The latest Spiderman reboot places Spidey squarely in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It employs an actual young person for the hero and is part coming of age story, part highschool comedy, and also attempts to be a proper superhero movie in its own right.
Its self-awareness is an asset. At one point it makes direct homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Donald Glover is given a medium sized cameo role in response to a massive internet campaign to make him the new Spiderman; and Michael Keaton, with previous superhero affiliations to both Batman and Birdman, makes an excellent and nuanced supervillain. But self-awareness is also its downfall. In the laborious attempt to introduce Spiderman into the MCU, Spiderman’s richer themes and potential get lost amidst its frequent reference to self.
Throughout the film, though, the main thing driving Peter Parker’s character is his desire to live up to Tony Stark. In this modernized Spiderman, his first official suit is given to him by Tony Stark, and has many features and different types of web fluid far beyond what Parker himself is capable of. At the end of the film, Peter, given the opportunity for a suit and fame, turns it down for the opportunity to be a “Friendly, neighbourhood Spiderman,” and “look out for the little guy.” Though it becomes a comedic moment, it is also a moment of maturity which also serves as a helpful critique of the film itself.
Marvel’s Inward Turn
Let’s recall 2002. Marvel was not yet owned by Disney and the only major blockbuster superhero films known to our consciousness were X-men and Daredevil starring Ben Affleck! It was a simpler time. And yes the movie was poorly acted in parts, a little melodramatic, and a big risk from horror filmmaker Sam Rami. The Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t even really a conception yet, the film was placed squarely in contemporary New York City. Peter Parker didn’t have the rest of the Marvel characters to live up to, he had real family drama and was driven by romance, not a desire for grandeur.
This new contemporary Spiderman is wrestling with his newfound role as a superhero in light of his awkwardly placed cameo is Captain America. It’s as if Superhero films in the age of the MCU have nothing to do except comment on themselves. While there’s certainly potential and interesting in the latest Spiderman, the episode is too narrowly focused on its continuity with other MCU films and sequel potential that the juicy bits of learning and conversion of heart get lost amidst the flurry of self-referential pulp.
There is a CS Lewis quote that can be adapted slightly to explain the negative effects of this current trend of Marvel navel-gazing. I will substitute here substitute the word “truth” for “God.” The meaning is the same. He writes,
Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in [the Truth] at all but only in what they say about [it.] – C.S. Lewis
This trend of turning inward via self-references and cameos is an easy way to get laughs and to please fans, but here’s hoping Marvel will bend back outwards again, returning to what they do best, that is, dealing with the universal themes of Good, evil, and the desire for transcendence.
Photo by DAVID HOLT