Dir. Jon Watts. Starring Tom Holland, Jacob Batalon, Michael Keaton
At the time I’m writing this, I have seen seventeen MCU movies; the first half of this sentence gives me heartburn. For the most part, those movies are like going to a fast casual joint. Even if you order the wackiest cheesecake off the menu from the Cheesecake Factory, it’s going to taste more or less like the rest of the desserts there, and that’s on purpose. (By this measure, Guardians of the Galaxy is the pineapple upside-down cheesecake of the MCU.) The brand is cheesecake. You go to get cheesecake, regardless of whether it’s mashed up with Godiva or Cinnabon, and if you got some exotic Bake-Off torte, you’d wonder what on earth they were up to in the kitchen. Each movie in this franchise is like a Cheesecake Factory cheesecake. Most troublingly, if the source material does not easily match up with the cheesecake ethos, it is necessary for it to become cheesecake.
What makes Spider-Man compelling, as a character, is the forced aloneness of a young man who is dying to reach out and feel someone else’s hand on the other side of the void. That’s a little grandiose for a comic book character, and be sure to give me a good slap if you hear me calling Black Panther Shakespearean, but when the character is at his best, he cannot call for help. (This is one of the stated precepts of Ender’s Game, too. Graff’s strategy is to take this little kid, make it seem like he will never be able to get any help, always force him to come up with the solution on his own, and that‘s what makes Ender Wiggin both the great tactician and the broken young man. He can get emotional reinforcement from Valentine, or he can delegate to Bean and Alai, but he must never think that they can do what he’s doing.) Among movies about Web-head, Spider-Verse understood this best, I think; Miles is about as young a Spider-Man as I’ve ever seen in the movies, and although he certainly gets lots of help along the way, he cannot get help from the people he most wants it from. It’s one thing for Spider-Men and -Women from other parts of the multiverse to get involved in the battle being waged. It’s quite another for Miles to have this strange body transformation that is both profoundly cool and deeply disturbing, which allows him to do things he’d never done before and which he struggles to understand and control, and to be unable to go to his family about it.
When Spider-Man is more like an Spider-Boy—or at least when the people making the material realize that teenagers are children too—then that’s where the actual drama comes into play. Superhero movies tend not to be particularly good at this stuff. (To choose an example basically at random, the stuff where Scott has an ex-wife and a daughter in Ant-Man feels hastily pasted on, as does the sort of pointless drama between Pym père and Pym fille. Yet I was basically on board with the comedy and the heist!) In Spider-Verse, there’s this incredible pathos in watching Miles, in seeing how much he wants to confide in his cool but still caring uncle, in seeing how much he wishes his father’s moral bedrock was his own. The movie is focused on those relationships more than it’s focused on anything else, I think, even though Spider-Verse has what I am afraid is going to be one of the most influential plots in recent movie history. That focus on family relationships—not just calling people who choose each other as adults “family” when the word “friend” still exists, but the actual legal and cultural concept— is why Spider-Verse is the best superhero movie since, not coincidentally, The Incredibles. That the film manages to tie this thoughtfulness together with the best of the Spider-Man character is a sign that the people writing him understand him.
People will point to Spider-Man 2 as a landmark in the genre, and for me the most remarkable sequence of the movie is the one where Peter Parker, who will stop a train with his body later on and fight a guy with mechanical arms, is charged with delivering eight pizzas in the next seven-and-a-half minutes some incredible number of blocks away, or else he’ll lose the job. He’s been gazing at a larger-than-life close-up of MJ on a billboard, modeling for perfume. His buddy Harry is a captain of industry. He rides around New York City on a moped and risks life and limb for a pizza joint. The responsibility he feels, the pressure he’s under, has to come closer to crushing Spider-Man than any of his colorful foes, and he must not feel like anyone else will come to save him. Maybe it’s youthful masculine chauvinism, maybe it’s being this close to falling out of the working class, maybe it’s the army of costumed criminals who push him to his limits. But he has to feel like only he is capable of fixing the problem, and he has to bear all the consequences of it. “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is a landmark for a reason. No matter how little responsibility Peter ultimately bears for Gwen’s death, he’s the reason there’s that “crack” on the page.
In the MCU, especially after the early introductory films, there is always someone else capable of fixing the problem. This is why Captain America: Civil War is really an Avengers movie, for narratively it doesn’t make a lot of sense for these people to operate independently, and from the business angle, don’t you want as many of these people in your movies as possible? Bigger is better! And in the MCU, responsibility is not quite a dirty word, but certainly a concept that no one is too worried about. In Iron Man 2, the question of whether Tony Stark should hand over the suits to the government is decided negatively; the government (spearheaded by a character who proves to be a member of Hydra in a ten-second appearance in a different movie) reverse engineers a sow’s ear out of the Iron Man technology. In Civil War, a straw in Lagos breaks the camel’s back already strained badly by New York and Sokovia; this turns out to be a great way to seed discord, but this broad ethical, political question is reduced to a personal grievance between two supercharged guys in their nineties and a guy with a ’90s ethos in a supercharged suit. Whether or not superheroes should act on their own recognizances or on the orders of a larger body is basically overlooked by the end of the movie, and the litigation is that of trial by multiple combats instead of sober debate by elected officials. I know how this sounds. These are superhero movies. The punching is the reason they exist. But if you’re going to start pretending that you care about geopolitics and international law, it’s possible that the add-ons are going to have be better than sophomoric when they’re put into practice. The drama of Civil War is not substantially interested in what happens in Lagos. It is, on the other hand, substantially interested in the travails of the Winter Soldier, who is a brilliant example of what happens when a movie mistakes withheld information for a character with mystique. Is superhero responsibility really that important, or was it only ever just guff to get us to a particular hit the Winter Soldier made in 1991?
That’s a long prelude. But in the MCU, the question of responsibility doesn’t really matter all that much. It can always be pushed off to some other movie, and in fact, if it is pushed off to another movie, that just makes people interested in what might come next. That’s not how Spider-Man has worked best, historically. Nor does Spider-Man work best in conjunction with characters who can get him out of a sticky situation. But in the MCU, Spider-Man, something of a latecomer, has to be cheesecake. That means Spider-Man is basically just Iron Boy in this movie, and Iron Boy comes with an Iron Man who, despite Iron Boy’s best efforts, is always watching. In one sequence, Peter (Holland) is defeated by Vulture (Keaton), and despite the fact that Spider-Man is wearing a suit of Stark’s manufacture, it requires one of Iron Man’s robots to rescue Peter from drowning in some pond. In another, after Peter’s webbing has been insufficient to keep a ferry from breaking apart, Iron Man himself (Robert Downey, Jr.) appears to literally fuse the ferry back together and rescue its passengers.
All this frustrates Peter, who, like most teenagers, believes himself grown and believes he doesn’t need an adult to look after him, even a surrogate father figure like Tony Stark. It was frustrating to me as well, but for a totally different reason. It’s because those moments, with the addition of Ned’s (Batalon) understanding that Peter is Spider-Man, prove that the primary valence they have for this asset is his age.
Teenaged Peter Parker, with his gee whiz approach to Tony Stark and his aw shucks approach to fighting other superheroes in Civil War, is entertaining enough. But being a teenager, unfortunately for real teenagers, isn’t a personality on its own. Nor do I subscribe to this idea that there’s something inherently difficult or awkward about being a teenager, as if one struggles most loudly or most interestingly between the ages of 13 and 18. And even if one does struggle in that way, then shouldn’t the struggle be localized to something that teenagers can’t deal with? I don’t often read interviews with the people who make movies for the same reasons I don’t often listen to sports podcasts when athletes are the guests, but I found this interview with Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley pretty revealing. They went into this thinking about how to make this a high school movie, which is an understandable and praiseworthy choice for a character whose high school roots have not been much served. (I’m a little annoyed that Spider-Man movies seem to work overtime to make sure Peter or Miles can’t go to “P.S.” something.)
They also went into this with John Hughes on the brain, which is the sign of a much deeper pathology. (Apparently, based on the fact that a pretty obvious reference to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is met with that scene from Ferris Bueller playing on someone’s TV, everyone was scared the pathology would not manifest itself loudly enough. Where did funny people learn that being scared that no one would get their jokes is funny?) John Hughes movies, aside from being the kind of racist, sexist stuff that the woke teenagers in this movie would recoil from, have already been rewritten so many times that the pens have dried up and the paper has torn through. Not to pick too much on two screenwriters out of the six(?!) credited on this movie, but what do a guy in his late forties and a former child actor in his thirties know about high school anyway? I certainly appreciate that they didn’t kill Uncle Ben again, because I don’t think even Batman’s parents’ death has been beaten into the ground quite like Uncle Ben’s has, but by the same token, “put him in a real high school, have it be a real coming-of-age story, and just add spider powers to it” sounds like the kind of quote you’d make up if you wanted to make fun of a screenwriter’s vision of the movie.
One would think that a significant number of problems that teenage boys have about looking and feeling macho enough to live up to some societal standard would be mollified by knowing that one could beat up multiple criminals with one’s bare hands, or having the abs that Tom Holland flashes. Also, isn’t Tom Holland an enormously popular actor with adolescent girls mostly because of his boyish looks and charm? Add onto that the relative comfort that Peter seems to live in, his unbelievable intelligence, and his sense of humor, and one starts to wonder if these high school movie lovers writing the movie even understand that a good high school movie, especially one with the subtext of “gosh ain’t being a teen tough,” typically doesn’t make its main character an ubermensch. In other words, emphasizing Peter’s youth feels less like a fresh attempt to breathe life into an increasingly stale character and more like branding. It’s a marketing strategy to put him in school, to send him on class trips, to include a homecoming dance. Teenager Peter Parker in the comics does stuff like that; he also has to weigh that against the loneliness it creates and the extra weight of responsibility it puts on him. The opportunity to brand him differently than the other Avengers is so palpably enticing to the people making this movie that all I could think during the scene was, “I guess they had to find a way to have a scene like this outside of New York somehow.” There’s some irony here, too…New York’s web-slinger is a very New York hero, but by putting his action sequences in the air or on the beach or on the water, it is less specifically New York even if the city certainly has all three of those things. How different is he, in the end, other than the fact that he’s young enough to be Tony Stark’s literal son? I dunno, does he also have a suit that amplifies his powers and talks to him?
Making Peter a teenager is also essential to this cheesecake because it makes it easier to give him daddy issues that way. In the MCU, drama is mined primarily from everyone resenting their parents, especially their dads. It’s the kind of decision that I’m sure plays really well with the high school freshmen these movies are aimed at and a surprising number of y’all out there whose dads didn’t play catch with them enough. Loki and Odin. I mean, Thor and Odin. Tony Stark and his dad, Howard. Ultron and Tony Stark, to some extent. Gamora and Thanos, but maybe more so Nebula and Thanos. Quill and Ego, Quill and Yondu. Rocket and the unseen scientists who made him. T’Challa and T’Chaka. I think the world/universe/what’s the difference is threatened with destruction less often in this series than these stories return to the same beat of “I wish I could just get my dad to love me, darn it!” with doses of “Why won’t he hang my picture on the fridge?” and “I wish I’d told him what he meant to me, but he was so hard to get through to” tossed in there. Someone seems to have felt that this dynamic was so abundantly fecund (cough BRAND SYNERGY) that it’s been brought into this movie too. Peter, after a taste of action with/against the Avengers that is recreated haphazardly and humorlessly in cell phone footage, is hooked on being on a superhero team the way Jeremy Renner got hooked on defusing bombs in The Hurt Locker. He blows up Happy Hogan’s (Jon Favreau) phone in the intervening months, but he has been ghosted by Iron Man, who gave him his big break and now, it turns out, may only have needed him for that one job. When Iron Man does come along to help fix that sinking ferry that Spider-Man’s rashness helped put asunder, he says that the FBI were on the boat for a reason. It was not Avengers-important; this was definitely something which, despite the presence of alien technology, could be passed over to federal law enforcement. (Something I do appreciate about Homecoming, as well as Ant-Man, is this recognition that the Avengers exist for everyone and that some problems simply are not important enough to merit the superteam’s attention.) What this does, of course, is make Tony the kind of distant father that his distant father was, and it only increases Peter’s yearning for Tony to accept him as an Avenger, which is to say as an equal. In the end, Peter turns down a full-time gig with the Avengers which includes a new, even more Iron Man suit; he turns it down in one of those displays of maturity that show that he really is prepared to be an Avenger, and which I suppose might suggest that he has outgrown his hero worship of this ersatz papa. Aside from the previously stated objections I have to Peter having a father figure like this—if he had a dad he could go to, that would kind of defeat the point! the stakes of most of the first three-quarters of the movie are lowered significantly because Tony Stark and seven Iron Man robots are holding a safety net underneath Peter at all times!—I just don’t really think the movie does a good job selling this concept. I don’t think there’s much in this movie or in Civil War to suggest that Tony’s interests in Peter are much more than mercenary, and I also don’t think that there’s anything special about Tony himself that would make him a more likely figure for Peter to pin his dreams on than Steve or Sam or Natasha. Tony Stark is an icon for the kids in this movie in the same way gullible online youngsters stan Elon Musk: whatever nominally interesting tech the guy is doing is far outweighed by the fact that he was born rich, got richer, and seems like he can get away with being a jerk on the Internet. Nor does it seem like Downey and Holland have any chemistry to speak of; the most memorable thing they do together is a scene where Tony tells off Peter for getting too big for his britches, and there’s no reason why it has to be Tony doing that.
For all these faults, for all this blandness, there’s still a more or less enjoyable movie hanging around in here, I think, at least the first time through. I haven’t seen this twice and I have no idea how any of these jokes could possibly be funny a second time when so many of them were scraping the bottom of the humor barrel on an initial viewing. (There has to be a way to do a joke that isn’t “noisy comment, cut to new scene.” I think whenever someone figures out how that second joke format could work, we might see a real revolution in cinematic comedy.) What I don’t think I can forgive, though, is the scene where Spider-Man, buried underneath the rubble created by the Vulture’s cunning attack, figures out how to be a hero by himself.
Crushed, scared, and alone, Peter gives in to panic for a few moments. And then he sees his face reflected next to his janky homemade Spider-Man mask, and he hears Tony Stark’s words in his head, and he is inspired to get himself out. With all the fervor of a young man meeting a gym sock for the first time, he hastily murmurs, “Come on, Spider-Man, come on, Spider-Man,” and with great effort and will moves the column from above him, busting himself free to take another poke at the Vulture. That’s the scene, and you can tell what function it has in the plot of the story. This is the grand moment in which a teenage boy, a little callow, a little arrogant, has to become a man. And here’s how the scene breaks down.
:00-:03 — Establishing shot – we see the wreckage. It’s dark out, and there’s very little natural light. Some fires burn.
:03-:10 — Close on the wreckage, and in this shot we can see Peter’s head moving a little bit. Dust falls. Still very dark, very blue, very hard to tell what’s going on
:10-:15 — Medium shot, just further back, some more wreckage in the foreground, Peter starts vocalizing. Still very dark, very blue, very hard to tell what’s going on, just further away
:15-:27 — Close again, above Peter, he’s struggling, still vocalizing, moving his arms. Still very dark…look, I’ll just tell you when it’s not at this point. An incredibly interesting choice not to show us the fear on Peter’s face, and it’s not a good kind of interesting
:27-:34 — Different angle, still fairly close, Peter still making noise, manages to dislodge a rock.
:35-41 — Closer again. Peter starts yelling for help.
:41-45 — Back to that shot above Peter. More yelling for help. Notice at this point that we’re almost bootlooping shots here. Everything from the establishing shot on has been from five to eight seconds, and all of it’s just circling around to the same three or four angles, while the action has changed, by my count, just once. Peter starting to scream for help is the difference-maker, but that’s all that’s happened for forty-five seconds. Still no clear look on his face, still relying entirely on his voice to signify his fear, but honestly the only person who I know is panicked here is Watts, who seems to be casting about for a shot that will work and is merely making ripples on a pond.
:45-50 — We can almost get Peter’s face here! Maybe the closest shot yet, but honestly it’s so dark that it’s kind of hard to gauge. “I’m down here, I’m stuck.” The panic is genuine, but it was genuine ten seconds ago too.
:50-55 — Back to that medium-ish shot, enough to see him reach out his one free arm. “I can’t move.”
:55-1:01 — Okay, now we see his face in some kind of light for the first time in over a minute, and it’s placed there directly so we can see his features while still, yep, doing darkness. He seems tired more than anything else.
1:01-1:07 — A new angle here. Looking down at the Spider-Man mask/Peter Parker face next to one another, which seems like an improbably way for everyone to have landed, but hey, we’ll grant them that it’s possible. It just don’t think it works all that well. I would be inclined to give them a pass if it were the mask from the iconic costume, I think, even though that would be deeply corny, because at least that’s signifying something about the character as we understand him historically, plus this kid who’s turning into him. They’d be relying on that older symbol more than they’d be mining meaning from the moment, but it’s a comic book movie and no one goes to these to see something new. But instead, they choose his weird little red knit hat with the goggles? Of course Peter’s already evolved beyond that guy. He evolved beyond that guy when he took Cap’s shield with his webs, and he evolved beyond that guy, frankly, when he saved his classmates’ lives at the Washington Monument. He evolved beyond that guy at multiple times in the movie; he doesn’t have to do it now! By the way, the water is so dirty and the lighting is so dark we can’t really see what Peter’s thinking at that moment as he looks at the mask. A+, guys, just a terrific time to decide realism was the right cinematic choice.
1:07-1:11 — Back to the angle from :55-1:01. Deep breaths, Tony Stark’s voice.
1:11-1:16 — Back to the shot of the mask with Peter’s face, but closer. Tony Stark’s voice trails off. Music starts.
1:16-1:28 — Back to the angle from :55-1:01. Some determination. “Come on Peter” becomes “Come on Spider-Man.” This is about twice as long as almost any other shot we’ve had thus far, and it’s mostly just Peter screwing up his face with some debris falling down. There’s movement signified through falling debris, even if we can’t see much happening here.
1:28-1:33 — Back to that angle from :27-:34. “Come on Spider-Man!”
1:33-1:37 — Back to that angle above Peter. He’s screaming with effort. There’s more light now, somehow. Music’s getting louder.
1:37-1:42 — Back to that angle from :10-:15. Music is really built up now. More small movements from the wreckage.
1:42-1:44 — AAAAAAAHHHHH
1:44-1:48 — Peter is basically freed at this point. It’s another medium shot from the side, so he’s in profile as he’s rising.
1:48-1:52 — Peter’s whole body is visible now. He’s pushing the wreckage up.
1:52-1:54 — Head and shoulders shot. Peter’s making the face most of the guys make when they’re bench pressing.
1:54-1:58 — Back to that shot from 1:48-1:52. It’s not all that different.
1:58-2:15 — Okay, so we’re outside Peter’s little world of wreckage now. What looks like an electric range with eighteen burners is shoved off. The camera slowly moves in on Peter, exhausted, sort of coiled up. Dust and smoke rise around his body. He looks up, looks to his left, the camera follows his line of sight to a billboard which is lit up.
It is, to put it mildly, an excruciatingly dull two minutes. I would go so far as to say it’s practically anti-cinematic. Just a hopeless mélange of cuts of basically equivalent length, all of them somehow equally unhelpful in understanding Peter’s enormous physical pain, what must be agonizing fear. It’s all subsumed in this deep blue that no actor can make compelling, and the movie’s repetitiousness seems to beat the same drum that our brains must be beating: let’s get past this and get to a good part, huh?
I’ve been thinking a lot about a critical aphorism that I see going around every now and then, and often from the tweets/lips of critics I really respect. It’s basically saying that you can’t discount the value that an audience has to a movie. If the audience of pre-teens is supposed to be going wild at this moment, chanting “Come on, Spider-Man!” themselves, yearning audibly and stomping their feet, then I suppose that it matters, and that the enthusiasm of others might cover up what is flat out bad filmmaking. I guess I just wonder why no one ever suggests that we should consider the audience at If Beale Street Could Talk or Meek’s Cutoff.