Without belaboring the quality of the flick (it was fun! it was good! It won’t redefine how you feel about comic book movies, but you’ll smile almost the entire movie), I want to take a quick look at a few things I noticed after seeing Spiderman: Homecoming last night that stuck out as different from the usual comic book and/or high school movie fare that were nice deviations from standard tropes:
- A high school that isn’t exclusively clique-oriented – Yeah, there’s some divisions there, but the biggest “jock” in the movie, Flash, is also a member of the Academic Decathlon. “Nerds” aren’t getting beaten up in the hallways. Peter and his friends actually seem to enjoy their hobbies and clubs in the school, rather than going to them in a sort of shame. They revel in their hobbies, and nobody cares. There’s a particularly nice setup early in the film where Peter’s friend Ned comes behind Peter as Peter’s opening his with a toy, the sort of thing that in other movies would trigger a back-and-forth glance and a moan about how uncool they were. That’s not what happens here. While high schools are different, they’re not all Lord of the Flies scenarios where the geeks live in fear under a tyrant army of jocks and cheerleaders.
- A villain with a moral code that isn’t trying to end the world – Without going too far into specifics, the primary antagonist (really, all of them) in the movie aren’t doing evil things to be evil. They’re doing it because they have families to support and are shut out of normal opportunities by, in this case, deals among powerful companies and organizations that keep out the little guys. There’s no real baddies in this one that want to see the world burn, and it’s refreshing to see a writer put as much energy into a plausible villain (even one with a mechanized flight suit) as they do into the splashy fight scenes.
- Battles that are about more than beating each other up – While it can be fun to watch two out-sized foes duke it out while destroying cities, a battle that sticks with you has to have some other stakes beyond just defeating the enemy. Every fight in this movie was about more than beating the other guy – the villains almost never wanted to “kill” Spiderman, they all had ancillary goals. Spiderman, likewise, wasn’t trying to beat the crap out of the enemy. As most conflicts in life really are, these fights were more two groups with conflicting objectives that were in the way. It wasn’t about the punches, it was where they wanted to go. Also, to that end, none of the fights were overlong. You never grew tired of the action because the movie wasn’t interested in extended beat-em-up scenes.
- Giving the characters a life outside of the objective – This is a tricky one to pull off, because you don’t want to bore the audience with details that don’t matter to the plot, but you do want them to believe your heroes are real. Spiderman spends a lot of this movie without the suit on, engaging in the sorts of things an actual 15 year-old would do. That these scenes are suffused with humor and conflict and still advance the plot help immensely in keeping them interesting. You’ll have as much fun watching Peter deal with getting ready for a dance (the titular Homecoming at his school) as you will watching him suit up for the next fight. By the end of the movie, I still felt Spiderman was a plausible high school student, something that most of these movies disregard after the opening half hour to service the world-destroying conflict.
- Work the slow burn bits – It’s easy to get so consumed by the big twist in your story that you ignore opportunities for little gems that you can toss throughout your work. Spiderman is littered with these callbacks and tiny side-plots. If you don’t catch some of them, it won’t matter to the overall story, but including a few treats for attentive watchers/readers can be fun for the writer and everyone else. I don’t think every single moment needs to tie into something larger, but give your characters chances to grow in ways beyond taking down the big baddie or solving the crime. Most of us have lives with more than one thing going on at a time, with numerous small things coming and going throughout even as we focus on a big goal (the job, the kid, the novel). Give those little bits some air and you’ll find yourself with richer characters, and a richer story for it.