The first two decades of the comic book superhero film renaissance were definitely a mixed bag. Kicked off in the summer of 2000 with Bryan Singer’s X-Men and rapidly followed by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), the genre was reborn from the ashes of the Batman and Superman franchises, which had ingloriously crashed and burned by the mid-Nineties after noble beginnings. True, there were antecedents, such as Wesley Snipes’ Blade trilogy and M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, but both films were marketed as horror/thrillers rather than catalysts to a new family-inclusive franchise.
The years between 2000-2008 will be remembered as a period when popular comic book titles were adapted in a fashion that was, like the early days of cinema, open to a type of experimentation and innovation that rapidly dissipated by the end of the decade. Sin City, Road to Perdition, V for Vendetta, and American Splendor remain outliers in terms of style, themes, and screenwriting, By the time Marvel had devised the notion of Iron Man (2008) being the start of a multi-picture single-narrative franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, things were becoming sclerotic and conventional. The summer of 2012 release of the MCU tentpole The Avengers proved the films were becoming the cinematic equivalent of Lisa Frank’s color-by-numbers paintings, with Joss Whedon’s lugubrious script and direction crystalizing everything wrong with the MCU.
This is what makes Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) so strange for me. While the prior MCU films of 2021 left me with a distinct “meh” feeling, this one floored me.
This was not the sole MCU title release of 2021. Along with five television shows on Disney+ (WandVision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, What If…?, and Hawkeye), we also saw Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Venom: Let There Be Carnage premiere to wildly varying critical responses. While the built-in fan base was adulatory, more objective critics wondered where the MCU was headed and, in many instances, hoped aloud that the superhero genre has run its course. While spots 2-4 and 6 in the highest box office gross list of 2021 are held by these pictures (Shang-Chi, Venom, Black Widow, and Eternals, respectively speaking), Spider-Man: No Way Home has out-shone all of these pictures. Over the New Year’s weekend, it retained its number one position at the box office while another sequel that deals with many of the same ideas, The Matrix Resurrections, continued to bomb miserably. An informal survey using Google News shows that No Way Home has generated far more press than any of the other films:
Spider-Man: No Way Home: 65,600,000 news stories
Eternals: 26,500,000 news stories
Black Widow: 9,940,000 news stories
Venom: Let There Be Carnage: 156,000 news stories
Shang-Chi: 156,000 news stories
The Christmas holiday and the loosening of pandemic restrictions, combined with the understandable desire to return to public exhibition venues like movie theaters, would certainly explain a significant amount of the Spidey-success. But this is far from a silver bullet.
Why is this movie such a hit, generating more talk than any of its four franchise peers released in 2021? And why have I now paid to see it three separate times in theaters, something that borders on insanity for my hyper-frugal spending habits? Even the extremely enjoyable Venom, which was superior to Eternals in almost every sense, only merited one ticket purchase from me and I highly doubt I will purchase a home video copy.
Yes, the superficial storyline is ludicrous, riddled with more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), stripped of his secret identity at the close of the last film via cruel doxing, teams up with two earlier cinematic incarnations of the character (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) to battle villains that have appeared in the multiple versions of the franchise over the past twenty years. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange, headed to his own starring feature in May, makes the obligatory appearance in the role of adult mentor/sage for our wall crawler, taking the reins previously held by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and then Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the earlier films. The picture is littered with in-jokes that only fans will understand. Having walked into Avengers: Endgame (2019) without being adequately versed in the earlier MCU entries, I learned two years ago that oblivious, cold feeling many will be left with.
Yet for those of us who fought and survived battles with various manifestations of the Trump nightmare in the past 5 years, as I did, it is impossible to ignore the cathartic, powerful impact of the film. Perhaps these judgments and readings cannot be derived beyond the realm of postmodernist subjectivity but I feel it edges close to the early experimentation of the 2000s with regards to humor and screenwriting.
Marvel characters and stories have always worked best when they sharply attenuated themselves to the postwar social alienation experienced by those designated Others in mainstream society. This is why the first decade of the MCU left me so cold, all of the films focused around characters that were valorized as upstanding bourgeois Americans rather than being marginalized, with the Avengers absolutely reveling in major celebrity status. Simultaneously and by contrast, 20th Century Fox did stay attenuated to this marginalization dynamic with their X-Men franchise, though the results were admittedly mixed.
As a deeply-closeted queer youth at extremely homophobic Catholic schools in the Nineties and Aughts, I latched onto X-Men and Spider-Man precisely because of how they relished in simple analogies for discrimination, marginalization, and bullying. Professor Charles Xavier leads a team of outsiders who are hated by the very society they seek to protect. Peter Parker is a lonely nerd living a modest existence in Queens who deals with a bigoted newspaper that attacks him constantly, The Daily Bugle, and wishes desperately that he could find a date. In the all-male Catholic prep school I attended, there was no way for me to read queer novels in public. However, I could try the newly-released Ultimate Marvel graphic novels. Spearheaded by Brian Michael Bendis in 2000, the Ultimate universe rebooted several Marvel titles, sloughing off 40 years of convoluted continuity and plots to remake the classic stories in the new millennium. (Notably, it was the Ultimate version of Nick Fury, traditionally a grizzled white veteran of World War II, that intentionally used the likeness of Samuel L. Jackson, setting up the later screen casting decisions.)
A film that begins with a teenager being doxxed-outed over the internet by right wing vlogger J. Jonah Jameson (franchise vet J.K. Simmons returning for a spin on his character that is blatantly channeling/spoofing Alex Jones) hits home. I got doxed in Trump-time, some crank threatened to come to my house with a gun after a spat on Twitter. It also happened to other people I know multiple times and, each time, we feared for our lives. What remediation might we seek? Go to the police departments we seek to abolish?
Upon returning to his apartment minutes after this assault on his privacy and safety, there is a scene in his bedroom where he has a minor neurotic fit, mimicking so many of the panic attacks I seem to have on a weekly basis, particularly the ones I experienced while still closeted.
Despite the fact he has done admirable and demonstrably good things, Peter Parker is hated by the public and prosecuted by police, including a random internet-inspired attacker who douses him in paint, which is technically a form of assault and battery. During Trump-time, the hyper-vigilance and use of security culture within activism spaces was the least of our worries. Friends of mine were deeply frightened by cops that intimidated them for their activism-demonstrations and the strategy meetings were as intense as the harshest battle in Far From Home. After Charlottesville, I always had a distinct apprehension at demonstration sites where the geography did not feature distinct obstructions to prevent vehicular attacks. Another friend was sent threatening white nationalist communications multiple times, once in the mail and once over the phone to their workplace.
While Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic #Resistance™ hucksters bilked gullible liberal donors with seemingly-endless fundraiser emails, it felt like trench warfare to take on the actual manifestations of fascism in our society, the police-prison industrial complex and its gendarmes who Trump threw red meat to. What’s worse, most of these liberals ended up being not just useless but counter-productive to the point of danger, full of toxic delusions about the fairness of “the courts” and “civil society.” Their loopy notion that Trump was an existential aberration as opposed to the norm of settler-colonialism, like one of these villains blasted in from another universe who could be zapped away so to return us to “normal,” made for extremely dangerous moments with these unconscious snitches. Like Norman Osborn’s (Willem Dafoe) barely-restrained Green Goblin alter ego, liberals easily flipped to an alliance with the cops in the past 5 years, a truly dangerous dynamic in radical organizing spaces.
We see this further reflected in the way a federal agency known as the US Department of Damage Control (shades of Homeland Security, first introduced in Homecoming as a distinctly anti-working class outfit that steals a much-needed job from Michael Keaton’s character) first tries to jail Peter and then later allows its officers to shoot live fire rounds at him. After a decade of MCU films that worshipped the military-industrial complex’s super-epitome, the SHIELD agency headed by Nick Fury that created the Avengers, we see a carceral, frightening side of the state that brings to mind the sickening technologies of ICE and its treatment of children deemed “unworthy” of humanitarian decency.
As Peter deals with the repercussions of both being out and then his inept attempt to fix the problem, an over-compensating magic spell cast by Dr. Strange that would erase him from humanity’s memory, he is forced repeatedly to make sacrifices and give up comforts that any human being is entitled to by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I lost friendships. I was beaten up repeatedly by a Trump-loving family member, one night sleeping in a supermarket parking lot because I was scared for my life. I only recently have begun to feel safe being out of the closet at work given the Republican assault on LGBTQQIAA+ civil protections. Many of us lost someone or something important because of how Trumpism, like the Confederacy, ripped families apart with a political bifurcation as wide as the Grand Canyon. Liberals and radicals with their constant stream of accusatory polemics gave very little consideration to just how painful it was to break ranks with family and stand on the side of those targeted by Trump. Someone I know spent several Thanksgivings and Christmases alone, including just this past month’s Yuletide holiday, because it is just too painful. Their family is simply not down with the cause and they really don’t feel safe being in the same building as Trump-voting siblings.
By the end of the film, Peter Parker has lost everything and everyone. He is alone, listening to the police scanner in a rinky-dink one room apartment in Midtown Manhattan. (OK, finding a cheap cold water flat adjacent Rockefeller Plaza is obviously the most sci-fi element of the entire movie.) He’s got to find his way through paying bills while also taking his GED. Through some clever screenwriting and subtle retconning, we realize the three MCU Spider-films, each featuring the word Home in the title and the incredibly childish protagonist, were in fact an origin story, that the whole trilogy was bringing audiences to a place where Peter Parker is now the adult Spider-Man he always needed to become.
I write today from my own small bedroom in a cheap apartment, living with two other roommates and studying for my teaching certificate. I lived for the past 5 years now on a meager $100 per day with no benefits as a per diem substitute teacher while paying for credits out of pocket or on student loans. I have grown up a lot in the past few years. I’m certainly not cynical or naive enough to try claiming the mantle of a Dickens protagonist but, at 35, I have a Roth IRA with under $5,000 in it, Social Security, and nothing else in terms of retirement savings, a massive disparity in comparison with my father when he was my age back in 1994.
Peter Parker’s major intellectual and ethical hurdle is defined by two polarities. First, the longstanding injunction of his Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Second, the idea that his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) cares about him. Repeatedly throughout the film, he tells her some variety of “You don’t deserve this” and she retorts “No, I’m here and not going anywhere.” The idea that someone deserves to be loved because of the judgment of the other lover, that the other person makes the decision to love you and that you should respect their decision, is going to be the character’s major internal struggle in whatever sequels are produced. (This is not mere speculation, it is instead quite obvious considering this sort of fare defined the character arcs of both Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America in the first MCU decade.)
One of the greatest struggles I have is overcoming the tremendous amount of cis-hetero-sexism that I have internalized in these past 35 years. Recently a wisened spiritual advisor in a radical space I have organized in over the past few years pointed out to me that, despite my multiple shortcomings (many of which I am painfully aware of to the degree of an anxiety attack), people still care about me and love me.
Why would they want to do something that silly? How could that be possible? Don’t they know that I’m such a f&%k-up?
I gather this is called “impostor syndrome,” which aligns quite nicely with the whole superhero secret identity motif. The struggle for human liberation from racial capitalism is a heavy lift. I dislike the notion of “white guilt” because the emotion is demobilizing and narcissistic. Instead, “obligation” or “responsibility” is more useful. The power invested in our society by whiteness is so substantial, and the consequences for breaking with white supremacy so great, that it does hold the gravity of these silly costumed heroes.
Aunt May, longtime conscience of the series, rebukes Peter when he argues that “It’s not my problem” to help the each of the super-villains overcome a curable affliction that causes their criminalization. “It’s what we do,” she counsels him, urging him to use his scientific brilliance to devise cures that return these characters to their normal human status and therefore allow them to be reintegrated into society. This is exactly the same obligation of radicals with white privilege, to talk some sanity into the Trump voters that would otherwise be seduced by the alt-right’s fascist agenda. It is dangerous and frightening and sacrifices must be made. But it is what we radicals do.
Another ethical dilemma is around optional violence. Holland’s character, a high school senior, experiences a tremendous loss. Maguire and Garfield, who both experienced similar trauma in their earlier pictures, offer the advice of older brothers and need to physically stop him from killing one of his enemies.
Over the past 5 years, the loathing and hatred of Trumpism’s war on immigrants was cradled in my gut like a white-hot ember. I teach in a high-poverty school district with a significant number of Latin American students, many of whom came quite recently to the US. (After November 2016, a message went down the grapevine to get as many kids over the border as humanly possible before Trump was inaugurated, leading Providence to open an entirely new public school dedicated solely to teaching newcomers with low English proficiency.) Every time I saw videos of children separated from their families at the border, I instantly burst into uncontrollable fits of enraged tears, imagining very easily the faces of kids I work with daily. Sheriff Thomas Hodgson of nearby Bristol County, MA ran his jails like torture dungeons and a friend of mine spent a month inside one.
The elder Spider-Men, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., understand on a deep level that revenge and optional violence is not just a volatile force that quickly escapes our control, much like Dr. Strange’s spell that releases the film’s chaos. Revenge and optional violence, unlike the self-defensive actions underwriting liberation and decolonization, also corrode oneself internally and makes us lose the most essential elements of our humanity that we will rely upon in the struggle over the course of our activist lives. Whether you call it vigilantism or adventurism or infantile leftism, the performative politics of optional violence, undertaken to buttress toxic masculinity and delusions of grandeur, absconds the great responsibility that comes with great power.
Peter ends the movie choosing to be alone rather than wanting to risk his loved ones getting hurt again because of his super-heroics. That resonates with me. My aforementioned friend’s parents don’t want their queer commie-pinko politics bringing violence to their house. They both are past 60 and are looking forward to retirement rather than being compelled to re-examine the entirety of their social existence and how whiteness inflected it. There is a very painful moment that is part of growing up, the realization that the adults are just as human as you are and might know about the same, or less, than you do. Peter Parker reaches that point when he decides to live alone, anonymous, and poor in service of a noble cause and the safety of those he loves. That is what it means to struggle against capitalism and settler-colonial imperialism in these dis-United States. Even Marx needed Engels to be his sugar-daddy.
Zack Snyder epically bungled his attempt to create a similar franchise for Marvel’s longtime crosstown rival DC. His trilogy of Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League fell apart under the weight of its own extra-serious pretensions about superheroes being modern Greco-Roman mythical gods walking amongst us.
Yes, superheroes do fill a position akin to myths. Recent work by clinical therapists like Dr. Janina Scarlet has begun to integrate pop culture heroic narratives into practices like cognitive behavior therapy so to provide patients anchor frameworks they can use as proxies through which to process their own traumas and hardships, known as narrative exposure therapy. The role of myths across history have been to provide this structural framework for the public to process events through. Yes, superheroes reflect the aspirations and desires of those who find a narrative succor provided by these characters.
But the key difference from Snyder is that Spider-Man: No Way Home is balancing Aristotle’s three modes, epic-tragic-comic, so to speak to an experience that is all too familiar for those of us that are hated by society. I needed a good Spider-Man movie during a really painful month where I was besieged by PTSD caused by cis-hetero-sexism, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and memories about all the times I was beaten up while being called a fag, sissy, homo, and queer. (I even double-checked with my therapist the other day to make sure I was not completely off my rocker by seeing this movie repeatedly.) Like Singer’s X-Men pictures, it reflected back to me the feelings I have experienced since Trumpism took hold in the land. Yeah, I needed something as goofy as three web-slingers whooping with glee as they swing into action to fight five villains who quite obviously only had to contribute 1-5 days of performance time.
The trendy hipster socialists at Jacobin poo-pooed the movie. Maybe this divergence of views reflects my complete and total surrender of critical faculties. Maybe it is the difference between what I have always seen as the boutique katheder socialism of that milieu and getting into the combat we had to fight in the past 5 years.
The score by Michael Giacchino is a combination of immemorially generic and over-produced, with pretentious choral sections verging on Snyder-level self-parody. Zendaya and Tom Holland’s romantic chemistry is not queer so the exclusion was there (though admittedly a century ago an interracial romance was almost as taboo as same-sex romance). I have a recurring sense of unease about how Blackness is represented in all MCU movies, including Black Panther’s strand of neoliberal respectability politics and adamant narrative endorsement of the CIA, and I am frankly unsurprised by such subtle politics coming from the ultra-right Disney behemoth. There remains a subtle trace of Orientalist racism in Dr. Strange’s character, which seems unavoidable considering that has been his narrative modus operandi since first publication in the Sixties.
But to have an imperfect film reflect back to me in such a powerful way an acknowledgement of all the hurt, the sadness, and the pain of Trump-time…
The final note of relevance is that we are not out of Trump-time. The Democratic Party, predictably, is falling on its face with an electoral strategy for next November that will certainly allow for the GOP to retake the Congress. After that point, they will almost just as certainly have a serious shot of usurping the 2024 election in a manner to make the steal of 2000 by George W. Bush look mild. Joe Biden’s utterly tepid response to the pandemic, the cratering economy, and the already-violent new Culture War battles around “critical race theory,” gender/sexuality, and abortion leaves very little to be optimistic about. It seems like the major Democratic electoral strategy is prolonging the hearings of the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack in a fashion that will bog Donald Trump down in so many legal proceedings, including maybe some sort of indictment, so that he is deemed ineligible to run in state primaries by Democratic Secretaries of State. I’m not too optimistic about the success of such a scenario.
On December 31, Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon of Royal Roads University published a column, “The American Polity is Cracked, and Might Collapse. Canada Must Prepare,” with The Globe and Mail. Most readers are probably familiar with frequent liberal claims they intend to “move to Canada” if [FILL IN THE BLANK] is elected. But here was the first time, in my admittedly limited knowledge, that a member of the (comparatively) liberal Canadian intelligentsia actually contemplated the notion on a serious and detailed level (perhaps equally astonishing, The Globe and Mail is the longtime Tory paper):
What happens, for instance, if high-profile political refugees fleeing persecution arrive in our country, and the U.S. [GOP] regime [elected in 2024] demands them back. Do we comply?… Here’s my key recommendation: The Prime Minister should immediately convene a standing, non-partisan Parliamentary committee with representatives from the five sitting parties, all with full security clearances. It should be understood that this committee will continue to operate in coming years, regardless of changes in federal government. It should receive regular intelligence analyses and briefings by Canadian experts on political and social developments in the United States and their implications for democratic failure there. And it should be charged with providing the federal government with continuing, specific guidance as to how to prepare for and respond to that failure, should it occur.
The newly-minted Spider-Man is only beginning his real journey. (The last two films were adamant that Holland’s character is being positioned to replace Robert Downey, Jr. as the narrative centrifuge, with the final Infinity War/Endgame-like film probably being an adaptation of the Secret Wars mega-series from the 1980s.) We are likewise only at the start of a nightmare that will only get worse and even the Canadians see that.
Trotsky famously relied on his hexameters of Homer while escaping Tsarist Siberia over tea and buns served on a long train ride.
I need brightly-colored spandex-clad heroes.