It’s bad enough we have to learn about superheroes in movie theaters all across the world these days, but now our children have to learn about superheroes in the classroom. Someone, please: Think of the children.
There’s a lot that happens in <i>Spider-Man: Homecoming</i>, most of it designed to bolster the bonds holding the Marvel Cinematic Universe together as a joint multi-thread narrative. Peter Parker, for instance, learns a thing or two about all the great responsibility that comes with great power, and in exchange for his studiousness and humility he’s rewarded with a ersatz father-uncle figure in Tony Stark, a promising future as an Avenger, a potential love interest (and by “potential” I mean “unavoidable”), and a really badass upgrade on his raggedy-ass homemade super suit. Standard issue superhero origin stuff, really, all very familiar, all very much within the boundaries of a cardinal standalone comic book flick*.
But the most important thing that happens in the film, the most significant cultural development Jon Watts presents his audience, happens at school, in the context of school-specific functions: Avengers being used as educational tools, as materials for discipline and for instruction. Their exploits are taught as a necessary, even essential, component of modern world history; their personas are leveraged for the purpose of developing student’s minds. In a production-by-committee that feels so structurally standardized, this is a major detail, which makes the way <i>Spider-Man: Homecoming</i> deploys it all the more disappointing.
Grant that this detail is small, minuscule, even, a series of background elements in a movie crafted to reclaim Spider-Man’s mythos for the greater good of the MCU. This is not a film about the American public school system teaching teens about the Sokovia Accords, or borrowing Captain America’s image, in video form, as a motivational apparatus for getting lazy-ass children to hustle their carcasses up the rope climb, or knock each other out during dodgeball, or run laps around the building, or any other form of torture inflicted under the pretense of promoting physical fitness. (Cap also shows up to scold Peter and other poor slobs for ending up in detention, because it’s not enough that you’ve been sent to the scholastic equivalent of jail. You also have to be lectured by the world’s biggest goody two shoes while you’re there.)
But if <i>Spider-Man: Homecoming</i> isn’t <i>about</i> Avengers in the classroom, they’re still <i>there</i>, and that feels like a huge deal. It might be the single most meaningful piece of world-building that anyone in Marvel’s growing stable of directors has thought to include in their projects. A dubious claim? Perhaps: The MCU makes frequent references to its own events, most notably the aftermath of climactic scenes of devastation that capstone most of its chapter, this device being one of its two primary means of uniting its many and varied characters and their many and varied backgrounds (the other being the much simpler act of putting those characters in the frame together). In order for the MCU to qualify as a universe, it must ensconce its players and crises within an all-encompassing storytelling bubble.
So in that respect, what Watts shows us in <i>Spider-Man: Homecoming</i> in regards to noteworthy high school curriculum changes isn’t all that surprising. It’s actually inevitable. If the catastrophes that transpire in movies like <i>The Avengers</i>, <i>The Avengers: Age of Ultron</i>, and <i>Captain America: The Winter Soldier</i> can become fixtures of conversation and influence the world that we live in politically, then it makes sense that that influence would extend to social and cultural levels. In other words, it was only ever a matter of time before the Avengers found their way into our kids’ textbooks; it’s just a shock to actually <i>see</i> Marvel acknowledge that inevitability upfront in one of their movies (though of course, no single character in the Avengers roster is a more appropriate vessel for making this acknowledgement than young Peter Parker).
There’s a real world texture to these beats, the mention of the Sokovia Accords more than Cap’s PSA appearances. (Frankly, it’d be more surprising if Peter’s school didn’t opt to borrow Cap’s iconography as they do here; he’s accustomed to being used as a propaganda device, after all.) They demonstrate the process by which disaster becomes a chapter in the story of humankind. If you grew up during the early 2000’s, you might be taken aback at the realization that 9/11 is no longer just an awful, unspeakable moment in your recollections of teenhood; it’s a section in a lesson plan, taught to kids who either weren’t alive or weren’t cognizant when it happened. Mull that one over for a few minutes. Sit down if you have to. It feels a little surreal, doesn’t it, to know that the day you spent sitting in the foyer outside your high school cafeteria, watching the World Trade Center collapse and burn on TV screens provided by faculty for sake of keeping you informed, is just a subject the next generation will be tested on at the end of term?
Such is the case of the Sokovia Accords, and presumably the Battle of New York, and possibly the terrorist attacks of Iron Man 3, and you get the idea: Spider-Man: Homecoming normalizes abnormal situations by couching them in the context of schooling, more so than any other entry in the MCU released to date. Big, cacophonous superhero fights, the stuff of superhero cinema finales, aren’t just cool set pieces designed for our entertainment anymore. They’re memories of calamity packaged into high school syllabuses, triggers for past traumas that Peter’s classmates can’t possibly understand. (Peter, at least, has the burden of heroism on his shoulders, so he’ll understand that level of trauma in due time. He’ll even get to participate in it.) What a sobering conclusion to come to, that all of the unbelievable, world-shaping national and global tragedies that define our lives eventually just become footnotes alongside the unbelievable, world-shaping national and global tragedies that defined our forebears’ lives.
If only <i>Spider-Man: Homecoming</i> read into that a little bit more, though now we’re asking the movie to be something other than the thing it’s supposed to be. Again: The subtle is Homecoming, not Homeroom. Nobody’s going to pay to see a Marvel film in which characters come to grips with the natural diminishment of destruction into a matter of study. But if Watts and Marvel felt it necessary to make mention of the MCU’s historical exigencies, maybe they should have done more than treat those mentions as window dressing. As the universe grows in dimension and in gravity, it should grow in maturity and wisdom, too. Spider-Man: Homecoming presents an opportunity for Marvel’s overseers to do just that for their brand, and they discard it. What a shame. Maybe they should have thought of the children.
*I’m fudging reality here slightly, because this is now the umpteenth Spider-Man joint to grace screens in as many years, but if the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb’s Spider-Man films pre-date Jon Watts’ Spider-Man film, they exist off in their own sandbox and not in the MCU. It’s really easy to think of Spider-Man: Homecoming as its own post-origin story, divorced from the accomplishments and the baggage of its predecessors. So there.