Spider-Man has been on a rocky road cinematically. The original Sam Rami directed Spider-Man is one of the founding fathers of modern superhero movies and its first sequel is still considered one of the best the genre has to offer. After that, however, things kinda went off the rails (to mix transportation metaphors). Spider-Man 3 was spectacular for all the wrong reasons. The most that could be said about The Amazing Spider-Man is a hearty “meh.” And The Amazing Spider-Man 2 decided to challenge Spider-Man 3 on just how bloated and dumb the franchise could be.
After that last failure, however, a miracle of sorts happened. Sony “parted ways” with Andrew Garfield (allegedly for not going to a party, no shit) and cancelled their plans for an expanded Spider-Man cinematic universe. They then struck a deal with a certain superhero juggernaut (who ironically doesn’t have the film rights to Juggernaut), and Marvel finally had some creative control over the cinematic exploits of its most famous hero. And the results have been, well, good. Maybe even better than good. Spider-Man’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War was brief but a fun, effective introduction to the character as part of the MCU. And in a year full of surprisingly great superhero films (a standalone Wolverine movie and a DC film that are critical successes, *gasp*), Spider-Man: Homecoming is holding its own. It may not be the most creative or innovative superhero flick to be released in 2017 but it probably is the most consistently competent one.
A lot has been said and written about what Spider-Man: Homecoming gets right, but there’s one thing that really stood out to me. If you read my article from last week, you probably have an idea what it is.
Spider-Man: Homecoming uses the fact that it’s part of a cinematic universe to build a coherent story and, most importantly, develop character. Rather than burdening the story with unnecessary side plots and references, the elements from the MCU inform what we’re seeing. It’s not tacked on; it’s worldbuilding.
Let’s start with the biggest thing the movie gets right: the villain. Vulture is great and not just because Michael Keaton gives a good performance or the design manages to make a man in vulture costume intimidating. (Reimagining Spider-Man villains for the big screen has been a bit hit and miss.)
No, the standout thing about Adrian Toomes is that he has actual motivations. When was the last time the villain in one of these movies didn’t just want to destroy the world or kill a bunch of people because … evil? Let’s look at some of the villains from other superhero movies this year. In Logan, Zander Rice (I bet you didn’t know his name; I could have put anything there and you would have thought, “Oh, so that’s the evil doctor’s name, or maybe she’s talking about that guy with the metal arm.”) wants to get rid of natural mutants and engineer new ones. But why exactly? For profit? For fun? I guess Logan killed his father but is that even relevant? And what does genetically modified corn have to do with this again? Now, Wonder Woman is different. It is clear what evil Professor Lupin, I mean Ares, wants. He’s going to destroy humanity because that’s what he does. Ares just hates people. That’s it. That’s all we know about him! And these are two good superhero movies that do interesting and engaging things with the genre. But come on, the villains really suck. And it’s not like bad superhero films are much better. Take Electro up there. What was his motivation again? Spider-Man forgot his birthday? Or Spider-Man is more famous than him? It’s something like that. That’s narrative gold right there.
What are Vulture’s motivations? Well, he had a salvage company that was given the contract to clean up after the battle in the first Avengers. Stark Industries and the government strong armed him out of the cleanup. To keep from going bankrupt and get some revenge on the side, he started robbing other superhero related cleanups and manufacturing hi-tech weapons to sell on the black market. Spider-Man’s attempts to stop the sale of the weapons threaten his business and his family life, so he retaliates. That was easy and I probably went into way more detail than I needed. “He sells illegal weapons to support his family and Spider-Man is trying to stop his business,” would have sufficed. There is no overcomplicated, underexplained plan to destroy the world. The stakes may be smaller but everything is developed and understandable. It’s better than a bloated battle with an underdeveloped big bad at the end. I’m looking at you Wonder Woman. God, I liked you so much and then the end was just plain bad. (For more about Wonder Woman, you can check out Amanda’s article on disability. Shameless plug over).
“But lower stakes and understandable motivations are different than serialization and intertextuality,” I hear someone, somewhere point out. And yes, that’s true nameless person. What’s interesting, however, is that Spider-Man: Homecoming uses intertextuality to give depth to a character and engage the audience by rewarding their familiarity with the MCU. It takes one of the big questions Marvel has been flirting with, what happens in the aftermath for all these epic showdowns, and uses it to build the plot of this movie. We have an answer to how cleanup of the countless city leveling battles we’ve seen works and we’re being shown how it impacts normal people. This is ideally what expanded cinematic universes should do. We’re getting to see a facet of the world that other films haven’t shown. Homecoming isn’t relentlessly pushing future films. I mean there’s some of that. That guy with the scorpion neck tattoo was definitely setting up Hypno-Hustler as a future villain.
But it’s not like there’s a subplot where Peter Parker runs into Dr. Strange and they end up having an interesting chat about Thor or some shit. We’re not setting up Avengers: Infinity War or Black Panther. The intertextuality is used to develop this movie, not to get audiences into theaters for the next entry in the franchise. There are references galore. I mean Tony Stark is a major character and Vulture’s team is raiding the cleanup from events we’ve seen in Captain America: Winter Soldier and the Avengers movies.
But do you have to have seen other MCU films to understand what Vulture’s deal is? No, the film sets up his motivation in a nice little prologue. It is really refreshing to see the beginning devoted to introducing the villain and his motivations. Partly because, as I said before, even great superhero movies tend to have shitty, shitty villains. But that’s not the only reason. You know who I already know pretty much everything about in terms of background and motivation? Spider-Man!
I don’t need a prologue about Peter Parker getting bit by a spider or, God forbid, Uncle Ben dying. This is something Civil War was praised for. They just showed us Spider-Man, no backstory required and very little introduction needed. In my last article, I brought up how Umberto Eco talked about intertextuality as an encyclopedia of pop culture. It’s all about using audience’s knowledge about characters, series, or even just genres. Homecoming recognizes that most people’s entry on Spider-Man in their personal encyclopedias probably includes at least a spider bite and dead guardian. Nobody needs to be shown these things again. We’ve seen them twice on the big screen alone and that doesn’t include infinite other Spider-Man adaptations.
Does that mean Peter Parker doesn’t have specific motivations for this film? Is it just more blah, blah power, blah, blah, responsibility? Only we aren’t even told it this time, like we just infer what Spider-Man’s motivations are based on prior knowledge? Yes, the main character in this movie that I’m praising is not motivated by anything in the film. It’s more narrative gold! Oh wait, never mind. The film gives him motivation and it uses Civil War to establish it. Now, the arc they give him isn’t groundbreaking. Peter is too eager to be an Avenger after the mission in Civil War; he’s ignoring everything in his life that’s not Spider-Man related. The comics have done it, even the Sam Rami movies touched upon the difficulty of balancing being Peter Parker with being Spider-Man. Still, Homecoming tailors these motivations to this cinematic universe. Spider-Man is impacted by the events of a Captain America movie. The connective threads are once again present but importantly they are working to craft a Spider-Man movie primarily. It’s fleshing out the story and the characters, showing how Spider-Man fits in the world of the MCU.
Does Spider-Man: Homecoming offer a fix for all the problems with extended cinematic universes? Does it at least fix all the problems I pointed out in my last post? Is it annoying that I’ve been starting like every paragraph with rhetorical questions? The answer to all those questions is no. Rhetorical questions are great, and extended cinematic universes still may signal the end of culture as we know it. But what Homecoming offers is an example of how the extended universe can be a creative tool instead of just a narrative burden. Intertextuality can be a force for good. Hey, it got us Captain America PSAs.
Edit: I somehow made three references to the Spider-Man musical and didn’t make a joke about or even reference Tom Holland’s Lip Sync Battle. Unacceptable. Let me rectify that.