins to gather the rest of the Infinity Stones so he can use the Gauntlet’s power to wipe out half the universe, thus restoring “balance” in his eyes. The Avengers and many other characters team up to fight him, but they are unable to win. He succeeds and “snaps” half of the universe into dust, including Peter and many other Avengers.
Peter’s next appearance comes during Infinity War, when one of Thanos’s ships bears down on New York City. He’s on a school trip with his class, but when he sees the ship, he’s obviously not going to stand by. He suits up and joins Tony and the others in the battle.
When Doctor Strange is captured by one of Thanos’s children in an attempt to get the Time Stone from him, Peter doesn’t hesitate. He jumps onto the outside of the spaceship and tries to get inside it. He almost dies when the altitude gets to be too much for him. Tony saves him with the Iron Spider suit, but they both end up trapped on the ship.
Once there, Peter continues to help, even though Tony is angry at him for staying in the fight when he told him to go. Since Peter doesn’t exactly have a choice in the matter anymore, Tony inducts him into the Avengers, which further cements him as basically Tony’s protégé (this is important going forward).
They meet the Guardians of the Galaxy (don’t ask) on Titan and team up to fight Thanos. Peter shows himself a capable member of the Avengers throughout the fight, but it doesn’t spare him from what’s to come. When the Snap happens, Peter is killed along with everyone else, dying in Tony’s arms.
Through this, he learns another price of growing up. Sometimes you lose, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Still, all he wants to do is make Tony proud, so his last words are an apology for not being able to stop Thanos in time. For dying.
I’m not crying, you are.
Spoiler summary: Five years have passed since the Snap. The remaining Avengers have tried to move on but cannot. Since Thanos destroyed the stones and was killed by Thor shortly after the initial Snap, there seems to be no hope of ever bringing everyone back. However, when Ant Man returns from the Quantum Realm (don’t ask) after having been trapped there for five years, they discover that the Quantum Realm could be used as a route for time travel. They formulate a plan, and inn an epic time heist through their own histories, they gather up the Infinity Stones from the past to unite them in a new Gauntlet and save the world. However, they capture the attention of a past version of Thanos, who comes to Earth, destroys the Avengers compound, and tries to steal the stones from them with the intent of destroying their universe and making a new one. However, before he could stop them, they used the stones to undo the Snap. As his forces gather, the Avengers reunite with everyone who died and face off in a battle for the universe. During the fight, Tony manages to get a hold of the stones and sacrifices his life to “snap” Thanos and his forces out of existence, thus saving the universe.
Peter is absent for most of this movie, although he is Tony’s driving motivation for undoing the Snap.
When the Avengers finally do succeed in bringing everyone they lost back, Peter joins in the final epic battle against Thanos. He is instrumental in keeping the Infinity Gauntlet away from him, and he truly becomes an Avenger in this sequence. One could even say his character arc is complete.
Except it’s not. The Spider-Man movies are about growing up, yes, but they’re also about coming into your own as a person. And Peter, while he has grown and matured so much over the course of the films, still doesn’t know who he is. He still desperately wants to be just like Tony Stark.
So, when Tony sacrifices himself for everyone at the end of the movie, Peter is shattered. He thought he had finally gotten everything together, become an Avenger, but now the rug has been pulled out from under him. He no longer knows what to do.
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Spoiler summary: After the events of Endgame, everyone, including Peter, tries to recover. Peter is grieving Tony and looking to find a way to live a normal life. He no longer really wants to be Spider-Man, but circumstances force him into it. He ends up teaming up with Quentin Beck (Mysterio), a man who is supposedly from an alternate universe and is looking to save Earth from elemental beings bent on the world’s destruction. However, it comes to light that Mysterio was lying, and is in fact behind the destruction. He has been using drones and holographic technology to create convincing illusions. Peter discovers his deception and ends up in a battle for his life and for London. He manages to stop Mysterio, but Mysterio manages to reveal Peter’s identity and convinces the world that he was the villain all along.
In this movie, we see Peter back in Queens, except nothing is the same. The whole world has been turned on its head because of the Snap, and he’s dealing with grief and trauma from everything that happened. All Peter wants to do is try to regain some semblance of normalcy. He wants to be a teenager, go on a class trip, and figure out how to tell MJ, a classmate, that he likes her.
Only problem is, this is the movie where everyone decides that Peter is an adult. Happy, Aunt May, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, and a deceased Tony all regard him as an Avenger and a superhero. Once, that would have been Peter’s dream, but now he wants the opposite.
Worse, the whole world is looking for a replacement for Iron Man. And everyone assumes that replacement is Spider-Man. Even Tony appears to when he wills him the glasses that control EDITH, a global protection system. Everyone is looking to Peter to protect them and be the new Iron Man.
Throughout the movie, Peter resists that call. He doesn’t believe he can ever be Iron Man, and he certainly doesn’t want to be a hero for all the world. He doesn’t even want to be Spider-Man anymore.
Predictably, crisis hits and Nick Fury calls on Peter to help — whether he wants to or not. That’s how Peter gets involved with Mysterio, who is the only one in the entire film who seems to understand Peter and treat him like a kid. He appears to care about Peter and believe he can fill Tony Stark’s shoes, but he is the only one not forcing him into it.
Peter instantly latches on to this new father figure who takes the pressure off him and gives him someone new to look up to.
Which makes it all the more terrible for Peter when Mysterio betrays him and reveals that he was after the EDITH glasses all along. Worse than that, Mysterio really does think of Peter as “only a kid” and has none of the confidence in him that Tony had.
After Mysterio defeats Peter in the worst way, Peter goes to Happy for help, and his character arc for the movie climaxes in a highly emotional scene where Happy explains that Peter is never going to be Iron Man, and that Tony himself didn’t want Peter to be a new Iron Man. He, in fact, wanted him to be better. He wanted him to be Spider-Man. Tony believed in Peter before Peter believed in himself.
This is a huge moment in Peter’s movies-long character development. For the first time, he realizes who he is. He’s Spider-Man, and he’s going to go about saving the world his way — not anyone else’s. He takes up his mantle as an adult, as an Avenger, and goes out to stop Mysterio.
He succeeds in an epic sequence in which he uses his Spider Sense (or the Peter tingle if y’all prefer), which has been on the fritz the whole movie because of his doubts, to defeat Mysterio’s illusions. In the climactic moment, Mysterio appears beaten and tries to use Peter’s immaturity and lingering desire for a replacement for Tony against him again, but Peter doesn’t fall for it. He uses his Spider Sense to see through yet another illusion and stops Mysterio from shooting him just in time.
This is the moment Peter truly crosses the line from childhood into adulthood.
Up till this point, the villains he has fought have either been small-time, honorable in some fashion, or impersonal forces such as Thanos.
In the climax of his first movie, he is able to save the Vulture (another instance of Peter starting to own who he is), and the Vulture ends up protecting him from the other imprisoned criminals Peter has taken down. Despite his villainy, the Vulture still has some good in him and respects Peter’s courage.
In contrast, the conflict with Mysterio is highly personal. Even though Peter tries to end it as peacefully as possible, Mysterio betrays him again and tries to kill him in a savage, sneaky way that the Vulture never would have attempted. Despite trying, Peter is unable to save him.
In my eyes, the two villains work as a metaphor for the loss of innocence. When Peter was a child, things were simpler and the people he interacted with, no matter how bad, had some redeeming qualities. Now that he is adult, things have gotten more complicated, and the innocence is gone. No matter how kind and good he is, he will still meet vile people who won’t fight fair or care about him as a person.
After the battle, Peter rejoins his classmates and even manages to tell MJ how much he likes her. They share their first kiss, and, for a time, it seems like Peter can juggle both lives. He can be Spider-Man and a high school student. Superhero and boyfriend.
But that would undermine his character arc and his story’s theme. This is why the writers put in a twist ending where Mysterio betrays Peter one final time and reveals his identity to the world. Not only that, but Mysterio also leads everyone to believe that Peter is behind the destruction he himself caused. Now Peter will either be on the run or be caught in a battle to clear his name.
This fits exactly with an overarching theme of Peter’s movies. He’s a boy who wanted to be an adult before realizing that childhood wasn’t so bad. Unfortunately, the world will not allow him to remain a child. It continually forces him to grow up and leave normal life behind.
Well. That got heavy. Sorry if I depressed you guys. Let’s just be thankful we’re not Peter.
What Can We Learn From This?
These movies are a masterfully done, and there’s so much we can take from them that applies to our own writing.
- Theme, plot, and character should usually be inseparably linked.
- A story can be upbeat and hopeful while still conveying a bittersweet theme.
- Don’t be afraid to use symbolism to get your point across.
- Sometimes taking the most important thing away from your character is the best catalyst for growth (hehe, that sounds so sadistic).
- Don’t be afraid to break your character — it makes the moment he/she rises again that much more powerful.
- Be sure that you don’t brush off a character’s previous experiences or traumas. Allow past occurrences, especially terrible ones, to continue to affect him/her in the present as their character develops (wow, this sounds REALLY sadistic).
- Allow your character to fail often, or be unable to stop/change things.
- Especially if you’re writing a series, allow a natural progression of the story’s theme and the character’s arc. The first Spider-Man movies are about Peter realizing he needed more experience, and the latter ones are about Peter coming to terms with his growing responsibilities and figuring out who he is.
- Your character might be becoming a better person or becoming who he/she were meant to be, but that does not mean his/her story needs a happy ending all the time.
- Your villain can and perhaps should teach your character just as much as a mentor figure.
- Choose villains that challenge your character, force him/her to grow, and affect him/her in some personal way.
- Try putting your character in conflict with many different people, even if they are on his/her side. It will force he/she into a corner and force him/her to make choices.
- Give your character concrete desires that make sense for their character, but make sure to let them evolve organically as his/her story progresses.
- Make sure your story doesn’t go in a direction that undermines your theme or your character’s arc.
Stories like Spider-Man’s can teach us so much about writing. Analyze your favorite stories. Ask yourself why they work and what you can learn from them. Pick them apart down to their bones. Try to figure out what the writers were thinking or hoping to get across and decide if they succeeded.
Thanks for letting me nerd out! I hope this helped you with your writing in some way.
Let’s chat! Tell me in the comments below what your thoughts on these movies are or tell me something you learned from another story (that would actually be super helpful, thanks).
Happy writing, my friends!
4 thoughts on “What The MCU’s Spider-Man Can Teach Us About Writing”
Thanks so much for this! It’s an amazing writing resource – and probably the best Spidey analysis I’ve ever read, too C:
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Really? Thank you!!! I’m glad you found it helpful =)
THIS.WAS.MASTERFUL. I couldn’t decide which “what can we learn from this” I liked the best. Excellent analysis…
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