Let me get this out of the way: I hate seeming like that guy. The guy who is driven to despise every broadly appealing thing in pop culture, snarkily contradicting ‘proletariat’ tastes just to affirm the value of his own selective, finicky (and ultimately insecure) palate. Movies should not be the means to signal any kind of cultural refinement—like many of us who take them seriously, they are a way of life for me. They are companions that comfort, challenge and grow with you. I can watch Baby Driver and The Big Sick, wholly distinct and different films, and leave the theater with that same feeling of being affirmed in my humanity. Movies, in short, offer transcendence, a way to escape your self and situation not in order to let you avoid dealing with problems, but to help you achieve perspectives necessary to discover what is truly meaningful. In this way, the best movies become a part of your life’s fabric—they contribute to your very personhood, lending a few words to the story of who you are and who you want to become.
And Spider-Man: Homecoming really is many good things: it is, for instance, unabashedly fun, insistently adolescent, and visually innovative. It gives us a Peter Parker full of adorable teen angst. It has a villain who is sympathetic and reflects the indifferent evil of our vast economic machine. It provides rich ancillary characters who seem as if they could carry stories of their own. It lets Robert Downey, Jr. comfortably inhabit that Tony Stark space between frivolity and empathy. Yet for all of its ostensible pleasures, Homecoming is not a transcendent movie. It is not, I dare say, even a good movie, and that is because it is a movie that spends its running time afraid to risk reaching out to its audience.
This fear of forfeiting broad, entertaining palatability has become endemic to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and had Homecoming been a part of Marvel’s early entries, it would no doubt be seen as a representation of comics’ rich cinematic potential. Yet at a time when we have had become saturated with Marvel’s films and characters, Homecoming reflects more on the studio’s shortcomings than it gestures towards new narrative possibilities. Well into its third phase, with a flurry of new films on the horizon, the MCU is experiencing the atrophy of its successful film formula: have relatable (i.e. human) characters embody contradictions that are revealed through a largely independent introductory scene, followed by devices or mechanisms that challenge the status quo of the hero’s world, complete with prefabricated villains to use or desire those devices. Then have characters undergo change in order to overcome the challenge, actualizing some aspect of themselves (and their power), and insert enough cameos, quips, and reversals to ensure that every step of the journey becomes an insistent reminder that you are having a good time.
In its best moments, Marvel’s movies function like our oldest comedies, in that their characters are more kin than hero to us: they share the same flaws, suffer consequences that are more laughable than irreparable, and overcome a recognizable short-sightedness and selfishness in their attempts to navigate a world much larger than themselves. Like us, they often feel small and ineffectual. On the other side of that spectrum, DC’s characters are heroes in a grand, tragic sense, in that they are gods among men who knowingly take on tremendous responsibility and struggle admirably under its weight. They tower above us as icons, representing ideals that we aspire to on a smaller scale. These two divided, interwoven and contested strands encompass almost the entirety of literature—compare, for instance, the comic mess of intentions and desires that causes the love triangle between the hapless characters of Twelfth Night to the tragic, irrevocable fatalism that unjustly ruins a capable and gregarious ruler in Oedipus Rex.
Yet the comic structure that has blessed Marvel’s film franchise with obnoxious success is now ossifying the stories that it seeks to tell. The films that open Marvel’s Phase Three show the emerging limits of the formula, as the narratives of Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange remain almost entirely inconsequential. Characters either learn trite lessons about their perspectives or learn nothing at all (remember the time loop trick, unrelated to Stephen’s character arc, that saves Earth from an entire dark dimension in Doctor Strange?), and conflicts are revealed to have no real stakes (Steve, for instance, leaves a cellphone for Tony at the end of Civil War that all but signals their healed friendship). And as enjoyable as these movies are, with their polished action scenes and infectious sense of fun, they remain little more than a collection of affable character moments that rarely amount to a narrative that actually has something to say.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fascinating example of this slow march towards blockbuster pablum precisely because of its competence. Peter’s quintessentially teenage desire to matter in the world drives him to push Spider-Man’s limits—relegated to Queens after his Civil War performance (which is recounted via a glorious video diary), he soon rebels against the boundaries established by the absentee father-figure of Tony Stark. Parker’s foray into superhero independence harshly reveals his limits: Spider-Man’s obstinate pursuit of Adrian Toomes’ burgeoning criminal enterprise endangers Ned (his closest friend) and fellow classmates. And just to be sure we understand this character flaw and its consequences, we are then shown a scene that functions in an identical way: Spider-Man interrupts Toomes (who dons his Vulture persona with relish) amidst a weapons sale aboard the Staten Island Ferry, and the danger now extends to the wider public. Papa Iron Man intervenes and punishes his recalcitrant protégé by revoking spider suit privileges, and the remainder of the film follows Peter as he struggles to resolve the tension between his instinct to confront villainy and the boundaries set by his youth, ability and obligation to those who care for him. A final confrontation with Vulture has Parker internalizing his hero’s persona in order to successfully achieve independence, as Spider-Man must now prove capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of an Avenger.
Every stage of this journey makes sense—the motivation driving each decision is clear and conveyed, yet this hero bildungsroman falls flat because Peter Parker, as a character, does not really change over the course of the film. Redundant scenes keep the film’s characters in a narrative loop. Parker loses the suit because he overextends himself (in two near-identical scenes), but it is not clear what lesson he should be taking from the punishment, especially considering that he works to earn the suit back by doing exactly what got him into trouble in the first place: recklessly confronting villains on his own. The story thus moves forward without actually progressing, which means that we understand the why of the narrative (i.e. why characters choose to do what they do) without being shown the how. How does Peter change and grow as a result of his failures? The film’s inability to specifically show its audience a coherent character arc precludes the empathic involvement necessary to have that transcendent narrative experience, where you are called out of yourself to join in the character’s struggle. In short, the film never truly invites us in.
The central villain of Spider-Man: Homecoming further exemplifies this problem. In the film’s opening scene, Toomes and his crew are robbed by Stark’s new Department of Damage Control of a lucrative contract cleaning up the debris left over from the climactic conflict that took place in The Avengers. This scene allows us to understand Adrian’s reasons for adopting the Vulture persona: the naked exercise of corporate political power pulls back the curtain on our comfortable moral assumptions about the value of honest labor and strong work ethic to reveal the callous injustice of a system that privileges and prioritizes wealth. Toomes’ turn to crime is both understandable and tragic, as the film shows us that this is a fall that comes from avoidable economic hardship as opposed to an innate character flaw.
Yet we move from this opening scene to a Toomes who has fully transitioned into his criminal role. For certain plot reasons, we never actually witness the impact (either on the character or his family) of losing his means of making an honest living. As a result, the audience is kept at a certain emotional distance from the character. Adrian’s direct threat against the lives of Peter and his loved ones feels motivated by plot instead of character because we are prevented from understanding how hardship has caused this transition from hardworking father to homicidal arch villain. We have no emotional reference point for this change. We are given a clear reason for it (job loss), but this is not the same as actual empathy. Likewise, Vulture’s climactic speech to Spider-Man about the moral depravity of billionaires like Stark and the legitimacy of the working class’ struggle (a speech that could have been useful much earlier in the film) is immediately silenced by the film’s need to placate us with physical violence. Spider-Man: Homecoming shows its fascinating potential for exploring the moral parallels between villains and the heroes that are complicit in creating them, only to prematurely end that exploration with the obnoxiously loud collapse of an empty building.
Part of the problem lies in Marvel’s incessant need to qualify every moment of seriousness and sadness with a comedic quip or reversal. In Marvel’s recent films, nearly every scene that threatens to show true pathos is undermined for an easy laugh. We get the tear-wiping cape of Doctor Strange, the Drax one liners in Guardians of the Galaxy, and now the teenage irreverence of Spider-Man: Homecoming. And while Homecoming is legitimately one of the funniest Marvel movies outside of the Guardians films (Ned is now one of my new favorite characters), Marvel’s fear of even momentarily jeopardizing its audience’s smile prevents us from ever feeling like anything is at risk in its narrative. And this is important because without clear stakes, without tangible and irrevocable consequences that might actually happen, we are never forced to confront what we value and fear for in our characters and stories. We need the characters and relationships we treasure to be risked so that our characters can make meaningful choices.
Let’s look at an example of this done really well: We all have those unforgettable scenes and films that move us immediately to tears, and for me it’s The Iron Giant, Brad Bird’s animated film about a young boy (Hogarth) befriending a giant extraterrestrial robot in 1950s Maine. We spend the film watching Hogarth, who himself comes from a single-parent home, raise the giant to be a good person. He shows the giant Superman comics, teaches the giant about the danger of guns, and assures the giant that “you are who you choose to be.” We witness the friendship grow as we feel the sheer joy of having a gargantuan friend to play pretend with, the dedication to protecting your friend from nefarious forces, and the fear of having someone you love make irrevocably harmful choices. The military’s pursuit of the giant culminates in a missile attack that threatens the town, and it is at this point that all of these narrative threads are united. The giant realizes that he can save the town, repeats to Hogarth one of the first phrases Hogarth used at the start of the relationship (“You stay, I go. No following.”), and lifts off, rocketing towards the missile as Hogarth whispers “I love you.” As the giant faces his imminent death, we hear his thoughts for the first time: he remembers Hogarth telling him “You are who you choose to be.” The giant quietly says “Superman” to himself as he closes his eyes and collides with the missile, dying on behalf of the town.
This climax works so well for two key reasons. First, we understand the strength of the friendship between the giant and Hogarth because the film gives us the time to witness a deep trust develop; the giant depends on Hogarth to navigate the wider world (a very clear parallel for growing up), and Hogarth finds himself becoming the parent figure who takes responsibility for his ward’s education and well-being. Secondly, this friendship is put at real risk, as the lives of Hogarth and giant are both endangered, but their relationship also risks dissolution in the face of the pervasive threat of discovery and danger. In suffering these risks, the characters are forced to learn and grow, and this trajectory culminates in the climactic scene, where the giant refuses to be the weapon he was designed to be, and Hogarth realizes that he can no longer protect the giant as a parent and must let him go. As an audience, we don’t just understand the central message that we can determine who we are in the face of forces that seek to do that for us, we feel the truth of this message because we have become the unspoken third member of the film’s central relationship. We wholly understand what we love and value in the narrative because we felt threatened by the potential loss of virtue, love and life. These final moments of The Iron Giant are thus laden with enough emotionality that I’m affected even by the memory of them. A scene with this kind of power exists almost nowhere in Marvel’s recent films.
This is because, as seen in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the MCU does not dare to undermine the lukewarm confines of its weightless charm by entering into this type of emotionally fraught narrative territory. As a result, its films lose their capacity to offer a transcendent movie-going experience, as we are kept at a comfortable reserve from the characters and their journeys. It is at this point that we must ask ourselves if we actually want our comic book films to evolve past this formula. Will Marvel let its filmmakers take narrative risks, risks that might challenge, upset but also fulfill us as human beings in a way that Marvel movies have yet to do? Spider-Man: Homecoming shows the promise that these kinds of films have even as it fails to meet it. The film gives us the best Peter Parker ever put on screen, a truly believable and multilayered adolescent world, and an unabashed affection for comic lore. Yet Homecoming is ultimately a reminder that it is time for our beloved MCU to move out of its comfort zone to give us films that risk having actual intimacy with their audiences. It is time, in other words, for Marvel’s films to remind us why we fell in love with their characters and stories in the first place.
Featured Image: Sony Pictures