Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), dir. Jon Watts

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Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy captivated a generation, myself included: back when film was projected on film, the projectionist visible behind. I took a Spider-Man 3 (2007) pencil case to school every day. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) remained meaningful, spending summer days reading comics and watching movies.

Seeking an on-screen legacy, Marvel sold rights decades ago to Cannon Films, becoming stuck in development hell as an unmade James Cameron film. Before the Disney acquisition, Marvel Studios was as outsider, partnering with Paramount for distribution; it wasn’t unreasonable for Sony and 20th Century Fox to lead the way as major, pre-established studios. Following the hack surrounding The Interview (2014), Sony information leaked spin-off and sequel plans, Andrew Garfield’s casting and negotiations with Marvel Studios.

Sony’s franchise relaunches have met criticism: Ghostbusters (2016) received middling box office and critical response, and though films like Baby Driver (2017) prove Sony can tell new stories, Sony lacks the cachet or cultural impact of Columbia’s early days. It’s been a long time coming: The Avengers (2012) almost added the Oscorp Tower to the Manhattan skyline. Sony still wants to expand, developing Venom, Silver & Black and an animated film with Miles Morales. Spider-Man is inescapably tied to Marvel’s identity, the iconic logo first used in Spider-Man (2002). The Marvel Studios logo plays over a confused remix of the iconic Spider-Man (1967-70) theme, never achieving the intended impact.

Spider-Man has been defined in relation to other heroes: in The Amazing Spider-Man #1 (1963), Spider-Man is rejected from the Fantastic Four. Peter’s relatable problems, through high school, college and adulthood, provides a counterpoint to more symbolic characters or superhero team unity; his non-hero life is almost more important than hero life. Captain America: Civil War (2016) re-introduced Spider-Man as a wisecracking teenager (Tom Holland) living in Queens with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), recruited by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Shooting an iPhone vlog without the finesse of Casey Neistat, Parker’s teenage joy frames a new perspective on the airport battle. Stark becomes a reluctant mentor alongside Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), a director cameo no longer appearing in his own movie. Downey never feels committed, struggling to recreate what made earlier performances so special despite reportedly having the highest actor salary worldwide. Iron Man wirelessly controls his suit from India, deserving more conflict whilst demanding more space for Peter’s character to develop. It feels like a spiritual sequel to the Iron Man films (2008-13): Stark, Hogan and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) plan a press conference, an engagement ring suggesting belated marital unity. Even Stan Lee’s cameo disappoints, especially after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) revealed him as multiversal being hanging out with the Watcher: New Yorker Gary yells out a neighbourhood window, unable to compete with his heroic cameo in Spider-Man 3 or the school librarian in The Amazing Spider-Man.

Homecoming finds a smaller lens to wider events against a refigured timeline. (Was Peter born in 2004, or did the Battle of New York take place in 2009?) Eight years ago, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) cleans up the wrecked Grand Central Terminal, carrying a crayon drawing of the Avengers, shifted away by Anne Marie Hoag (Tyne Daly) and Damage Control. A heist crew wears Avengers masks; high schoolers debate which Avenger they’d fuck, marry or kill. Captain America (Chris Evans) hosts anachronistic state sponsored instructional videos in gym and detention, though Coach Wilson (Hannibal Buress) acknowledges he’s probably a war criminal. The post-credits, without the lost promise of the Sinister Six’s gear or promoting X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), acts as self-reflective commentary but offers nothing to get excited about. Framing the film around the Avengers moving facility, first glimpsed in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), mirrors every teenager’s feelings moving away, packing up Cap’s shield and Thor’s Megingjord.

Spider-Man’s suit feels more Iron Spider than ever, with Ditko-esque abilities: pushing out air, moving eyes, webbing underneath armpits. The film’s insistence upon CGI over physical suit might allow for some stunts, just as Iron Man’s suit has been reduced to CGI, but lacks the physical presence that could afford a greater impact. An internal OS is no longer the dream it seemed in 2008: AI Karen (Jennifer Connelly) is a personalised extension of Siri or Alexa, performing the same role as Bruce Campbell’s voiceover tutorial in the opening to the Spider-Man (2002) tie-in game. The voice inside Peter’s head given manifest form, Karen diminishes his power, never allowed to talk to himself or shout and scream at the sheer joy of swinging about New York City with superpowers. Trapped in concrete in the Damage Control facility, he lays around, confiding his crush on Liz (Laura Harrier) whilst learning abilities. Though Homecoming isn’t an origin per se, Peter follows a learning curve, proving his worth as hero and Avenger.

Each new writer creates a new status quo: Stan Lee introduced Peter Parker as a 60s teenager, balancing school alongside working at the Bugle; he grew up, graduating and meeting Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane at college; Straczynski depicted him as a Midtown High teacher; Slott moved him up to employee of Horizon and head of Parker Industries; a constant fixture of the Avengers since Bendis’ The New Avengers (2005-12). But high school has been continually revisited, throughout Ultimate Spider-Man (2000-09), Spidey (2015-16), and romance-oriented, manga-infused Mary Jane (2004) and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane (2005-07), centred round a homecoming setting.

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Mary Jane: Homecoming #4 (2005)

Where The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-79) positioned Parker as scientist in college, Raimi’s trilogy largely avoided high school and college life altogether, more interested in him as young adult, limiting high school to the opening act of Spider-Man. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) plays Peter as introvert and outcast skater kid, trying to deal with the death of his parents and Uncle Ben. Holland might seem perfect casting, and though a 20-year-old playing 15 is more convincing than a 28-year-old playing 17, Holland still looks his age. The Amazing Spider-Man had me obsessed with Garfield: I asked the hairdresser to make my hair look like his (it didn’t). But Holland exceeds Garfield as the hottest Peter Parker ever gracing the screen. Holland achieves hipness and smartness, shirts and jumpers neither too cool for school nor pretentious; pop culture nerd and science nerd. But Holland never conveys a sense of teenage wasteland.

Spider-Man becomes down to earth, concocting webfluid in shop class; his handmade hoody-esque suit inverting Ben Reilly’s Scarlet Spider costume. Where Peter spent time away from the costume in Spider-Man 2 (2004) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), struggling to reconcile personal relationships and grief, Spider-Man returns to his costume as proof of worth, just as Garfield’s Spider-Man was inspired by a kid standing up to the Rhino. Iron Man teaches Parker a paternal lesson of power and responsibility, considering damages from interference, including neighbourhood shops aflame to a ferry split in two, struggling to maintain the integrity of in homage to The Amazing Spider-Man #33 (1966). But Spider-Man is still a vigilante: a nobody celebrated by Peter’s high school after Washington DC.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #33 (1966)

He patrols New York fighting small criminals, screwing up along the way, saving bicycles without owners and setting off car alarms. A hobo with a boom box cheers on, reprising his role from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Spider-Man changes into costume awkwardly in back-alleys, webbing up his clothes, far from Clark Kent spinning in a telephone booth in Superman (1978). Though Peter might feel held back by the Training Wheels protocol, his hesitance is a sign of immaturity: his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) helps hack the suit, turning off trackers. As a teenager, Peter thinks he’s more than just a kid: anti-authoritarian, fighting the FBI on the ferry and cops and helicopters in DC, more resonant real world obstacles than any supervillain. Peter Parker is nothing without his suit, learning his identity and how he balances his life. His audacity to say no to Stark is maturity: self-reasoning his own interests, rejecting a room next to Vision.

New York City is a central location to both Spider-Man’s identity and the MCU as a whole. In Spider-Man, the New York landscape became an inescapable reflection of national mourning to 9/11: the World Trade Center had been the centrepiece to an early teaser trailer; Spider-Man became directly framed against the American flag. Peter Parker had witnessed the tragedy himself in The Amazing Spider-Man #36 (2001). Previous films use bridges, office blocks, theatres and Times Square as central locations, the Empire State Building on the skyline. Homecoming isn’t interested in New York as tourist destination but as somewhere lived and breathed. Though largely filmed in Atlanta and Georgia, New York was used in important moments; Los Angeles had been utilised as doubles through Spider-Man to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Though The Avengers suggests a centrality to New York, the MCU has largely avoided it: Age of Ultron and Civil War were international; Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) travelled across the universe, teaching the value of family; Doctor Strange (2016) moves across interdimensional worlds, Kathmandu, Hong Kong and London, though based in Greenwich Village.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #36 (2001)

Homecoming embraces the small scale of Queens: Spider-Man stands on top the Metro, performs to a hotdog vendor atop a roof and regularly visits Mr Delmar’s (Hemky Madera) corner store, petting his cat at the counter. In The Amazing Spider-Man, the corner store represented a plot point in Uncle Ben’s death; here, it represents the city. Though we see the Statue of Liberty’s torch aflame, even tourist locations are lesser known: the sands and attractions at Coney Island, best represented on screen by The Warriors (1979); the Staten Island Ferry, moving across the waters. Moving outside New York, we embrace different skyscrapers: in Washington DC for the Academic Decathlon, Spider-Man runs past the Lincoln Memorial, saving the Washington Monument from crumbling. Washington DC is wasted, carrying none of the conspiracy thriller symbolism from Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), just another background losing the film of some of its New York identity.

Ned, as Peter’s best friend, lacks enough characterisation, a geek interested in being a good friend and the guy behind the desk, but little beyond that. A far cry from Ned Leeds: he isn’t working for the Bugle, and being the Hobgoblin and suffering psychological breakdowns seems unlikely. He’s closer to Ganke, Miles Morales’ best friend, putting together a LEGO Death Star with Peter amid his massive collection of Star Wars action figures. Ned is the definition of awkward, attending parties wearing a fedora; pretending to look at porn when caught at homecoming on the computer by a teacher.

Ned wants to know as much about Spider-Man as possible, learning Peter’s secret identity as he changes out of costume. He uses it for street cred, talking about Peter’s friend Spider-Man. It almost feels like a queer coming out: Ned asks detailed questions, from how far he can shoot his webs (yikes) and if he can spurt venom or lay eggs. May walks in on Peter undressed with Ned around, choosing not to ask questions. In the final shot, May walks in on Peter in costume, shocked. The Amazing Spider-Man #37 (2002) played a similar reveal: May walks in on Peter’s shattered, bruised and bloodied body and torn costume, but accepts him.

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Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #2 (2011)

Peter respects May: she’s understandably concerned, sneaking out every night and losing his internship, adopting both maternal and paternal roles. A waiter at the Thai restaurant and Stark have hots for her, but this isn’t controversial: May was engaged to Doc Ock in The Amazing Spider-Man #131 (1974). Without the baggage of Peter worrying about health issues, their relationship becomes equal: showing how to put on a tie, dance and act around girls, she channels the relationship between Jack and daughter Andie in Pretty in Pink (1986). But Tomei struggles to compete with Rosemary Harris and Sally Fields, or the power of May learning his identity in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #37 (2002)

The Midtown School of Science and Technology as a group of clever kids is interesting: Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (2011-13) made Morales enter a selective lottery for charter school, beyond the public education free-for-all. Homecoming’s cast is diverse, made of a wide number of characters: Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) and Jason Ionella (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) host the school’s news network: poorly edited, bad interviews, green screen, Comic Sans awkwardness. The Bugle may be struggling under fake news and social media, but newspapers still exist, yet the Bugle hasn’t been seen on screen since Spider-Man 3. Flash (Tony Revolori) seems more complex than previous films, no longer a thuggish jock but throwing insults and DJ’ing along to “penis Parker” at the party, but lacks the military background that defined him as Venom.

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Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)

The previous films’ heart and soul were its love interests, providing Peter with humanity and motivation. We feel their love as Mary Jane and Spider-Man kiss in Spider-Man, through tribulations, MJ’s acting ambitions in Spider-Man 2 and their engagement in Spider-Man 3. In The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, Garfield and Stone’s chemistry was real. Peter never had one ultimate love interest, seeing many different women from Anna Maria to Carlie Cooper to Debra Whitman to Michele Gonzales. But Peter and Liz have nothing: Liz is just a crush, without investment when she accepts Peter as homecoming partner or moves to Oregon. It isn’t power couple; it’s just there, destined to break up. Peter becomes the sweet kid to show off and take selfies with; they never even make out. Though Liz was attracted to Spider-Man, she never had feelings for Peter in the comics: she dated Flash, fathering a son with Harry Osborn. The most engaging female character is Michelle (Zendaya): woke and progressive, planning to attend a protest, refusing to approach the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves. Michelle has an aura of mystery never articulated: she sketches in detention, reading constantly, trying to channel Allison from The Breakfast Club (1985). Adopting the initials MJ, the film hints to a larger role for future films.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #5 (1963)

Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery might only compare to Batman’s in number and notoriety, offering constant space for new ground. Villains translated to screen were largely millionaires and moguls, scientists and professors: Green Goblin, Doc Ock, the Lizard; only Spider-Man 3 offered a more sympathetic view of Sandman, doing everything for his daughter. Homecoming embraces the underdog; the Vulture planned since the aborted production of Spider-Man 4. Keaton’s Vulture is neither Birdman nor Batman: Toomes is a family man, though stinks of hypocrisy. He riles against the oppressed and 1% in a monologue to buy time, but lives in a house few could afford. The Vulture becomes a literal vulture, re-appropriating Chitauri tech with the help of the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus).

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The Amazing Spider-Man #2 (1963)

Toomes assembles a crew, including the Shocker and Prowler (Donald Glover). Jackson Brice (Logan Marshall-Green) might only be recognisable as the Shocker thanks to padded sleeves, groomed out with a tightly trimmed beard, quickly replaced by Herman Shultz (Bokeem Woodbine) because of Toomes’ ineptitude. Perhaps the most welcome presence is Aaron Davis, Glover embodying a coolness. Hobie Brown is more iconic as the Prowler, a young black man in the Bronx that helps protect Spider-Man’s identity in The Amazing Spider-Man #79 (1969), but Davis’ presence has far greater implications: Davis is in his mid-30s and uncle to Miles Morales, interested in helping out kids and not being a criminal. Donald Glover can do no wrong: his last album as Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!” (2016), was a funk-infused masterpiece, Redbone gracing the soundtrack of Get Out (2017); the Han Solo solo movie is my most anticipated solely for Glover playing Lando. Glover provided a template for Miles Morales, and played his role in the Ultimate Spider-Man (2012-17) animated series; it’s fitting to see him here. The postcredits scene brings in another villain, barely sans costume in shaved hair and prison clothes: Mac Gargan (Michael Mando), better known as the Scorpion.

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Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #8 (2012)

The strength of a villain is in personal stakes against the protagonist, best illustrated by the Green Goblin, conflicted between friendships and parental roles; Venom embodies an inverted reflection of our hero’s identity. In Birdman (2014), Keaton acted against his daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone; Keaton plays the in-law once more as father to Liz. Conflict becomes about identity: hit by streetlights, Toomes figures out Peter’s secret on the drive to homecoming, playing up the sinister in dramatic irony against what Liz, Adrian, Peter and the audience knows. Fears become uniquely teenage, but the final confrontation upon the plane never lives up to potential, never affected by the knowledge each character knows.

Homecoming never achieves a John Hughes tone, barely departing from the superhero film formula. Watts interprets Hughes as an 80s aesthetic, without recontextualising: the soundtrack is dominated by the Rolling Stones, Ramones and A Flock of Seagulls, without the MGMT that worked so well in the first trailer; the homecoming is event 80s-themed. There’s no sense of the music Peter likes, no indie or synthpop or R&B that might define this generation. Using contemporary music doesn’t need to be as desperate as the Raimi trilogy using Maroon 5, Corey Taylor and Aerosmith to shift compilation albums; music is an extension of identity. There’s Hughes elements: teenage rebellion sneaking out to the hotel pool; teachers not giving a shit about pupils, but Hughes’ films were defined by performance and comedy. Trying superficially, Watts never captures what it means to be a teenager in the 2010s; texting becomes just another graphic on screen.

Neither cinematography nor score stands out: Michael Giacchino afforded beauty and wonderment to the scores for Inside Out (2015), Doctor Strange and Rogue One, but achieves nothing but blandness here, unable to elevate mood and tone as Danny Elfman and James Horner achieved masterfully. Even the credits hit the wrong note: Spider-Man becomes reduced down to sketchbook illustrations on lined paper, with the edginess of middle school of the credits to Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2008). Though boasting a strong performance from Tom Holland, Homecoming becomes let down by an unfocused structure, introducing too many action set-pieces without weight, never allowing Peter’s high school scenes to have emotional impact. Even the final scenes of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 carried pathos, in spite of its many flaws. With many elements to set up, Homecoming struggles to carry a cohesive whole.

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The Breakfast Club (1985), dir. John Hughes

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Before collaborating with John Candy, John Hughes was quickly becoming the voice of a teenage generation, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Pretty in Pink (1986) . Today, the teen movie can become easily formulaic. The shy, isolated teenager whose life is transformed through a series of events. The riotous group of friends who drink, fuck and party, whilst raising a middle finger to the law. The Breakfast Club combines these things into something unique.

How The Breakfast Club became such an iconic film seems improbable. The film is intentionally minimalist, restricted to one building, set over seven or eight hours and focused around five characters (with additional roles for the teacher, the janitor and the kids’ parents). I found half an hour detention difficult enough – why would anyone want to sit through a ninety minute detention, let alone ninety minutes in the cinema of characters talking to each other? It could just about work as a stageplay.

(Fun fact – my GCSE Drama piece was originally going to be an adaptation of this, but when we found our group had no girls, I ended up playing Gordie in Stand By Me and got a measly C.)

Although the film is known for its soundtrack, even the soundtrack is kept to a minimum – brought in at particular moments, when the rigid boredom of the library is penetrated. Scenes breathe with minimal dialogue but the clicking of pens and feet on the floor. For any studio to have any confidence financing that – and an audience responding to that – seems remarkable. Films like 12 Angry Men (1957), known for their use of limited space, light up fans of 1950s cinema and Criterion, but this is a mainstream, critically acclaimed film that everybody knows.

The Breakfast Club would not have worked without the performances of its characters. On the face of it, its characters are stereotypes. Yet they are grounded in reality, and you can just about see them as real people, if a little exaggerated. A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Their individual quirks are communicated as obviously as in their own lunches, from sushi to XXL portions.

But even these terms can be a bit simplistic. A basket case, or an isolated girl with both artistic talent and her own anxieties? A criminal, or a rock music loving, homophobic, sexual harrasser jackass?

Behind these broad character types that litter casting calls and every spec script are real humans with real emotion. We begin to understand these characters as they begin to understand each other, with their own family issues and pressures to be the best people they can be. Brian, on the face of it, is a dork who cares about getting work done and being involved in physics club. But this strips back to a person who emulates Bender’s sassy rapport with Vernon, smokes weed and isn’t just the perfect image of 1950s America. By finding a friendship with Claire, we see that behind Allison’s long hair and sugar and crisp sandwiches is a pretty girl with a newfound confidence and a beautiful dress.

This same technique is applied to the adults as well. Vernon is a hard-line principal, and a mythical figure to the students who don’t know him as anything but a principal. He’s proud of his career and how he is shaping future generations, but this image of himself is removed to reveal his fear for how the next generation will look after him, and deconstructed by the janitor. This has been explored in better ways in other films – Dan in Half Nelson (2006); Henry in Detachment (2011) – but the focus here is squarely on the students rather than the teachers.

The Breakfast Club is a lesson in understanding people complexly. But it can also be read as more than that. Sitting here as a university student, sitting in the library for eight hours on a Saturday doesn’t sound like a nightmare to me, it sounds like a productive weekend. Brian’s parents are even advocating he makes the most of the time. But then we have high school students, forced to sit through classes they don’t want to take, learning very little they will actually use, whilst teachers sit around just as frustrated as the students themselves. Brian makes a good critique of the very act of essay writing in the essay he produces for the group:

“But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are.”

All five characters and transformed over the course of the film – because learning is done through social interaction, not the classroom itself. Teenage identity is a fluid thing rather than a marker of future identity, despite how Vernon sees Bender’s criminal future.

High school is a joke, and this film helps bring back some difficult memories. Rather than add to the “teenagers go wild and fuck each other” film genre, it deconstructs the whole toxic culture of holding sexuality up as a trophy and virginity as a sacred thing. Allison and Claire discuss this double standard when applied to girls, but it’s a universal thing that I can look back at as an asexual kid and thank God that this whole culture doesn’t completely carry over to adulthood.

Perhaps the reason for its success is because it’s so relatable. I see shades of myself in Brian, but I also see shades of my teenage self in Allison’s insular yet creative self. I knew girls who were like Claire; I knew sporty kids who were like Andy; I knew homophobic sexist dickwad bullies like Bender. Each viewer can project themselves onto a different character. There is no singular protagonist, and there is no indiscriminate, identical group of friends.

But looking back a couple of years after high school ended, even the people I knew in high school (that I still have some contact with) are completely different. By the end of it, everyone understands they may never see each other again, and head off on their own separate ways. This melding of different cliques together into one whole is possible – it was always temporary.

Yet I still feel like this is a film that needs to be watched around high school. In high school – as a meta, immersive experimental art piece, with clocks still ticking in the background, and rows of chairs ahead.

It still holds up in adulthood – but it just isn’t the same.