13 July 2017

What the New Spider-Man Comes Home to

Back in 2014, it was widely reported that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a superhero movie crossed with a 1970s political thriller. That’s why the sight of Robert Redford, star of Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and Brubaker, in the film was so resonant.

In the same way, I think Spider-Man: Homecoming as a superhero movie crossed with a 1980s high-school romantic comedy. The sort of movie on which John Hughes made his name. The genre that such other talents as Cameron Crowe, Martha Coolidge, Amy Heckerling, and Savage Steve Holland contributed to.

In the midst of the usual superpowered action and angst, there are a lot of laughs about the culture of high school, as seen from the student perspective. Adults are either petty tyrants or ineffectual scolds (even Captain America). High-school rituals like the morning news bulletin, homecoming dance, and academic decathlon are both laughable and life-or-death important. Everyone else seems to be having more fun.

In many ways, the high school in Spider-Man: Homecoming is a welcome update to the schools in those earlier movies and in the original Spider-Man comics. Peter Parker attends a high school devoted to science and technology, so by older standards everyone’s already a nerd. His rival Flash Thompson isn’t the football captain; he just has a big mouth and sharp tongue. And the student body is very ethnically diverse.

Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t seem shy about its cinematic pedigree. The movie even includes a clip from Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, an iconic example of the genre. The soundtrack features the Ramones, the English Beat, and A Flock of Seagulls. The homecoming dance has an ’80s theme, which would be exotic for characters born in this century but is nostalgic for some of this movie’s target audience.

My friend Dan Mazur has said that he used to enjoy Spider-Man comics and their common theme of “With great power there must also come—great responsibility!” But eventually he noticed that almost every story came back to “With great power there must also come—great responsibility!” And he began to think that comics should find more to say. [More on that here.]

That’s not the theme of this Spider-Man movie, however. It’s not an origin story, as in Amazing Fantasy, #15. We don’t see Peter Parker bit by the spider, we don’t see him try pro wrestling, we don’t see him ignore the burglar who kills his uncle. At no point does he really think about tossing everything away or just showing off, as Peter has occasionally done in the comics and previous movies.

Instead, when Spider-Man: Homecoming starts, Peter is already determined to take on great responsibilities as a costumed crimefighter. Indeed, he’s too eager. The major moment of character growth is actually stepping away from big, flashy responsibilities in favor of staying home. The Homecoming subtitle refers to how the story immediately follows from Captain America: Civil War, the high school dance, and Peter’s decision to focus on his own neighborhood.

The main theme of this Spider-Man is thus the same as those earlier high-school movies: stay true to yourself and your real friends, and you’ll get through this.

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