By the time we check in with Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming, he’s already been bitten by a radioactive spider, fought with the Avengers, and seen his unfortunate uncle Ben die a tragic death, which means that he needs a new role model. Enter Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, a.k.a. the guy who decided to drag a teenager into a battle between teams of superheroes in Captain America: Civil War and then, as we see at the beginning of Homecoming, dump him back in Queens in the care of Jon Favreau. As far as mentors go, he’s so close to the bottom of the barrel you can hear his suit scraping against the wood. In fact, within the story that Homecoming lays out, Iron Man seems to do more harm than good. A Marvel movie would never conceive of painting Robert Downey Jr. in a bad light, but it sure seems like Iron Man’s the real villain here. He’s got great power, but he’s not teaching responsibility.
First and foremost, Iron Man’s decision-making doesn’t quite add up. He gives a 15-year-old a fake “internship” at Stark Industries, which pulls him away from his school activities like band (socialization is very important for teenagers!) and encourages him to spend his time traipsing through dangerous neighborhoods fighting crime, which mostly means accosting people breaking into their own cars and occasionally helping elderly people across the street. The internship does not appear to be paid. Iron Man also gifts this teenager a suit with the power to kill other people — in a locked mode, sure, but still within his ability to access — and gives Peter enough license to incur a significant amount of property damage. (Peter’s actions wreck several suburban backyards, cause a bunch of cars to fall off the Staten Island Ferry, and destroy the Washington monument.) If Tony Stark gives Peter license to do all this in the name of his extraordinary abilities, we can at least agree that he has poor judgment. Also, he really likes to hit on his intern’s aunt, which is inappropriate.
Tony Stark’s always been something of a lovable rogue, and he’s accomplished many heroic things in other films. Here, however, his actions seem more sinister when he’s dealing with children — and as it turns out, when he’s running Stark Industries, which, in Homecoming, seems to operate on the shady end of the spectrum. In the beginning of the film, we learn that the business of cleaning up the wreckage from the Avengers’ New York battles has been given over to the Department of Damage Control, which, as Darren Franich pointed out in EW, is co-financed by Tony Stark and seems like a fairly malevolent force, despite the fact that national treasure Tyne Daly is its main spokesperson. DDC forces out local contractors like Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, giving it the monopoly on superhero clean-ups. This might be designed to prevent dangerous alien tech from slipping into the hands of the unready (even though Toomes and his pals manage to steal it anyway), but it also ensures that Tony Stark has a vertical monopoly on superhuman activity: The battles use Stark technology; the clean-up crews are Stark branded; the PR is managed through Pepper Potts. Stark’s superpower, after all, is that he’s smart and rich. He lives in a world with few consequences. Money solves most of his problems; his monopolies prevent him from directly answering to the public. Who is he to teach a 15-year-old personal responsibility?
It’s unclear whether or how Stark Industries turns a profit, but its actions, as Homecoming reveals, have forced Americans out of their jobs. Case in point: Adrian Toomes, who offers the most compelling critique of Stark before he decides to become the evil Vulture. Toomes starts out in salvaging, gets forced out of his job by the Department of Damage Control, and then turns to a life of crime. As he faces off against Spider-Man, Keaton also gives the film a rare jolt of class consciousness as he tells Peter, “The rich and the powerful, like Stark, they don’t care about us.” The movie’s quick to supply examples of Toomes’s hypocrisy; as Vulture’s own Abe Riesman pointed out, he’s something akin to a monstrous vision of a Trump voter, furious at the elites of the world but unable to acknowledge his own relative privilege, as exemplified by a modernist home with way too many windows.
The Vulture wears a bird suit, and goes from murder-curious to murderous after accidentally killing Logan Marshall-Green, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore his ideas. In the long term, Tony Stark’s actions do hurt the little guy. He’s like a Silicon Valley CEO who, after disrupting the economy with one good product, doesn’t acknowledge the evil he’s produced as a consequence. Tony Stark and his compatriots have seized control of a significant portion of the world’s power apparatus, and they are forcing out the ordinary man. Does this make Iron Man the villain? Marvel movies tend to have villains who intend to do harm, while people who cause damage unintentionally are more redeemable. (See Bucky Barnes in Winter Soldier or Civil War.) Surely, there’s enough evidence in Homecoming to see Toomes as at least a complicated figure, operating in something of a moral gray area.
If you accept that framing, in which Iron Man’s presence is more of an obstacle to Parker’s development than an aid, Homecoming becomes much more interesting movie. Think of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, where Prince Hal must realize that Falstaff’s kind of a bumbling fool and he has to figure things on its own — except, almost tragically, because Homecoming is such a pro–Iron Man movie, Peter never has that realization. The film’s third-act battle sequence takes place over the transfer of Stark’s valuables from New York City to a new headquarters upstate; the depressing implication is that the most heroic thing Spider-Man can do is make sure Iron Man’s stuff is okay.
The most heroic thing Spider-Man really does, however, is end up deciding not to work with Iron Man at all. At the end of the film, Peter turns down Tony’s offer to join the Avengers and decides to stay in Queens, finish high school, and defend his own turf. He does this to impress the Tony Stark he imagines, rather than the one that exists, thinking the offer was a test for his training, while in fact Tony had reporters ready for a big new Avenger announcement. Peter walks away smiling, while Tony fumbles into the idea that he’ll just propose to Pepper Potts instead. Someday, the kid might realize his hero’s not who he thought, but not yet.