The release of Spider-Man: Homecoming this week marks Spider-Man’s seventh appearance in a film and sixth film of his own. Even with Homecoming reviews tipping into the positive realm, his movie track record is now spotty at best. How did the most popular Marvel character, whose first film made $400 million domestic in 2002 dollars, become so uncertain? Franchise Fred wants to get to the bottom of this.
Nowhere To Go But Down
In 2002 I could not wait to see Spider-Man, and to cover the junket. I had never read a Spider-Man comic. I wanted to see Sam Raimi do a superhero movie. You know, like Darkman. He introduced me to the profound wonder of Spider-Man. This was a moral hero. With great power comes great responsibility. You can’t just use your powers for self-serving purposes, because it can still harm the ones you love. I eventually did read a trade collection of the original Spider-Man comics and confirmed they were all about teaching children lessons in an entertaining format. Raimi just upgraded them.
It had a moral, sympathetic villain too. Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) was doing good for Oscorp. His board was ready to throw him under the bus for one round of bad tests. His experiments led to megalomania and violence, a cautionary tale for letting ambition consume you. Even his redemption made things harder for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). Spider-Man did kill Harry (James Franco0’s dad. That’s tough even if he was the Green Goblin.
I never got the Spider-Man 2 love. It’s certainly a competent movie with great action scenes and improved visual effects. The part that rings false to me is Peter’s powers go away. That’s not how responsibility works. If great power comes with great responsibility then you’re responsible for having powers whether you’re using them or not. Also, I’ll buy the metaphysics of a genetic spider bite gives you the powers of a spider. But then that is your DNA. It doesn’t come and go as you please. The part where Peter can’t keep his real life commitments, I totally get. It’s understandable he’d like to quit Spider-Man but I think it would be more interesting if he was still stuck with those powers, sticking to walls and shooting web.
I also take issue with Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) as a sympathetic villain akin to Norman Osborn. He was clearly a megalomaniac before his experiment corrupted him. Look at his condescending attitude towards Peter at their dinner, and he kept the nuclear experiment going at great risk to onlookers in the room. It’s also got many scenes of Peter and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) recapping events of Spider-Man 1, in case anyone missed the $400 million grossing Spider-Man. I figured that would need a course correction, but it’s the popular favorite Raimi so I’m glad people are happy.
My love of Spider-Man 3 is well documented. I guess if comic book fans were really looking forward to Venom, they didn’t get it. Having no attachment, it was exactly the Spider-Man 3 I wanted to see. It resolved the Harry arc and left Peter and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) in a poignant place. I related to the themes and really appreciated how Sam Raimi explored them.
Popularity is actually no good for Peter Parker. It makes him complacent and take his relationship for granted. Every time Mary Jane has a problem he tells her what Spider-Man does when that happens. It’s not that she wants it to be about her or that she wants him to stop trying to fix her. She just misses Peter Parker. She’d like to have one conversation with her boyfriend that’s not about his job.
Most controversially, it’s about how there can always be more to a story than you’ve been told. Even if that story is the decades old tale of Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson)’s death, there could be new information. Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) could’ve been the driver. Sam Raimi reveres the Spider-Man story. He didn’t do this to be disrespectful and retcon it. He believes in responsible storytelling more than canon and he wanted to teach open-mindedness and forgiveness. Also, the emo dance is hilarious. The fact that Peter Parker at his most corrupted is still a big dork is perfect. He’s still corrupted enough to be dangerous, but he’s silly. I will give you that Harry’s butler should’ve spoken up sooner. That’s balls. Maybe tell him the truth about his evil dad before he starts trying to kill people.
Spider-Man 3 wasn’t totally conclusive. It left Peter and MJ on shaky ground that could’ve been interesting to develop further. It would’ve been pricy though. Raimi, Maguire and Dunst had three picture deals. A fourth gave them prime negotiating power. Their Spider-Man 4 probably could’ve topped Spider-Man 3’s gross and certainly made more than The Amazing Spider-Man. We’ll never know.
The Amazing Spider-Man suffered from reboot fatigue. I mean, doing the dark and gritty Batman and James Bond made sense after their longevity. This was only 10 years after the original Spider-Man. Remember when fans were so happy that Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) built his webshooters mechanically again? I never had an issue with organic webshooters. Peter Parker became a spider. That includes the ability to produce webbing. Also it was James Cameron’s idea. But hey, aren’t we glad we got rid of those awful organic webshooters, so they can do the exact same Spider-Man story with manufactured webbing that sometimes short circuits underwater or can be taken away from him in a fight?
Perhaps there was a more revolutionary take on the Spider-Man origin that got watered down into the same old same old by the time it finished post-production. Again, we’ll never know unless they release that DVD like the Superman II Richard Donner Cut. Other superficial changes: It’s Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) instead of Mary Jane but their relationship is exactly the same. Except Stone and Garfield were allowed to improv so it’s not as well written. They just interrupt each other a lot and it’s supposed to be cute that they’re so nervous they never finish a sentence.
Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a disaster but it has at least two scenes that are iconic. I don’t think I’ll remember any of the set pieces in Homecoming like I’ll remember Gwen Stacy’s final scene or Electro (Jamie Foxx) in Times Square. The Washington Monument is fun in Homecoming but the boat scene plays better in the trailer. The trailer shot of Iron Man flying with Spider-Man is not even in Homecoming.
Amazing 2 was supposed to be their chance to tell an original Spider-Man story now that they got the origin out of the way. Their haste to set up a shared universe leaves a mess of dangling story threads, including many they cut out of the movie entirely. It still couldn’t find its own voice for Peter Parker, relying on the mumblecore improv in place of character development.
Each successive Spider-Man lessened the morality of the character until there is none in Homecoming. The Amazing films still had their share of tragedy, but the deaths of Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) did no galvanize Peter to be moral. The first film ended with him bragging about breaking promises!
He suffered again in Amazing Spider-Man 2 but Homecoming has nothing. No mention of the lesson Uncle Ben taught him, or even how he died. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) scolds Peer for getting people hurt in his botched exploits but the punishment is losing his cool suit, not living with any sort of guilt. Even the maligned Spider-Man 3 had a sense of melancholy for his breakup with Mary Jane and friendship with Harry. It doesn’t always have to be death but once Peter Parker figures his persona life out the story is over.
The Spidey From Another Franchise
The Spider-Man short film in the middle of Captain America: Civil War seemed like it was on the right track. Tony Stark basically visits a Spider-Man movie already in progress, with a sense of the endearing nerdy tone of Raimi’s films. Stark played well against Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, who barely has more screen time in Homecoming than she had in Civil War.)
It kind of ruins the fun of Spider-Man when instead of discovering the joy of his own powers, he’s just playing with his new toys. I’d have to count, but I bet Spider-Man: Homecoming has more gadgets and different configurations of action figure than Batman & Robin, which was notoriously stacked with potential toys. If your beef with the Raimi films was the organic webshooters, then Homecoming’s Peter Parker is still not the inventor you want him to be. He gets all his inventions from Tony Stark.
I’m sure there were comic books that had super suits like this too, so you could say it’s still inspired by comics. This Stark Industries suit at this stage in Peter’s development only robs him of having to make heroic decisions himself. We’re so far away from Peter Parker here that his suit has a voice that talks to him too. Karen is his Jarvis. Funnily enough, she’s voiced by Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany’s wife. But she’s giving him so many instructions, she’s even his shrink when it comes to lady problems with Liz (Laura Harrier), his high school crush and academic decathlon team captain. There’s one endearing scene where Peter pushes himself without the benefit of Stark’s suit but it’s so late in the movie it feels like an afterthought.
Homecoming is a Spider-Man movie trapped in an Iron Man movie. Now they’ve got a Peter Parker who can convincingly stay in high school for a few movies, but their high school tone now means that Spider-Man: Homecoming takes nothing seriously. To the high school juniors and seniors, nothing matters, not even being a superhero. But, it’s not their fault. They learned it from watching YOU, Tony.
This is not Peter Parker. Peter Parker is earnest to a fault. This Peter, and everyone around him, is so desperate to find the joke in every scene it’s exhausting. I’m all for irreverence and taking tropes down a peg, but when it’s the specific tone of a different series in the franchise, it’s glaring. Tony Stark makes fun of hero B.S. Spider-Man WANTS to be that noble hero.
Perhaps the humor fails because every single character is a mini Tony Stark. When everyone has the same comedic point of view, there’s no comedic conflict. By the second time they discuss the “guy in the chair” trope, it’s like a little kid who got a laugh once and then never stops making the same jokes.
The only character taking this movie seriously is Toomes/The Vulture (Michael Keaton). He’s not looking for a joke. He’s ready to murder you while you’re too busy trying to look cool for social media. A closeup on Keaton is one of the greatest things in cinema, and he’s actually more of a positive adult role model than Stark, because Toomes reminds you you can’t afford to screw around when there are serious bad guys out there. Stark is the “do as I say, not as I do” authority and his presence in the film is about as effective as that line of parenting.
Homecoming still has that sense of checking every box the execs wanted. If your beef with Spider-Man 3 was too many forced story threads, then so is this.Now that Spider-Man is part of the MCU, there are too many references to the other Marvel movies. Connectivity is fun but I would like to reach a point where these movies don’t feel like they have to reference every single one that came before them. Or at least make them subtler so it’s not just a list of name drops. This seems like the worst aspects of a studio clinging to the franchise rights and Marvel allowing the laziest aspects of their MCU films to pollinate it.
As great as Keaton is as Toomes, the Vulture origin is more of the MCU variety than the tragic Sam Raimi mold, which was inspired by the Marvel comics. The Vulture was not created in a laboratory accident. He’s a more opportunistic villain, exploiting the wreckage of the Avengers battle in New York, like a Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) or an Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). They don’t all have to be tragic reflections of the hero I guess. The character remains Spider-Man: Homecoming’s strongest quality.
With Great Power
Where does that leave Spider-Man movies? Everyone seems to like Homecoming so we’ll likely get more irreverent high school millennial hipster comedies with more Stark Industries gadgets (and even less Downey, I predict.) See the fleeting praise for Amazing Spider-Man as evidence of how fickle fans can be. Or maybe there never were enough of those Spider-Man purists to keep the grosses up.
There’s going to be a Venom movie too so maybe Sinister Six isn’t dead either. That’s only in the live-action realm though. The great hope might be animated.
The still untitled animated Spider-Man movie was written by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. I seem to respond to their brand of irreverence better than Homecoming’s. Hopefully they can do for Spider-Man what they did for Lego and the children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
I got three Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man movies so I can be happy about that. Even his most compromised one is full of unabashed Raimi-ness. One day there might be another singular director who earns the clout to make a Spider-Man movie. Wouldn’t it be great if it was a woman?
That’s not the era we’re living in with live-action studio films at the moment. Idiosyncratic directors are clashing with producers in charge of the larger franchise. There’s still hope in the likes of James Gunn, Scott Derrickson, Patty Jenkins and we’ll see if Ryan Coogler and Rian Johnson can meld their visions with that of their producers.
The studio just better remember that Spider-Man is not just a license to print money. Spider-Man means something and this version of Spider-Man will be the one many kids remember and with whose toys they play. There’s great power in that, and you know what they say comes with great power.