Blu-ray: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) is the second reboot of the first superstar of the 21st century superhero boom since Sam Raimi’s hit trilogy and this time Sony (who still owns the movie rights) has handed the creative reins over to Marvel Studios and allowed them to integrate the webslinger into the Marvel Comics Movie Universe.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Tom Holland actually made his big screen debut as Spider-Man, once again a hapless high school kid just like in the original comics, in Captain American: Civil War, recruited by Tony Stark to be his secret weapon against Captain America’s rebel heroes. After holding his own in his big league try-out, Holland carries Spider-Man: Homecoming with the youthful spirit of a high school brainiac nerd with the fresh charge of superpowers he’s still mastering, the unseasoned hero eager to impress reluctant mentor Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and make the leap from the streets of Queens to the big leagues of The Avengers.

This film wisely dispenses with the whole origin story and reintroduces us to the rookie wall crawler by revisiting his Civil War coming out party from the excited kid’s point-of-view via Parker’s camera-phone. It’s a perfect entry into this variation on the Marvel house style, capturing not just the charge but the culture of social engagement of a high school kid, a YouTube take on superhero spectacle in the first person.

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Some Thoughts on Comic Books and Serial Storytelling

A few months ago, I wrote a review of The Dark Night where I made the observation that comic books and movies had been growing closer over the past couple of decades:

"The Dark Knight" - graphic inspiration for Nolan's take
"The Dark Knight" - the movie

The development of the superhero movie genre has been fascinating to watch. Over the past couple of decades, comics have become more cinematic and sophisticated and adult, leaving the preteen audience behind to focus on college readers and adult collectors. At the same time, movie blockbusters have become more juvenile and franchise oriented, while on the production side they have adopted technologies that allow them to replicate the kinds of images and action spectacle previously only possible on the page. In retrospect, the superhero movie blockbuster seems like an inevitable meeting of storytelling forms. What makes it so interesting is the way the genre has been attracting some of the most talented and cinematically enthusiastic directors: Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, Sam Raimi, and now Christopher Nolan.”

It’s clear that the dark visions of Frank Miller’s take on the Batman had a tremendous influence on the movies, visually and thematically, though I would argue that Batman: Year One is an even greater influence than the more celebrated The Dark Knight Returns.

Once this was the only kind of show open to comic-book writers

There is, however, a major storytelling difference: comics are (with exceptions) a serial format. Movies are (for the most part) self contained. Sure, there is the increasing franchise aspect to blockbusters, but even then it’s a wait of a couple of years between. In that aspect, comics are closer to TV storytelling, especially with the increase in long-running story arcs in such shows as Lost and Heroes. There, too, you can see the two formats borrowing from one another, not just in the conventions but in the increased crossover in writers.

Back in the seventies, it was almost impossible for a comics scribe (and I mean specifically superhero comics) to make the leap to television (apart from animated superhero shows) or screenwriting. When they did (like Roy Thomas on Fire and Ice and Conan the Destroyer) the results were invariably awkward and cartoonish. Gerry Conway, longtime Marvel writer (among his claims to fame: the Death of Gwen Stacy and the creation of The Punisher, both in The Amazing Spider-Man), quietly made the transition from animated kid shows to TV mysteries and cop shows and has since become a producer on such shows as Diagnosis: Murder and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but he’s an exception to the rule.

Or rather, he was an exception. In the last decade, the barriers between the media became much more porous, and not just on the genre shows like Hercules and Xena and Mutant X. Jeph Loeb (Batman: The Long Halloween and Spider-Man: Blue, among other notable work) is a writer and producer on Heroes. Brian K. Vaughn (Runaways) is a writer on Lost. Frank Miller retreated from his first Hollywood experience (Robocop 2) to concentrate on comics, only to return and become a director in his own right, following Sin City with his take on Will Eisner’s The Spirit (due this Christmas).

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Comic Books: Straczynski’s Spider-Man

Here’s a little something different, and something I hope to make a regular part of my blog.

spider_man_amazing_fantasy.jpgBefore I really embraced the cinema, my passion was comic books (before that it was ice hockey and the NHL, but that’s another story). I collected them, read them fervently and often feverishly, devoured interviews with creators, and even tried my hand at writing reviews and comic book stories for my comic collector’s club newsletter. And the first comic book character I really embraced and loved was Spider-Man. This was the late seventies, not necessarily a golden age for the character, but he was still the marquee character for Marvel with two solo titles (“The Amazing Spider-Man” and “Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man”) and his cross-over “Marvel Team-up,” plus the reprint “Marvel Tales,” where I could revisit the old Steve Ditko stories and the handsome John Romita run. Here was a smart but geeky teenager, a social nerd at the low end of the high school pecking order, who found himself with wondrous powers that he felt obligated to use to protect the citizens of his city – because his inaction led to the death of the uncle who raised him – but was unable to use them to make his out-of-costume any easier. This was a hero that an adolescent reader could embrace and identify with.

Spider-Man and Batman are, to my mind, the two great comic book icons, and they couldn’t be more different. Batman is the dark knight, driven to be a vigilante out of rage and obsession. His social counterpart, Bruce Wayne, is a cover for his real identity as a grim hero who works the night and uses his costume and his attitude to create an enigma, a symbol of dark justice. He doesn’t care if he’s loved by the city. He’s just fine with being feared. And his drive is laced with an arrogance that he no longer even notices. He’s staked out his territory and his tactics and no one is going to tell him otherwise. He’s a magnificent creation and remains, if anything, even more interesting now than ever before.

romitaspidey.jpgSpider-Man is both a responsibility and a release valve for Peter Parker, who keeps his identity secret to protect his loved ones more than to protect himself. He’s branded a villain by the news (especially The Daily Bugle) and he can’t catch a break. He’d love to be liked and it hurts him to be maligned for his sacrifices. His private life is in a state of melodrama, and any sustained period of happiness is doomed to be shattered. There’s a soap opera aspect to it, of course, but it’s a mythic soap opera, the Hero’s Journey with a human vulnerability and a modern urban grounding. He’s the working man’s hero, wisecracking as he saves a citizen from a mugger or the world from an alien attack because he finds a joy in his work, and because sometimes he faces threats so intimidating that it’s the only thing that keeps him from panicking.

The Spider-Man comics have gone through all sorts of permutations and cycles over the 45 year run and many of them have been pretty, let’s say, mediocre. A lot of the scripting really doesn’t hold up decades later (especially the exposition-laced dialogue of the seventies and eighties comics, a pale continuation of the sixties Stan Lee style that somehow, even today, still feels more organic) and the storylines are repetitive. There was a renewed vogue for the comic in the nineties thanks to Todd McFarlane’s dramatic and busy artwork (that was the time that Venom and the black costume were introduced), but I was not impressed by the run. Otherwise, it was the rogues gallery that kept the title alive so much of the time.

spiderman_aunt_may_mary_jane_watson.jpgI had not bought a comic book from the newstand or comic shop in years when I returned to comics through graphic novels and bound collection reprints. That was how I checked in on the character, and how I first discovered J. Michael Straczynski’s run on the flagship Spider-Man title, “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Within the first few issues, Straczynski brought the character back to life with a sharp focus on character and powerful relationships with a resonance that hadn’t been felt in the comic for years.

[SPOILER ALERT – I discuss the major story developments of Straczynski’s run in the following paragraphs. Read no further if you have not read them and don’t want these plot points revealed.]

From working through the strains in his marriage with Mary Jane (under Straczynski’s hand, their time together is the most satisfying portraits of a loving marriage I’ve seen in comics) to sharing his secret identity with Aunt May (who Straczynski made a central player with a vibrant identity and a strength of character so often missing from her earlier portraits) to his relationship with Tony Stark (aka Iron Man). Stark became a real father figure to Peter Parker, the first since the death of Uncle Ben in the origin issue, and not just as the man behind the hero. He encouraged Parker to embrace the fledgling scientist that had been so long neglected.

Straczynski brought Peter Parker to a state of happiness through love and friendship, to a place of trust and respect with the great heroes of his world, to a family that made his problems their problems. The eternal loner, who might cooperate with the Marvel heroes who carry the stamp of authority from the government, never remained with them after the fight was over. He never felt that he belonged. For a brief moment, Tony Stark reached out and told him that he did belong and Captain America confirmed it with his nod of approval.

And then Straczynski took it all away.

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‘Spider-Man’: (Super)Hero of the Working Man

Superhero movies have been a big-screen staple ever since Superman flew through his first animated adventure in 1940. But for all the glory of Richard Donner’s majestic Superman and the kooky, dark weirdness of Tim Burton’s Batman films, it took comic-book-fan-turned-fanboy-director Sam Raimi to capture the graphic thrills and eye-popping spectacle of a true comic book superhero. The film was Spider-Man, and superhero movies have never been the same.

Tobey Maguire is the shy science geek Peter Parker, buffed up from everyman to superman when the bite of a radioactive spider transforms the high school nerd into a mutant wall-crawling muscleman. The adrenaline charge of unbelievable abilities comes at a price, however, and he learns the hard way that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Suited up in a bright, web-laced body stocking, he battles muggers, thieves and his inevitable supervillain nemesis, the cackling, rocket-powered, Jekyll-and-Hyde gremlin Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). But out of costume he’s just as nerdy and nervous as ever as he struggles with his unrequited love of girl-next-door Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst under flaming red tresses). It takes a web-slinging rescue to get her attention and you can almost see the sparks when she plants a soft, slow kiss on her knight in red-and-blue skivvies.

Spider-Man is more than simply a faithful cinematic update of an iconic 40-year-old comic book character. With contemporary flair, Raimi translates the teenage melodrama of alienation and tortured secrets that redefined comic book heroes in the 1960s. He embraces the zip and zoom of modern moviemaking magic with a vengeance to send Spidey whipping through the steel canyons of New York like a spider monkey out of hell.

Raimi captures the ineffable quality that makes this misfit with muscles New York’s own blue-collar, working-man’s hero. He delivers high-flying whoosh, gymnastic spectacle and graphic comic book punch without losing the tragic weight of guilt and responsibility that gives Spider-Man his calling and his credo.

There have been slicker superhero films, but none with as much heart, unabashed charm and sheer kinetic thrill of whipping through the world in a state of high-flying gymnastic bliss.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.