Spider-Man: Homecoming

Saw Spider-Man: Homecoming this weekend. It was pretty good. I’d venture to say great perhaps.

What’s interesting to me about Homecoming versus any other Spidey film is that this is the one that actually seems like a logical update of the character. I’m not talking about the diversifying of his supporting cast (though that is a great thing) or the integration to the current Marvel cinematic universe (though the story uses the setting in a very smart way, which I want to give kudos for.)

No, I’m talking about the Peter Parker: Unpopular Nerd stereotype that defined the character so much during his formative years. When Peter Parker was formed, the idea of the unpopular smart kid who everyone made fun of and bullied was pretty basic. Flash Thompson, jerk jock, and Gwen Stacy, the pretty, popular girl who would never give Peter the time of day, were also of that mold. But time’s change. And a kid like Peter, his unpopular and bullied nature doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense.

Sure, there are still problems with bullies, and smart kids can be unpopular. I’m not saying you can’t write a story about Peter Parker being an outcast and make it work, but it is a lot harder than it used to be. When one of the most popular characters in movies right now is a genius engineer billionaire, it’s hard to cast Peter Parker, smart kid, as unpopular by default. Homecoming wisely sidesteps this by focusing not on the popularity problem, but on the responsibility issue. How does Peter balance the two sides of his life? Not very well, which makes sense. It’s not because everything goes wrong, but because it’s just a hard thing to do in the first place.

I’ll admit I’ve never been a big Spider-Man fan to begin with. I like a lot of the ideas behind the character, but in execution, I’ve always found Spider-Man stories contrived. He’s a kid where everything goes wrong for him. He isn’t supposed to be the “cool” superhero. He’s not rich or well-respected. He’s a low level superhero who doesn’t get much respect. But in practice, I’ve always found him to be pathetic and rather self-centered, which fits with a character originally aimed at teens who felt overwhelmed and underappreciated by the world around them. It’s a great character hook and a great emotional theme to explore. But at its most extreme, it can feel pitying and egotistical.

I’ve often felt that Spider-Man’s thematic elements could be easily interpreted as “Man, I’m so cool, but nothing goes my way and nobody gets how cool I am!” which is an appealing idea, but strikes me more as egotism than reality. Because you probably aren’t that cool.

But Spider-Man is. Peter Parker is as well. That doesn’t mean he can’t have issues. Some of my favorite scenes in Homecoming are in the beginning, when Spidey is just patrolling the streets, fighting low level crime, doing backflips to impress strangers, and getting in shouting matches with other strangers. It’s delightfully without glamour. Spidey isn’t Iron Man, Captain America, or Thor. He’s not that type of hero.

Watching Spider-Man attempt to interrogate a criminal, his frustration, the lack of respect the criminal gives him, it’s all perfect. Funny and delightful and yet, a great character moment because Spider-Man isn’t a badass. He’s a kid with amazing powers, but he’s not intimidating. He doesn’t even look intimidating, which is what works so well. And the fact that he gets information by simply helping someone shows that his real power isn’t the image of who he pretends to be, but who he actually is.

Even the idea of Peter being irresponsible is explored in an updated way. Everyone knows he is, but at the same time, he’s still a good kid and everyone knows that too.

The theme of  being a sort of working class hero runs throughout the film as well as the questions of who Spider-Man wants to be. Frankly, I love that we didn’t get another “Do I want to be Spider-Man?” moment in this movie. He wants to be Spider-Man. He just hasn’t figured out how to make it work yet. He’s still adrift and uncertain, but he also knows he wants to help people.

There’s a scene in Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 that always makes me cringe. It’s this moment when Peter has lost his powers (though this is all in his head), and he watches a man getting the hell beat out of him in alley. He simply walks away, as if it isn’t his problem. I hate it. In that moment, Peter Parker proves what a self-centered, uncaring person he is. It is only later, when someone he personally knows is threatened that he regains his powers. It is only when Peter Parker thinks something will affect him personally that he gives a damn.

That is the definition of a selfish person.

At his worst, Spider-Man represents that sort of maudlin selfishness, that “Poor Me” attitude that we can all fall into. It’s part of the reason I don’t really like the Raimi films. They aren’t about a heroic character, but a weak character with poor judgment and selfish motivations. For many, this is why the character ultimately speaks to them, and, hey, whatever. Different strokes.

But Homecoming‘s Spidey is a great update. It’s funny where it should be, meaningful where it should be. Its portrayal of the conflicting difficulties of youth, of finding yourself in a world you aren’t quite sure of, is spot on. And it manages to make Peter relatable without making him selfish or excessively sad, which is in itself something I often find missing from the character.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

LEE

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