‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Baby Driver’ Explore the Dangerous Freedom of Being an Orphan – and Becoming a Man

Spider-Man: Homecoming and Baby Driver are two new films with a similar premise: a teenage orphan is transformed and given extraordinary abilities, and as a result is ushered into the adult world. In Spidey’s case, as everyone knows, a radioactive spider gives Peter Parker (Tom Holland), orphaned shortly after his birth, amazing strength and the ability to climb walls. With Baby Driver, the death of both parents makes young Baby (Ansel Elgort) a genius driver. Living his everyday life around the songs constantly playing on his iPod, Baby works for crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey), driving the getaway car for robberies.

Both Spider-Man and Baby Driver offer a subtle critique of contemporary society: In the age of helicopter parents who turn over-attended kids into special snowflakes, orphans have unique freedom to take risks. Without parents carpooling them to soccer and the mall, Peter Parker and Baby have access to a world of no curfews, fast cars and risk—a world that used to be a part of being a teenager.

However, for all its excitement, the downside of a life without two stable parents can be extremely dangerous. Lack of oversight and premature responsibility for life and death situations can overwhelm, possibly resulting in prison or flaming metal death at the hands of either a super villain (the Vulture, played in Spider-Man by Michael Keaton) or, in Baby Driver’s case, a horrible car crash.

Along with the danger of too much responsibility too soon, in each film there are depictions of the empty space created when a kid only has one parent. In Spider-Man, Peter Parker gets a date to the prom with a girl he likes. In a panic he tells his foster parent, Aunt May, that he “needs her help.” Aunt May (Marissa Tomei) tells him how to dance, what to say, and how to offer compliments to his date. But when it comes time to learn how to tie a tie, she and Peter have to resort to a video tutorial. As loving and supportive as May is, she’s not a father. The stepfather role for Peter is taken on by Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), who gives Peter a high-tech suit and monitors his actions to make sure he’s safe. At one point Tony praises Peter, adding, “My father never gave me much positive reinforcement. I’m trying to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.”

In Baby’s case, his foster parent is Joseph (C.J. Jones), a deaf, wheelchair-bound elderly black man with a huge vinyl record collection. While most kids his age are into video games and texting, Baby listens to soul classics and makes mixes on cassette tapes. But Baby has a competing influence; like Iron Man offering Peter a shot at becoming an Avenger, Kevin Spacey’s Doc—an evil version of Tony Stark—offers Baby entry into a sexy underworld that would not be available within a conventional family.

When Baby, whose favorite cassette tape features his mother singing, encounters Debora, a waitress who treats him kindly, the influx of feminine tenderness changes his life. For the first time he is with a woman who is not a partner in crime, but a girlfriend and a potential wife and mother. Like a mother, Debora wants to call Baby by his real name—finally revealed to be Miles. Just as Aunt May cannot be a father to Peter Parker, Joseph cannot be a mother to Baby, and kids need both.

And yet the young also need a bit of danger so that they can learn to fall down, make mistakes, and figure out their destiny. Both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Baby Driver come down on the side of letting young people be exposed to risk, particularly if the protagonist has a strong moral compass. Even while partaking in robberies, Baby warns the innocent away from the scene. He promises Joseph that he’s giving it up once he makes enough money to pay off his debts. He’s not bad; he’s just a kid in over his head.

For his part, Peter Parker risks losing friends and flunking out of school to prevent the Vulture from bringing dangerous weapons into the world. Like Baby behind the wheel, Peter loves action and becomes joyfully himself when he is in superhero mode. As even the overprotective Tony Stark realizes, to deny him that is to deny him his destiny not only as a superhero, but also as a man.

Photo: Columbia Pictures (2017), TriStar Pictures (2017)

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