As one of my favorite channels on YouTube, CinemaSins, always says, “No movie is without sin.” This is very true, even of movies that I found great enjoyment in, like 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Could Tom Holland’s portrayal of Peter Parker be seen as immature and a tad over-the-top obnoxious? Sure. Is it an insult to the comic series to include a super-suit with built in AI? It could be. Was Tony Stark’s appearance just a means of boosting this film’s legitimacy by borrowing the credibility of MCU favorite, Robert Downey Jr.?
A resounding no.
Some users online have noted that at no point in the comic origins of Peter Parker was Tony Stark there to mentor him on how to use his powers. This may be true, but it doesn’t mean Tony/Iron Man’s appearance in the film is any less justified. In fact, I’m going to say it here: It would have been weirder if Tony Stark wasn’t involved.
Stay with me on this. If we want to look at Tony’s motives for mentoring young Peter, we’re going to have to look all the way back to 2012’s The Avengers.
At the very end of The Avengers, Iron Man prevents a nuclear missile from being detonated over New York by pushing it up through the portal made by Loki and through which Chitauri are pouring into the city. He pushes the nuke– and himself– into the portal and sees a vision of a massive invasion descending upon poor, defenseless Earth. His suit not having been made for space travel falls back toward the portal and he lands back in New York, hungry for some shawarma. We’ve all seen it. We can move on.
Fast forwarding to 2013’s Iron Man 3, it’s clear that his trip to the cosmos has fucked him up pretty bad. He’s having panic attacks and some major symptoms of PTSD. What he saw was that Earth was not the big bad in the universe and that forces far more capable of swift and awful genocide are hauling ass toward our weak little blue marble. It’s what drove Tony to spend his nights awake in his garage building ever more complicated suits, one of which nearly killed Pepper Potts just because Tony had a bad dream. Sure, he blew them all up at the end of the film to show Pepper that he’s going to put her above his obsession, but that doesn’t mean he’s not done obsessing.
This theme of Tony’s fear and obsession carry over into 2014’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron. While he has the Iron Legion to do all the grunt work, he’s still tormented by the thought that something is coming for Earth again and we are defenseless against it. Upon discovering an artificial intelligence inside the scepter Loki used to brainfuck Hawkeye and Dr. Selvig, Tony resurrected his old Ultron global defense project. Of course, as we know, this blew up in his face when the AI ended up building itself an army of… itselves? Devising a plan to destroy all humanity, Ultron built a mechanism to lift the tiny landlocked country of Sokovia into the air and drop it, turning the hulking landmass into an extinction-level meteor. Of course, this plot was foiled by the Avengers, but it wasn’t a free W.
In 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, we see Tony riddled with guilt for not only the countless people killed in the destruction of Sokovia, but also knowing that Ultron itself, the entire reason any of it actually happened, was Tony’s doing. While the world– and most of the MCU’s audience– were blaming Ultron, Tony blamed himself. It’s precisely why he felt so strongly that our merry band of superheroes need a leash in the form of the Sokovia Accord. Tony is willingly putting a restraint on himself in an attempt to spare himself the guilt of accountability. On top of the fear and obsession, Tony is now so devastated by guilt that he is willing to sacrifice his own autonomy to spare himself the accountability of his actions.
It’s about this time that Tony gets word of this “spider guy” doing hero work right in the shadow of his very own Stark Tower in New York. Naturally, he looks into it and finds out it’s not some guy, it’s a 15-year-old kid named Peter Parker. This kid is similar to Tony in so many ways; he’s a naturally gifted genius, and he lost his parents (and Uncle Ben, his only father figure) and is left with some major daddy issues as a result.
Unlike Tony, however, Peter’s abilities don’t end when he steps out of the suit. Tony knows this. Peter doesn’t. Tony sees so much of himself in Peter, but better. Tony sees a kid that just needs a little guidance so that he doesn’t end up like himself. Since he knows he’ll never be able to stop Peter from Spidey-ing, he decides the next best thing would be to protect him with some sweet Stark tech and guide him to a path better than himself.
This is precisely where we find him in Spider-Man: Homecoming. This is why he spends so much of his time watching Peter and being the mentor. Peter obviously looks up to Tony, and Tony knows it. And although he is helping Peter perform hero work, he tries desperately to keep him grounded (so to speak) and a “friendly, neighborhood spider… guy”. This isn’t because he doesn’t think Peter is capable, but instead to try to spare him the fear, obsession, and guilt that Tony himself struggles with after fighting forces far beyond what man is prepared to fight.
After all is said and done, if Tony Stark remained out of the picture for Spider-Man: Homecoming, it would be yet another film in which we have to gloss over the fact that while some crazy shit is happening in New York, up to and including the theft of Tony Stark’s own shit, Iron Man and the other Avengers are strangely absent. By introducing Tony Stark into Homecoming, Marvel has explored more of the depths of Tony Stark’s character and very cleanly tied the film into the larger MCU. The ending, in which Peter humbly refuses Tony’s offer of the Iron Spider suit and a spot in the Avengers to remain a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, does leave a window open for him to exit the MCU when Sony inevitably realizes they need to reel in this cash cow and strip the rights away from Marvel again, but we’ll have to wait until Spidey is done with his five-film romp with Marvel first. Until then, we’ve got a whole new side of Tony Stark to explore, and a future that has Spider-Man fighting fucking Thanos in The Avengers: Infinity War.
It’s a real good time to be a nerd.