• Posted on: November 16, 2017 10:53 pm
  • by Greg O'Neil

The Perks of Being a Wallcrawler

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My spider-sense is tingling.

The scene could be a panel in the latest issue of Peter Parker’s life. Our lab groups have just been assigned in chemistry class. I’ve been saddled with three doozies. To my right, one of the most popular girls in school, Michelle, who is an identical twin to one of the other most popular girls in school, Alicia. Sitting diagonally across from me is Trevor, one of the most popular boys in school. He may have just finished reading the manual on jock stereotypes of junior year. Directly in front of me is a person so insignificant to my development as a youth that I cannot remember their physical attributes. A gender doesn’t even come to mind. The experiment before us is daunting, not for its difficulty but in the variables involved in completing it. Unlike Peter, who (when Steve Ditko was drawing him) wears genius on his freshly-ironed sweater vest, I’m a hopeless embarrassment when it comes to transferring a substance from one beaker to another. But I was the version of myself who, one pair of glasses and a quiet demeanor later, looked as if it he could recite the highlights of quantum mechanics off the cuff in the middle of a casual subway encounter. The other three classmates were signaling their reliance on me to complete the assignment. It didn’t matter that their assumptions of my intelligence were misplaced. My investment level in the course was possibly lower than gym class, kind of impressive when you consider gym was a bi-weekly ritual of me falling down or dropping various types of balls in front of athletic prodigies I either wanted to be or wanted to fuck in the locker room. On this day I had been thrust into a social war zone with land mines everywhere.

I started breathing heavily and a modest search for a paper bag began. My skin was trying to separate from my musculature. I asked the universe for two simple things in the moment: 1) That Michelle talk to John Doe as much as possible 2) That Trevor talk to me as infrequently as possible. Trevor was the crème de la crème of my high school crushes. No one else held a candle to him in terms of being the perfect combination of mysterious yet weirdly accessible; he was everywhere, making appearances in hallway after hallway, but somehow so far away from my grasp (I mean than figuratively. Groping him out of the blue would have landed me in a wasteland of my own design, and also maybe jail?). He was a walking contradiction, a bad boy who dressed like his mom found a blowout sale at American Eagle and maxed out her credit cards on their entire winter line. He was a certified asshole who nicknamed my best friend “Mashed Potatoes,” but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t thinking about his quarterback gravy C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-L-Y. His personality was his worst quality outside of the pretty boy’s fondness for hair gel (also my second-worst quality in the advent of freshman year, after crippling self-doubt). As long as you didn’t think too hard about him, admiring his jawline and natural smolder was very satisfying. These failings nonwithstanding, Trevor addressing a statement to me of any kind (in written or verbal form) would have caused me to react spontaneously and irrationally, like screaming “Can I grate some parmesan cheese on your abs?!” or squirting milk out of my nose if he asked why I was eating the blandest of all cereals, Cheerios. I could not prove this would happen and never wanted to find out.

Whenever I find myself in a situation I overestimate in terms of its potential for boundless humiliation (which is always), the end result borders on anti-climatic. After all of my internal anguish, this is what happened. Michelle asked me a question too boring to remember about our lab. My sheepish response was also of no consequence. Then she looked at me for what felt like 3-6 seconds and said – with relief on her lips – something I’ll never forget.

“You know, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you talk.”

It was January.

There are three superheroes constantly vying for the #1 spot in the hearts of little boys: Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. Anyone who says Green Lantern definitely had an absent father. Superman is the most powerful, Batman is the most impressive and Spider-Man is the most relatable. You can love all three but the existential question will always be: which one are you? We project ourselves into the framing of these stories so they feel realer than they are. Comic book appreciation 101. An astrophysicist who works at NASA will probably choose Superman, for they too have been gifted with extraordinary capabilities tied to the workings of biology and science (they are also likeliest to figure out a way to shoot laser beams out of your eyeballs). An Olympian would likely gravitate towards Batman, for they too can attest to his endurance and persistence in realizing an overarching goal. For the repressed introvert in chemistry class, their North Star is going to be the ultimate everyman, the guy who was bitten by interpersonal retardation before he encountered that spider. From the time I was rocking onesies until the moment it became socially unacceptable for me to trick-or-treat around my neighborhood, my favorite superhero was the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. The trajectory of the media output for Spider-Man in the 90s coincided with my pre-teen years perfectly. In 1994, when I was five, Fox Kids debuted “Spider Man: The Animated Series.” It played at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings. Twenty-somethings who peaked in the late 20th century can all come together in unity over the fact that the weekend never truly began until you ingested piles of sugar and got some action-packed cartoons out of your system. For me, this particular half hour of pure awe and wonder was a bigger deal than when I first discovered porn. If there is an adult film starring Spider-Man somewhere, it would surely be my deliverance.

The animated series got as much right as Batman’s hand-drawn counterpart at the time, in the sense it perfectly realized the world of the character for arguably the first time. No movie had been made featuring the web-slinger yet. The colorful format naturally lent itself to depicting Spidey in an authentic way. The animation, like that of Gotham’s most notorious resident, took on a mood. The look was startling in its fidelity to the comics, to say nothing about the suspenseful storylines and iconic voice work (I recently rewatched a few episodes of the show in the interest of this post, and while it was clearly produced for no other audience besides kids, the pot boiler episodes could effectively stress out adults). And so began my adoration for the trials and tribulations of Peter Parker.

When Fox’s series ended and Sam Raimi’s films began, there was a four-year gap, enough time for me to put away my childish things and grow into the functioning dork with no fashion sense I was destined to be. Raimi’s vision of Spider-Man was singular in execution. It built on Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” and drafted a new playbook on keeping a human story deftly interweaved with fantastical events. Raimi’s eye was just left of center in the sphere of realism, unapologetically goofy, with a horror angle used sparingly but effectively. In essence, the onset of puberty. His take collided with my own journey of being a 13 year-old who wanted to be liked and was deathly afraid of heights. Unlike the Dark Knight and Kal El, no other filmmaker had tackled Marvel’s golden child before in earnest. James Cameron – a creative bulldozer who wins doing all seemingly impossible tasks – tried and failed. Despite attempts and developments, the complexity of the special effects required meant that Spidey’s sticky buns be kept securely in the oven for decades. No reference point existed for the do-gooder who relished in playing with gravity, other than the obligatory confines of an origin story.

I cannot exaggerate my POV as a high school student. It traveled through the years when I experimented with an ill-advised half-goatee, half molestache without controversy or fanfare. I was not bullied. There was no bus ride incident involving assorted fruit being hurled at my face that transformed me. I had a few close friends and many acquaintances. My grades were fine, but not astonishing. I simply floated through the ether of those hallways with the finesse of a moth with no light to obsess over. Nobody seemed interested in swatting me. I was a vanilla wafer. Einstein had a saying (let me be that guy for a second) and it went like this: “It is better to be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” I am no genius, despite having unconsciously subscribed to this line of thought. I am just helplessly shy. I never know what to say. I try to be funny. Occasionally it works. Half the time I manage to wedge a slice of interest between obvious boredom and unsustainable nervous energy. The other half is spent making the trajectory of my behavior comparable to the fate of Titanic. I’ve always felt I could have served as inspiration for Peter Parker if he hadn’t been created two decades before I was an embryo.

I don’t know how to deconstruct Spidey’s formal entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe without unpacking all of the baggage that has preceded this sentence. Reviewing the precise moment Marvel Studios popped the character’s cherry is like trying to cram 23-or-so-years worth of adoration and intense thought into a proverbial mason jar. My connection with him is too intense. The only difference between the two of us? He would know exactly how to tackle that lab experiment in chemistry class. He belongs in an interconnected universe, as do all the heroes under the same banner. The prospect of seeing him come home to the studio who (on paper) can ultimately define him offers tantalizing and thrilling possibilities. I am overwhelmed trying to pinpoint where to even start.

Getting Spider-Man right requires an understanding of four things, three of which are specific to the history of the character, one of which is so obvious it shouldn’t have to be written out at all: 1) Peter Parker is not a cool guy; He’s a dweebish loser who figures nicely within the limited spectrum of plain and ordinary. Packed on top of that is Parker’s knack for finding himself in miserable situations and sucking at life almost constantly. Whereas Clark Kent is a created identity that risks succumbing to theatricality, Parker is authentically himself, full stop. 2) Spider-Man is not Peter Parker dressed as Spider-Man; Spider-Man is an alternate personality that exists outside of the bespectacled science whiz. He is part of  Parker, but that side is only revealed by the empowerment inherent in donning the suit. Spider-Man loves being Spider-Man. Peter Parker hates being Peter Parker. 3) The world in which Spider-Man exists is both real and unreal (Unlike Batman’s or Superman’s, which are pure fantasy). 4) If it’s in the comics, it should be treated as scripture with minor deviation; a silly-looking costume here or a dated storyline are logical exceptions. This is the most Comic Con aspect of my affinity for superheroes, an unflinching loyalty to the material that rubs up against being actually insane.

Most of Spidey’s activities in the comics take place in a location that really exists, New York City. But those activities involve thwarting freshly minted psychos who are either channeling animals (Chameleon, Rhino, Doctor Octopus, Vulture), have literally become animals (Lizard, Morbius, Venom) or actively hate animals (Kraven the Hunter). So the New York of Spider-Man’s life needs to feel like the same one the Yankees could play in, but also serve as a variation of the metropolis in which these other ridiculous developments are theoretically possible. There have been three versions of Spider-Man so far and none of them have gotten all of the elements right. The heightened yet plausible environment Sam Raimi created latched onto the pages of Stan Lee’s earliest adventures perfectly. His vision hit a minor snag when it neglected to capture the humor Spider-Man injects into all of his run-ins with criminals. Raimi’s Spider-Man is (an unapologetically nerdy) Peter Parker dressed as Spider-Man. Both the man and the spider-man have the same mannerisms and speech patterns. Director Marc Webb initially did the opposite of Raimi, until fanboys decried the grimy tone of “The Amazing Spider-Man” and the sequel aped the visual style of the original trilogy. Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man had a blast as a costumed trickster, but the world around him was (initially) dour and shot like it was trying to challenge anything David Fincher has ever done. Webb’s approach to Spider-Man’s persona is purer than Raimi’s. Points must be awarded for being truer to the hero of the comics. However, this came with the caveat of Christoper Nolan-izing Peter Parker, making him a bit more self-absorbed and turning the guy into a jittery emo hipster who was, at his core, Batman with acne. Then setting his exploits in a contradictory world that felt too close to the one we already inhabit.

John Watts’ new version falls somewhere in between those two. The MCU allows for the lightness of touch exhibited in Raimi’s movies, while unfortunately necessitating that every plot and design choice be explained away into oblivion like Webb’s (It connects to “The Avengers” because of THIS, Vulture’s suit is possible as a result of THIS etc.). And it’s the residue the latter leaves behind that sucks the fun out of Spider-Man. I don’t need clever filmmakers to deconstruct how a fantasy element from the source material can fit into a *grounded depiction* of an adolescent who could flip a car with one hand. I need them to treat that universe like the fairytale playground it has always been, one where there are EFFING SUPERHEROES RUNNING AROUND.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” isn’t a Spider-Man movie. It walks, talks and acts like one, but the reliance on events and characters that have come before swallow the movie whole and rob Peter Parker of his singular identity and a reason to exist. From this point forward I am operating under the assumption that you’ve seen the newest iteration of Marvel’s crown jewel onscreen. We are way past the two-week grace period. The movie is already available on Blu-ray and your favorite digital retailers at this point. If you have not see it, I’m about to ruin the entire plot for you. Fair warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

When Peter Parker was bitten by the radioactive arachnid all those years ago, he morphed into a being closer to a spider than a human. Everybody knows this. His powers were 90% of his persona as a superhero. The other 10% was a red and blue uniform the only precedent for which was (maybe) in figure skating attire. He can still do all the cool shit he does in sweatpants. The bitchin’ threads were an announcement that he was technically a freak of nature, and a way to conceal his identity. Spider-Man (unlike Batman) wasn’t defined by the suit that covered him, it was the other way around. The screenwriters of “Homecoming” either neglected this essential quality or decided it did not fit within the framework of a world where practically the choice of someone’s shoelaces just had to be given a back story. The young prodigy aspects of the character are betrayed in a very big way, first ushered in by the looming presence of Tony Stark in “Captain America: Civil War” (Stark literally makes the kid’s suit for him) and then cemented by Peter’s unrelenting dependence upon Stark to do anything of consequence in “Homecoming.” Not only is Spidey’s getup too pimped out, capable of too many feats of technological innovation, its gadgets and gizmos completely defeat the purpose of Spider-Man having spider-sense (the one superpower that makes him super unique the first place). Why does he need a natural, biological ability to detect incoming danger when a disaffected rich guy can build the same effect into some nifty hardware? The answer is, he doesn’t. Spider-Man is designed to be amazing. Tony Stark’s influence as his tailor makes the kid inherently less so.

As evidenced by how they are tackling their most iconic property, Marvel seems hellbent on turning Spider-Man into a millennial Iron Man.  It’s Stark who is responsible for downplaying Peter Parker’s intelligence and turning Spider-Man into a clumsy fool who seems to be improvising his actions at every turn. I understand this is supposed to be the itsy-bitsy-spider-on-training-wheels entry of a planned trilogy. One where Peter progressively learns how to behave like the icon he will eventually become. It’s an idea I’m very fond of, actually. You don’t inherently know how to be a national sensation overnight. But the sight of Spider-Man trying to figure out and being overthrown by his own suit (one he simply sews together himself without explanation or help from anyone else in the comics) is completely bizarre and uncomfortable to watch. Applying such misfires to Peter’s personal life makes sense and works wonderfully, because he’s a sophomore in high school and teenagers are fucking idiots. But do it another way, one where a defining trait of this hero isn’t compromised. Spider-Man – unlike Peter trying to sequester his tendency to screw up – is supposed to skirt the surface of a higher plane. He has grace in the skies when Peter has misfortune on the ground. He is irreverent, yes, but not incompetent.

I could feel the sensation as it worked its way down my muffin top and inward towards my groin. A dwelling release awaited the sight of him. Lunch time was prime time for observing the impossibly attractive classmates you wished were trapped in the closet with you. Not purely just for the company; When you’re about to web your pants, a second opinion on a good change of clothes is a welcome extra. Alas, Trevor came and went. I nearly came and cried a little bit. Tobey Maguire fawned over Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson with an identical gaze. Only instead of hormones having a vice grip over his genitalia, he has a (metaphorical) ejaculation caused by his powers and shoots a strand of goo from his wrist onto someone’s tray of food in the cafeteria. It’s a moment of naked vulnerability that simultaneously propels the story forward (despite diverging from Parker’s acquisition of the white stuff in Lee and Ditko’s original version) and says something truthful and very PG-13 about the pitfalls of being a horny boy. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” never goes there, or lends a unique voice to any other aspects of the high school experience. The six (SIX!) credited writers instead settle for Disney Channel-esque displays of how they believe adolescents behave, without getting to the heart of how they actually do.

Take Peter’s relationship with his best friend, Ned, a character who spends more time trying to prove to the audience that he is the lovable sidekick rather than earning the title of The Comic Relief outright. Ned is the most outward example of the filmmakers using a surface-level component (a fat Pacific Islander serving as a solid contrast to his aggressively caucasian buddy) and not capturing its potential. All Ned does throughout “Homecoming” is tell Peter he’s doing something wrong, warn him about obvious threats and respond to statements with a variation of “That’s so cool” or “Awesome” or “Uh oh.” (The lack of variety or nuance when it comes to expository dialogue is breathtaking. Every attendee at Midtown High has the same response to seemingly anything, without individual personalities to break up the monotony.) He has no distinguishing features other than a casting director having decided a few months prior that, for sure, if you look at this chubby child, you’ll likely smile. One moment finally broke me. The two friends are hanging out in Peter’s bedroom post-revelation that he’s Spider-Man (more on this blasphemous development later). Ned is wearing regular clothes but talking with a stretched-out Spidey mask on. Cute. I immediately regretted laughing after it was clear the reason why it was funny hinged on Ned being overweight. That about sums up the level of creativity this movie has.

Flash Thompson gets wheeled in early to tell us he is a) There, I guess b) Definitely a bully, like really, in case it wasn’t blatantly obvious in the last two series c) Not good at insults (“Penis Parker”) and d) Sure of his destiny as a world-class DJ, which, amazingly, both has nothing to do with Peter’s connection to him in the first place and adds zilch to his portrayal in this movie. He exists because he was invited to add some sick beats to a house party midway through (and look punchable). The love-interest is just kind of there, too, if only to fuel the essential romantic subplot. She’s pretty. We never learn a thing about her. Spider-Man saves her from being squashed in an elevator. Par for the course.

Vegging out in the corner is Zendaya, who has literally been transplanted from the Disney Channel to capture the imaginations of that entire demographic. Hers is the scene-stealer role, inadvertently modeled after Jared Leto’s Joker in both intent, execution and payoff. The media cyclone of coverage over her inclusion was deafening and loaded with intrigue (“OMG, they made her ugly!” “Wait, is she secretly a pre-gorgeous Mary Jane?!” “An African American MJ, so 2017!”) And for what? All of maybe one minute and thirty seconds of screen time. She’s supposed to be the edgy outsider who eats snark for breakfast, only the girl dresses and talks like Mike Huckabee’s impression of Ally Sheedy from “The Breakfast Club” (Seriously, can we retire the hoodie and stoner lifestyle from this depiction forever?). None of her lines land. Along with the rest of the gang, she’s there just to be an archetype, not to inhabit an individual with motivations and a point of view.

The mystery box element over her inclusion in the movie would be a cheat if the big reveal at the end didn’t feel cheap. Producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal made it adamantly clear her name was MICHELLE, but their future sleight of hand could be seen coming from the top of Stark Tower. Indeed, her first name is Michelle, but she quips about her initials being MJ in a brief stinger towards the end. So, she technically isn’t Mary Jane…but shares her nickname…and behaves similarly to the fiery redhead of yore. What the fuck is the point? Why not just make her Mary Jane? The reason is increasingly apparent: They flat out did not want to touch on what has been done before in previous movies. Stay fresh. At what cost? Marvel has consciously decided to ignore the most pivotal supporting character in Spider-Man’s history in favor of an annoying, original creation. Who, just to twist the knife, uses the same initials as Peter’s greatest love. I internalized my groaning in the theater and spared other audience members the suspense of wondering whether a Xenomorph was about to rip out of my chest.

None of this would matter if “Homecoming” wasn’t laying itself bare as a high school movie first and an action extravaganza second. Yet if there was one thing ringing throughout the infinite passageways of the Internet before release, it was that Marvel Studios was really, really, really trying to tap into a John Hughes tone with their interpretation of Peter Parker’s high school. Hughes didn’t make those classics for kids, though. His aesthetic was ageless. You could glean his characters’ spirits just by looking at them. They had a history that hovers outside of the screenplay. “Homecoming” doesn’t develop any of its characters besides Peter.

Well, they give Adrian Toomes a try. Ever since I saw the concept art of Michael Keaton’s variation on The Vulture, I contended that it was a bland about face from the crook’s true spirit. Here we are continuing to imprint the Iron Man influence on every design choice even mildly associated with machinery. In the comics, Spider-Man’s earliest adversary was a gangly old man who evoked Ebenezer Scrooge in temperament and demeanor. He was dreadfully thin, bald, age spots scattered everywhere, with a beak-like nose to complete the avian fever dream. It was dubious just exactly how Toomes was able to operate the suit that granted him incredible strength for his age, but these are stories for kids; Reading into such logistics only crumbles the house of cards.

Toomes, despite having bragging rights as Spidey’s very first challenger, was always a minor blip in the rogues gallery. If nothing else, for how dumb he looked – a geezer in a green bird getup. Despite his appearance, I always thought he could be something more. Here was the rare opportunity to actually enhance something that, on its face, would translate poorly from the page. Were I behind the camera, I would use his unconventional look to the story’s advantage. I would embrace his freakish nature in the same way Tim Burton made The Penguin a waddling nightmare factory in “Batman Returns.” I would turn The Vulture into a looming figure of horror, age the actor well into his eighties with prosthetics and a long, heinous nose. I’d make him a prowler who evokes fear. The (frankly hilarious) disparity in age between Peter and Toomes invites more than a few intriguing scenarios.  The comics took note of this, too; the most compelling storyline involved Vulture devising a way to steal Spider-Man’s youth and rejuvenate himself with it. Can you imagine the possibilities of a climactic battle between a winged predator at the peak of his powers and a wrinkly Spider-Man yearning for his afternoon nap? It would be a gas.

Marvel couldn’t help themselves on this front, either; instead, they (again) leaned heavily into the history of their own intertwined movie-verse more than the precedent set by the comics. They opted to assemble Vulture’s winged apparatus out of leftover scraps and chitauri (alien robots, or something) tech from the battle for NYC in “The Avengers.” Worst of all, the costumers plunked a “Top Gun” helmet over his head, obscuring all potential for variety in expression. I can see the design meeting now: “It’s illogical for him to be roaming at such high altitudes without a source of oxygen. He needs a mask for protection, comfort and his survival in the air.” Yes, please continue to justify the practicality of a senior citizen single-handedly engineering an armored jetpack to coast around the largest city in the U.S. without anybody noticing. Two glowing green eyes were put in to remind us there was a person in there, yet Keaton barely talks when he’s The Vulture. Trying to make him a silent boogeyman who appears out of nowhere to freak out Spider-Man only works if he comes across as such; his final design doesn’t work. On the home front, the writers made him into a blue collar allegory for the middle class in Trump’s America (“I’m stealing and killing and justifying being a septic system of a human so my family can survive”), without actually digging into his family life at all.

The Hail Mary twist in the third act reveals Liz – the thoroughly boring babe Peter wants to catch in his web – as Toomes’ daughter. Except the narrative shock of this new information overcomes the emotional investment in the characters it affects. Toomes spends most of the movie detaching himself from his mode of transportation to yell at minions in his lair. He looks menacing enough, only talks when he has to, but remains an enigma. For a throwaway line of dialogue to say, “I’m doing horrible things out of love for people I care about” isn’t enough. You have to feel that love is there in the first place. Toomes never gets a scene to establish himself as a good guy with bad intentions (the opening scene has this objective, but it’s too brief and underwritten), like Alfred Molina so brilliantly displayed as Doctor Octopus, The One-Man Stage Play. And Liz never excels beyond being The Girl, standing around, smiling, being adored by transparent lemmings. She occupies empty space and does Teen Vogue poses, so the connective tissue between the deranged salvager and our hero’s paramour is lightweight as a result.

My school didn’t have a homecoming dance. I vaguely remember a virgin mixer of sorts that did not center around a unifying theme. There was music, bad decorations and house Hawaiian punch that was probably just Kool Aid mixed by an anarchist. Only the cool kids whose egos needing stroking attended those. We did have, obviously, prom. The lead up to this right of passage is a four-alarm firestorm for any high schooler. In addition to the obligatory stress, I had the unique privilege of needing to maintain my status as a gay guy who was still pretending to be straight. My walk-in closet space was so deep Disney could rent it out for storage and there would still be room for Macys’ Christmas decorations.

Whereas 60% of my daily energy was typically spent gawking at heterosexual AF guys from a distance, I had to redistribute that into the remaining 40% and focus more on finding a date for a few weeks. This process left me nearly catatonic. She couldn’t just be any girl, either. I had requirements, which in hindsight were childish, selfish and almost impossible: 1) She had to be a casual acquaintance, not a BFF (Lest I feed any more into the stereotype of queers only going to prom with female friends). 2) She had to be able to stomach going to prom with me. 3) She had to know at least half of the people in the group going in the limo, to avoid uncomfortable silences at all costs. I can barely talk as it is. If my prom date kept mum too we’d be projecting as microscopic an amount of youthful exuberance as the “American Gothic” painting. 4) She not only had to know how to dance, but I had to have seen her do it previously to verify her skills. As it so happened, I had, and she could cut a rug with the best of them. I can’t swing my hips to save my life. I welcome a partner who has the ability to inspire the moves of four legs, not just two.

A girl named Nicole was the only candidate I could think of who met all of these conditions. She was also in my chemistry class. What I would have given to have her as one quarter of a lab team, instead of Miss Congeniality, Shredded Tight End and Where’s Waldo. We would acknowledge each other in passing, at lunch, on the bus (her stop was a few streets ahead of mine). When the topic was about anything besides her availability as a prom date, talking to Nicole did not require a Herculean effort on my part. She was a nice girl, affable and extraordinarily difficult to hate. But this was very much about her putting on a dress that matched my tie and going to a formal event together, a gathering of personalities that was supposed to usher us into phase two of Discovering Yourself In the Midst of Hating Yourself, get the pretty people laid at record speeds and exhaust the 1:30 a.m. pizza supply at Domino’s with classmates who you knew of but did not *know.* Plus define our teen years. Or something.

I approached Nicole after class with the same sense of bewildering paranoia that a hypochondriac would if they were about to grab a handful of almonds from a biker bar’s community nut bowl. After a bit of stuttering, hemming and hawing, I got the words out. She made an apologetic smile before responding, priming me for a denial I had characteristically unhealthy premonitions about. However gracious she was in letting me down gently (she had already been asked and said “yes”), there was still the matter of going through the excruciating build up of posing the big question to someone else. It’s ridiculous when I look back at how I allowed myself to be overcome by such a petty arrangement, lamenting being shut down by a person whose entire gender doesn’t even make a blip on my radar.

I ended up going to the grand affair with a very good friend who had a vagina after all. Things played out exactly as I hoped. Nice bonuses included her having fun as much my prom date and getting to check nearly of all the boxes off my reductive and pointless Prom Wish List. It was always supposed to happen this way. The cheerful and talkative limo ride proceeded the hour when parents arrange their kids like action figures to shoot the photos that’ll be at their bedsides until the empty nesters move into an assisted living facility. We danced the night away after a deliberately paced dinner involving the slow inspection of the chicken fillets at our table. The group consensus was, nope, they should not be that pink on the inside. The chef was not fired, but our posse did set the room on fire with our flair for the long-forgotten Usher sensation “Yeah!” which in my memory played six times at varying tempos. I danced passably and hit my stride when Ludacris busts down the bridge to rewind it all back. There were no reports of food poisoning. Part of me wanted there to be a projectile vomit epidemic on account of the questionable poultry, if only so we could laugh years later over how perfectly the Class of 2007 reverse-engineered the climax of “Carrie.”

Trevor was crowned prom king, because OF COURSE. His companion on stage managed to be both his actual girlfriend and the unspoken Queen of the Barbies. She burned two birds with one hair straightener. She was the inverse of Regina George in “Mean Girls,” inarguably the social sheriff of the school despite being so nice it was painful to accept the hot blonde brigade practically willed her into existence. If natural beauty had an official aroma, Yankee Candle would need to build car fresheners that are also actual cars to meet demand. Those two met each other’s gaze with knowing looks of self-appreciation when they took the stage and placed crowns on their heads, fully aware of their status as ethereal beings who for all we knew were incognito elves. I stood there feigning interest in this inevitable series of events, fantasizing about going on an expedition underneath his tuxedo, impatiently wondering when dessert would be served and fighting the impulse to roll my eyes so far into my skull the occipital lobe became a pinball machine. I guess I should have been grateful the town didn’t need saving, too.

Peter never gets to go through the trials and tribulations of the homecoming dance alluded to in the film’s title. His “Will you go to prom with me?” exchange with Liz has the same beats mine had with Nicole; Holland plays it with just the right amount of puppy dog earnestness required to sell the audience on the unreal premise that no girl with eyes would date the bejeezus out of him in real life. He arrives at the decked out gymnasium and immediately tells Liz he must abandon her. We know his decision to square off with Toomes one last time instead of gyrating his body to EDM music with her foreshadows the break up of a relationship that never bloomed in the first place. That scene, where Peter is told point blank that he is bad at getting the girl (despite spending the entire movie pining after her) is certainly in the pipeline. What follows is a pretty inconsequential sequence whereby Spider-Man – sans his RoboCop suit from JoAnne Fabrics – is thrown into a bunch of school buses in the parking lot. Vulture enters the picture soon after to initiate a very choppy and poorly edited fight sequence aboard an aircraft carrier. No points for correctly guessing who wins. Toomes isn’t killed because Spider-Man does not murder, Peter could not bear leaving his sweetheart fatherless and Sony Pictures needs him with every feather in tact so they can make a raging dumpster fire out of a Sinister Six movie. The audience is left sifting through the rubble of a fight with no pulse or consequences. And it wasn’t even staged well.

There is no indication The Daily Bugle exists. Maybe it does, but no hard line is struck on the subject yet. Peter is not depicted as a photographer, another essential ingredient to his identity in the comics. Given his propensity for documenting every other minute of life on video, Holland’s Peter is probably not a novice on Snapchat. Modernizing Spider-Man from the ground up to stay attuned to the culture of now makes complete sense when the aim of a studio is to attract the most 18-25 year-olds on opening weekend. Doing so pares down the timelessness of the character. One thing Batman, Spider-Man and Superman all have in common is a defiance to be boxed into any one period in history. Raimi’s world was modern but not defined by the societal norms or technological breakthroughs of the present. All of the beats in his approach would make just as much sense in 1962, when Spider-Man was created. “Homecoming” wants you to know it has a keen eye for trends popular with kids in 2017. It values a safer, YA-friendly tone, simultaneously devoid of pathos and so clean-cut Tom Holland effortlessly becomes the first actor to own both sides of the web head. The movie around him is uninspiring enough that Holland can slide into his own alternative universe and pretty much party hard as Spider-Man. His cameo-sized intro in “Civil War” was already magnificent, so seeing him have an entire feature all too himself tantalized me from the second he started saving cats stuck in trees.

Holland is so utterly adorable, such a breath of fresh air, that you have to wonder why Garfield and Maguire lingered so much on looking like they couldn’t escape a four-hour Nine Inch Nails concert. This 5’8″ barrel of monkeys is positively living for being Spider-Man, and his energy over making the most of that great responsibility is infectious. For the first time, it’s not unreasonable to believe bouncing off the Big Apple’s skyscrapers can actually be…fun. Nearly every scene featuring Holland in costume is a resounding home run from a tonal standpoint. Those wistful moments save “Homecoming” from being a bad movie and allow it to settle for being a casually entertaining yet very misguided one. The spirit of the character has never felt so alive, despite the logistics and interconnected universe gobbledygook he’s stuck with running the gamut of anticlimactic and straight up nonsensical.

If you’ve spent the last 6,000 or so words operating under the assumption that I did not like “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” you would not be wrong. But you would not be right, either. The truth is more complicated; it is maybe the least threatening and most serviceable comic book movie ever. The less I thought about the mythology of the character, the easier it was to digest all the ways the MCU has cast that history aside. Not in favor of a more dynamic arc, either. Change isn’t bad when what you’re replacing something that’s dated, but the creative licenses imposed by Marvel aren’t even cool choices. They come close to disassociating this incarnation from the comics entirely.

The best scene of any superhero movie is nestled comfortably around the half-way point of “Spider-Man 2,” which is also still the most accomplished comic book movie in the classical sense (let’s keep the “Godfather”-esque, graphic novel-inspired crime saga, “The Dark Knight” in a category of its own).  Peter has recently decided to give up being Spider-Man to salvage his personal life. He’s wearing glasses again and walking instead of taking shortcuts through the alleyway fire escapes. The duties of Spider-Man left him so indisposed he doesn’t know Aunt May is moving until he arrives back home to find her packing everything up. The four minutes that follow are an astonishing and poignant deconstruction of why we need comic book stories and the heroes that populate them; not in matters of being rescued from violent threats, but in the creation of mythic figures who can lift the doldrums and save us from ourselves. The Parker’s neighbor Henry is counting on Spider-Man. Raimi counts on us to start the waterworks once the little boy wonders whether his role model will ever return; I succumb to the director’s intention and turn into a pile of mush every time.

The scene slyly implies Rosemary Harris’ May has caught on to Peter’s secret. She plays coy anyway, probably out of confidence the nephew whom she cares for so dearly will make the only acceptable choice and recover his Spidey suit from the trash. Harris delivers her speech with the implication that the ultimate life lesson is being served like homemade apple crisp on Thanksgiving, with a love, care and tenderness that fills you up so much you just want to explode. Even when she nonchalantly breaks it to Peter that his comic book collection was given away, Harris’ reassuring, gentle inflection is there to remind him that it’ll be alright; the pages he fawned over as a child may be gone, but he has the strength necessary to make his own sacrifice worthy of new ones for kids like Henry. There is no elaborately constructed fight sequence here, no photo-realistic CGI, no worthy adversary for your home theater’s Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound system. Only an intimate chat between two people that will bridge the gulf between what is right and what is easy. It is a simple conversation that’s better than most movies. It defines “Spider-Man 2,” a story already not wanting for near-Shakespearean moments of heartbreak and desperation. “Homecoming” contains no such deep dive. Watt’s Spider-Man doesn’t take on fresh insight because it can’t; the story has to service the MCU’s greater narrative thread at all costs. One that is, by now, cosmic in scale. Holland will be throwing punches and doing backflips into his 30s if Marvel has its way. I hope during one of his next adventures he’s allowed even an ounce of drama.

Not only is Aunt May at least 25 years too young in “Homecoming,” she discovers Peter’s secret identity by the end of this, his first movie, absolving the new franchise of all potential conflict on the domestic side going forward. More than any other superhero, a central struggle of Peter’s is concealing his powers to keep loved ones safe. Decades of story was devoted to that challenge. It kept him on his toes when he wasn’t hanging upside down. Aunt May didn’t find out her nephew was risking his life until Peter was married to Mary Jane in his 30s. Ignorance had been bliss for her long enough to convince readers his other life will eventually claim hers. But being aware danger is always imminent removes the suspense, even less so when the helpless, frail old woman of the comics is getting reimagined by a actress who has notoriety as The One Who Is Naked All Time. What possible purpose does it serve for May, the newly-minted MILF, to know about his crime-fighting exploits so early on?

I often daydream about putting on a mask. I wanted to wear one when my mom first dropped me off at preschool. I wanted to wear one in chemistry class. I wanted to wear one at lunch. I’m not sure I would have wanted to wear one to prom, for it would have robbed dozens of people the opportunity to see my constipation face when the Spice Girls played. But on most days, the chance to become a symbol for something greater seems so much more attractive than the undertaking of getting through another conversation with a twee hipster who wants to tell me all about another hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in Los Feliz. As I’ve gotten older and downgraded myself on the social blunder scale (being an Uber driver initiates a dozen unsolicited therapy sessions from strangers daily and provides good practice), I’ve learned to stitch together my own mask. One that is not tangible. This alter ego is capable of superhuman feats of projected apathy and convincing investment. I can do whatever a rudderless college graduate can. I can offer quips that are clever, unhelpful or even insulting. I can engage in a dialogue about an economy that I don’t understand, even if it’s curb-stomping my soul. I can offer advice on navigating the labyrinth of love to someone 10 years my senior, even though I’ve never been in a relationship before. I can appear as though I have it together, when behind the mask I’m still freefalling as gracefully as I am able. Nearly 10 years after graduating high school, I remain Peter Parker.

I’m sitting in a movie theater waiting to find out how I will be killed. The director is figuring out the blocking at the front of the auditorium. There are only a few other extras besides me. One, a cute blonde guy who looks my age and could really come into his own as the leader of a fraterneity, is seated in the row diagonally behind me. Because he’s completely out of view from my current line of sight, I can’t very well turn around and check him out without looking like a creeper. So I default to looking at Facebook on my phone, eager to see what fresh hell other people’s self-esteem have in store for me. As fate would have it, the filmmaking force at work determine there aren’t enough bodies to stagnate us all around the room. It’ll look weak and break the illusion of the scene. We have to be seated closer together. The apple of my eye and I are moved to the dead center of the theater, in the same row, next to each other. I snuck a few glances when we moved, but now that we’re side-by-side, I have to burrow back into phone land for the duration. A few minutes later, we receive a request to move our heads in one direction, then another. Lighting purposes, I assume. When I go to turn, I lock eyes with my admirer. He smiles and begins to speak. My spider-sense goes berserk.