Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) by Jon Watts
Review by Nathan Smith
In the weeks since I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming, I've been thinking quite a bit about Michael Keaton’s Vulture, who is the most pointed and unpackable part of this movie. Keaton’s career has gone full circle, from one of the most iconic on-screen superheroes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most memorable villain; yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Birdman has come home to roost.
Spider-Man has come home too, hence the film’s title, which refers both to the diegetic homecoming that concludes our pubescent crusader’s inaugural adventure and his non-diegetic homecoming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where most fans believe he rightfully belongs. Unfortunately, I am by no means a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though I am a fan of Marvel comics. My devotion to the penny paperbacks I was weaned on keeps me coming back to these things like a junkie to the needle. They’ll probably be the death of me. I’d much rather we turn time back to the simple pleasures of 2007 and Spider-Man 3, back when James Franco hadn’t discovered performance art, the first Iron Man was merely a press notice on Ain’t It Cool News, and the words “Marvel Cinematic Universe” had yet to be strung together outside backroom board meetings and publicist’s PowerPoint presentations. I must admit, considering how dismal Andrew Garfield and Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Shocker was, I had a speck of hope for this film.
Then again, the MCU is the Sunny D to Sam Raimi’s pulpy, thick, Florida Orange Juice: maybe tolerable when consumed with malt liqour, but toxic the rest of the time.
Homecoming begins with a prologue sequence. Keaton plays a blue-collar waste removal contractor who loses his bid on the cleanup of the rubble from the battle scene in the first Avengers to a shadowy state organization called The Department of Damage Control, a joint venture between the federal government and Stark Industries. Keaton's character spent too much money on the prep for the job and it wiped him out, so he turns to scavenging alien artifacts, which now litter the American landscape, and re-purposing them into black market weapons. From a conceptual standpoint, that's fascinating; a Marvel movie is finally (at least outside of the unappreciated Age of Ultron) acknowledging its own wreckage and working through its aftermath. Maybe that means these movies (and thus our culture) will finally work through and move on from 9/11.
For the MCU, the aforementioned Avengers battle in New York City is 9/11, the inciting incident that led to the gradual but unquestioned installment of our current superherocracy, led by a post-government, above-the-law, authoritarian entourage called the Avengers. The arrival of the Avengers has set the ball rolling for the collision of Earth with doomsday forces that will inevitably bring about its end, or at least the end of the current incarnation of civilization. I don't need to tell you that 9/11 began, or at least significantly contributed, to a wave of social and political changes over the last 2 decades that have led to the frankly frightening Way We Live Now.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the existence of the Avengers, which like every destructive, war-mongering technology in the past hundred years was created "just in case we need it" and then magically led to a situation in which we needed it, is what has led to the potential collapse of society. This mirrors how, in our own timeline, apocalypse-preoccupied media (which I broadly define to include movies about apocalyptic events, movies about post-apocalyptic societies, and movies that allow us to replay traumatic extinction events over and over again) has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that I often feel has led directly to the current state of our world. We’ve seen these events play out on-screen so many times that we can’t help but will them into existence ourselves.
Like the Wolverine of Logan, the Spider-Man of Spider-Man: Homecoming has been reconfigured as the quintessential Gig Economy superhero, refashioned from the class-conscious, check-to-check freelancer of Spider-Man 2, who resisted the crushing heel of capitalism through his disguised direct actions. Spider-Man has always been a workingman’s hero with his feet on the ground, struggling to get by as much as he struggles to fight crime. This latest Spider-Man is an Uber driver: operating job-to-job for masters who operate above both the law and the forces of the so-called "free market" they claim to espouse. That’s a similar situation to Parker’s position as a freelance photographer in the Raimi trilogy, but in this version, Peter Parker willingly colludes and perpetuates the post-government, post-market agenda enforced by Stark and company.
This Spider-Man is the tongue-in-cheek "working class hero," (there’s even a tongue-in-cheek joke in this movie about Captain America being a “war criminal”) but is ultimately a prop of the economic autocracy, utilized to satisfy the populace like the sweet and censored Tilda Swinton twin in Okja, a spoonful of sugar to help the proverbial medicine go down. If Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, a phrase that is now only invoked ironically, goes into your community and builds a relationship with you and cracks wise in-between incompetently fighting crime, maybe you won't question the higher forces working to exploit you, who Spidey still serves. This reflects common arguments we often hear about police reform. Though it would be better if cops built relationships with those they serve, it would be best if we didn't have the police, an inherently corrupt system that arose out of slave patrols, at all. This Spider-Man is the ultimate rent-a-cop, as much Paul Blart as he is a puppet of the new regime.
The other problem I’ve developed with this movie, other than the fact that it's a bland film that can't decide if it wants to be capital-s Serious or sugar-coated, sort-of like Baby Driver battling his inner Logan, is what it blames for the insidiousness of our economic superstructure. According to director Jon Watts and Marvel, the blame is not with the convergence of private and public business or the influence of capital on political workings, but with the traumatic wound that set the doomsday clock ticking. But what's the use of fixating on a wound when the whole body is dying from cancer? No, Michael Keaton did not lose his job because aliens came to earth and somebody had to fight them, he lost his job because of how the system responded to that invasion: instead of giving work to the majority, the minority who happen to wield an economic supermajority stepped in, collecting all the riches and new technology to fill their own coffers with. It's the system that's the problem, not the conflicts that have made its flaws all the more apparent.
For the first 10 minutes or so, I think Homecoming understands that Michael Keaton is the most sympathetic character, but by the time it becomes more about Spider-Man’s adorability and Tony Stark’s hip authoritarianism, it loses any potential for that commentary to follow through to its natural conclusion: a world where new technologies are the equal possession of the people, not the few, and where violence is no longer incentivized. Vulture is driven mad by his need for capital, but it neglects to indict the system that created that need, unlike Spider-Man 2. In Raimi’s film, James Franco's venture capitalist invests in Doc Ock, who then turns to crime to acquire the funds he needs to gain more power. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man is the political Christ who grants mercy to Doc Ock, whose death willingly destroys the perpetual motion machine that capitalism unleashes, consuming everything in its path. I mean, there’s literally a fight scene in Spider-Man 2 where Doc Ock and Spider-Man sling gigantic bags of money at each other inside a bank. You don’t get more unsubtly anti-capitalist then that.
The only reason Michael Keaton and his crew go rogue is because those are the rules the winners play by, and they think the little guy shouldn't be the losers. I happen to agree with them.