December 21, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

In the process of ostensibly saving the world, the contemporary superhero leaves so much wreckage in his wake that the world would have been better off if he never showed up. What makes Wonder Woman such an outstanding superhero movie is that Diana does hardly any wrecking at all.

And what wrecking she does turns out not to be the solution to the problem.

Call it the fiduciary responsibility of the superhero. The infrastructure balance sheets can't keep running into the red. To be sure, the Marvel franchise has turned the whole thing into a running joke. Except there's nothing funny about the damage all this wanton destruction would inflict upon society.

This realization inevitably reduces the bubblegum in bubblegum entertainment to a sour gob of tar.

Stalin famously said (he wasn't the first) that "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Perhaps the more appropriate version of the quote is attributed to the 18th century scholar Beilby Porteus, who wrote that "One Murder made a Villain, Millions a Hero." Or a comic book supervillain.

But as Dirty Harry would say, a supervillain has got to know his limits. This business in science fiction blockbusters of blowing up planets has worn quite thin (besides being totally impossible according to even the most fanciful laws of fantasy physics).

Every action film confronts this dilemma: how many innocent bystanders the bad guys can kill to prove how deserving they are of being killed. Unlike the first and later installments, Die Hard 2 illustrated the limits by killing a plane full of bystanders to make a dramatic point. That killed the entertainment value for me.

Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to have digested this lesson, and mostly follows the George of the Jungle rule: "In this film nobody dies, but they will get big boo-boos."

Well, one henchman gets zapped with a ray gun and a few others are going to end up with some serious medical bills. Still, it was a nice change compared to a movie like Logan, where it'd be easier to count who doesn't end up dead.

Unfortunately, Spider-Man still wrecks a whole lot of property, including a national landmark. Okay, maybe he didn't do it on purpose, but his actions certainly led directly to it. Here's a lesson for all you kids: Don't carry glowing alien technology around in your backpack.

One ironic problem with super-realistic CGI is that, on a human level (as opposed to blowing up Death Stars), it becomes increasingly difficult to pretend that a ferry splitting (realistically) in two or a C-17 sized transport plane disintegrating (realistically) over New York City would not have deadly consequences.

A problem anime largely overcomes by sticking to abstract versions of reality. And Godzilla largely overcomes by being silly make-believe.

In this respect, Tom Holland plays the teenage Peter Parker perhaps a bit too well. A typical teenager, he doesn't understand the repercussions of what he does on the spur of the moment, even after Tony Stark dresses him down (literally) and tells him he's causing more problems than he's solving.

Of course, Spider-Man sort of saves the day in the end (the world wasn't at any risk). But he never actually pays for anything. I don't mean with money (Tony Stark can cover that). I mean with some moral acknowledgement of personal responsibility that goes beyond getting either dopey or mopey.

This is what annoys me about "family-friendly" movies like Brave. Merida "bravely" confronts problems she caused in the first place. The same applies to Frozen, though I'm more forgiving in the latter case because Elsa is a deeply flawed character whom Anna (the real hero) has to save from herself.

The problem is, Elsa becomes not-a-basketcase far too easily. At the end, she's wrecked her kingdom and (nearly) killed her sister too. Spending even a minute or two more at the big climax getting a grip would have helped enormously with my empathy for her travails.

Strangely enough, as Adrian Toomes (the "Vulture"), the finely-cast Michael Keaton comes across as the most empathetic character in the movie. He has no actual superpowers. He does have an understandable beef with the government, which explains his turn to the black market arms trade.

Spider-Man: Homecoming would have done better channeling his desire for revenge in a righteous direction, uncovering government secrets far darker than his arms peddling. The Department of Damage Control sure seems like a seedy outfit, and maybe they're running their own con right under Tony Stark's nose.

That'd present Peter Parker with a morally complex problem that would require him to make morally complex choices that couldn't be solved (as Wonder Woman discovered) by bashing stuff.

Or at the very least, Toomes could have been fashioned into a second father figure for Peter Parker (contrasted to Tony Stark), without revealing his criminal activities to Spider-Man. That would have made the moment when they both realize they know the secret identity of the other so much more dramatic.

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