Movie Mixtape: Spider-Man Movie Connections

(Welcome to Movie Mixtape, where we find cinematic relatives and seek out interesting connections between new releases and older movies that allow us to rethink and enjoy what’s in our theaters as well as the favorites on our shelf. In this edition: Spider-Man: Homecoming.)

Be honest. What would you have done if you’d seen Sony and Marvel cast someone to play Uncle Ben in Spider-Man: Homecoming? Screamed? Shook your head? Vowed never to see it, only to buy opening night tickets? These are all correct answers.

For the third time in only 15 years, Spider-Man is being introduced to us on the big screen. For the first time, he’s come home to the warm, awaiting arms of the Marvel family so that he can have direct contact with Iron Man and Happy Hogan and some other surprise guests along the way.

Fortunately, Uncle Ben is not one of them. Wisely, the studios, the writers and co-writer/director Jon Watts are letting us shake hands with a new Peter Parker (Tom Holland) after his most formative moment, after he’s fought crime in a funny suit, and after he’s helped Iron Man slap Captain America in the face during Civil War.

Homecoming sees Parker juggling life as an unpopular high school sophomore and life as a superpowered hero who wants to do more than help old ladies cross the street. It’s a spectacular outing for Spidey that smartly avoids most of the tired tropes beaten into our eyeballs over the past decade. It’s light, sometimes dry, and it pairs well with these other films.

Almost Famous

Watts has named Almost Famous as a personal favorite, and its thumbprint is all over Homecoming. Peter Parker is uncool.

Both movies use a teen doing an adult’s (ridiculously cool) job to explore the challenge of growing up, being in over your head, and dealing with things far above your maturity level. Like Parker – who desperately wants to be an Avenger even before he’s gotten decent at getting people’s stolen bikes back for them – cubby music reporter William Miller (Patrick Fugit) swims in a sea of Band Aids, deflowerings, pot, and Golden Gods, all while missing the normal activities of youth, to meet the world. He’s got talent, but he’s not ready for what he has to face. He’s in a world most would kill to be a part of, but he doesn’t fully belong to it. Luckily, he’s got a scruffy mentor figure (Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the Iron Man of the rock writing world) to guide him via long distance phone calls. If only he could work up the courage to share his feelings with the girl he’s crushing on, right?

Batman Returns

Michael Keaton brings a cape load of gravitas to Homecoming as the blue collar Adrian Toomes who, after being burned by Tony Stark on a scrap-removal contract following the Battle of New York, starts dealing in alien tech-powered weapons as the terrifying Vulture. It would be a stretch to connect his rise through the American caste system and distortion of priorities to both of Batman Returns‘ villains, but the DNA is there. Penguin (Danny DeVito) rises from the forgotten sewers while Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) succumbs to a pitiful life as a put-upon assistant only to be resurrected by the supernatural bite of an animal. Obviously, you can add Birdman for a winged Keaton triumvirate.

Harlan County, USA

Homecoming solves Marvel’s villain problem, but it also goes beyond that to offer a threat that has an understandable, relateable origin and purpose. Through one conversation, Vulture proves his worth as an adversary and as a living moral question to leave with the audience.

Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County, USA chronicles the decision by Kentucky coal miners to join a national union and the refusal of their bosses to allow it. The consequences are deadly, the line between hero and villain gets blurry, and it offers a great window of empathy for people simply trying to provide and safeguard their families in the face of a system stacked against them.

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