Spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming below.
If there’s one thing the Marvel-movie machine values above all else, it’s discretion. The custodians of the Marvel Cinematic Universe pride themselves on their ability to keep key filmic details under wraps until they’re delivered to audiences on the big screen. Of those details, some have an obvious need for secrecy: twists, secret identities, and credits-sequence teases for future projects. But some seem oddly minor. Case in point: Donald Glover’s role in Spider-Man: Homecoming. For months, we knew he’d be in it, but had no clue who he’d be playing. It seemed like a bit of overkill — come on, can’t you at least give us a first name or something?
Oh, how worth it the mystery was. Giving out a name, it turns out, would have ruined some of the fun of seeing Glover play around onscreen, as his moniker is a delicious surprise for astute comics readers. And yet, it’s the best kind of that genre of surprise reveal because you don’t have to get the reference in order to enjoy the performance. It stands on its own as one of the best guest appearances from a big star in a Marvel movie, as well as one of their best easter eggs.
As we learn in his two scenes, Glover plays Aaron Davis, a good-hearted man on the wrong side of the law. Right away, that name should set off sirens for the funnybook geeks out there. Aaron is a character from the acclaimed comics series Ultimate Spider-Man, a book that was set in an alternate universe where the Marvel mythos played out very differently. There, Peter Parker died and his mantle was taken up by an Afro-Latino youngster from Brooklyn named Miles Morales, who also accidentally gained spider powers. Aaron had the unenviable role of being this new Spider-Man’s uncle.
Being a spider-person’s uncle is, of course, like being a drummer for Spinal Tap. The fundamental building block of Peter’s origin story is the murder of his Uncle Ben at the hands of a thug whom Spider-Man could have stopped, except Spidey was too selfish to do so. The death teaches him that with great power must come great responsibility. In Miles’s story, Aaron isn’t the folksy and virtuous man that Ben was — instead, he’s an elite burglar known as the Prowler. Over the course of Miles’s early stories in Ultimate Spider-Man, we see Aaron develop a mentor-mentee relationship with Miles, one that goes awry when Miles learns about his uncle’s villainous hobbies. They ultimately come to blows and an accident during the fight ends Aaron’s morally compromised life.
In Homecoming, we don’t see any of that — but the possibility of it is giddily implied. Glover first shows up in a sequence where he’s buying high-tech weapons from the Vulture’s minions before Spidey shows up and sours the deal. The wall-crawler later catches up with him in a parking lot and gets some information about the Vulture’s network out of him. That second scene is where the real meat is: Peter is awkward and uncomfortable in his role as interrogator, and Aaron is preternaturally calm during the whole endeavor. Indeed, if you’re a fan of Glover’s impeccable FX series Atlanta, you’ll feel like one of that show’s philosophical stoners has somehow wandered into the MCU for a few minutes.
And if you’re a fan of Ultimate Spider-Man, you’ll be excited to hear Aaron’s name get revealed and then to have the comics reference doubled-down upon when he says he doesn’t want to see super-guns on the streets because he has a nephew around these parts. There’s no musical sting or pause for applause, so if you’re not comics-savvy, you won’t be turned off by an overt tell that this is supposed to be important. It’s just a fun tidbit for the prepared.
It’s also a possible portent of the future, but only the distant future. We’re about to see Aaron and Miles onscreen, but not in the MCU: They’re two of the stars of the upcoming Spider-Man animated film, written and produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. That takes place in its own self-contained universe, where Aaron will reportedly be voiced by none other than Mahershala Ali. And yet one can’t help but feel that this is a case of Marvel Studios sowing that which they hope to reap in the distant future, after their current crop of stars age out or opt out. Marvel’s foresight is an example of the foresight that keeps them on top, and its delicacy in popping a hidden treat into its latest flick is an example of how skilled they are at surprise and delight.