Judging by how well it did nearly the whole world saw Spider-Man Homecoming last weekend. Its been praised virtually since its announcement as being the best depiction of Spider-Man on screen, that finally we have the real Spider-Man. Now that I’ve seen the movie I’d be inclined to agree, Tom Holland deserves the praise he has been getting but more than that I liked how they handled Peter’s well known nerdiness. Peter Parker has for half a century been an avatar for nerdiness, one of the oldest and most enduring characters who from the beginning was mired in the tropes of being a nerd. Now being a nerd is a major moving target, now more than ever as nerdiness has become more associated with its symbols and symptoms than whatever it actually means. Describing nerds as being someone who goes to comic con and is enthusiastic about genre fiction is like saying Christians are really big fans of crosses and stained glass windows. But popular depictions of nerds also usually define nerds as being in opposition to popular culture, being misunderstood and bullied is as integral to the nerd trope as tabletop RPGs. This isn’t entirely without cause; people love to find differences and cast people into the category of “other” based on how little you have in common. It follows in competent storytelling that if you want an underdog story you can’t get a better contemporary archetype than the nerd to be your hero. And it works, Spider-Man is the most culturally successful super hero of the silver age and despite recent oversaturation people will flock to see the wall crawler if they think its going to be a better incarnation of the character than before.
Which brings me to the Peter Parker we see in Homecoming; Peter Parker has neither the pop culture swag of the Big Bang Theory cast nor does he suffer at the hands of a blonde athletic bully whose going to give him a knuckle sandwich after school for being too into Battlestar Galactica. Peter Parker’s high school life is nerdy without the opposition, he’s in Academic decathlon, he has misfit friends who want to learn about the world and get excited at the prospect of making something even if its a blatant Disney product placement Star Wars Lego set.
This Peter Parker isn’t super popular but Homecoming doesn’t give us any reason to think that he’s at all concerned about that because he has friends, in fact he has a best friend who won’t leave him alone. Peter’s nerdy high school life is a lot closer to a depiction of my own nerdy internet culture, quiz bowl team, weeaboo obsessed anime club president high school experience. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most nerds in high school don’t have their life dominated by some letterman jacket clad thick-necked bully because they rarely interact. Peter has stuff to do after school, as do the type of people usually cast as the villain in these stories. Peter does have a bully, Flash Thompson (portrayed really well by Tony Revolori), but in Homecoming he’s more of an alpha nerd than a jock or a rich prep, he wants Peter out of the picture so he can have a better seat on the Academic Decathlon.
Without the pop culture signaling and popular teen villain archetypes to define his depiction of nerdiness the Peter Parker of Homecoming is a nerd without nerd-consciousness, the self awareness that one is part of an identity of “nerd” reified into an subcultures ideology that has always been oriented toward gatekeeping. With no fences to trap in what history has called nerd culture the threshold guardians of nerd culture serve no purpose and the nerds like Peter Parker are free to actually be themselves and there is nothing more healthy than being yourself.
Nerdy music of only True Nerds.
Post Script: I’m writing this in part to clarify what I said on the My Little Pony podcast about nerds not necessarily being the hero of any story, especially in real life. I don’t want to come accross as being hostile to “nerds”, but I sure as hell am hostile to “nerd culture” specifically nerd-conciousness. If you look at yourself and say “I’m a nerd/hipster/metalhead” or any other contemporary identity and then act like what you think that kind of person should act like you are only harming yourself and the authentic organic expression of that cultural archetype as it gets flanderized over and over again. Want to go to comic con and are excited about super hero movies? Me too, I actually have Comic-Con passes this year and am excited as hell to go but the moment you put up fences around your fake mostly hollywood constructed identity and then guard the gate like your the Rorschach video games you have harmed yourself, your culture, and others who would be your friends. In an interview on the Ezra Klein Show comic book writer G Willow Wilson said about the ongoing kerfuffle about diversity in comics by saying “They hear ‘please listen’ as ‘get out'”.