The illusion of change in Spider-Man: Homecoming
Warning: This post contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Superheroes in the movies now are all aristocrats and celebrities, far removed from recognizable average-human concerns. As an audience, we can only honestly engage with the typical superhero movie on two levels:
–The most shallow, as in “WOW, PRETTY COLORS”
–And the most subtextual, as in “What Suicide Squad Gets Wrong About The American Correctional System.”
This doesn’t make superhero movies bad, and you could argue it’s simply a return to the storytelling of an earlier, decadently class-divided era. Shakespeare wrote for the masses, but his most famous plays are about princes and kings and lords and ladies. Wolverine in Logan is King Lear, a ruined old warrior coping with the divergent strains of his legacy. Diana in Wonder Woman is Prince Hal, struggling against the lessons of her elders, and then King Henry, answering to the higher calling of responsibility and justice.
(The films I just mentioned are more hopeful, less cynical, and less fun than the plays I just mentioned. Wonder Woman never gets fall-down drunk, nothing is Logan’s fault, the mere act of franchise storytelling requires leaving the audience with the belief that there is something more yet to come. But saying a superhero movie isn’t as good as Shakespeare is like saying a superhero movie isn’t as good as the comic that inspired it: accurate, unhelpful, and nobody reads a movie review to get a reading list.)
The three major superhero cinematic universes are all royalist at their core because all the megafranchises are old enough that the characters onscreen and we in the audience are inheritors of a dynastic superheroic legacy. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, everyone’s a well-financed Avenger with official (or imitation) Stark gear. In the DC Extended Universe, there are space gods and literal gods, and because Bruce Wayne is merely the richest man in a Hobokenized Gotham, he is the by-default symbol of everymanhood. In the X-Men universe, the youngest inheritors of the mutant tradition think Jennifer Lawrence is the greatest person ever, just like everyone on the internet before Passengers. This last one bears special notice: Mutants are nominally hated-and-feared denizens of an underclass, but this decade’s X-Men films have generationalized them into ancient-astronaut Illuminati. (They built the pyramids and caused the Cuban Missile Crisis, like JAY-Z in real life.)
All this is to say: We’ve all been waiting for a movie like Spider-Man: Homecoming, starring a teenager who lives on the upper floor of a Queens apartment building. Every other superhero franchise is trending cosmic right now. (Thanos, Darkseid, the Shi’ar Empire.) So how gratifying that the best action sequence in this sixth Spider-Man movie is the webswinger chasing a van through the suburbs. He runs through regular backyards. He says hi to a couple kids playing ping-pong in their garage. He hops over normal-looking fences, lands on second-story roofs and leaves some dents that the families will probably fix in a couple months, assuming both parents work full-time.
That scene’s a reference to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a fact confirmed when Spidey passes one household watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and says “I love that movie!” That explicit reference is a statement of purpose: Homecoming wants badly to just be a movie about regular teenagers, which happens to have 10 or 11 scenes where digital effects fight greenscreens.
The film benefits from the natural grade inflation of improved sequels. Although Spider-Man 3 has a worse reputation, the recent Amazing films starring Andrew Garfield were actually more ruinous for the character. Garfield’s Peter Parker lived in an overly art-designed apartment, an advertiser’s dream of how regular people live. That Peter was also skateboarder in a moody hoodie — a ’90s notion of misfit-hood, not much helped by the fact that Garfield looked like a very tall Jump Streeting twentysomething, and not further helped by the fact that Garfield settled on an American accent from the Ryan Gosling borough of New Donk City.
Sam Raimi didn’t really aim for verisimilitude with his depiction of Peter’s high school life because the Raimi style of superheroism predates “verisimilitude” as a fundamental goal. The first and especially second Spider-Man films are a nostalgic vision of midcentury New York brought barely into the modern age. They have less in common with Homecoming than with live-action cartoons like Dick Tracy and Speed Racer, aesthetic experiments in retro-futurity. Tobey Maguire’s Peter lived in a tenement full of exposed piping, rescued the last elevated train in Lower Manhattan, got third-wheel’d in his love triangle by a famous square-jawed astronaut straight out of The Right Stuff.
The saddest thing about the Amazing movies was that both films badly wanted to aim for realism, something more down to earth than Raimi’s comic-strip fantasy. But they were attempting to tell a universe-launching saga designed to sprawl across sequels and spinoffs. So you had scenes shot on glorious old-school 35 mm, on real locations in Bloomberg’s New York, where local Queens everykid Peter Parker talks to his long-lost childhood friend Harry Osborn, who happens to be the teen billionaire CEO of a major biotechnology firm, and also it turns out that Peter’s radioactive blood is the only thing that can stop Harry’s genetic disease, and also their dads worked together and fought each other. (Parker and Osborn: Two households both alike in dignity.) It was a mess of broken ambitions, and literally anything would be an improvement.
And Homecoming is more than anything! There’s a day-in-the-life sequence where Peter spins webs around the neighborhood, stops a bike thief, does a backflip for a fan on the street. And his high school looks like America, dammit. Peter’s best friend, love interest, sequel-baiting secondary love interest, primary antagonist, and principal are all played by non-white performers. Tony Revolori plays Flash Thompson, a character classically conceived as a redheaded alpha bro. Zendaya plays some variation of Mary Jane Watson, another classic ginger introduced during the LBJ presidency. The incredible Jacob Batalon plays Peter’s friend “Ned,” some far-flung variation of the character Ned Leeds (though as my colleague Christian Holub points out, Movie Ned is more recognizable as a version of the Ultimate Era’s Ganke Lee.) Laura Harrier plays a yet-more far-flung variation of Liz Allen, a character who’s had about 50 different unconvincing roles in the Spider-Man mythology.
Truthfully, besides Revolori, it’s up for debate if they’re even precisely playing any of these comic characters. But names have totemic importance in comic book adaptations, like passing the name Henry from one king to another. And so I gather that there has been some contingent of humanity that has an issue with these casting decisions.
Let me be clear: Any performer can play any character. This is a basic truth that should be obvious to everyone. Years ago, there was an internet movement to cast Donald Glover as Spider-Man. That would have made the Amazing movies at least 12% better, since Glover at the time was mid-Community and seemed powers-of-ten nerdier than Andrew Garfield. Today, Glover mid-Atlanta seems powers-of-ten cooler than Andrew Garfield. And he’s in Homecoming, too, for a couple scenes. His brief role is a nice nod to fans, and not much more, but he does get about as much to do as Aunt May.
Now, it’s embarrassing to think that anyone – strident fan or studio executive – had a problem with Glover playing Peter Parker. But people can be awful, turns out. And the most enabling sin of old High Geekdom is the fervent belief that things must be as they ever were. Just on a purely comparative level, Revolori is the best Flash Thompson in any Spider-Man movie. It’s a character with an oddly rich lineage, played by future True Blood werewolf Joe Manganiello and then future Leftovers wanderer Chris Zylka. Zylka’s Flash is a damp squib, like everything else in Amazing Spider-Man. Manganiello was mostly just on hand to play some Platonic Ideal of Jockhood, but he does get to deliver an all-time relationship-destroying kiss-off line (in a graduation gown!) when he tells Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane “You know what? Whatever.”
Revolori’s Flash is a DJ, an academic decathlete, a rich kid with a vanity license plate. These are character traits! And he calls Peter “Penis Parker,” which isn’t funny, but bullies are never funny. Revolori’s Flash is disappointingly limp as a character, though, a non-threatening bully who bugs Peter without ever quite bothering him. He’s Iceman in Top Gun, negging our hero towards coolness.
This isn’t a problem until it is. Like every Marvel Studios movie, Homecoming is essentially a 90-minute comedy grafted onto a 30-minute drama, with action set pieces sprinkled throughout. So Revolori playing Spaulding from Caddyshack makes sense for the comedy but does nonsense for the drama. And Tom Holland’s Peter can never be an outcast like the Peter Parker illustrated by Steve Ditko on Page 1 of Amazing Fantasy #15. The modern-day version of that Peter Parker can’t even retreat to his aunt’s house, because now he gets bullied on Facebook, and the bullying vocabulary has evolved a long way from “bookworm” and “wallflower.”
So Flash is a bad secondary villain, and unfortunately, Michael Keaton’s Vulture is a bad primary villain. This requires some investigation. The comic book Spider-Man has one of the all-time great rogues’ galleries, but the movies have always struggled with their bad guys. Three attempts to make the Green Goblin look cool failed. Doctor Octopus turned evil because of tentacle rage. Venom wasn’t even a good villain in the comics, so good luck Tom Hardy!
Keaton’s Vulture has an intriguing motivation (more on that in a moment) and comes equipped a Big Twist, but as a visual idea, he’s not far off from Goblins and Lizards and Octopi past. He’s got green eyes, and a helmet, and a high-tech outfit that looks like Transformer spare parts. I think part of the problem with Spider-Man villains is that they’re supposed to look unreal on the page. Every Goblin is supposed to look like a fairy-tale Goblin, and Doctor Octopus is supposed to just be a dude in a white suit with tentacles, and Mysterio has a head made of orb smoke, and Electro has a lightning head. The natural inclination is to give them a high-tech exoskeleton, but most high-tech exoskeletons look pretty dull onscreen.
Of course, Homecoming isn’t just the latest entry in the Spider-Man franchise. It’s also the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the weirdest thing about this universe-crossing corporate handshake is how explicitly the movie winks toward it. The film brings in Robert Downey Jr. to play Tony Stark as a style consultant, a mentor figure nudging Peter on his path toward grown-up superheroism. Downey literally phones in half his role; there’s a scene where Iron Man rescues Spider-Man, but the Iron Man suit is empty.
Whenever Tony is unavailable/whenever there’s a scene Downey probably didn’t want to do, Iron Man director Jon Favreau serves as Tony’s onscreen stand-in. Happy Hogan’s role in Homecoming is oddly poignant, given Favreau’s role in launching this whole megafranchise: He’s busy moving equipment from Avengers tower to a new facility upstate, literally transitioning all essential personnel from Phase 2 to Phase 3.
But Stark is omnipresent. Tony is a chief figure in the Department of Damage Control, a collaboration with the federal government. In a prologue, the salvage company owned by Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes gets bigfooted out of a plum disaster-capitalist gig by the Department of Damage Control.
This motivates Adrian, and the lamest thing about Homecoming is how it barely takes his motivation seriously. Some of this is because the movie needs to bury key facts about Adrian for a Big Twist, but it’s mostly just disinterest.
He gets one big line – “The rich and powerful, they do whatever they want!” – by which he means Tony Stark and the Avengers and the government, too. In the movie’s own context, you can only really agree with him. Here’s a dude running his own business, apparently successful enough that he’s purchased a nice modernist house in the suburbs, and apparently desperate enough that he’ll put on wings and rob the government. The bitter joke of this Vulture is that he’s a class warrior who basically lives in the upper class – he owns a warehouse, his home is all windows. In Marvel Cinematic Universe, even the guy with the nicest house in Queens can feel like he’s two seconds from financial Armageddon.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is also unsuccessful with its villains – Loki is never convincingly evil – and Homecoming is the first movie where I understood why. Creating a great movie villain requires a certain amount of empathy, from the filmmakers and from the audience. You have to understand their motivation. This is why the X-Men movies keep circling back to Auschwitz: No matter how bad Magneto might seem, the franchise wants you to remember that Magneto believes he’s fighting against something far worse.
But Marvel Studios can’t conceive a good supervillain because the franchise cannot conceive why anyone on Earth wouldn’t like superheroes.
Homecoming roots itself in the post-Avengers recovery of New York. It also makes a point of mentioning the Triskelion collapse in Washington D.C., a reference to the final battle from Winter Soldier. Oddly, no mention is made of the destructive attack by Justin Hammer’s drone army on the Stark Expo, even though the climactic battle of Iron Man 2 took place in nearby Flushing Meadows. I guess continuity only counts when the movie is good.
In this world of perpetual super-destruction, superheroes are the lingua franca. In class, Peter gets a lesson about the Sokovia Accords. The kids learn physical fitness from instructional videos starring Captain America. This gets played for a laugh line by cameo-all-star Hannibal Burress, who deadpans that the star-spangled Avenger is “a war criminal or something.” Actually, at this point in MCU time, Captain America is a stateless renegade last seen battling government-approved forces of good in a Berlin airport.
In fairness, this makes roughly as much sense as politicians debating penis size and tweeting about plastic surgery, and you could argue that the subtextual story of Homecoming is the normalization of a strange new era for children who don’t remember anything else. Black Widow’s name gets thrown out by Flash Thompson, who objectifies her the same way the camera did in Iron Man 2. Everyone at school thinks Tony Stark is a cool guy. The whole big plot idea of the movie is that Spider-Man wants more than anything to be an Avenger.
In this context, the Vulture has a weird point, though you have to make it for him. The Avengers battle through New York, destroying much of the city – and then a company cofinanced by beloved Avenger Tony Stark pushes out all the local contractors to take over the reconstruction job. Phrased this way, the Department of Damage Control can only strike you as a wholly malevolent force, and I assume at least one of the six credited screenwriters conceived of them that way.
But Homecoming can only be unequivocally on the side of anything Stark. So there’s an aggressive, mildly stunning resonance to that prologue, with Adrian Toomes begging for work. He’s already invested in new technology for this job. “I’m all in on this!” he says, sounding for all the world like a studio executive who staked their reputation on a six-film Spider-Man cinematic universe.
“Maybe next time don’t overextend yourself,” says the faceless Damage Control co-executive vice president. Hell, wouldn’t you punch him?
There’s another weird resonance that the movie can’t quite fathom, though it’s the only thing that really makes Vulture-Spidey showdown feel halfway invigorating. The big problem with Vulture, see, is that he wants to use Avengers technology. He uses some gear leftover from Winter Soldier henchman Crossbones to turn two of his henchmen into the Shocker. He keeps chasing after Chitauri technology, a desperate man seeking the purity of essence that powered Avengers. In the boringly airborne final sequence, he finds gear intended for Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. How shameful, this pretender, using the Avengers’ technology for the wrong reasons.
Of course, the main defining thing about Spider-Man in this movie – the thing that makes Tom Holland different from Maguire and Garfield – is that he uses Avengers technology. He hacks open his suit and gets his own JARVIS, voiced by long-ago Hulk costar (and real-life wife-of-Vision) Jennifer Connelly. It’s a weird note to add into a movie that wants to be a more low-key kind of Marvel movie: This is somehow the most souped-up Spider-Man ever. And so both hero and villain want to use Avengers tech, but the villain wants to use it for wrong reasons that are nevertheless wholly relatable (financial gain), while the hero is allowed to use the technology because the richest man in the world has chosen him.
Someone else gets to use precious superhero technology, briefly: Peter’s friend Ned. He gets many of the best lines in the movie, but there’s something odd about his place in the film that I can’t get out of my head. Most Marvel Cinematic Universe movie give the hero a sidekick, someone (or series of someones) who offers assistance in a fight, usually via some sort of computer/voice-in-the-hero’s-ear link-up. This was Pepper’s main plot role in Iron Man, is the primary part of every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent’s job.
It is a trope, and the weirdest thing about Ned in this film is that he seems excited to become a trope. “The guy in the chair!” is his rallying cry: He yearns to be Spider-Man’s helper guy. And he’s a great guy in a rallying chair, truthfully, he makes Maria Hill in Avengers look like Darcy in Thor 2. But his whole role in the film can be defined as “support staff.”
And that’s all anyone is doing in this movie, really: Telling Peter he’s a good guy, assuring Spider-Man that he’s a good Spider-Man. Liz is an impossibly distant object of affection; besides being a senior, she’s at least half a foot taller than Peter. But she has to pull Peter towards her – because she likes how smart he is, though of course, this Downey-besotted movie leaves open the possibility that Peter’s association with Tony Stark is the hottest thing about him. When Peter ditches a school trip, he gets detention, and when he skips detention, the principal frowningly tells Peter that he’s a good kid, darn it. By the midway point of the film, Spider-Man is a beloved local-boy hero. “Spider-Man Mania Is Sweeping The School!” declares school newscaster Betty Brant. They love him! What’s not to love?
I don’t want to say that, like, Homecoming is missing something essential about Spider-Man. The film skips the origin story, keeps Uncle Ben offscreen as an implicit trauma, never really digs into the power-and-responsibility thing. This is admirable, after the mopey Amazings. And I mean it mainly as a compliment that future generations will acknowledge Tom Holland as the Spider-Man franchise’s Roger Moore, a blithely funny and lighthearted performer, prone to wide-eyed reaction shots, never icing our buzz with anything too serious. The job of being a superhero now requires more salesmanship than acting, as much playful Instagramming as actual on-set emoting. Holland was precisely as convincing in a series of (terrible) Homecoming advertisements that ran during the NBA finals as he is in Homecoming. This is an accomplishment, maybe. And Moore lasted twelve years as James Bond, and anyone raised on Moore still might think he’s the best.
But I keep coming back to MJ. That’s what Zendaya’s character Michelle prefers to be called, she explains in her final scene in the movie. That revelation is the single worst fan-baiting moment in the movie, and we should have a separate conversation about how these franchises need to retire the Alternate Name Twist: John Harrison is Kahn, Eve’s last name is Moneypenny, John Blake’s first name is Robin, you sure fooled us with your unhelpful information, writers!
Zendaya’s role in the movie is small yet pivotal yet inessential yet fun: She’s the only person who doesn’t seem remotely interested in Peter Parker. She’s also the only person who doesn’t seem interested in superheroes; while everyone else watches dreamy instructional videos of Captain America, she’s reading Of Human Bondage. When the academic decathletes take a trip to Washington D.C., she proudly declares that she’s going to be protesting. I’m not sure we ever actually see her protest, though she gets off a great line about how the Washington Monument was built by slaves.
Spider-Man director Jon Watts has compared MJ to Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, and indeed, MJ likes to hang out in detention for no apparent reason, just like Sheedy’s Allison. “Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club” is sort of a synonym for “weirdo” in high school movie lingo, but the film actually wraps the character up on a lame note: She’s made over by school princess Molly Ringwald into a more boring version of herself, which finally attracts the romantic attention of Flash Thompson-ish Emilio Estevez. This scene is so awful that when we watched it in my high school, our teacher literally fast-forwarded through it. Most people just ignore it, the same way all frat bros of a certain age ignore the fact that Al Pacino in Scarface kills everyone he loves before burying his head in a mound of cocaine.
Like Allison, MJ is disappointingly less of a weirdo than she seems to be. By the end of the movie, she’s proudly taking over as the Captain of the Decathlon team: A onetime renegade, now leading academic practice. And also: She likes to be called “MJ,” which is a reference to Mary Jane Watson, so for all the movie’s striving to make her not just another love interest, there’s the hanging thread that she is interested in Peter, that her whole sidelined role in this film is a set-up for something bigger down the road.
“Something bigger down the road”: This has been the promise offered by the Marvel Cinematic Universe to human females for a long time now. The first Ant-Man was a full movie of people telling the Wasp that it wasn’t her turn to be a superhero yet. And there was a moment when Amazing Spider-Man 2 was going to set up something bigger for Mary Jane down the road. Shailene Woodley actually played MJ in a sequence cut from the movie. Possibly, it was cut because Amazing 2 needed more time to set up important characters like Alistair Smythe and Felicia Hardy. Possibly, it was cut because Shailene Woodley still looked like a teenager but Andrew Garfield looked like a senior vice president at an investment firm. It’s a good thing she was cut, or else this would be the second Spider-Man film in a row where Peter spends the whole movie ignoring the woman everyone in the audience knows will become his most important love interest.
“Love interest.” The phrase already sounds archaic, and it comes packed in with a whole host of gendered notions, like certain characters only matter because of how much they matter to the main guy. Of course, every superhero has someone to love. (Even the stonefaced Dark Knight trilogy paraded brunettes for Bruce to fall for.) On one hand, there’s no getting around the fact that a superhero movie can only inevitably be about its superhero: This is a genre built on the empowerment of the title character, and so everyone around the hero is either guiding them on the journey or preventing them from living their truth. It’s not wrong to say that superhero movies can be a selfish genre – Tony Stark is a horrible human who occasionally decides to save people – but it’s more accurate to say they are a genre of the self.
It would be great to get, like, one scene of MJ actually protesting whatever it is she wants to protest. But there are two pitfalls we have to avoid here. We shouldn’t praise Marvel for paying lip service to politics, and we shouldn’t damn Marvel for being apolitical. Fifty-one years ago, in another era defined by profound political activism, Peter Parker walked by some campus protestors in Amazing Spider-Man #38. “Another student protest!” he declares, sneer implied. “What are they after this time?” They ask him to join, but Peter has zero inclination: “I’ve got nothing to protest about!”
A few years later, in Amazing Spider-Man#68, Peter runs afoul of some other protestors. A black dude calls him “whitey,” and Peter walks away yelling at them, refusing to take any side: “My sympathies are all with the kids down there – but just because I don’t like anyone to push me, I flew off the handle again!”
As recounted by my former colleague Sean Howe in his magnificent text Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, this was all part of a weird pattern with the early defining Spider-Man stories. Writer Stan Lee was a please-everybody populist who could take any side, and co-plotter/artist Steve Ditko was a Randian who refused to take any side but his own. This is a pretty fundamental paradox for superheroism: lone individuals empower themselves by working to help their community. That isn’t the same as communal action, so MJ is a rebellious figure who winds up in charge of the decathlete status quo, and Peter might be on the side of the protestors, but he won’t actually join them.
Lee himself always liked to discuss that some essential aspect of Marvel Comics was the illusion of change: The sense that characters were moving forward when actually they remained in perfect stasis. The success of Spider-Man: Homecoming will be merely the two millionth proof of that illusion’s powerf: 50 years after Mary Jane was first introduced, 15 years after Kirsten Dunst played her in the first movie, Homecoming leaves off on the strong implication that Mary Jane and Peter might just be a thing someday.
Something has changed, though. Have you rewatched the Raimi trilogy? It’s two great Spider-Man movies spread over three films. The first one has Origin Problems and Goblin Problems, the third one’s a mess (sometimes on purpose), and the second one is so good that it makes even a fun time like Homecoming seem depressing, episodic, a symbol of how these movies have evolved as content but devolved as entertainment.
Spider-Man 3 has the worst reputation, though it’s actually more fun than Raimi’s first film. Largely a shambles in open rebellion against its own characters, it has the benefit of genuinely grotesque digital effects. Raimi wasn’t some hired gun putting his special stamp on sitcom dialogue while the special effects guys assembled another plane-fight scene; Raimi was a visual stylist who loved horror and comedy, so even the lamest Sandman scene has a gloopy grotesquerie that only James Gunn seems particularly interested in anymore.
The third film’s also a showcase for Kirsten Dunst. Her Mary Jane was always almost as important to Raimi’s Spider-Man movies as Spider-Man was. She was the girl next door, and she was the one that got away, and she was the symbol of the whole life Peter wasn’t letting himself lead. Spider-Man 2 nearly ends on the same shot that practically every superhero movie ends on: The hero off on another adventure, flying through the city to the next sequel. But it actually ends on the next shot, a long-held angle of Mary Jane watching her love interest leave. She almost smiles, but doesn’t, almost frowns, frankly looks more than a little bit troubled.
Between Spider-Man 2 and 3, Dunst played the title role in Marie Antoinette, a gorgeously shot arthouse goof that becomes significantly better if you pretend Sofia Coppola was making her own peculiar version of a superhero movie. Dunst’s future Queen has to learn the proper way to be a royal person, like the part of any superhero movie where the hero learns to use their powers (and wear their cool new clothes.) She has to live publicly, and rationalize that public life with her private life. The most liberating moment of the film happens when she puts on a mask. (She meets Jamie Dornan at a masquerade; disappointingly, she doesn’t kiss him upside-down.) Half the movie is about how Louis XVI doesn’t want to have sex with Marie Antoinette, and so in a weird way, half the film is about watching Kirsten Dunst fail as a love interest.
That’s an idea picked up in Spider-Man 3, where everything about the Mary Jane-Peter dynamic gets turned upside-down. Previously, she was a rising Broadway star, and he was a loser photographer cosplaying as a despised masked menace. But now Spider-Man’s a town hero – and once-lovable Peter is becoming an ass, like a lot of grown-up nerds who experience their first brush with success in their mid-20s. Even before the Venom suit starts pushing Peter towards his Emo Kid Id, he shamelessly restages their upside-down kiss, in full view of the public, with blonde Bryce Dallas Howard, WHILE MARY JANE IS WATCHING!
Meanwhile, MJ’s career goes downhill. She loses the Broadway gig, winds up waiting tables at the kind of bar that lets the employees sing. The film is bookended with Kirsten Dunst musical numbers, one glamorously old-fashioned on a stage full of stars, one jazzily noirish in the club where she’s waitressing. The first song is called “They Say It’s Wonderful,” the second “I’m Through With Love,” and that’s Mary Jane’s downbeat arc in the film in a nutshell. Midway between those two numbers, Peter ruins one of her performances with an acrobatic jazz-dance, a sequence so magnificently lame it actually seems transgressive in hindsight. Will any other superhero movie ever dramatize a turbulent relationship through the power of dance?
(That scene actually ends with Peter knocking Mary Jane over, and because Venom is Venom the film can’t quite follow through on the big twisty idea that nerdy wallflower Peter Parker could be a really bad boyfriend.)
Dunst doesn’t have an insanely awesome voice, but I’m not sure Mary Jane is supposed to be a good singer. I guess you could argue that her whole presentation in the film is weird throwback to some archaic notions of onscreen female-hood, although with superhero films you can only really pick your flavor of nostalgia. Do you prefer MJ in Homecoming, a revenant of ’80s Ally Sheedy, complete with total inability to walk the freak talk? Or do you prefer MJ in Spider-Man 3, some reborn ’50s ideal of the actress in decline, singing timeless jazz standards about lost love? The simple fact is that there’s more MJ in the earlier films, more of a sense that a person can matter in a Spider-Man movie besides Spider-Man.
In that sense, Homecoming can only be dispiriting: At long last, Peter Parker’s friends and love interests all know their place, patiently helping him on his journey to self-discovery, excited to hear about his fun adventures with the Avengers. Or maybe you think Homecoming is just the beginning of a new series, that we’ll finally get to the good MJ stuff in the next film. Or maybe you think the mere fact of an MJ who isn’t a white girl counts as a step in the right direction.
I agree with the last point. But there’s a weird corollary, and if you’re sifting through a superhero film to find a social conscience, consider: In Homecoming, the whitest kid in school is the one with Tony Stark on speed-dial. Half a century later, Peter Parker still has nothing to protest about.