Friday, July 14, 2017

Spider-man: Homecoming and Why the MCU No Longer Works

Belated, Obligatory Thoughts on Disney Sony's Latest

I went into the sixth Spider-man movie, deceptively titled Homecoming, with measured expectations amounting to exactly nothing, and in some places it exceeded them. Homecoming marks the second collaboration of sorts between Marvel Studios, which produced the film, and the stagnant Sony Pictures, which has been brazenly churning out one box office dud after another, viz. Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, Passengers, Life, and Rough Night. As far back as 2014, Sony barely managed to turn a profit with their abominable sequel, The Amazing Spider-man 2, but now they get to reap the fruits of Marvel’s ironclad business model after loaning them Peter Parker for last year’s Captain America: Civil War, a film that people would have gone to see regardless of whether Spider-man appeared in it for 15 minutes. Somehow this is supposed to benefit both parties in the long run, but to me it looks like Marvel and Disney are getting the short end of the stick.

Distribution economics aside, Spider-man: Homecoming predictably combines the more banal aspects of both Marvel and Sony, narrowly scraping by on the paltry virtues of the former and surviving the toxic signatures of the latter. Like many Marvel products before it, Homecoming suffers from an excess of humor and weightlessness that impedes sincere connection with its more dramatic moments, if and when they happen. As an example, Michael Keaton disintegrates one of his henchmen fairly early on and the film milks the death for an “Oops, I grabbed the wrong gun” joke, which both undercuts the value of human life in this comic book world and makes Keaton seem like a cartoonishly callous villain, an image we later learn that Marvel was trying to subvert.

Even the movies that I really admire from the studio, e.g. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor, show a lack of restraint in the humor department, pursuing gags where sobriety would be more appropriate. And yet Spider-man has nothing on the Guardians movies in its comedic discipline. I’ve seen at least one fan try to fault Guardians 2 for feeling “like a sitcom”, with characters constantly trading insults and sparring wits with one another, but for me this style testifies to James Gunn’s talent as a writer and observer of human behavior. Whereas the jokes in Guardians largely stem from characters’ idiosyncrasies and dynamics, which require an incisive script and are arguably harder to write, most of the humor in Spider-man: Homecoming is of a stock situational variety that rarely surprises and thus rarely pays off. One trick the movie relies on a lot is contradiction humor, whereby one character will say something like, “Whoa, Peter, you can’t just quit on us, stroll up, and be welcomed back to the team!” and the camera will immediately cut to another character who says, “Hey, Peter, welcome back to the team.” I can recount at least three instances of contradiction humor, but there are probably a whole lot more that I forgot.

But I shan’t dwell too much on comedy, being as tenuous as it is, and some other irksome things about Homecoming should only be treated briefly. Like all the Spider-man movies before it (except maybe the second one, which I haven’t seen), the sixth one builds to an incomprehensible battle set at night for the sake of saving money on special effects, and Peter Parker doesn’t get the girl for the umpteenth time. Some bloggers have been comparing this to a John Hughes high-school comedy (perhaps because it references Ferris Bueller), but none of the kids in it drink, have sex, or call each other demeaning slurs, so it’s a very neutered, 21st-century imitation of John Hughes. The alternative superhero movie Chronicle from 2012 did a far superior job depicting the rebellious fever of the teenage years, while keeping within the confines of a PG-13 rating. Intriguingly, Homecoming appears to homage Chronicle in its first minutes, when Peter records low-quality video logs of scenes we saw in Civil War, but the movie drops this gimmick soon and proceeds in a very routine, unadventurous style.

I also don’t think I’ve ever seen a more distracting case of stunt casting in a superhero film than here; consider that Michael Keaton has gone from playing a Batman to playing a Birdman to playing a meaner, metal Birdman, or that the busboy from Grand Budapest Hotel is still playing a high-schooler, or that the director of Iron Man has a supporting role (I guess he was in the previous movies too), or that rapper-actor-comedian Donald Glover shows up for two scenes to do literally nothing aside from pointing Spider-man in the direction of a ferry. I won’t even comment on the deliberately controversial presence of Disney star Zendaya, who will presumably be playing a bigger role in future installments.

Perhaps the biggest detriment of Homecoming is that so much of it, including Zendaya’s moody SJW, piggybacks off an increasingly convoluted Marvel saga instead of focusing on being a good story. Maybe Marvel meant to lather on the interconnectedness in this movie especially, to celebrate the happy union of their characters and Sony’s, but whatever rationale is guiding their creative process, it hasn’t been contributing to the ongoing coherence of their works, and Homecoming marks the messy culmination of numerous wrong steps taken in deference to the universe’s “lore”, which must be reviewed and re-examined leading up to every new release.

The movie opens shortly after the climactic battle of The Avengers, introducing Michael Keaton as some kind of contractor who’s driven to become an arms dealer when he acquires some of the glowing purple tech left behind by Loki’s alien army. Eight years later, Keaton pilots an aerial suit not unlike Tony Stark’s and bosses around a group of thugs who use Gordon Freeman’s gravity gun to pull off bank robberies and other heists. I can see the mindset behind creating a more modest villain like this, who isn’t obscenely over-powered, vengeful, and bent on the destruction of New York, but Marvel arguably overreaches by handicapping him so much. Benefiting from Kevin Feige’s surely monstrous resources for research and development, Homecoming feels meticulously doctored to minimize backlash from self-affirming Youtube channels that echo the same praises and criticisms, but the patently obvious motions it takes to avoid the series’ documented flaws just end up weakening it in other ways. Vulture is clearly supposed to serve as a smaller-scale criminal on the level of a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-man (a term Stark uses verbatim), but knowing that he gained his powers essentially by accident prevented me from being remotely intimidated or awed by him. It also doesn’t make much sense how a guy who starts out as a blue-collar worker – a family man who feels his livelihood impinged on by the Department of Damage Control (also headed by Stark) – is able to muster the money and time to manufacture sci-fi weapons out of elements from another galaxy.

Yes, Marvel does circumvent another boring antagonist who wants to destroy the world for some indefinite reason, but is an antagonist predicated entirely on events that happened in The Avengers that much of an improvement? On the contrary, the viral infusion of Avengers plot points into every facet of Spider-man: Homecoming constantly muddles the core story of Peter Parker while reminding me that I’m experiencing an insignificant chapter in a larger narrative. It also indirectly lessens the feats of all the other Marvel characters; when any Joe Schmoe can become a super-powered menace to society by taking advantage of some circumstance or device from a previous movie, the actual titans of the increasingly over-crowded universe lose a lot of their luster. Tony Stark isn’t such a genius anymore, just an egotistical public figure with billions of dollars to burn.

Similarly, Tom Holland’s Spider-man is more of a Spider-kid, whose power isn’t really explained and who derives most of his abilities from the generosity of another Avenger. “I’m nothing without this suit,” he pleads to Robert Downey Jr., the highest-paid star of the Marvel universe who now lurks in the background of every movie. If Parker is nothing without an expensive Stark Industries suit that talks back to him, does that make him an Iron Man-lite, someone who couldn’t exist if the U.S. government did not decree it? Why does the viability of Spider-man need to be inextricably tied up in the enterprises of Marvel’s most successful superhero? Thanks to Homecoming and Marvel’s multi-movie profit scheme, Peter Parker has regressed from an exceptionally bright and self-reliant kid into a good-hearted 15-year-old who got bitten by a spider and is propped up by the bottomless coffers of a bigwig superhero mentor.

It also goes without saying that the political backdrop of these movies has spiraled out of control, bending over backwards to justify the inclusion of Marvel stars who have no business being in the story. Sometime between The Avengers and this film, Captain America has apparently produced a number of videos for public high-schools, ranging in content from detention counseling to sex education (“So your body is going through some changes—I know how that feels.”). The script even jokingly acknowledges the absurdity of this development, having a P.E. instructor remark, “I’m pretty sure this guy is some kind of war criminal now, but whatever.” I don’t recall the Captain America stand-alones well enough to confirm if he is indeed a war criminal, or if S.H.I.E.L.D. even exists anymore, but Steve Rogers has definitely led a libertarian streak whether the writers intended him to or not, fighting against mass surveillance in Winter Soldier and U.N. globalism in Civil War. Bearing both these stances in mind, along with Cap’s background as a patriotic soldier frozen in the 1940s and reawakened in the modern day, I just can’t accept that the guy would ever debase himself to appear in such a cheesy and condescending campaign for Big Education, nor can I follow how the government and Avengers have gotten so intertwined over the years.

One of my biggest problems with Civil War was that the script didn’t give a very compelling reason for Tony Stark to break from character and submit himself to multi-national regulation, simply because the Avengers caused some civilian casualties in the process of saving the world from imminent catastrophe. For a character as independent and strong-willed as Stark to undergo such a reversal of personal values struck me as a shallow and unmotivated pretext for the better half of the Avengers to fight each other at an airport. With every episode in the overarching story, internal consistency falls further down the studio’s list of priorities, superseded by the need to incorporate certain characters in fun or oddball ways, even if they don’t make sense.

Having said all that, though, Homecoming is far from the bottom of the barrel in terms of superhero entertainment. The action is well executed apart from the ending, a third-act twist got audible reactions from audiences both times I went, and it does have an interesting message that runs counter to the prevailing current of comic book movies. Homecoming’s Peter Parker restlessly nags Stark about their next big mission and zips around Queens looking for crimes to thwart. Like a typical impulsive, idealistic teenager who’s eager to defend the defenseless, he’s convinced that taking forceful action is always the best solution for public threats, and in a crucial scene he berates Stark for not doing more to stop Vulture. As the movie progresses, Peter has to learn that intervention often escalates dangerous situations rather than removing them, that not every problem is within his ability to rectify as a man, which is a surprisingly sage takeaway from a genre film concerned with heroes who violently intervene in dangerous situations.

The rest of the movie seems perfectly content to follow formula.

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