2017 – Director: John Watts – Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr.
Spider-Man has always been one of my favorites from the Marvel universe. He is charming, witty, optimistic and inescapably awkward. Perhaps the most endearing aspect of his personality is that, even with his extravagant skill set, he retains his ordinariness, or at least the pursuit of it. This latest installment is no different, and effectively carries on the tradition of down-to-earth hero, more-so perhaps because the normal awkwardness is layered over with high school awkwardness.
What I typically expect from Marvel is an action film that is an entertaining 2 hours of humor, flash-bang and explosions with some clever dialogue and a bit of interpersonal conflict sprinkled in. As a piece of cinema, Spider-Man is all of the above, but also manages to exceed itself in the concepts it explores, which I will discuss shortly. As an action flick though, the film is underwhelming in comparison to the rest of the Marvel films. In keeping with the “Friendly-neighborhood” motif, the villains, conflicts, fight scenes, explosions and effects all have a home-spun feel to them. High quality of course, but simple, with a high degree of realism – with the exception of the few pieces of glowing alien tech. Considering the concepts explored in the film, which are very much about stripping away the distractions, this approach works really well – until the climax. The ending leaves me wanting just a little bit more punch of some sort, if not a bigger explosion, then perhaps a louder scream, or more abundant tears.
Characters are clever, believable, entertaining, and not overdone. In particular, I appreciate Michael Keaton’s villain who is, by his own definition, first and foremost a family man. He’s straightforward, observant, creative. He’s ambitious, but not grandiose. Hardened by the world and comfortable with crime, but not dark and evil. Most refreshingly, he is sensible, surrounded by sensible cronies. No corny bad-guy dialogue here.
Other notable characters are Peter’s side-kick Ned, his crush Liz, the beloved Aunt Mae, and his talking suit. The supporting characters serve well to draw out aspects of Peter’s character and are memorable in their own right. Ned and Liz also comprise a good portion of the films racial diversity representation. One of the most intriguing characters, and one of the main reasons I am excited for the next film, is the character of Michelle the future MJ, in this film, given barely more than a bit part, and cast as a girl of color, portrayed by Zendaya. And if that weren’t already exciting, she is initially built up as snarky, intelligent and quite capable of taking care of herself. I’m excited to see a version of the hero’s lover who isn’t a liability to him because of her own fragility.
Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is moving and poignant. Beneath abundant charm, snark and humor, he perfectly incarnates a generation of boys crying out for absent fathers and mentors, longing for worth and belonging, but left to fend for himself in constructing them. He tries to be strong, and in some ways he is, but he is also able to show his emotions, ranging from tearful despair to giddy delight. His character has huge amount of raw potential and a raging lack of competency, both wearing the suit and tripping through the halls of his school. Very much a real person. Very much a kid.
I stand by my deep appreciating for Spider-Man being one of the most character driven Marvel characters, but in this film that character development is all localized in Holland’s Peter Parker. The only other character with a significant development arc is Keaton’s villain, and the two of them don’t actually exchange dialogue until the end of the movie. Parker spends ample time pining after his high school crush, but their actual interactions never progress beyond the superficial cliches. Indeed Parker’s most vulnerable dialogue is exchanged with the artificial intelligence running his fancy hero-suit. To a fan whose favorite stories are character oriented, this is disappointing. I do, though, make room for this as a story telling technique emphasizing Parker’s isolation an d
As a film, Spider-Man is entertaining, with a refreshing reprieve from too much glitz and glamour. Special effects throughout are enjoyable, but not extravagant. All these factors together allow the story to effectively emphasize the character development. One of the reasons I have consistently loved the Spider-Man character is because his story really wraps the action around a strong and vivid character development arc. We care about the flying webs because we care about the kid in the suit trying to figure out who he is.
Amidst the flash and bang(and there is much flash and bang) Spider-Man takes the viewer on an unexpected and delightful coming-of-age journey, specifically exploring initiation rites.
Initiation rites, especially for males, have existed in almost every culture for most of history. Only in the last few hundred years have meaningful and edifying initiation and coming-of-age rituals died out in Western cultures.
Initiation is generally conducted by the elders of the community, involves rigors and risk, and teaches the youth profound lessons about the nature of life and death. The end result is a discovery of one’s true self, often a renaming, and finally culminates in the developing individual confidently and competently taking their rightful place as a functional and contributing member of the community.
The key is the elders. The elders carry the traditions and, through their rigors, they help the burgeoning youth to ground him or herself in all that has come before, in preparation for all that will come after.
Remove the elders, and you have a problem. A free-floating, peer-led society. Strengths are innovation, spontaneity, creativity and boldness. Weaknesses are impulsivity, recklessness, and an overall undefined sense of purpose and fragile sense of self. Also raging egos.
The latest Peter Parker is one such individual who has arrived at that juncture in his development where he must initiate, but has no functional elder to walk him through the process. At least not at first.
For at least the first half of the film Parker carries himself like a cocky and immature teenager – which he is. His pursuits are his own his own interests, glory, his own ego. Can he get the girl? Can he get the other kids to see him as cool? Can he gain the approval of his hero, Tony Stark? Can he achieve belonging in his desired group, the Avengers?
His guides are a peer whose aspirations are no greater than his own, and a talking hero-suit who coddles and enables him without significantly challenging his character.
For a good portion of the middle of the film, Parker engages in extensive dialogue with the program in his suit. The suit program serves as a mechanism to draw out Parker’s inner thoughts, but as I said, is unable to offer any substantial challenges for growth. As a mechanism of developing the story and the film, at first this feels contrived and awkward, even gimmicky. But on the other hand, this is perfectly brilliant. Where else would a young person turn when their much needed elder is absent, but to the available gimmicks to stimulate, sooth and entertain?
*Insert parallel to current youth culture here.*
The suit, constructed by Tony Stark himself, takes on an increasingly prominent role in the story, the action and Parker’s self-concept as the story goes one, not just as a prop, but a metaphor depicting Parker’s deficient coming-of-age process. Ideally, the purpose of initiation is to force a young person to wrestle with forces bigger than themselves, to make them discover an inner and ultimate strength, essentially to earn their right to wield an axe for the sake of their society. But for Peter, this process is thwarted when he is given a suit with way more technology than he had ever imagined and certainly much more than he had been trained to use responsibility. His power outweighed his responsibility. Because it was grand and because it was unearned, he could get away with avoiding the most important questions of character for most of the movie.
Unlike any other previous Spider-Man interpretations, and perhaps more than any other Marvel character’s equipment(except perhaps Thor’s hammer) Peter’s suit becomes its own character. It preoccupies Peter, emboldens him and effectively distracts him from himself. As long as the suit is functioning and Peter has the suit, he can ignore the flaws in his character.
Eventually the system implodes. Lacking direction, lacking maturity, lacking discernment, Peter tries to self-initiate and prove his own worth (The ferry boat scene) and fails miserably. Only then does his would-be mentor Tony Stark (literally) swoop in to save the day.
Stark typifies the absent and disengaged yet still demanding elder figure. He expects Peter to develop and mature on his own and is disappointed when he does not. To Peter’s plea of, “I wanted to be like you,” he responds, “I wanted you to be better,” without having first provided any meaningful instruction. This is profound, and a great line of dialogue, and vividly displaying a shame and demand behaviorist mentality which, again, typifies youth culture of today.
The story hangs on the moment when Stark takes back the suit. At that moment, Peter’s relationship to his suit becomes his undoing Parker is predictably devastated at this loss and in his despair he finally articulates the flaw in himself he has been ignoring all this time. “If I don’t have the suit, I’m nothing.” To which Stark replies, in a rare moment of wisdom, “If you need the suit to be someone, you shouldn’t have it.”
At that moment, Peter’s true initiation rite has begun. We are no longer watching a cheap action flick, but something sacred. All Peter’s distractions and escape mechanisms are stripped away. Humiliated he must reconcile with his community and start fresh. He must finally face the fundamental questions of who he is, what kind of person he is, just how strong are his character and body and what will he do with that strength.
Initiation rites of old pitted a young man against the forces of nature, sent out alone, with very few resources beyond his own strength. The youth was stripped of his tools, his ego, and often, to some degree, his very clothing.
In a nod to these rites of old, Peter goes into his final confrontation with his nemesis clad in his original homemade suit, essentially sweat pants and a sweatshirt. In comparison to Stark’s fancy suit, he is essentially naked and helpless. In such a state, he must face his fears, face his vulnerabilities, face death itself and still face the villain.
What he does then will determine if he can break out of the cycle of endless boyhood and become a man, if he can transcend a level of mediocrity and become a hero, and if he will discover that beneath the suit there is a real person.