The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been expanded to include Spider-Man – and Dan Slevin thinks it is now so unwieldy it only works as sitcom.
Earlier this week, 20th Century Fox and Disney Studios (main custodians of the Marvel comics cinematic assets) announced 10 new entries in their relative franchises, taking the Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Guardians of the Galaxy and any and all attendant spin-offs to 18 (or is it 19?) slated releases filling Hollywood calendars out into the early 2020s.
To add to the confusion felt among executives and trademark lawyers, the rights to the perennially popular superhero Spider-Man, aren’t held by either of these global entertainment behemoths but a third – Sony via Columbia have held on tight to the wall-crawling web-slinger since their first big screen efforts back in the 1970s.
I mention this to provide some background to the corporate and franchise weight that all these massive films now carry. US$150 million to make. Same again, roughly, to market. If they go well, they’ll gross a billion. That’s the entire economy of a small Pacific nation, right there. (This also sets aside the DC franchises like Batman and Superman and their corporate partners, the Brothers Warner, where the problems and opportunities are similar but all their eggs have been placed in one reduced-talent basket).
Weight. While I can respect the commercial pressures, it’s emotional weight, cinematic weight, story weight that decide whether these films are actually any good or not, a judgement it is mine to perform. And Spider-Man: Homecoming, despite being modestly entertaining, isn’t a very good film.
The first problem is the story. There are no stakes. I know you can’t always be saving the universe or the planet or whatever but this incarnation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man doesn’t have to worry about much apart from whether that nice Mr. Stark will let him join the Avengers and will he get to keep the shiny suit full of high-tech wizardry he built for him. Even the villain, despite best efforts of Michael Keaton wearing wings again as “The Vulture”, is only a blue collar New Jersey small businessman with a grudge. Even the great crime that needs to be stopped is the heist of all Tony Stark’s shit as he inexplicably moves the Avengers’ office away from Manhattan to an office park in the leafy suburbs.
So, our second problem is character, at least as the weak plot allows it to be expressed. Because, for corporate reasons, Spider-Man now has to inhabit this big and unwieldy ‘universe’ the six credited screenwriters and director Jon Watts have chipped all the interesting bits off – the guilt at his uncle’s death and the tension between being a dutiful nephew and the heroic destiny that a radioactive spider bite means for him.
Spider-Man/Parker’s tragedy is that all of his best efforts at costumed heroism have tragic consequences for his personal life. There’s almost none of that in Homecoming. No angst, no doubt, just a teenage sense of entitlement to a career in specialised law enforcement. There’s not even any visual majesty from seeing (or point-of-viewing) Spidey’s swinging around the city. Visually, this film never soars.
What takes the place of drama is a big helping of sitcom gags and witty setups. Maybe that’s why they need so many writers – because it’s like a TV writers’ room and they’re not allowed out until they make their quota. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe™ grows, the pleasures on offer are more and more like watching a new episode of a favourite television show – Cheers would be a good example. We love the familiarity, the in-jokes, the surprise cameos from former stars but in the end it’s just another episode.
Don’t get me wrong, this is satisfying when done at a high level – and these are – but they don’t make great movies on their own. Spider-Man has been sacrificed here for something bigger, but I’m not sure that something is worth it.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is playing at multiplexes all over the world at the moment, often in 3D.