I’ve been thinking about teen heroes often this summer.
In addition to the summer blockbuster Spider-Man: Homecoming, I’ve also been playing Masks, a tabletop RPG following a group of teenage superheroes. I would officially declare this the summer of the teen superhero, but really, teen heroes have never gone out of style.
Spider-Man, though always beloved, has a troubling history in film. Let’s reflect back, back on the early 2000s, when Toby Maguire wore the red and blue spandex and James Franco wasn’t really James Franco yet. Lots of people love these movies—my dad included—but to me they lack what makes Spider-Man one of the best heroes: his age.
Part of what makes Spider-Man so enjoyable for all ages is his special brand of teen bravado, his quick wit and lack of respect for the older, often more competent villains he fights. Peter Parker lacks the single focus life many older heroes have. Yes, Batman has to be Bruce Wayne sometimes—and plenty of heroes have secret identities to juggle—but Spider-Man is something different.
In Masks, Spider-Man falls into the archetype of the Janus, the hero who must successfully maintain two separate lives, hero and teen. Savior and schoolkid.
This tension between a normal (Masks would say “mundane”) life and the over the top world of heroism is what makes Spider-Man interesting, or one of the things that make him interesting. Parker, like every teenager before him, feels torn between two worlds. Sure, most high schoolers aren’t spending their nights fighting crime, but they do often feel like different people at school and at home.
When I recently played Masks for the first time, I chose the Janus as my archetype, It felt familiar, like I’d known how this hero works my whole life—and I have. I learned to read by looking at comics with my dad, and Batman featured heavily in my upbringing. I know a thing or two about secret identities. My hero had to manage his life as a hero (as BLINK, a hero with eye powers) and his life as Taesoo, a Korean-American overachiever in Mathletes, piano lessons, and a lovely friendship with his best bud Alex. Though I thought managing these identities would be simple, a couple of bad rolls later and Tae’s parents were screaming at him on the phone. What happened next went like this:
Todd (our GM): Everyone hears your mom yell, “TAESOO SHIN WHERE WERE YOU AFTER SCHOOL?!”
Me: Pfffft. OK, well I guess they know who I am now. I’ll tell them who I am.
Me: Yeah, sure, they already know my name.
Todd: But…you’re the Janus. You need to understand how serious that is.
And it is serious. The Janus values their identity, their private life, more than most other things. It’s a way for them to protect their families and remain somewhat safe themselves. The Janus wants to protect the fleeting normalcy of their old life—school, old hobbies and interests—but most importantly they want to protect their friends and families. Because who’s an easier target than a regular old mom or dad?
Spiderman: Homecoming gets back to the roots of the franchise—and the Janus archetype—while also invigorating a tired plot with a complex villain. Toomes—the Vulture—just wants to take care of his family after losing his job to the government, via Tony Stark. It’s hard to fault Toomes for wanting to provide for his family, for wanting to be a good dad and husband. Toomes’s plight reminds me of Walter White in Breaking Bad, doing what he can to make money for his own.
Alternately, Tony Stark seems solely self-interested, as usual, to the point that instead of mentoring Peter Parker, he threatens to ruin his growth and retract any help or support from the Avengers or himself. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the garbage fire that is Tony Stark (and trust me, I love a garbage hero—Hello Clint Barton, hello Bucky Barnes). Maybe it’s because of my own complicated experiences with alcoholics, but Stark doesn’t sit well with me. Let’s be honest. He’s…well. He’s an asshole. I’ve spent a lot of time disliking people like Stark, those who flaunt their money and power.
But Peter Parker saves the movie with his quips and banter. Tom Holland is fantastic as Peter Parker—energetic and bubbly, nervous yet brave. The movie is, ultimately and without spoilers:
-humorous with classic Spider-Man wit
-timely—bad job markets, a terrible economy. Sound familiar?
-action packed, but not so much so that it’s boring.
Being a teen superhero isn’t easy, and it’s not pretty, and that’s what people continue to love about them.
I highly suggest you go out and watch Spiderman: Homecoming, and I even more strongly suggest you pick up a tabletop game and try being a teen hero yourself!
About the Blog
The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.