Every other Tuesday in Storied , K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Despite the massive record-breaking spectacle that was April’s Avengers: Endgame—that brought together every superhero yet crafted for the big screen by Marvel Studios—Marvel President Kevin Feige said that moviegoers would have to catch one more film to close out the metanarrative that began with 2008’s Iron Man. The movie to end it all is, of course, Spider-Man: Far From Home, the second solo installment of Tom Holland’s turn as everyone’s favorite neighborhood web-slinger. Endgame seemed a natural resolution to the Infinity Saga, the extended story of how the Mad Titan Thanos laboriously gathered the Infinity Stones that would give him unlimited power over the galaxy—and, more importantly, the origin stories of the heroes who would stand against him. The Infinity Saga has been a massive storytelling feat, and the culmination of all the heroes to defeat Thanos at the end of Endgame was a glorious eucatastrophe, so why has Feige insisted that Spider-Man: Far From Home and not Avengers: Endgame is the end of the saga?It reminds us that there can be no corporate heroism where there is no individual morality, that heroes are just people, as we are people, and their struggles are like ours.
The answer lies with Tony Stark, whose story, more than any of the other heroes, holds together the disparate threads of the three phases of the Infinity Saga. Although Tony died at the end of Endgame, his legacy is so important that even in death, his story goes on. As I wrote previously, Tony Stark reconciled the two parts of himself and changed his legacy when he sacrificed his life to kill Thanos, but Far From Home makes it clear that his redemption is found in more than just these things—it’s found in a kid from Queens. Tony’s legacy is big, and he unquestionably saved the world, but his legacy is also Peter Parker, and in tying up the Infinity Saga with a personal story of one hero—as the Infinity Saga began—the MCU does what it does best: it reminds us that there can be no corporate heroism where there is no individual morality, that heroes are just people, as we are people, and their struggles are like ours. The outcome of massive world conflicts always boils down to individuals walking justly. The heart of the MCU has always been about such things.
Because it is about such things, the small stories should hold together the big ones. From a storytelling perspective, it makes sense to bookend the Infinity Saga with the stories of Peter Parker and Tony Stark, two characters who are not only specially linked, but virtual Doppelgängers. Even though Far From Home is not the origin story of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, it makes a much more logical mirror to Iron Man than Spider-Man: Homecoming would have. Peter Parker was far too idealistic in Homecoming. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, he had a clear vision and purpose to being Spider-Man and was eager to be an Avenger. Back in Captain America: Civil War (his actual introduction to the MCU), he told Tony Stark that he was being a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” because, “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen? They happen because of you.” Peter started off knowing that having powers means having an obligation to serve his neighbors. He knew right from wrong, unlike Tony.
In 2008 when Tony’s story began, he was a broken warmonger who went into a cave in Afghanistan, reckoned with his sins, and came out with a suit of armor and a desire to change his legacy. Before he turned his life around, the narcissism of Tony Stark hurt hundreds, even thousands, of people, and the legacy he was primed to leave the world was one of bloodshed and violence and shame. Tony Stark treated the world as his playground. No one was his neighbor—until he suddenly had to face the consequences of his sin.
What happens as a result of Peter’s trend toward benign neglect in the first half of Far From Home is just as damaging as Tony Stark’s benign neglect.The benign neglect that characterized the early life of Tony Stark is what we find in Peter’s character when Far From Home opens. It’s a different sort of benign neglect than what Tony suffered from before he went into that cave, for Peter is definitely no narcissist, but in a way it’s far more insidious because it’s one that can creep upon us all. It’s one of just wanting to take a break—to live a “normal life” while bad things happen around us. To look away. For Peter—the kid from Queens who has been through so much, who lost two father figures before leaving high school, and for whom the realities of war are all too near, who just wants to take a school trip and tell the girl he likes how he feels—he just wants a break.
In Far From Home, Peter is nearly crippled by his grief over losing Tony. The world expects big things of Spider-Man, since it’s public knowledge he fought against Thanos, and everyone feels the loss of Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, and Vision. When Peter envisioned becoming an Avenger, he certainly never thought he’d one day be living in a world without these heroes, or be asked to fill the shoes of his mentor, and we see him longing to shed some of the responsibility he once craved. He doesn’t want to become the person he lost, he just wants to mourn him, but everywhere he goes, people ask, “Are you the next Iron Man?” Tony’s legacy feels like far too great a burden for Peter to bear.
These things lead Peter to abandon the principles that made him choose to be Spider-Man in the first place. He dodges calls from Nick Fury, he tries to leave his Spider-Man suit behind when he goes to Europe (but his Aunt May packs it for him), and when catastrophes literally follow him from city to city, he abdicates responsibility to a new “mysterious” hero nobody has ever heard of before. When Nick Fury tracks him down in person, he even goes so far as to tell Nick that he simply cannot help. He chooses self-preservation and comfort over the selfless heroism that has always marked his character before. What happens as a result of Peter’s trend toward benign neglect in the first half of Far From Home is just as damaging as Tony Stark’s benign neglect over his company’s warmongering in the first half of Iron Man.
Far From Home is not a film with a passive message, but one with an active call against benign neglect. The heroes in both stories have a responsibility to deal with situations they don’t really want to, even though their situations are far different. Peter has always been willing to help his neighborhood, and he thinks that by leaving his physical neighborhood, he can take some time off from the superhero duties that have become too heavy a burden for him to bear. He has to come to accept that his “neighborhood” is far bigger than Queens now, and the responsibility to care for his “neighbors” extends to anyone he sees who is in need. He doesn’t have to be Tony Stark—and, in fact, he can’t—but by taking up Tony’s mantle, he can learn how to not look away. The sentiment he extolled in Civil War has to be true all the time, or not at all. “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen? They happen because of you.”
As Peter works these things out over the unfolding of the conflict in the second half of Far From Home, more emerges, thematically, and I won’t spoil the twist of the film here. But by the end, it is a movie that asks, “What do you believe—about yourself, about the world, about truth?” And it asks these questions as only a personal narrative, a story focused on an individual and his or her struggles, can. Such questions might get muddled in a bigger movie like Endgame, but in following Peter Parker as he grapples with his place as a teenager and as a hero in a post-Iron Man world, the moral dilemmas become clear. Especially clear today, when we have so many big problems in the world that can feel overwhelming to individual people who often want to do the right thing, but don’t know how. We, too, must choose not to look away. Far From Home is not a film with a passive message, but one with an active call against benign neglect.
In Far From Home, Tony Stark lives on in a number of ways, and as his legacy passes to Peter Parker, the Infinity Saga finally comes to a close. Part of that legacy is that when Peter chose to be Spider-Man, he chose to serve the world and not look away, something he has to learn to do at great personal cost in Far From Home. He needed Tony, who went through such a long journey of heroic sanctification, to show him the way. In the MCU, the fate of the world often rests on the shoulders of one hero who makes the choice to do the next hard thing. But as Tony Stark and Peter Parker mirror each other not only in decisions to reject benign neglect, but in a father-son relationship, it is fitting that theirs are the personal narratives that tie together the ends of the Infinity Saga.