Psychology of Spider-Man: Homecoming

In this rendition Peter Parker is a 15-year-old sophomore in high school. Previous renditions and the comics have always portrayed Peter as somewhat of a science genius, but this version downplays that. Peter’s still a pretty smart kid academically, but not exactly the wisest when he makes decisions.

But this isn’t an insult to Peter as much as it is an indication of his neurological development. During adolescence, or once puberty starts until physical maturity, the body goes through some intense change and growth. In fact, the human brain doesn’t stop developing until about age 26. During adolescence, brain is developing from the core outward. At the core, the limbic system (our emotional center) develops much sooner than the pre-frontal cortex (our area for complex thinking and decision-making).

So sure, Peter doesn’t always make super great decisions. But neither does any other 15-year-old. He’s thinking the most logical way he can based on his values at this age.

Peter desperately wants to do good and make a difference, so he makes decisions based on these values. Due to a not-fully-developed pre-frontal cortex (the forehead area of the brain), Peter doesn’t necessarily think long term. He wants to be a superhero right now so he undervalues long-term investments like his education. The pre-frontal cortex also controls abilities like attention span, so at this point, Peter gets bored easily. Even 37 minutes seems like an eternity.

A student of Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson came up with eight different life stages that everyone goes through at different ages. Each stage involves some sort of “crisis” or fork in the road, so to speak. For teenagers, Erikson described the “identity vs role confusion” stage, in which adolescents figure out who they are as a person separate from their parental figures.

Peter needs to figure out who he is separately from Tony’s suit. Is he just a guy who wears an awesome suit his “dad” made for him, or is he a hero?

Tony tells Peter, “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you don’t deserve the suit.” Every Spider-Man rendition has a moment when Peter makes a conscious choice to be a hero. In this version, Peter makes that choice when he has gone after Toomes’ in his no-tech home-made suit. Toomes’ kicks his ass, obviously, and traps Peter under rumble.

Trapped, crying, and thoroughly beaten, Peter almost gives up. But then Tony’s words come back to him. At this moment, Peter solidifies his identity. He’s a hero, regardless of the suit.

Peter pumps himself up to lift the rubble, “C’mon, Spider-Man! C’mon, Spider-Man!”

Diana Baumrind described three general parenting styles. Authoritarian parents are the “my way or the highway” type parents. They provide rules, expect them to be followed, but then don’t always cultivate a relationship with their child. Authoritative still provide rules and expect them to be followed, but they also provide that extra warmth and guidance. Permissive lack the structure but still try to be friends or buddies with their children. Although not part of the original line up, neglectful also describes a parenting style in which the caregiver neither provides structure or a relationship.

At the beginning of the film, Tony provides some ambiguous guidelines about what Peter should and should not do as Spider-Man and then disappears for much of the movie. He says “because I said so” when Peter asks him why he’s not allowed to take on the big villains rather than explain his reasoning behind the rules.

Tony’s “parenting style” seems authoritarian mixed with neglectful at first.

Tony and Peter run into some parent-child conflict. Thinking of himself as a capable superhero (read, adult) Peter feels like Tony isn’t listening to him and that he’s ready for more responsibility and freedom. Thinking of Peter as a potentially great hero not yet ready for the big leagues (read, a child), Tony becomes frustrated when Peter rushes off on his own.

To Tony’s credit, he realizes that this type of parenting style doesn’t work for Peter’s growth. He certainly isn’t perfect, but as their relationship develops, Tony makes an effort to be more authoritative and to provide Peter with that mentoring relationship.

Jean Piaget came up with four stages of cognitive development. From birth to about 2 years old, infants are in the sensorimotor stage; basically, they’re just trying to figure out how their body works, take in information about this new world through their senses, and find out what their feet taste like.

Pre-operational kids, ages 2 to about 6, have gained some information about their world now, and they’re trying to make sense of it all. But their conclusions don’t usually reflect reality.

Concrete operational thinking tries to make sense of the world and, for the most part, does a pretty good job. But if you ask a kid from about ages 7 to 11 what justice means or what it means to be in love, you might get some funny answers.

Abstract thinking doesn’t come until about age 12 (if ever, to be honest) in the formal operational stage.

Similar to Piaget but with some key differences, Lev Vygotsky also came up with sociocultural theories about children’s cognitive development. Vygotsky termed the “zone of proximal development” that describes the set of skills or knowledge a child is currently capable of learning but can’t quite do so without some help from a mentor.

Zygotsky thought that children don’t just naturally learn and develop on their own; people teach them social norms and skills.

For example, a child might be physically and cognitively capable of learning to ride a bike, but they just haven’t quite got the hang of it yet. They still need someone who knows better than them to steady the bike while they try to work the pedals.

When Tony devises the “Training Wheels” protocol and “Baby Monitoring” protocol, he’s counting on the fact that Peter is capable of learning to use all the amazing settings in his suit, but he’s just not quite ready yet without some more guidance.

Lawrence Kolhberg separated from all the other theorists and came up with a theory on moral development. Kolhberg had three basic not-imaginatively-named stages of moral development (he actually had a lot more, but let’s keep this straightforward).

Pre-conventional morality bases ideas of right and wrong on whether a person is punished or rewarded for certain behaviors. A child might avoid stealing their sibling’s favorite action figure, not because stealing is Bad™, but because they know that sibling will beat them up for it.

Conventional morality bases right and wrong on social norms. An action is Bad™ because a culture says so, or because the law of that society forbids it. Post-conventional morality realizes that morality is a grey area, but also that an action could be Right™ even if a person is punished for it or even if society condemns that person.

Peter might not accept Toomes’ idea that his criminal behavior is “justified” because the supposed good guys screwed him over.

Peter is probably somewhere between conventional and post-conventional morality. He is beyond doing an action only if he is rewarded – knowing that Liz probably will never go out with him again AND that he is placing himself in great personal harm, Peter goes after the bad guy Toomes anyway.

At this point, Peter’s idea of right and wrong is still pretty black-and-white. Maybe as Peter develops and understands various people’s life experiences and perspectives, his definition of morality will become more flexible, whether that’s a “good” or “bad” thing.

Created By
Heather Ness


Created with images by pruzhevskaya.photo - "Superhero b-day party" • whatleydude - "DSC_0061"

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