The weekend after July 4, another Marvel blockbuster is headed to a $120-million debut: “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Happy birthday, America—millennial America, that is. This is a spontaneous celebration of superheroes who seem immune to our confusion and depression about the likely future. The more the news turns crazy, the more we turn to fantasies in which problems are actually solved. The more institutions are tarnished or bankrupted, the more we give legitimacy to the corporations that sell fantasies. We all get to be superheroes, for a fairly reasonable price. We can be happy together at the movies—and we can embrace a temporary identity that makes things worthwhile.
This new “Spider-Man” has none of the sweetness of the old comics or movies, none of the terrible suffering of losing family, none of the problems you might expect to find in an orphan, none of the safety of suburbia, and none of the old-time belief that the press is respectable and exciting.
What’s left of the Spider-Man story, then? There’s no great answer to that question. There’s no reason for this story to exist, except to get young Americans excited about the idea that their corporate gadgets give them superpowers. This is nothing but a strangely unattractive idealization of Millennials, without any acknowledgment that they might be missing something important—that they might long for something beyond themselves. Instead, they have the Steve Jobs of the superhero world, Iron Man, patting them on the back. Corporations are reassuring audiences that their fantasies are as real as it gets. There is reason to worry about this.
Marvel And Disney Own Our Universe
Sometimes it seems like the arc of history bends toward Marvel, or at least Disney-Marvel. In the new internet world, we replace old gods with new brands, to whom we show loyalty in the funniest ways. For better and worse, the corporations now own our souls. We live in expectation of their next offerings and learn, by their rules, what things may thrill or delight us in the near future—or at least disappoint us enough to be worth talking about on social media.
We rarely fail to show up when they tell us they’re making history—and we rarely fail to approve of their mighty works. They are the future and we wish to hear them prophesy. They are the shadows on the wall of our cave and we like people who guess at what shapes will show up next or what they might mean. Thus we are cured of our human boredom, relieved of the anxieties of the times, and get a sense of ownership over the object of our desires.
Of course, ownership is not what it used to be, either. Few people will even bother to own a copy of this new Spider-Man movie, or of the many previous ones. We all just want to be there at the origin, catch it in its first weekend. Only the few feel the privilege of making an original thing, or even participating in its announcement. Normal people have to wait for wide release, but they have numbers on their side. The combination of announcing the thing and being there at the start of it all—that’s what makes the experience worthwhile. Each new movie-phenomenon is a private revelation! Who dares miss it, when it’s supposed to be amazing? Who dares miss out on superlative experiences?
Thus, corporations sell us our own democracy. Marvel movies persuade us that we are in it together, part of something new and good. Unlike politics or the economy, there’s a future in Marvel movies. Marketing, advertising, social media: these are all mere works of the great hope of our times—that we can find self-knowledge in some pleasant thing that millions share. We are justified in Marvel movies: our fears are exorcised, and so is our secret self-pity. We wish we were as pretty and sarcastic as Marvel heroes. That’s what Marvel is selling—that’s what Disney is selling. And everyone’s buying, because the one thing we all want is to get in on the action.
People don’t just watch a Marvel movie. The young especially watch lots of them across any number of platforms; what they buy by way of merchandise doesn’t even matter anymore, except that it’s a lot of money. But the movies hardly matter more. What really matters is the applause they garner, which is a low-intensity form of fanaticism. That is the social phenomenon, the economic view of which is an endless stream of streams, billions of dollars, flowing from consumers to the new gods of America, who alone stand between us and dark, brooding mortality. Superheroes will suffer and sacrifice for us, and yet there will always be the next sequel, to reassure us, as well. You get all the resurrection you want with none of the dying. You also get the illusion of a society where it is possible to act together for common purposes.
That is what we buy with every new phenomenon we participate in. We don’t have fan clubs anymore, because our society itself is the fan club now. We’re all busy spreading the gospel to each other, even though we all watch pretty much the same things. Every year, fewer movies get wide release. They’re costlier and they’re more popular, yet they come out of an ever-smaller number of sources, whether as story or studio. Someone somewhere has got our number. This is what we do to feel a sense of togetherness now.
What This New ‘Spider-Man’ Achieves
Spider-Man, though a source of billions of dollars in revenues, was not, until this year, part of the Disney-Marvel media-industrial complex. The very successful movie trilogy that started in 2002 came before the rise of “Iron Man,” the god of scientific sarcasm that makes our movie-going lives worth living. Those earlier stories were rather innocent, and not particularly interesting. Even the reboot, starting in 2012 and featuring another boy with other stories, was nothing to do with Disney-Marvel, which had meanwhile become the dominant force in popular movie-making. Whatever Sony—who owns the brand to Marvel’s “Spider-Man”—tried to do, they failed.
Now, they’re in business with Disney-Marvel and we finally get the Spider-Man we deserve. So this is how you should understand the inevitable subtitle: homecoming means that the property is coming back to its source. We know this because Iron Man himself is in it, to anoint a new addition to the story he so dominates. If you want to see how dominant this character is, consider that in Hollywood you cannot even have a “Captain America” movie anymore unless it’s really an “Iron Man” movie, just like the last “Avengers” movie before it. There are no other stories to tell, apparently…
The actor playing this third Spider-Man says he was instructed to watch John Hughes movies in preparation for his new role. You may not remember the Eighties—but they are now an object of nostalgia, so you get to experience them anyway. Back then, John Hughes used to tell stories about misfit high-school kids who wanted a life that’s not reducible to suburbia. In their silly ways, they were trying to find friendship and love. They were separated from parents who did not do much beyond providing for them—and they were separated from the adult world in general. They were restless and powerless.
All that is solved in this movie. None of the darkness or self-destruction of the John Hughes romances. Kids are happy to be liberated from adults, they have infinite resources of fun and success in life, and they also can acquire superhuman powers. The high school losers can turn to science to liberate themselves from the too-erotic democracy of high school. Then they can succeed on their own terms. Compared to John Hughes, the Marvel superhero movies have zero moral realism or understanding of what might be wrong in America. Everything is alright—so much so that the greatest Millennial father-figure since Mr. Obama, Iron Man, is getting married in this movie.
This Spider-Man Is The Ideal American Millennial
Ask yourself what has changed in the meantime—why we are incapable of telling a popular story where young Americans are not compulsively successful—and you will know what we’re dealing with here: the internet. Power, or the screen-derived illusion of it, is now an everyday experience. People feel they’re in control of the world at some level. But that power is not worth much to people without idols. Corporations that sell you a phone would not work without corporations selling you movies, TV, or internet series to watch (or any number of other opportunities for fantasy to replace reality).
If you want to know why the new Spider-Man is so tech-savvy, it’s because he’s the ideal American child. With next to nothing tying him to his past, he’ll forge a great future for himself. You, too, can be that guy—your suit is your loyalty to Disney-Marvel and other corporations. The products they offer you are the suit and gadgets Iron man offers the young Spider-Man. Good luck being a superhero, just like everyone else.
Sometimes it seems like Marx was right after all, and what occurs as tragedy repeats as farce. At least, Hollywood is that way—Michael Keaton, recently awarded his only Oscar nomination for the prestigious, artsy film “Birdman,” now plays a bird-man villain for applause and who knows what kind of paycheck. One wonders whether our corporate masters pay these prestigious actors wild amounts of money in a showcase of their magnificence, or whether they pay them whatever the going rate is, because the truth is you can buy any number of them. Marvel buys actors and directors as needed, but the talent thus acquired is always under control—there’s no chance you’ll see something you weren’t expecting, whether from the trailer or from the previous installments.
As talent gets captured and prestige finally loses the fight against popularity, it is harder and harder to make popular movies without catering to millennials who, God love them, have more scientific power applied to satisfying their desires at whatever price than any generation before. They’re basically defenseless and do not know it. Who knows yet what the effect will be of internet-based corporations on our ability to recognize our basic human situation—with good and evil, mortality, and our longing for something truly real. But that was the purpose and justification of popular story-telling, if you think about it.