The Marvel reboot Spider-Man: Homecoming is such a blatantly calculated example of pop-culture inoculation — it presents a teenage Peter Parker’s apprenticeship to the Avengers clan of superhero misfits — that, maybe, it warrants the same wariness as the vaccination controversy. With movies such as Spider-Man: Homecoming, Hollywood injects banality into young and gullible viewers; it places them on a cultural version of the autism spectrum.
Scenes of adolescent Parker (Tom Holland) worrying about test grades and dating, and at his high-school prom, alternate with scenes of his doing brainiac research into his newly acquired powers, meeting billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and practicing super-heroic derring-do against street criminals and new villain Vulture (Michael Keaton). As directed by Jon Watts, these events lack sufficient satire to counteract the film’s lethal booster-shot of adolescent wish fulfillment. By now, Spider-Man movies (this is the sixth so far) go way past moralizing about good vs. evil and straight to venality: They simply encourage viewers to buy escapist products as if they were objects of their common (youth-based) desires.
Marvel’s greed merchants are so brazen (winking to themselves with insider Marvel Universe casting jokes such as director-actor Jon Favreau’s double-dipping into the coffers) that their shamelessness ruins any possibility of fun. Arriving at the moment of Mid-Year Reckoning, Spider-Man: Homecoming makes it impossible to ignore that the normalizing of superhero, comic-book movies has led to the culture-wide dismissal of films that deal with the human condition in commonly recognizable terms.
What we used to think of as movie art has shifted into juvenile escapism, and this catastrophe has met little resistance — “resistance” now being a euphemism for petulant disgruntlement and snowflake tantrums. Case in point: Celebration of the dismal Wonder Woman amounts to a consolation prize for Hillary Clinton’s election defeat.
But at this 2017 midway point, some remarkable movies still deserve attention. These anti-Spider-Man films not only chart our cultural standing but advance awareness of the millennium’s human and artistic potential. Most of these films oppose Hollywood’s adolescent fear and adult cynicism about sex, society, and faith.
A Quiet Passion, the Emily Dickinson bio-pic, upends the new scarecrow feminism with an uncompromising heroine whose profound introspection (and art) found no contemporary audience that would relate to it.
Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo brought personal responsibility to the sexual-identity fad, a pointedly temporal (and timely) love metaphor that combats social disease.
Staying Vertical begins misanthropic then observes a variety of social and sexual relations that test modern society’s stability; it rewrites Godard and Kubrick, and both might approve.
Son of Joseph, an out-of-season Christmas pageant, revived the modern need for art as parable and sustenance.
The Assignment treats the transgender vogue with depth and offers a humanism and a philosophical critique that radicals weren’t ready for.
My Life as a Zucchini animates adult fear and desire in childhood terms and through an emotionally direct visual style that transcends allegory.
Maudie, the bio-pic of primitive painter Maud Lewis, explores compassion through a love story.
Frantz resolves all political differences in sympathy, uniting traumatized post-WWI society through passion and art (beauty).
Baby Driver evokes Millennials’ solipsism with speed, music, and humor that touches on the need to connect.
The Great Wall dissolves East–West politics into an Occidental–Oriental pop spectacle, the forgotten diplomacy.
Age has its privileges in Paris Can Wait, a serenely non-commercial comedy of patience and wisdom.
British class differences cohere in King Arthur’s rough and regal action-comedy, defying the Obama era’s faux aristocracy.
All Eyez on Me, rapper Tupac Shakur’s bio-pic, perfectly tells a lurid life story in the terms it deserves.
The Ornithologist explores modern man’s uncertainty through sexual pathology and religious doubt — a challenge most radicals take for granted.
My Journey through French Cinema, a three-hour-plus documentary about cinema history, shows an awareness of cultural heritage that perfectly counters the rush toward mindlessness in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Director Bertrand Tavernier pursues the same banal viewpoint that characterized Positif, the second-tier French film magazine, where he began as a critic. Yet he defends the virtues of visual expression and emotional exploration that contemporary filmmakers, critics, and audiences have lost. Such glorious images as Simone Signoret’s radiant smile in Casque d’Or (1952) or Jean Gabin framed in a shot alongside a teddy bear (with one sad eye, one cheerful eye, representing his character’s personality) in Le Jour se lève (1939) make their case better than Tavernier’s narration.
Tavernier’s tendency to fawn when name-dropping famous acquaintances (especially Quentin Tarantino, whose views on French cinema should be irrelevant) threatens the same collapse of standards that has pushed contemporary film culture toward trash. There’s a reason he prizes Jacques Becker’s style as “assimilating rather than imitating” Hollywood’s dominant culture. Yet every vibrant clip here distills a humane and creative spirit that is felt as a birthright rather than simply entertainment. Clips from Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) and La Règle du Jeu (1939) are so obviously great that Tavernier has little to say about them. This makes up for his eccentric interest in Eddie Constantine’s B movies, which one suspects look better as excerpts than full-length entertainment. Tavernier recalls the virtues of common decency, mutual aid, and trust that have disappeared from today’s inept, narcissistic, and coarsely juvenile movies. Tavernier’s visual lecture is a lesson in film appreciation.
Only five American movies make this mid-year list because that’s how depraved U.S. film culture has become. So, bravo to the anti-Spider-Man movies. Let’s hope they spark an artistic homecoming.