Warning: This post contains spoilers about Spider-Man: Homecoming. You have been warned…
Spider-Man’s web shooters have become such an iconic gadget ever since his debut in Marvel’s Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962 (a rare, near-mint copy was auctioned off late last year for $454,100!1) – I mean, it seems every interview promoting Spider-Man: Homecoming ends up with the ever-patient Tom Holland strapping on a silly-string shooter for a Marvel knowledge quiz. Like watching any other superhero film, I was questioning the plausibility of the science behind it all – was the web fluid formula Peter secretly making a batch of in Chemistry class legit? Can the thin bundle of web actually support Peter’s urban jungle-swinging? When the cable on the elevator snapped, how could his webs suspend it long enough before saving everybody inside?
I love science so, so much. Thus, seeing the scientist side of Peter Parker in Jon Watt’s “Spider-Man Homecoming” and Mark Webb’s “Amazing Spider-Man” movies that Sam Raimi’s movie trilogy never showed gave me palpitations of nervous excitement (you think I’m joking…). There is an extremely high chance I’ll be doing a much more in-depth research of the science behind it all, but for now, this post is going to be a review that’s quasi-scientific. Bear in mind, I’ve only watched the film once, so details are a bit hazy. Huge shoutout to Marvel Studios for the Thai restaurant scene with the picture of our beloved King Rama 9 of Thailand; thanks a million. I am so grateful.
I’m gonna start off science (or of what limited knowledge I have). In Peter’s Chemistry class, a long row of black & white portraits of brilliant scientists line the top of the whiteboard; there were the likes of Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Sir Isaac Newton…and even Bruce Banner. I loved that, because the film treasured Bruce Banner for his contributions as the famed thinker he is and not the superhero he can also be. The science teacher quizzed the class on how to calculate the linear acceleration from Point A and B (you can see the problem on the whiteboard in the screen-cap below). She was essentially asking for the formula for the angular acceleration of a pendulum, and Flash Thompson incorrectly responded (gravity times sine theta)/mass, but a dozing Peter awaken from his nap with Spider-Man YouTube videos playing on his laptop was able to correctly answer, “Mass cancels out, so it’s just gravity times sine theta.” (“You’re dead!” Flash later whispered, because ooo trig burn). I mean, regardless if Peter is a genius, I love that sly reference to Spider-Man’s mode of transport i.e. swinging like a pendulum on webs.
Spider-Man’s web shooter. The classic design, as you’re probably very familiar with, is strapped to Peter’s wrists beneath the costume sleeves. You can watch Tom Holland briefly talk through it in behind-the-scenes footage; he even shows you the piece of tech. There’s a palm release button high up on the palm to avoid unwanted firings, and when tapped, the web fluid stored in small cartridges made up of mainly nickel-plated annealed brass passes through an internal spinneret mechanism made from stainless steel (except for the turbine component & bearings). I really liked how the film kept going back to Peter picking up spare web fluid cartridges he stored underneath a row of lockers; it’s these kind of details that makes it so much more realistic. The very small turbine pump vanes shears the web fluid, forcing it through the spinneret holes with an adjustable nozzle, which cold-draws it and shoots out through the air where it solidifies. There is so much detail about Peter’s web shooters, and I recommend you go scour through all the Amazing Spider-Man issues and read Marvel Wikia for more.2
And, what’s the web fluid made of? Well…no one really knows. The chemical composition remains a mystery. Potassium carbonate? Toluene? Silica gel purification? I saw sneaky salicylic acid amongst Peter’s notes in Chemistry class! “Spider-Man: The Ultimate Guide”3 states Peter spent hundreds of hours in his high school labs working with multi-polymer compounds to create an adhesive substance – we do know it’s related to nylon. It’s thought the web fluid exists as a shear-thinning liquid inside the cartridge (solid until a shearing force is applied to it), and according again to the “Ultimate Guide”, each cartridge holds approximately 1000 yards of webbing. I assume when exposed to open air, the web fluid begins to harden, though I’m wondering what high school lab equipment Peter uses to pressurise the fluid at 300 p.s.i. (though this official number has been known to change, this would be enough to shoot a stream of web approximately 60 feet, but once again depends on forces of resistance). According to Marvel Wikia, “On contact with air, the long-chain polymer knits and forms an extremely tough, flexible fiber.” In the film, Peter does mention the webbing takes about 2 hours to wear off, so I guess the web fluid’s adhesive quality diminishes rapidly with exposure to air. Indeed, Marvel Wikia further states “After approximately 1 hour, certain imbibed esters cause the solid form of the web fluid to dissolve into a powder.”
I’ve only just scraped the surface of the basic science at work with Spider-Man. There is way more science out there concerning Spider-Man’s heroic feats and his web shooters, but I just wanted to give a little taster to get you pumped about how extraordinary the science is. I’m obviously no expert in the realm of physics, but from what I’ve read, the science is pretty plausible – it sticks within the rules of the MCU, and there are sufficient calculations to show the web fluid tensile strength, slinging capabilities, etc. are all quite legit.
Now for a more general overview of the movie: I’d like to start off by saying how much I loved the montage of all the high school scenes. Not only is it devoid of the stereotypical cliques of cheerleaders & jocks with the lead character clearly a twenty-something with a backpack chucked on, but the various encounters reminded me of my own time as a 15-year-old kid. The little things like when Ned questions back what the chess team are doing when he’s creeping around the hallway (and the kid vaguely gestures to the classroom, “Chess…” in such a mannerism that’s so relatable), Michelle reading Somerset Maugham’s 1915 novel “On Human Bondage”4 (if you read the book, you’ll find a very familiar parallel with that of Peter’s life), the very millennial-style editing of the morning school announcements (zooming in on Jason’s rejected face), building the LEGO Death Star (3,803 pieces!5) with that heart-warming moment Ned gave Peter the very last piece (Emperor Palpatine) to finish it all off, Peter practicing in the mirror what’d he say at Liz’s party alongside his Thor impression, Ned’s questions after learning about his buddy’s secret identity (“Do you lay eggs?”), playing kiss/kill/marry Avengers style during gym class, telling Happy about the churros he got because as a teenager food is always such a joy but not when freakin’ Tony Stark mentions it after the ferry incident (you’ll never see a greater combo of frustration, regret & embarrassment on Peter’s face), searching up how to do a Windsor knot on YouTube for homecoming, the Academic Decathlon team’s quirks (I liked the dude who confidently answered incorrectly in response to what the heaviest naturally-occurring element was and immediately realized out loud, “…that’s not the question, okay. Yeah.” with a sheepish smile). There’s a lot more I could mention, but you get the point – it realistically depicted a high school kind of life, not some kind of Easy A, Avril Lavigne music video kind of vibe.
Another thing: the portrayal of Peter Parker. We all know he has a brilliant mind, which is ultimately his biggest weapon as a super-hero, but the film doesn’t portray him as a model student. He did lose five backpacks, and I would most definitely assume he’d be in much more severe trouble than the film suggests (losing your notes, coursework and textbooks was something almost unbearable to watch when he stood in dismay in that alleyway). In addition, he so discreetly had his “Web Fluid: Version 3.01” page underneath the “Identifying Ions” practical (because nothing like big block words WEB FLUID to keep your secret identity under wraps), which he frantically concocted in a wooden drawer. And he quit marching band and initially chose not to go to Washington DC for the Academic Decathlon. So, he’s not that picture-perfect student, but that’s what I loved because we see him do literally everything else in the world except actual work. And when he is doing work, it isn’t to serve the movie plot, but because he’s a 15-year-old kid and that’s what high school kids should be doing. It makes sense, then, that with such a rad internship, you can’t help but try to have as much fun as possible just like this 15-year old taking over Southern Rail’s Twitter. I’m sure this is a unanimous review of Peter Parker when I say he’s the most relatable and realistic one yet (at least for me, he was) – the examples are endless. And let’s not begin on how delightful Peter’s science pun shirts were.
Overall, to me, the movie wasn’t just all about that “With great power comes great responsibility” talk, but a story about Peter taking the reigns of his own life. Much like when we were younger, we took cues from authoritative figures like our parents or teachers (or in this case, Tony Stark), but ultimately, you have to learn to act for yourself and deal with the consequences of deciding who you want to be. Peter did just that, and I think the title “Homecoming” has just taken on a whole new meaning for me.