Review: Spider-Man and the Marvel Machine

Before beginning the review, I must offer a confession:  I am not an admirer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Seeing as I have yet to watch an enjoyable superhero movie, I’m on the opposite end of the movie-going spectrum.  However, I did my best to drop all comic-based preconceptions and give Spider-Man: Homecoming an unbiased watch.  Well, now that I’ve unburdened myself, let’s get to the review.

Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming  is the third reboot of the Marvel franchise within the last 15 years.  One of the benefits of this is the audience’s familiarity with Peter Parker’s story.  Because we know the origin of Spider-Man, Watts can bypass the beginnings and immerse the audience in Parker’s complicated life and exploration of identity.  

Drawing inspiration heavily from the classic coming-of-age films of John Hughes, Homecoming is more than the average action movie.  While Watts did a great job of capturing the warm-hearted adolescent innocence for which Hughes was famous, the homage was heavy-handed at times.  One example of this is the recreation of a famous scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.   In Hughes’ film, the title character ends the movie with race home, rushing through backyards in hopes hopes of hiding his truancy.  The Spider-Man sequence has Peter Parker mirroring the actions of Ferris Bueller, but instead of trusting the audience to understand the reference, director ends the scene with a short clip of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off playing on a television in the background.  While I appreciate a film that understands its influences, the nod was as clumsy and awkward as its protagonist.   

For the most part, the plot of the film does not deviate much from the hero standard.  However, the bare-bones narrative of the Spider-Man series has enough intrinsic value to build an interesting story.  In Homecoming, we find a young Peter Parker trying to balance the normalities of a teenage life with the divergence of his alter ego.  This, in itself, should present interesting questions regarding individuality and what it is to develop a sense of self. Unfortunately, this is one of the biggest issues for the movie.  For most of modern cinema, a thinking-man’s blockbuster has been a rare occurrence. Action films have been a staple in escapist art, guaranteeing the viewer a 90-minute distraction from the unpleasant reality of existence.  Lately, though, the MCU has aimed its sights higher than previous installments. While the action is unabated, recent films have given way to the exploration of existentialist concepts. It is through a pursuit of breaking the two-dimensional narratives of the past that I find Watts’ film to be the most enjoyable.  

With this being said, Homecoming is still an action film at heart, which diminishes the effect of the film’s inherent dichotomy.  Rather than examine the dualistic struggle of Parker’s adolescence, the story suppresses anything more than a superficial glance.  It is frustrating to see a movie make an intelligent point without expanding the premise to its logical conclusion. My hope is Marvel will continue to explore abstract themes and find a compromise between action and human reflection.

Mother and the Eternal Return

How is man to live in this irrational world?  It’s one of the foundational philosophical questions that every person asks, yet its ubiquity does not undermine the importance behind the inquiry: the exploration of man’s concept of himself and his place in the universe.  When we look to the cosmos, we find it is indifferent to our existence, and it is in this indifference that discord between the meaningless of being and our natural search for purpose clash. As Albert Camus noted, “Absurdity arises out of our attempts to make sense of a senseless world.”  Heavy with biblical allegories and overt critiques on humanity’s planetary abuse, Darren Aronofsky’s metaphorical thriller mother! (2017) is layered with existential inquiries.  Moreover, the film’s most interesting point comes when we focus on Javier Bardem’s portrayal of God.  Rather than playing to the normal divine elements, such as perfection and omniscience, mother!  takes an unconventional approach by granting God a human appetite, one that is undergirded by a longing for purpose.

The film begins with the ending of another story.  We see a woman immersed in flames; her body lay beaten and bloody.  The camera cuts to fire-damaged walls being wiped clean through divine intervention.  The universe is resetting. This is a visual introduction to the idea of Eternal Recurrence, an essential theme in the world of mother!   Eternal Recurrence has genesis in the idea energy never ceases. All of the joy, all of the heartbreak and mistakes, all of the accomplishments—even the little things, like the time taken to read this essay—will return to us in the exact way experienced before.  To put simply, once a life has been set in motion, existence recurs in a self-similar form for all eternity. The life you experience now will be lived an innumerable amount of times. As the plot of mother! unfolds, the audience realizes every action set in motion is the product of God’s will, which through the mythology of the Abrahamic religions has been portrayed consistently as unchanging and perfect.  The apologetic narrative is God has a plan. Nevertheless, Aronofsky challenges our theological presuppositions by playing with imperfection.

In the film, he tasks God as a writer who finds himself at a creative impasse. The repetition of life has weakened his creativity.  Because of this, we learn God creates each of his partners out of a need for intellectual and emotional stimulation, the foundations of ingenuity.  Nonetheless, what God once thought was an incredible talent for creation has, through many failed attempts, been revealed as nothing more than resignation to the fatalistic rhythm of life. Each decision in mother! digs God deeper into an existentialist trench and undoubtedly adds to the beginning of the next cycle of destruction, a narrative that is all too human.

Upon my first viewing of the film, the parallels to the fate of Sisyphus were hard to ignore.  According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus, the King of Corinth, was condemned to an eternity of hard labor and unending frustration.  During his life, Sisyphus was known for his wit, and according to various stories, he cheated death on multiple accounts by tricking the gods. Arrogance was the ultimate sin for Sisyphus, as he thought himself more clever than Zeus.  For this, Zeus designed a punishment to match the hubris of Sisyphus: endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down once he had reached the top. The French philosopher Albert Camus argued the maddening nature behind the myth of Sisyphus is the ideal illustration of the human condition.  Part of humanity is a want for inherent value—we need life to have meaning. And when meaning cannot be found, we experience what Camus calls the Absurd. In this context, the Absurd does not appeal to the illogical, but rather to the friction encountered when our search for meaning is met by a meaningless universe. Camus and other existentialists state there are three ways of dealing with the Absurd:  Suicide, religion (or other transcendent beliefs), or acceptance. Camus argues it is in the last option we find true freedom. Through the acceptance of complete mundanity, we find purpose in the unremarkable.  As Camus noted, “What counts is not the best living but the most living.”

This is the cycle of acceptance on which mother! is predicated.  Even with infinite power and being outside the constraints of time, God finds himself burdened by loneliness.  Because of this, he invests everything into his creations, not for an exercise in enlightenment but in hopes that someone will recognize his greatness.  He thrives on praise. This is evident during the final scene between God and Mother. When she confronts his insatiable pursuit of recognition, God responds by saying, “It’s not your fault. Nothing is ever enough.  I couldn’t create if it was, and I have to. That’s what I do. That’s what I am. And now I must try it all again.” This is a pivotal moment because it allows a peek behind the motivational curtain of God’s actions.  Up until this point, we have seen nothing but frustration as he loses control of his creations. God, from our limited knowledge of his nature in the beginning of the film, is a generous man. Contrarily, our initial impression of divine compassion is tainted by the selfishness displayed after the publishing of his book.  

However, it is in this final moment before the next reset that God experiences Amor Fati, the idea that all of the events in one’s life—including the suffering—is a necessary good. He is Sisyphus in this moment.  Knowing his freedom of will extends only so far and he has no way to change his fate, God is overwhelmed with a sense of contentment. Much like the conclusion Camus arrived at with Sisyphus, we have to imagine God is happy. He has embraced the Absurd through his acknowledgement of a fruitless life.  And while this resolution may sound bleak, acceptance is the only way to break free of the Absurd.

Mother! presents the viewer with the idea of eternal, unchanging life.  Through the pursuit of science, we know this metaphysical proposition is unlikely.  Rather than a continual loop, life is in a state of flux. It’s a condition of variability, most of which is out of our control.  Much like Aronofsky’s characterization of God, we spend most of our time alive with the thought that our existence is something exceptional.  However, the reality is much less grand: we are a happy accident. This is the paradox on which life is based. Because of this, we have to create our own meaning and be brave enough to live with the consequences of those actions, whatever they might be.