I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming on Friday. From all accounts people are saying that this is the definitive Spider-Man, mostly because it features an actor who really does look and act like a teenager (he’s 21, BTW). On that level, I guess it’s a success, but the problem from my vantage-point is that I have trouble relating to the Peter Parker character. I feel that I should relate to him, but I don’t, and I think I know why.
Peter Parker falls vaguely into the nerdy outcast archetype, and I sure belonged to that group as a teenager. However, there’s one key difference. As awkward as he is, and as tongue-twisted as he gets when he’s near the object of his infatuation, he’s an extrovert. That extroversion takes the form of him being a chatterbox. It seems every other line of dialogue he’s mentioning how something is “cool” or “awesome” the way the Harry Potter kids used to call things “brrrilliant”. In the comics, you can kind of understand it. Comics are all about dialogue bubbles. When Ralph Bakshi adapted him in the 60s, they established him talking his way through each episode in a sort of pseudo-voiceover-narration.
Here’s an example of that sort of chatter.
This has the effect of being almost film-noir-like. It’s like he’s telling you his story as it’s happening, breaking the 4th wall. I haven’t seen Deadpool but I think he does this sort of thing throughout, but Deadpool is a more modern character than Spider-Man and he’s an adult so he can be far more irreverent and naughty (not that anything is sacred anymore even with kids, as epitomized by a scene in the new movie where Parker’s friend gets caught in the school’s computer room and says he was watching porn).
The problem is that I just don’t find it plausible that a modern teenager would be talking to himself all the time like a paranoid schizophrenic or providing annoying color-commentary to his foes during a fight-scene. It’s borderline camp.
The way they try to “sell” it is in the opening scene where it’s from the vantage point of his cell-phone. So yeah, it’s true that today’s generation are selfie-culture narcissists. But I don’t find it endearing. I find it annoying. The way the film deals with the generation gap is by having Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) and his ever-widening assistance Happy (played by Jon Favreau) keep dissing him and dressing him down. So I found myself relating more to Robert Downey Jr.’s Stark than Peter Parker. I kept wishing Parker would shut up for a while and just do his job fighting crime.
I also wished the film had tried to elevate itself more into epic territory. The theme in Spider-Man that has mythic overtones is “with great Power comes great responsibility”. This was played up fairly well in the Tobey Maguire version.
Also in the Tobey Maguire version was the classic struggle of carrying the weight of that responsibility, Superman 2 style, as evidenced in the now-iconic Subway scene.
The new Spider-Man does heroic scenes but nothing at this scope. The villain portrayed by Michael Keaton seems sort of low-rent, and the big twist too contrived. I really got the sense that this was a spinoff film in the Iron Man franchise than a story that had to be told.
In addition to that, I’m noting an increasingly blurry line today in portraying high-tech as if it’s magic. I didn’t like it when the Michael Keaton Batmobile acted like a transformer because I knew that sort of thing was impossible, and the things the Stark-built Spidey suit does is even more impossible, right down to the Hal-9000-grade AI voice. So this is definitely a Spidey for the 21st century but this over-reliance on high-tech makes him feel more like Iron Man with a softer suit than a superhero who got bitten by a spider and developed special powers of his own. Even though the film’s theme plays with the idea that the suit is a crutch, Stark never should have given him all that stuff if he really wanted him to rely on his wits. So in a way Stark sort of sets him up for failure.
Not only that, but Iron Man swoops in to save the day a couple times, so you get the sense that the entire thing is a training mission and nobody’s in real danger. It’s even worse when Iron Man sends a remote drone version of himself which he controls while he’s busy doing other stuff. Not only is he propping up Spider-Man, but he’s not always fully engaged while doing it. This was clearly done for comedic effect but it also has the effect of sullying Spider-Man to the point where we’re made to feel like he’s a minor-league player when he is in fact the Marvel equivalent of Mickey Mouse. He’s supposed to be the penultimate Marvel superhero and the film never really gives us a reason to look up to him properly because it goes overboard in making him an every-teen.
To continue on my lack of identification, in order for any character to really resonate, he or she needs some sort of inner-conflict. Even Superman in the donnerverse had inner-conflict in the sense of him feeling dedicated to two worlds, that of his adoptive parents, and the spirit of his father and all the rules and regulations he imposed on him. Peter Parker’s life really isn’t that tortured. (Did I mention that the new Aunt May, played by Marissa Tomei, is also a MILF (or is it AILF?). She’s 52 but she looks about 40 and she even walks in on Peter when his shirt is off next to his friend in a sort of homo-erotic situation. I guess that was different for the sake of different but it does change the dynamic in Peter’s household rather than him caring for an elderly relative.)
I think the new Spider-Man might be better suited for a TV show like Smallville if it want’s to play small-potatoes and focus on his life at home and at school, but I just found the stakes too small to justify the big budget treatment.