Drama with a Capital D

Let’s talk about DRAMA. Or MATURITY. Or DEPTH. Or whatever you want to call it. Let’s talk about in storytelling specifically because that’s my job.

As you’d no doubt expect from me if you read this blog with any regularity, I have a different definition of Drama and Maturity (both capitalized) than a lot of people. I’ve already admitted I’m not a fan of downer endings, and I don’t think that being Sad or Dull equals Intelligence or Sophistication.

Lot of capitalization going on there, but I’m talking about big concepts here. Concepts nobody really quite agrees on.

Recently, I’m seeing this dynamic play out in the critical discussions of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films versus the new Spider-Man: Homecoming, and it’s a pretty solid place to have the discussion because of what the films have in common and what makes them different. A lot of people love Raimi’s films. Well, maybe not the third one. But for a lot of folks, they’re still considered among the best in the genre.

I’ve never particularly cared for them. There are a lot of reasons why, but the ultimate answer to me, more than anything, is that they’re dour, accidentally silly films that I can’t take seriously. Their version of Peter Parker and his universe is primarily weak melodrama, and most of the motivations, scenes, and characterization I find goofy rather than thoughtful. Just one guy’s opinion. People will disagree, but they seem like films filled with pathos and drama and “With great power…” themes, and I’ve never found them truly enjoyable. Worse, I’ve never even found them very interesting.

Part of this is personal preference. I don’t generally like stories about sad people being sad. I don’t find Peter Parker to be particularly compelling, and, as I’ve said before, I find that it is the exact version of the character meant to appeal to angsty teens who think the world is unfair to them, despite how awesome they are. That this speaks to a lot of adults isn’t something I dismiss, and maybe I never was an angsty teen, so maybe I just don’t have the tools to relate to it.

Also, I never believed the relationship between Peter and MJ. Like ever. It’s so cloying and Sincere (yes, capital S) and Tragic and just something out of a bad romance novel. (Not a good one, by the way. There are good romance novels that make us believe the characters love each other.) Aside from the fact that he’s Spider-Man and she’s Mary Jane, I don’t know why they’d want to be with each other.

And Aunt May. By The Mighty Robot King, don’t get me started on Aunt May in the Raimi films. What a terrible person, constantly undercutting her nephew, constantly raining on his parade. Sucking every moment of joy from his life with lectures and faux thoughtful caring moments.

I mean, I really, really hate Aunt May in those films.

Homecoming eschews all that. This version of Peter Parker is a smart kid managing a decent life. He’s not perfect, but he’s certainly no underdog, no loser. (And, really, in this day and age does it make a lick of sense for a smart kid like Peter to be considered a “nerd”?) His relationships are interesting. His dilemmas are less tragic and more about finding balance.

Most importantly, he seems to actively care about helping people. Raimi’s Spider-Man couldn’t wait to be rid of the mantle, hated every second of it. I get that being Spider-Man isn’t supposed to be glamorous, but again, I always felt Raimi’s Parker was simply an idiot who couldn’t manage his life, not a poor unfortunate soul.

Homecoming‘s Spidey isn’t the same loser, and while there is something intrinsically appealing about Superhero-as-Loser, this is kind of a one-dimensional view after a while.

The conflict though is that a big part of what made the Raimi films popular was their “SERIOUSNESS!”. It wasn’t a seriousness I found compelling or believable, but many people did. Homecoming isn’t interested in that kind of drama. It has humor. Its version of Spider-Man is still a more grounded hero, but one that is less lovable loser and more badass in training.

It’s easy to dismiss Homecoming as a Lighter film. (There are those caps again.) And if you’re definition of Drama is of dour folks being sad, it definitely is.

What is probably not shocking to anyone who has read anything I’ve ever written: I don’t define Drama like that, and I think it is a mistake that so many do.

I’ll even go a step further: I think it is a little bit childish at time to mistake humor or happy endings for, well, childish things.

Not every time. Plenty of stories are depressing and tragic and unpleasant and work well. Heck, Spidey’s been many of those things for much of his career and worked fine. But I’d still say that a Spidey movie that is about a more grounded, more capable Spider-Man with less bad luck isn’t inherently less valuable or even less thoughtful than one that he is.

I’m saying that while Raimi’s films have their fans, I don’t think they are actually better than Homecoming. Or, more accurately, I don’t think they’re smarter or more interesting by default simply because the camera likes to focus lovingly on Tobey Maguire’s tearful serial killer stare as he is incapable of handling a complex problem with any sense.

I know, I know. I’m wrong. And in the most basic regard, I can’t disagree. While I enjoyed Homecoming, it sure as heck does miss a lot of Spidey’s Greatest Hits. We don’t have to watch Uncle Ben die again. We don’t have to listen to Aunt May give him another speech about responsibility. We don’t watch him disappoint everyone around him at every turn because of his Spidey responsibilities. In short, if you’re looking for the same Spider-Man you’ve gotten over and over again, you’re not getting it here.

And if someone finds that disappointing, that’s cool. That’s sensible. If you go into Homecoming expecting the same old beats, you’re going to walk out disappointed. Disappointment doesn’t equal failure on the film’s part though.

There’s some great drama in Homecoming. Peter is struggling to find his place in the world (like any young person does), and scrambling against too much responsibility. He feels constantly underestimated, leading him to make mistakes. He has doubts and concerns, but this Peter Parker also has a sense of self and moral center. (I still argue that Raimi’s Peter’s entire motivation is self-serving and shallow, from crimefighting to his relationships.)

What’s missing from Homecoming is Tragedy. Capital T Tragedy. Spidey makes a decision, and there are certainly going to be consequences, but there aren’t any shots of him walking toward the camera, forlorn, alone, forever separated from a regular life by the burden of awesome power he carries.

Okay, so, again, for the record, I don’t really like the default Spider-Man themes that have defined the character for ages, and so, I’m not going to be the best guy to defend the Raimi films. This is acknowledged.

But even without Capital T Tragedy, I think Homecoming has a lot of great ideas, a lot of thoughtful themes. I felt much the same way about Civil War and Dr. Strange and many (though not all) of the Marvel films. So why do they so often get dismissed as mere candy? Is it their commercial success? That’s part of it. Is it there humor? Oh, yes. A thousand times yes. Is it the fact that they are fun? Yes.

I’m not going to argue that they’re all-time classics, but I will say that they get what I feel is an unfair rap now and then.

I’ll also say that it’s something I’m probably sensitive about sense I feel my own work gets that same unfair rap too.

Everybody has preferences. I much prefer Adam West’s version of Batman to Nolan’s grumbling downer. (The Dark Knight ranks among my own most overrated superhero films.) I’m not saying which is better because it’s all pretty damn subjective in the end, but I will say that to equate Tragedy with Depth is a big pet peeve of mine. But what the heck do I know? I’m just some guy who writes about space squids and everyday gods. I can rail against these definitions all I like, but they aren’t changing anytime soon.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

LEE

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