Spidey and the Future of Marvel

By Lynn Hong (18A13A) and Choi Hoe Chang (18S07A)

Editor’s note: To enhance the clarity of the article, the writers have updated and refined their movie review and opinions on the future direction of Marvel on 21/7/17.

The third reboot of this popular franchise was met with a mix of anticipation and skepticism, but it has emerged as an enrapturing and competent love letter to fans of the beloved superhero. Spider-Man: Homecoming was a fast-paced, fun, and light-hearted take on the King of Marvel, presenting a dorkily endearing version of the superhero.

Homecoming picks up after the events of Captain America: Civil War, where we see Spider-man being roped in by Iron Man to fight with the Avengers. The movie is not, in the strictest sense, an origin story, as Peter Parker starts the movie already equipped with motivations and powers. The film instead focuses on how he finds his identity and ethos as a superhero, as he returns to the placid normalcy of daily life after his encounter with the Avengers.

The filmmakers utilised the audience’s familiarity with the story and characters to its advantage. With the decision to skip the recount of how Peter got his powers and his family background, the movie buys itself more time to establish a compelling character that will keep audiences coming back for more in subsequent instalments.

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The third reincarnation of Peter Parker as portrayed by Tom Holland; many fans argue that his version of Spider-Man is the most comic-book accurate one.

Tom Holland portrays an energetic and eager Spider-Man, returning to the earliest comic characterisation of a spontaneous webslinger, prone to snappy one-liners before fight scenes. The question of whether he is the most convincing or “best” Spider-Man is still up to discussion, but Tom Holland’s performance was definitely competent. To provide the backdrop for the story of a teenager Spider-Man, the movie uses a bright and preppy aesthetic, playing up the high school element of the movie.

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There are elements of teen drama throughout the movie to remind the audience that Peter Parker is a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Homecoming.

The movie finds space in its fast pace to humanise Spider-Man. This was achieved through little moments such as his social missteps in school, his confusion when learning to use his equipment, or expressing his fear in the middle of a daredevil rescue. His earnestness and (sometimes excessive) eagerness endears him to the audience – he may be pulling off acrobatics we could only ever dream of, but he’s no polished super hero.

However, there was little emotional arc to speak of, perhaps due to how light-hearted this movie was. The constantly jaunty, high-octane tone of the movie was integral in papering over instances where the movie suffered from “movie logic”. The character arc also left more to be desired. There appeared to be two possible developments in the character arc. One was about learning how one’s actions may lead to dire repercussions, and the other addressing the actual central message of the film: Spider-Man’s commitment to be embedded within his community.

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The ferry scene, perhaps an homage to the train scene in Spiderman 2 (2004). Peter Parker faced many challenges to showcase his ability as a superhero, which unfortunately did not translate into emotional impact as it did in the previous adaptations of Spider-Man.

As some fans predicted, the involvement of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) as a mentor/senior figure to Spider-Man further compromised the possibilities to develop Spider-Man’s character. For instance, the emotional impact of the ferry scene (as extensively teased on the trailers) was compromised as Iron Man swooped in to save the day, rather than allowing Spider-Man to take responsibility. The whole debacle was concluded with a few clichéd lines from Iron Man, which arguably contributed more to Iron Man’s character development than it did to Peter’s.

The focus of the movie was meant to be Spider-Man’s realisation of the importance of staying rooted to his community, as opposed to aspiring to grandiose heroism. However, the link between the final fight scene and this realisation was not substantial enough to elucidate this character arc. The writers of the film relied on a short monologue delivered by The Vulture (Michael Keaton) to point to this theme, but it was swallowed by the bombastic action sequences and subsequently left little impact.

The Vulture’s backstory of a powerless civilian forced to bear the repercussions of the Avengers’ actions was perhaps too overused. It was used over and over again to establish the motivation of many Marvel villains and antagonists before this one. (Recall the Maximoff twins’ vendetta against Iron Man in Avengers: Age of Ultron, or Zemo’s character arc in Captain America: Civil War.)

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Michael Keaton (top) and the Vulture (bottom). Michael Keaton’s performance as The Vulture was absolutely stellar, but his capabilities were perhaps under-utilized due to the way the character was written.

Admittedly, this movie did follow the standard Marvel superhero formula: light-hearted tone, quip-filled dialogues, and exhilarating action. These aspects may be commonly found in many blockbusters, but Marvel has since adopted them as defining features of their brand. This is Marvel’s well-known strategy to appeal to the widest range of audiences possible, as the objective of producing these films are commercial rather than artistic.

Having said that, the perks and flaws of Homecoming stem from the fact that it is an episode in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). As a cinematic experience, Homecoming is rather typical of the MCU. As an indicator, a remarkable number of criticisms of this movie mentioned the film’s heavy reliance on clichés and slapstick comedy, which the rest of the MCU falls prey to as well. The repetitive usage of the “Marvel formula” desensitises the loyal audiences from its charms, and the franchise eventually becomes stagnant rather than comfortable.

Granted, Marvel has experimented with more serious tones and themes in the attempt to diversify its franchise, such as the successful Captain America trilogy by the Russo brothers. However, it is undeniable that the light-hearted atmosphere and witty banter in Homecoming are the defining stylistic choices of the Marvel brand.

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The duality of Marvel: some films such as the Captain America trilogy are prime examples of superhero films with more serious tones, and Black Panther is anticipated to be Marvel’s attempt at a political thriller. On the other hand, films such as Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man are hailed as well-executed action-comedies.

The reason for this phenomenon boils down to how the the MCU is managed. Every single MCU film is produced by Kevin Feige, the CEO of Marvel Studios, who is accountable for all choices made in the filmmaking and production process. In many cases, the involvement of the respective directors and other key production personnel tends to be less significant.

Moreover, the directors and writers are often chosen specifically such that their styles are compatible with the existing Marvel formula, thus perpetuating the style. Additionally, if these key creative personnel are less established, Feige will naturally override their authority. This is why the notion of “creative freedom” and distinct artistic approaches rarely manifests in Marvel productions.

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Top: John Watts, the director of Homecoming. His previous works include Clown (2014) and Cop Car (2015). Both were criticized for their reliance on tropes and shaky resolution of stories.
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Jonathan Goldstein, the writer of Homecoming. He is most well-known for writing Horrible Bosses (2011) and Horrible Bosses 2 (2014).

The movie may have made little to no progress in terms of filmmaking, but we cannot conclude that Marvel will continue to dwell at the status quo. Beyond being a popcorn flick franchise, the MCU has made increasing effort to address some political issues that are pertinent in real life. Given such context, Homecoming can be seen as Marvel’s attempt to subtly address race relations in America, through their decisions with regards to the issue of ethnic representation.

Recently, Kevin Feige stated in an interview with Vulture magazine that the MCU will become more “inclusive”, moving away from a “completely white, European cast”. Homecoming, featuring perhaps the most ethnically diverse cast in recent memory, definitely delivered on that promise.

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Kevin Feige, the CEO of Marvel Studios and the mastermind behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He is dubbed as one of the most successful film producers in history of cinema.

It was precisely the issue of ethnic representation in films which stirred controversy on social media (#OscarsSoWhite). Specifically, the debate was to do with racebending, where the content creator changes the race or ethnicity of a character. Two characters, Flash Thompson and Mary Jane were the focal point of the debate, particularly the latter. Both characters are traditionally depicted as white in both the comics and past live-action adaptations, but were played by non-white talents in Homecoming.

The controversy surrounding this movie was exacerbated as it was compared to another instance of race-bending in Marvel: The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. It raised hackles with the casting of Tilda Swinton as a character who had originally been a Tibetan man. This incident raised criticism of it being as yet another incident of whitewashing, heightening the fans’ sensitivity to racebending. Subsequently, the casting choices in Homecoming came under fire as well.

This raises an interesting and important question: in which cases, if any, is racebending acceptable in comic book adaptations?

Usually, racebending is meant to enrich the lore of the character by bringing in elements of culture belonging to or associated with a different ethnicity, although sometimes it comes across as blatant disrespect towards that culture. In some cases, racebending goes completely unnoticed altogether. In the case of comic book adaptations, racebending reads as deviation from the much-loved source material.

In comic books, every visual aspect of a character is meticulously illustrated to the smallest detail, and particular character designs are re-used over the years until it eventually reaches “canonical” status. The defense of this canon becomes even more imperative when it comes to pop culture icons, like Spider-Man. Thus, to the fans, the ethnicity of a character usually becomes a non-negotiable aspect of live-action adaptations. It is vital in upholding the film’s integrity as an authentic adaptation of the comics, this authenticity being the main draw for these fans.

However, the idea of authenticity does not really hold water in the world of superheroes. Superheroes and their stories have survived for decades, precisely because the writers and editors have persistently reinvented and reimagined them to appeal to the changing demands of the audience. Granted, there are irreplaceable aspects of a story that cannot and must not ever change (for example, Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and is motivated by the death of his uncle), but superheroes must be updated regularly to stay relevant to the times.

Superheroes appeal to us as reflections of societal landscapes; an articulation of our common imagination. The role of comics and fiction in escapism has been well documented. At the point where superheroes and their stories stop reflecting the aspirations, values and struggles of their audience, these icons lose their magnetism as cultural symbols for their readers.

This is what was reflected in Homecoming. The diversity of the cast was meant to recreate the metropolitan social fabric of the modern Queens, New York. Flash Thompson is now snobbish and passive-aggressive, rather than playing the overused “big dumb jock” stereotype.

As for Mary Jane, she is a different story. Zendaya plays Michelle Jones, and not the feisty redhead. It was confirmed that her character borrowed the initials in order to emulate the character dynamics from the comic books and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy.

Admittedly, this is still problematic and a dissatisfying resolution to a problem with serious implications. The casting choices in major studio productions like Homecoming is an indication of the potential paradigm shift in the attitude of Hollywood producers, with regards to race representation in mainstream films. However, the rationale provided behind Zendaya’s character was rather dissatisfying. It might as well have been a haphazard reaction by the studios to appease the fans and the public, after being met with outrage and contemplations over lack of racial diversity in casting.

The official stance of Marvel is that Zendaya was never designated to play Mary Jane, but the “racebending of M.J.” is still questionable. If the “adapted” character is supposed to serve as a “reminder of the original” rather than an independent and original addition to the lore, can we still call it justice to the minorities this decision was meant to empower?

Nevertheless, her character was unique, and her mixture of rebelliousness and nonchalance brought an enjoyable twist to the character dynamics. Moreover, it was commendable on Marvel’s part that they did not resort to racial stereotypes to characterise Michelle. After all, racebending is liable of exploiting the stereotypes that are associated with the ethnicity of the talent/character, in the attempt to integrate the ethnic culture into the story.

On a separate note, it is worth noting that this is not the first occasion in which Marvel successfully executed “white-to-black” racebending. For instance, Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D, was depicted as a Caucasian in the comics. However, in the MCU films, he was played by Samuel L Jackson, an African-American actor. This was received with unanimous applause from both comic fans and general audience alike. The success story of Nick Fury owes much credit to the sheer charisma that Jackson exerted on-screen, as it was sufficient to enchant and convince the audience.

This boils down to perhaps an obvious conclusion. Racebending, like all other ideas, must be well-executed to be well-received. However, it will inevitably receive initial backlash due to its contentious nature.

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(Left): Zendaya as Michelle “M.J.” Jones in Homecoming
(Right): Mary Jane “M.J.” Watson in the comics

In sum, as far as action-comedies go, Spider-Man: Homecoming does not quite push the boundaries of the genre or the house style of MCU, but nonetheless is a well-executed mix of light-hearted humour and web-slinging worth your two hours. Viewed against the backdrop of the larger MCU, it is a marked step forward for Marvel in the diversity of its cast. The studio will have to continue grappling with the questions of canonical authenticity and ethnic representation – a point of particular note in the upcoming political thriller, Black Panther.

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