Film Crit Hulk SMASH: Spider-Man & The Marvel Fatal Flaw
Movies are big, complicated things.
I know this. I know how hard they are to write, to make, and to put out into the world. I know how hard it is to do all of it right. And with big summer blockbusters, it's almost impossible even. And every single thing that ends up working in a film, from the dawn of its inception to the laugh or cheer on a movie screen, is a miracle of its own right. I will always celebrate the things that are great. Right now, I could proudly sit here and tell you all about the things that Spider-Man: Homecoming does so well. I could talk about Tom Holland's excellent performance as both Peter Parker and Lil' Baby Spyderrminn. I could talk about much how I liked Zendaya's weirdo deadpan MJ. I could talk about how the film's multicultural cast reflected a New York as it looks today. I could talk about how I actually liked that it kept all the action out of Manhattan, for it's not just the joys of seeing Lil Spoodrmrn run around and bum rides, leap across suburban rooftops, and have to dead sprint across a golf course, but it's also how these contrast beautifully with the sense of terrifying scale we get when Speedermund stands atop the Washington monument. I could talk about how this film probably has my favorite villain in the MCU, for the Vulture a living, breathing person whose motives, plans, and approach I understood completely. I could talk about the crucial moments of fallibility in the film, like the willingness to have a young boy cry as he's trapped under a pile of rubble. I could even talk about how it knows what to go after in terms of themes - like the yearning for adulthood, defying grown ups in the process, the notions of taking off and putting on training wheels, and the obvious, genuine dangers of heroism. I could talk about all these things for a long time and they'd probably be fun to talk about...
But I have to talk about the problem instead.
The problem, and this is always the problem for the recent MCU, is that movies have to rely on dramatic catharsis to tell us what they're really about. Because messaging comes not from how ideas are verbalized on screen with lip service, but how they are expressed in the action and consequence of the story, and how they shift psychologies of the characters through lessons learned (or not learned) all en route to a larger context that creates THE MEANING! of the film. That's ultimately how narratives are about what they're about. It's why we can walk out of a masterpiece like No Country For Old Men and not only say "it's about greed, death and the horrors of the world making you want to leave it behind," but also articulate the ways each scene backs up that message through the "what" that happens. Which brings us back to these later MCU movies...
They're not actually about what they say they're about.
Because here's what (almost) every single post-phase one Marvel movie is "about" on the dramatic level of the storytelling: "I'm awesome and/or right! But everyone around me is telling me to wait, be humble, or that I'm wrong! But I wanna go nuts and get ahead of myself! Oh, I got ahead of myself and there was a surprisingly mild consequence to this dangerous thing and I feel bad, so here's a brief moment of humility that doesn't actually stick. Now I'll just wait run around, not actually change, and then just do the same exact thing I was doing before to prove that I'm awesome/right/or learned some lesson I didn't actually learn... Yay, I did it! I win!"
Seriously, that's the dramatic track of these movies now. There's Tony Stark in Avengers 2 (Trust me this time! Even though literally nothing is different about what I'm doing!) There's Dr. Strange, the egomaniac who blows through life, gets hurt, then proceeds to behave the same reckless way in the spiritual world. There's Tony and Cap not learning any actual lessons from each other, nor learning anything in Civil-War. I, uh, pretty much have no idea what Thor: The Dark World is trying to say on any level. And Scott Lang already begins Ant-Man as the reformed criminal everyone tells him he has to grow out of being (while simultaneously asking him to be a criminal again). And now it's Peter Parker's "journey" to adulthood in Homecoming. Yes, these films have lots of things they want to be about (and what it wants to be often has valid aims) but the dramatic story level "about" of these films are often a contridictory mess. The characters talk about change, but they don't actually change their behavior (which is as useless as when real human beings do the same things). And as a result, it's why so many of these damn movies can be charming, but feel empty. It all ignores the most fundamental and important part of stories like these...
What actually makes us change and grow?
In the Spider-man universe, there is always the looming nature of the death of Uncle Ben. The ways it reflects weight, cost and responsibility. And the ways we try to outrun those heavy things and then ultimately take them on. But Homecoming largely does away with all those pesky adult concerns, by framing them as just that: pesky adult concerns. Sure, there's a lot of "almost cost" in this film to Peter pushing beyond it, but I certainly don't have any idea what it really has to do with being a teenager? Peter's yearning is always just an emotion, a mere want. It's always trapped in some play land and echoed by "what you did is so awesome!" It's not really tied into a tangible lesson other than a stern talking to. But the stern talking to never really manifests. For instance, I don't know what Peter learned from his relationship with Liz that he didn't already understand from the beginning? He sort of just stands her up three times? Did he learn anything? What were the two of them really about, anyway? We'll get to her dad in a minute, but just know that's the thing about metaphors. You gotta steer into them, not with clunkiness, but clarity.
As a point of comparison, I understand what they're trying to say at the end about Peter's moral choice to not join The Avengers, especially from a position of the story's framework. All he wanted to do at the beginning of the film was get called by the team, so maturity would mean that he comes to understand that he's still young and he has his place in the smaller part of the world. But if that's what you want it to be about 1) How do you not call back the line of "I want to be like you, but better" (which I admit is just dumb writer thing) and 2) What is it about this final confrontation with Vulture that actually makes him learn that specific lesson? Because in going after Vulture and the plane, we just saw him revert back to start-of-the-film Peter Parker with no real difference in philosophy. He's impetulously denying the lesson because he feels he "needs to." And in fact, Peter's denying of Tony's offer at the end actually highlights the very fact that the change was not made in the first place, so it becomes this chicken/egg problem when it comes to our main character: When did he psychologically learn this lesson in terms of the dramatic action? And it doesn't add up because I don't quite know what this film actually thinks responsibility "is" beyond some vague allusion to just knowing your place.
But so much about the film doesn't add up. Even Peter's moment of looking at the reflection in the water and him being "nothing without the suit" was originally a comment about his character and his reckless philosophy. But instead of tapping into that, it's instead used as a rote unphilosophical mantra that allows him to be able to push the rocks up now just because he pushes real hard. It certainly feels triumphant, particularly because we just saw him be weak, but it doesn't actually make sense to the overall lesson, theme, or philosophy. So the metaphor being aimed for just falls apart. And they all keep falling apart. Going back to Vulture, the scene where he opens the door and there's our bad guy/GF's dad plays like fucking gangbusters, right? As does the subsequent scene in the car (Keaton is really fantastic). This is crisp-as-hell dramatic and works perfectly in terms of building the foundation for the bad guy/GF dad's metaphor... But when it comes to all the ensuing plot, especially for the questions of morality and how it plays into the larger relationships? It just starts getting so messy and unclear. It leaves me to make jokes like "oh, it's about that time in all our lives where you have to put your girlfriend's dad in jail and you couldn't tell her about it, because that's what high school romance is all about?" I joke, but it reminds me of how Jenny Nicholson compares these sorts of plots to Antigone "because there isn't a clear equivalence in our society for the struggles faced by the protagonist." And the culmination of our Vulture story certainly qualifies for that. Again, I'm not saying that you need to create realistic plotting (it's a movie about a mutant spider boy), but the parallel has to be clear and the intended theme must rocket through.
That's where these movies always break down.
Except when it comes to the aforementioned lack of change/I'm awesome mantra at the heart of their now uniform plotting. And this ultimately reveals my huge problem with the morality of the modern MCU: it sells "the big lie" of super-heroism, which is the illusion of growth and doing the right thing while, on a story level, not actually backing that up with anything concrete and indulging you with the belief that you are inherently awesome/right. At least the earlier DC movies were trying to be honest about that motivation (if juvenilely smart-ass about it). But I worry these films are either doing it subconsiously or trying to sneak it right into you without anyone noticing, understanding it feeds our most egotistical id. It's happening too much to be a coincidence. And I keep waiting for these new entries to know better. Thankfully, I liked Guardians 2 precisely because it stuck with the father metaphor through and through, to the point of Star-Lord coming to fully understand what his step-father did for him vs. his real father did to him (and the Hasselhoff eulogy is great). But really it makes me think back to when I first fell in love with this "universe" in the first place. People bemoan the uneven phase one movies for a lot of textural reasons, and I get it, but I think of all the big story moments that locked me into the heart and conscience of these films. They were moments of deep character change and the ethos of heroism: Doctor Erskine tapping Cap in the chest as he dies, reminding him what makes a good and true person. A powerless Thor sacrificing himself for love and humility to the laser-face guy. Tony Stark bleeding in a cave as he realizes the depth of the humility of the man who helped him, and how he must be so much better. These all feel like they come from a darker and more consequential universe, don't they? But really it's a more moral universe in its way. These moments are all "big", but they are the true agents of philosophical changes in our beloved characters. Of catharsis. Of story purpose. And now, we keep forgetting the real agents of change and growth all in the name of a sly and seductive indulgence that gives me pause. And for this to keep being dramatically true, especially against all these film's other superior filmmaking instincts, is the most frustrating thing in the world.
Perhaps because it also might be the most brilliant thing in the world. It's like they've discovered the horrible winning formula. The way to keep these films in a secret stasis, a cycle to no real end. The selling of change while staying the exact same thing you like. The license for money ad infinitum. For what are these MCU movies "about?" They're really about making you feel like you did or learned something you really didn't do or learn. Out of the side of their mouths, they you all about how *wink wink* you don't have to really have to change, because you're already awesome. Sure, you have to wait a little. Bite your tongue. Say all the right things. But then you'll be as awesome as you want. Because you're right. You know better. You're the best.
You're a god damn fucking superhero, aren't you?
Like I said it at the beginning: movies are big, complicated things. And despite all of this criticism, believe it or not, I actually liked Spider-Man: Homecoming a whole bunch, because there's just so damn much to like. But I can't help but feel like that if this is what the film is really about beneath the surface, as are all the recent MCU entries, then that is a massive issue that can't help but gnaw at me. Not just because Marvel has learned to do so many other things right, but because these movies are an important part of how our society helps reflect what we think heroism "is" in the face of adulthood.
Meanwhile if you ask me what Wonder Woman's about, I can tell you. It's about love in the face of cynicism. It's about women's capacity for strength, empathy, joy, sadness, sex, and entire personhood. It's about men's capacity for those same things against the toxic pressures of the world around them. It is about not staying put, not out of juvenile frustration, but out of the living heart of empathy and taking responsibility. And it backs up these ideas so concretely through dramatization that, despite every narrative fumble, despite all the things the MCU does better, by the time she leaps into the horizon my heart swells with my belief in her. And it's the reason I think a lot of people felt the same way. You read the stories everywhere of so many young girls and boys taking the lessons of the film into life with passion and fortitude. To that, it's safe to say that Wonder Woman nails the single most important thing.
Similarly, I asked Twitter last week about the cavernous gulf between how I saw Sam Raimi's Spider-man 2 and the people who did not like it. The discussion mostly focused on the tangibles of the actors, the textures of cinematography, the feelings of what we liked and didn't like. But me? I kept talking about what the film is about. Because it's about the genuine cost of heroism and responsibility. It's about the way adults come together to support each other in the nobler pursuits. It's about establishing all the reasons that the world is worth fighting for (while the MCU keeps forgetting to establish why the world is worth fighting for. Perhaps they've done it so many times they think it's a given?). And in its pursuit of this theme, Sam Raimi did not make me feel empowered, he made me feel human. So now, I can't help but sit down and ask myself a crucial question:
What do each of these Spidey films make me believe about life and the kind of person I need to be?
Spider-Man 2 makes me not just understand, but believe that being adult is hard as hell. And that it has true cost, that it limits us, not through some arbitrary parent-block and setting an imaginary line, but through the sheer consequences of encountering life itself. That being a complete person is not about getting to have it all, but learning how to take the piles of shit the world throws at you, understanding that it may break you and suck your spirit, and then learning the nature of sacrifice en route to balance, en route to a the kind of adult communion that believes in a betterment for all of us. The dramatic arc of the film backs all of this up.
And for all it's wishing that it was saying the same thing, for all its tangible great qualities, for even the fact that I liked the damn movie, Homecoming honestly just makes believe the world should really be handed to me (even when I'll turn it down because I'm better than that). So perhaps there's a reason Homecoming references Ferris Bueller's Day Off, complete with saying "great movie!" as Peter whizzes by. Because the John Hughes film is the ultimate fantasy of unchecked teenage anarchy coming right through the characterization of a charming, genuine asshole. No, our Peter Parker isn't an asshole. He could never be that. But underneath all the lip service, all the knowing better, all the film's contradictory statements of a movie that wants to be responsible, the movie's dramatically expressed theme is all about tapping into that youthful yearning, that one wants to transcend the notion of responsibility and simply let the world bask in our awesomeness. Yup, it secretly wants to be Ferris Bueller. Which is precisely why it spends so much time trying to convince us that it doesn't. But, like the stereotypical teenager, it's just trying to convince itself it's something more.
So... I genuinely enjoy both films.
But which Spidey is going to help you change for the better?