I approach movies differently if I intend to review them for an audience. When I’m invited to a critic’s screening, I bring a notebook and I approach the story as though I would any other: with intent and an analytical eye. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” wasn’t such a film. As I buckled in to watch the third incarnation of the superhero I loved the most as a kid, I had already hit the off switch in the analytical portion of my brain, added vodka to muffle the last remaining bits of political analysis and foreign policy debate that’s constantly running through my mind thanks to being an active participant in the modern era’s never ending news cycle, and got ready for a movie I knew I’d like before it even started.
How did I know? Because I’m a fanboy nerd, and in my book, it’s pretty tough to ruin a vodka filled evening full of masked vigilantes or Michael Keaton – and on a great night, you get both. Usually, that means a romp back to the late 80’s, when Jack Nicholson was still known as the best Joker to ever live, and a comedian was playing a Batman that killed almost as many thugs as Batfleck.
I was, however, aware that this new Spider-Man movie represented an unnatural marriage between the Marvel Cinematic Universe, home to characters like Captain America and Iron Man, and Sony, a company that contractually has to keep making Spider-Man movies forever lest they be forced to surrender the licensing for their headline hero back to the Disney overlords that are swallowing up (and making competent films out of) just about everything great we remember from childhood. I did wonder what influence Sony might have on the overall story telling of the film, or its depiction of the characters we’ve come to know so well over the years, like Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr.
I’ll level with you, Downey’s Stark was more sass and less substance in this movie than he’s been in Marvel’s other films, but then, this movie was never supposed to be about him. His name, and the character he plays that so closely resembles him, are a safety net for ticket sales. Marvel and Sony both knew I’d give them twenty bucks to see RDJ mentor the Webslinger, even if just for a few minutes, and they were right, I did, and I’d do it again.
It wasn’t until after the movie ended that the gears in my brain started turning again. Maybe the booze was just wearing off, but I couldn’t help but feel as though the conflict depicted in this movie closely resembles a real fight we’re approaching back here in the real world that we’re all trapped in. Keaton’s Vulture plays a blue-collar, hardworking small business owner that was financially ruined by a combination of government interference and a huge disaster that rocked a major city. In their world, that comes in the form of aliens invading from a hole in the sky. In ours, that may potentially come in the form of a nuclear detonation.
Like Kim Jong un’s North Korean regime, Keaton’s crew manages to get their hands on weaponry so advanced, it gives them world-power level destructive capabilities, despite their utter lack of appreciation for the responsibility that power brings with it. That’s right, the famous line, “with great power comes great responsibility,” wasn’t so much as uttered once in this entire movie, but you’re still stuck hearing about it in a review – because some clichés exist for a reason.
As the non-stop technology train continues to steam ahead in our real world, super villain caliber doomsday weapons will become more readily available to lots of different groups. Iran and North Korea, both nations that celebrate the idea of America’s destruction openly in the streets, are already flirting with weapons technology that could create unfathomable levels of destruction, and if we, as a global society, think UN resolutions and tough diplomatic peacocking will suffice to stifle other nations from following suit, we’re kidding ourselves.
Keaton’s Vulture tells Spider-Man, at one point in the film, that people like Tony Stark simply don’t care about the little guy. “We pick up after them, we fight their wars, and then we squabble over the scraps,” is perhaps not an exact quote, but close to it. That idea, the concept of weaponry creating power inequality, has been a fact of life since the United States dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the conclusion of World War II. The United States simultaneously reveled in the power they’d created, while recognizing that its destructive capacity was simply too much to award any one man, unstable regime, or, if we had any say in the matter, diplomatic competitor.
Such is the world of Spider-Man, where a small group of people manage to harness the destructive power of state-level militaries without any state to be sanctioned or diplomats to scold. That’s the risk our children will face in the form of dirty bombs, chemical and biological weapons, and the increasing prevalence of nuclear arms.
If this parallel holds true, then, what does Spider-Man represent, you may ask. Well, he’s tough, smart, a bit overconfident and idealistic… which all sound a lot like what we, as Americans, may see as the best of ourselves. Spider-Man is a kid with a lot to learn – as are we all, but in particular, the youngest generation of Americans this movie is directed at.
In the scope of super hero flicks, this movie gets a passing grade without effecting the curve, but as a glimpse into the anxieties of the America’s youth, it’s telling. We may live in Trump’s America today, but there will come a time when the millennials we lament and deride for taking selfies and eating soy will be holding the reigns in this nation – and the challenges faced by Spider-Man will be the national security risks faced by their generation of leaders.
State level threats, while persistent and no less dangerous, can no longer be our only concern. Spider-Man addresses this concept with frequent allusions to The Avengers, who are tasked with such high level issues. The Pentagon handles Russia and China, like the Avengers take on Ultron, but the challenge of keeping our streets safe from super-powered evil doers, like terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, will fall on local heroes, with occasional support from the Department of Defense or Stark Enterprises.
This movie, admittedly, made me feel old. I just can’t relate to a high school underdog anymore and, to be honest, I felt like I had a lot more in common with the older guys hitting on Aunt May than I did with most of the film’s main characters as they got ready for the homecoming dance, but I’m on the tail end of the demographic Marvel and Sony were aiming for. They were creating a movie for high school kids to relate to – and presenting dangers that felt grounded to a person who grew up during the Global War on Terror. I, after all, was already older than Peter Parker when the planes hit on September 11th, 2001.
If you’re looking for a movie that offers a few laughs, some great action sequences, and, in my opinion, the best actor we’ve ever had playing Spider-Man in Tom Holland, this is the flick for you. If you’re starting to spot grey hairs in your beard, it may not feel as relatable for you as it might be for your kids, but it’s still a good time.
And if you want a glimpse into the creeping anxieties of a generation of Americans who have grown up under the dark shadow of terrorism, it’s a downright effective case study into culture being crafted to reflect the demographic it pursues.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a worthy addition to the MCU as a whole, and an entertaining way to spend a Friday night, but if you catch yourself wondering if Michael Keaton has a few good points… or you find yourself worrying about how much damage a single weapon could do in the hands of a person that feels disenfranchised by the system our society has created, then you may have caught a glimpse of the quagmire that will be our nation’s security in the years to come: where decent seeming people get lost in their pain, and turn to extremism to affect the change they believe is necessary.
The looming threat of every day folks being radicalized by a belief structure that’s frankly incongruous with our way of life is already a reality, and as our country grows more divided, and some begin to feel rage shift toward justification for heinous acts of violence, the Vulture will become a reality. The terrifying truth about the enemy our children will face, is that they may look just like us, but hopefully they won’t be in bullet proof wing suits…
Because we don’t have a Spider-Man swinging in to save the day.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is available now on Amazon Video and iTunes, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on October 17, 2017.
Images courtesy of Sony and Columbia Pictures