Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Superhero Movies Like ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Are Great Again In 2017

The world has gentle and not-so-gentle ways of reminding you no one cares like you do. A recent personal example, thankfully, was a gentle one. I was buying a new backpack at this suburban mall. My friend’s cat had decided my old gray bag conspicuously resembled kitty litter so obviously she should piss all over it. More than any other domestic animal, cats love reminding you how little they give a shit about your emotions. Though, if I was properly continuing the metaphor, I guess it’s how little they give a piss about your emotions. You get the point.

Anyways, the slack-eyed teenager manning the register performed his customer service duties and asked how I was doing and if I had any plans the rest of the day. I informed him I did. I had plans to watch Spider-Man: Homecoming later and, considering what a few friends had told me, I had reason to be excited. When I said this, the teenage boy frowned. He expressed disappointment over recent superhero films. Living in Austin, I had suspicions he was a covert cinephile about to regale tales of the death of modern-day cinema, as if he’d just returned from Cannes or hosted his own movie podcast.

Instead he told me, “I don’t know, I miss the good post-credits scenes. The last Avengers teased Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet and I’m pumped for that. But now the post-credits suck.”

Full disclosure: I secretly wish I was a clever enough writer to make up an exchange like this. But I am not. This really happened. I wanted to ask him his thoughts on the movies—“you know, those things that come before the post-credit teasers?”—but our transaction was finished. Others behind me had clothing to buy because Austin kitties were pissing on everyone’s stuff that weekend (or so I assumed), and I left the store.

I’m happy to report Spider-Man: Homecoming is a great superhero movie. It captures Peter Parker, finally, as a teenager equally frustrated by bullies and puppy-dog crushes as he is stopping evil villains from doing evil villain things. This sixth installment of the character is also the most relatable Spider-Man yet. He is trapped between his insecurities given to him by the world—he’s a nerd, his Uncle died, Iron Man won’t let him join the Avengers—and realizing his own potential. Really, he can’t get out of his own head. He’s caught in that “If only” stage of adolescence—if only Liz liked me, if only Dad (Tony Stark) loved me enough, if only I could show these people what I could do, then everything would be okay.

The clever conceit of the movie isn’t that it resembles a John Hughes movie—that Ferris Bueller parody in the movie really hits you over the head with the connection—but that it doesn’t serve a larger purpose in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a standalone product. Within Marvel architect Kevin Fiege’s tapestry, this movie doesn’t move the plot needle forward whatsoever. Thanos doesn’t care about an acrobatic teen from Queens learning about himself. The stakes will never be cartoonishly large, like the fate of the world hinging on this character’s actions, because as this movie subtly reminds you, the Avengers still exist in Spider-Man’s story. If things get catastrophically out of hand, their numbers will be called.

As a result, this movie can relax and breathe. It lets you have a good time. We care about Peter because a) he battles puberty and high school drama like the rest of us did and b) he isn’t all-powerful. In a Washington Monument set piece, we’re repeatedly told Peter could die falling from this height. Director Jon Watts induces mild vertigo pointing his camera at the ground and cutting to wide shots from afar, giving us a real sense of the predicament Peter is in. We feel the character’s fear as our own and worry momentarily something bad could happen. You never have those worries watching someone like Thor because, well, he’s literally a Norse god.

It isn’t necessary for all superhero films to resemble coming-of-age character arcs or keep the stakes small for the movies to be compelling. The formula isn’t that hard. A great character needs empathetic limitations to deliver rewarding drama. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy showcased a character not knowing if he’d rather be Batman or Bruce Wayne, and how not choosing can cause greater alienation from who you want to be. Each iteration of Iron Man forces Tony Stark to confront his egotistic vulnerabilities—the mask of Iron Man makes him powerful but it also separates him from the rest of the world and those he loves.

These movies had the blessing of (mostly) existing within their own universes. As much as these studios are trying to fuse TV storytelling with cinematic grandeur, these properties can’t be divorced from their medium. They are movies, they are movies, they are movies. And unlike episodes of television, movies can only ever be successful on their own terms. The failure of some X-Men movies, select Marvel installments, and most of DC’s output is thinking the opposite is true. You’ll love this because of what comes next, which we promise will be super awesome. Who are all these characters, why should you care about them, what’s really at stake here? You mean you don’t remember? Well hopefully you’ll figure it out.

This is why everyone experienced superhero movie fatigue—they stopped being movies at some point.

But 2017 possibly marks a turn. This has been the best year for superhero films within the past five years, if not longer. Not only did we have Spider-Man: Homecoming, but we also received the stellar Logan and earnest delight Wonder Woman, as well as the tired-ass-daddy-issues-but-still-worthwhile Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. Each of these movies share a similar conceit as Spider-Man in that they’re self-contained character dramas. They told complete stories from beginning to end and weren’t burdened by any important story information outsides their own lineage.

While Hugh Jackman’s long-standing run playing Wolverine underscored the film’s emotion, Logan stood on its own as a Western family drama—a wizened gunslinger, once considered invincible, learned to let go of self-mythologizing and faced his own mortality. Wonder Woman was moving in its hero’s refusal to accept tropes and gender expectations. When confronted with the cynicism of the world, Wonder Woman said something close to, “I choose love,” and somehow everyone watching didn’t puke but clapped. The moment was believable, undeniable, and earned, far exceeding any emotional notes from Zack Snyder’s Superman installments (“MARTHA!!!!!!!”) and (gulp) Suicide Squad.

The worry is we might just find ourselves in a unique coincidence. Logan could be the movie it was because Hugh Jackman would never play Wolverine again. Baked into the conceit of Logan’s existence was an ending the audience was prepared for and accepted. This is rare in comic books, and any comic book-related properties—the goal, as Marvel godfather Stan Lee once said, is stasis. Like in traditional sitcoms, characters aren’t really supposed to change. Not in foundational dramatic ways that would cause reverberations across shared cinematic universes, anyways.

In addition, Wonder Woman built its premise around a previous movie’s plot point. Batman v. Superman hinged upon Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne delivering a mysterious photograph to Diana. This moment shed Wonder Woman of her reluctance to battle  and reminding her of the duty she accepted long ago. Wonder Woman explains why that photograph was so damn important. The movie launches into the past and therefore has dramatic free-range. All that’s necessary, in the larger scheme of things, is Diana remains alive by film’s end. Otherwise she can experience and meet and fall in love and battle anyone or anything director Patty Jenkins so chooses. It’s a brilliant sleight-of-hand by the studio, really.

Though it warrants mention how this illustrates DC’s egregious mishandling of cinematic storytelling and mistakenly embracing television tropes: “Wanna know why Wonder Woman radically changed her character motivation in a pivotal plot point of the movie? Find out next week on…er, I mean, find out next month…um, sorry scratch that, but find out next year in Wonder Woman! Then this movie you just watched in 2016 will finally—just barely—make sense!”

While Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther hint at exciting futures, we still don’t know if superhero movies have finally learned their lesson. First and foremost, they must make sense as individual movies. If the Fast and Furious cinematic universe and its individual properties kick your ass in fundamental storytelling principles, you have a damn problem. Because that’s the baseline. Millions flock to see those movies because they trust they’ll be watching a start-to-finish movie, not a television episode that costs $12 if you’re lucky. You might as well subscribe to Netflix at that point.

While failed tentpole franchise movies like Baywatch and Transformers litter this summer’s graveyard, these superhero movies have re-asserted their dominance as Hollywood’s most bankable asset. It’s not hard to tell why. Whether it’s Spider-Man or Wonder Woman, they each execute on the promise of what a movie is supposed to be. Audiences and critics are both responding favorably and studios should pay attention. Don’t listen to what crummy teenagers who work at the mall say: If people go to a movie theater, they don’t care what comes down the road. Even if it’s a superhero movie. They want their experience to be complete in the moment. And to that sweet-hearted kid at the mall who sold me my backpack, know this: Post-credit scenes suck anyways.


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