Sunday, July 16, 2017

over at Vulture a case that Tony Stark is the "real" villain of Spiderman-Homecoming with the bromide that the Vulture is a Trump voter ... but ...

Tony Stark’s always been something of a lovable rogue, and he’s accomplished many heroic things in other films. Here, however, his actions seem more sinister when he’s dealing with children — and as it turns out, when he’s running Stark Industries, which, in Homecoming, seems to operate on the shady end of the spectrum. In the beginning of the film, we learn that the business of cleaning up the wreckage from the Avengers’ New York battles has been given over to the Department of Damage Control, which, as Darren Franich pointed out in EW, is co-financed by Tony Stark and seems like a fairly malevolent force, despite the fact that national treasure Tyne Daly is its main spokesperson. DDC forces out local contractors like Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, giving it the monopoly on superhero clean-ups. This might be designed to prevent dangerous alien tech from slipping into the hands of the unready (even though Toomes and his pals manage to steal it anyway), but it also ensures that Tony Stark has a vertical monopoly on superhuman activity: The battles use Stark technology; the clean-up crews are Stark branded; the PR is managed through Pepper Potts. Stark’s superpower, after all, is that he’s smart and rich. He lives in a world with few consequences. Money solves most of his problems; his monopolies prevent him from directly answering to the public. Who is he to teach a 15-year-old personal responsibility?

It’s unclear whether or how Stark Industries turns a profit, but its actions, as Homecoming reveals, have forced Americans out of their jobs. Case in point: Adrian Toomes, who offers the most compelling critique of Stark before he decides to become the evil Vulture. Toomes starts out in salvaging, gets forced out of his job by the Department of Damage Control, and then turns to a life of crime. As he faces off against Spider-Man, Keaton also gives the film a rare jolt of class consciousness as he tells Peter, “The rich and the powerful, like Stark, they don’t care about us.” The movie’s quick to supply examples of Toomes’s hypocrisy; as Vulture’s own Abe Riesman pointed out, he’s something akin to a monstrous vision of a Trump voter, furious at the elites of the world but unable to acknowledge his own relative privilege, as exemplified by a modernist home with way too many windows. [emphasis added]

The Vulture wears a bird suit, and goes from murder-curious to murderous after accidentally killing Logan Marshall-Green, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore his ideas. In the long term, Tony Stark’s actions do hurt the little guy. He’s like a Silicon Valley CEO who, after disrupting the economy with one good product, doesn’t acknowledge the evil he’s produced as a consequence. Tony Stark and his compatriots have seized control of a significant portion of the world’s power apparatus, and they are forcing out the ordinary man. Does this make Iron Man the villain? Marvel movies tend to have villains who intend to do harm, while people who cause damage unintentionally are more redeemable. (See Bucky Barnes in Winter Soldier or Civil War.) Surely, there’s enough evidence in Homecoming to see Toomes as at least a complicated figure, operating in something of a moral gray area.

The thing about the stereotypical Trump voter/alt right voter is white nationalistic ideas.  Yet ... for anyone who has actually seen Spiderman: Homecoming, the interracial marriage that led to the existence of Peter's crush Liz is really obvious by act 3.  Perhaps journalists wanting to describe the latest Spiderman villain in political terms want to find some other reference point for a white guy married to a black woman who's committing all his crimes to provide for his family in terms that don't deviate from the mainstream script in the press about Trump. 

The problem with Toomes isn't that he's a hypocrite.  No Marvel antagonist so far seems more committed to doing everything under the radar and as quietly as possible.  Toomes ends up killing Shocker 1 after an incident where Shocker 1 insists on showing off high-powered weaponry in a suburb without regard for collateral damage.  Underground arms dealer though he is, this is still an Adrian Toomes he can regard Mac Gargan with contempt as someone he wouldn't even deal with if Spiderman hadn't messed up other business deals.  If people want to cast Toomes in some kind of political sense the idea that this Adrian Toomes is a Trump voter seems a bit much.  Maybe he could be likened to a Reagan Democrat ...

But his criticism of Stark and the Department of Damage Control (subtle name, as always) is that what Stark and company benefit from is the kind of crony monopolistic capitalism in which the haves get to have more and those who don't get completely sidelined.  How do we know that Adrian Toomes, if he were magically a real person, wouldn't have voted for Sanders?  He might even have voted for Clinton, whose record as a hawk doesn't seem in any contradiction to the Vulture's family-driven pragmatism.  Had Trump not won would journalists even think to interpret the Vulture's activities and motives in Trump-voter terms?  Not ... very ... likely.  Last year some tried to describe the antagonist of the Magnificent Seven remake of a remake in Trumpian terms even though the production was under way (i.e. already scripted) before Trump's candidacy was solidified.  But there seems to be this penchant in the entertainment industry for a kind of political punditry recency bias; X or Y is imputed to a pop culture event that may have taken years to come together as though it were somehow consciously anticipating or responding to current events.  That makes sense if we're talking about a show like South Park where Parker and Stone are obviously reacting within a few weeks to current events.

When Parker confronts Toomes at the end Toomes' objection is that he is, in fact, pretty much doing the same thing that got the Starks their empire of wealth, selling weapons to killers.   Toomes' problem isn't hypocrisy so much as that he refuses to concede that the difference between what Starks Tony or Howard did and what he's been doing is the difference between the formal relationship granted by the state.  The state, in the form of the Department of Damage Control, deprived him of his job and contract to clean up the post-Avengers 1 damage. He, in turn, steals from Damage Control to refurbish alien tech into weapons and tools that he sells on the black market.   he's still a criminal but with an understandable motive.

If the studios want to even bother with a Sinister Six film they can bring back Keaton as the Vulture and maybe bring back Molina as Doc Ock.  One of the fun things about the classic Spiderman villains is that since they're older guys older actors could step into the roles.  Odds are pretty decent that the Osborn stuff has been too badly played out to be worth continuing.


Cal of Chelcice said...

I had the same reaction as the Vulture, and my friend recently made the same counter-point about the interracial marriage not vibing a fit for the Trump voter. But after reflection, I think that misses the point. I think real insight into movies is not explicit references to real life events, movements, etc. but the ability of films, touching on a cultural nerve, sometimes accidentally, to reveal a truth.

Marvel Studios has already dabbled in funding from the Pentagon. This does not mean aggressive propaganda or mindcontrol ala. some conspiracy, but the solid fact that much of Hollywood fits into the establishment. Again, this is not one large hegemonic conspiracy, and it's not surprise that Hollywood is full of elites (it almost always has been). It's rather that there are similar interests in depicting and portraying society.

I still think Vulture is a "Trump voter", not because he's an alt-right/white nationalist type, but because he represents the blue collar, (white) male patriarch. There's been plenty analysis about recent big hitters as documentaries on the last gasp of patriarchy (Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men for starters). The film is not quite that, but it's still a story of the ineptitude and evil of this way of life. Toomes' speech about the inequity of the powerful is the profoundest part of the movie, but it's couched as deceptive stalling and it's countered with youthful naivete (Parker's "But it's still wrong!"). There is no further counter argument, nor does the film offer anything else. Stark may be kind of crooked, but he's still lovable. He's forgivable because he is self-loathing in an ironic sort of way. Toomes isn't, he wants to carve a future out for his family.

Vulture represents the Trump voter in the eyes of an Establishment who seeks to woo him back. Clinton miscalculated with her "basket of deplorables" comment and her unapologetic support of global finance in exporting American jobs. As statistics have shown, it was these working class, angry with status-quo, types that really made the difference for Trump, not the vocal minority of the Richard Spencers. It's not that this film predicts Trump's victory in an angry whiplash (if anything, it's the opposite), but it touches on a portrayal of contemporary times where the Toomes character is something for the museum. It's contempt for a vision of masculinity of the strong, driven man leading his family as ultimately villainous, though not without admirable qualities. Instead, it's the boy-men (Stark and Parker) who are heralds for the new, righteous, America (cue waving flag).

2 cents,

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

" ... it touches on a portrayal of contemporary times where the Toomes character is something for the museum. It's contempt for a vision of masculinity of the strong, driven man leading his family as ultimately villainous, though not without admirable qualities. Instead, it's the boy-men (Stark and Parker) who are heralds for the new, righteous, America (cue waving flag)."

That's a good observation. Toomes is the bad guy, in essence, because rather than just accept that a corporate/government merger with a legacy family has eliminated his job, even to the point of over-riding his existing municipal contract, he decides to become an arms dealer. This sort of dovetails with what I was thinking earlier about how Toomes is the bad guy because the establishment he lives with hasn't rubber stamped his activity whereas it has rubber stamped Stark's. The contrast between Toomes having built a life for his wife and daughter over eight years while Stark has not bothered to get around to marrying Pepper might be the most instructive aspect of the contrast between the two potential paternal figures because if Peter were to date Liz and marry her then Toomes would obviously be his father-in-law. The contenpt you describe for Toomes may be present in the film by dint of what isn't even suggested in the film, what exactly is Adrian Toomes supposed to do to provide for his family at his age now that Stark Industries and the Department of Damage Control have made his existing line of work illegal? Go back to college and get a degree? The story is willing to say Toomes is the bad guy but without ever once suggesting what he could or should do to provide for his family instead of asserting through his arms dealership work with Mason that he had a legitimate contract with the city to salvage the Chitauri scrap. His work was made illegal retroactively and we're supposed to roll with that.

That juxtaposition is even more comic than Cap's PSA videos admonishing people to not break the rules. The gym coach quipping that Cap's probably a war criminal now but the state already spent the money is an interesting meta-joke. It also raises a question as to why Captain America can break the rules and be a hero while Toomes breaks the rules and is a villain. I've been thinking about this before but the more completely unified the MCU is across film and TV the more pressing the issue is as to exactly why X or Y is a hero or villain in relationship to the entire work of art.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I ended up seeing the film a second time with my brother and told him that a detail that sticks out is where Toomes is holding a crayon drawing a kid made of the Avengers. He's musing on how when he was a kid, kids drew cowboys and Indians. Now the kids are drawing these Avengers who made the mess they're having to clean up. There's a wry meta-commentary there in how the situation really hasn't changed at all, that men like Toomes live in the wake of cleaning up the carnage of those who settle in and live in America, perhaps. I told my brother that it's not conventional masculine behavior to show other guys at construction sites crayon drawings made by anyone but their own kids so far as I can tell--the implication in the opening scene is that Toomes is showing a coworker a drawing his kid has made. Toomes is shown, I think, musing upon how he lives in a world where he not only has to clean up the mess but that these people are also heroes to his kid. Guys like Stark leave a mess that Stark's company gets to clean up and Stark's kid is drawing pictures of Iron Man and the Avengers (and is crushing on superheroes a la Spiderman) while Toomes has been cornered out of his job market by Stark Industries and the government.

It really struck me the second time around how averse the Vulture is to stupid risks. Had Spiderman not interfered Toomes' plans involved zero casualties and collateral damage beyond the thefts. Parker is lucky nobody died not because of his own impulsive decision making but because Toomes' obsession with risk management meant he generally chose to bail out or change plans to ensure dangerous situations were avoided. He might be the only villain in the MCU who, true to construction and salvage work, has an OSHA code for his villainy!

cal said...

I think Toomes' grumpiness about the drawing reflects backwardsness and the regressiveness of his character. After a decade plus of Marvel movies, the assumption in the comment is not asking the viewer to reassess the Avengers legacy. If anything, Civil War precluded such a conversation by highlighting that whatever is wrong with superheroes, it's resolvable from within the group (either in an Iron Man or Cap direction). Instead, it unmasks Toomes as selfish and unfit for the dawn of a new world, one where superheroes protect the World (really America wearing different accents and skin colors), even as icons (i.e. the idea kids want to idolize them and draw pictures of them).

As you highlight, the commitment of the film to condemning Toomes to the wastebin is the fact that even though Spiderman messes up, nothing catastrophic happens. There's no ambiguity, he's the good guy (even if young). Stark plays the father figure for the Millenial, ironic, childish, indirect, and kind. I see the whole Homecoming dance Dad talk as tongue-in-cheek, wrapped up in Toomes' viciousness and selfishness and conflating an older, involved, sense of patriarchy with outmoded virtue. I thought it was even telling that Parker's backstory was skipped (which was fine), but there was not even an ounce of tragedy about the singleness of Aunt May and the loss of Uncle Ben. In fact, casting Tomei as Aunt May filled punch lines about MILFs and youthful shenanigans (I was a bit perplexed why a responsible adult would take her 15 year old nephew to house party that one rarely sees as an adult).

I think why Cap can break the rules, but Toomes can't is resolved in seriousness. Zizek made the comment that figures in MASH, or Pvt Joker from Full Metal Jacket, among others, reveal the full power of establishment conformity. We like the distant, sarcastic, ironic, and cynical character, but at the end of the day he does his job. Cap's cartoonish sense of right can be construed as someone who just wants to help. Toomes, on the other hand, calls the whole system into question by his indignation at his suffering. Cap, on the other hand, is kind of cheery about being a war criminal (he seems to think people will just come around).

The patriarchcal type does not like the future, but he is destined to die and resists it. That, at least, is the message of contemporary media. His resistance is what turns him into a villain.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

yes, the regressive part is lamp-shaded with the "cowboys and Indians" part, even though American Indians wouldn't find that part problematic. But in Hollywood-speak that regressive element is highlighted as soon as possible. But the screenwriters weren't going to give Toomes Indian friends from who could learn that cultural detail.

I was thinking last evening about how the film's timeline puts Toomes job loss eight years ago. Per Hanna ROsin and other authors' contributions to the 08 recessionary job loss, Toomes could be thought of as the guy who is an archetypal "mancession" figure, an older guy who hasn't retrained for the new world and has seen his job skills rendered moot by the new economic and social milieu that the Avengers have adapted to and, in part, created.

Cal of Chelcice said...

That last paragraph is the key. Toomes resembles the Trump voter only because many of the "Mancession" supported his candidacy based on the promise of jobs and the value/dignity of their lives and livelihoods. But Spiderman is not just condemnation of this type. It represents the welding of an Establishment, Imperium Americana, to new class and gender types. And the funny thing, perhaps, is how elitist it all is. Not everyone gets bit by radioactive spiders or inherits a multi-billion dollar weapons firm!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I know mileage varies but I think what's troubled me about the new version of Parker are, in reverse order:
1) most of his suit stuff is Stark tech rather than the result of his own inventive streak
2) this new version of Parker gets the wrong mixture of Parker's entitled capacity for self-pity; his goofball streak; his altruism; and his overweening sense of legitimate guilt

Parker's always been something of an entitled crybaby since the beginning. What makes his origin so striking is that his decision to just look out for himself opens the path to the murder of someone he loves, someone he knows has selflessly given to him his whole life. Peter's bouts of self-pity and envy tend to give way to a guilt-driven desire to do better by the people he loves and humanity in general. I know people have liked to rip on Maguire but I think that whatever his shortcomings as Spiderman, he was great as Parker in the first two films because he (and the scripts, obviously) found a way to strike a believable balance between Parker's self-pity and his legitimate guilt over the fact that when he HAS given himself over to his sense of entitlement people get hurt.

It's felt as though the Homecoming Peter Parker is the photo negative of Maguire Peter Parker. Maguire and company sold me on the idea that this was a Peter Parker who realized every selfish decision he made that preceded Uncle Ben's murder was like loading a bullet into the gun that killed Ben Parker. We also got some extended speeches from Ben and May to Peter about how having the power to do something doesn't give you the RIGHT to do that thing (like beat up Flash) and how sometimes to do the right thing you have to give up the thing you most want, even if it's your dream.

So in that sense Holland Parker and Maguire Parker seem to inhabit antithetical moral universes. Even the mostly disastrous third Raimi film was, at least, thematically consistent that when Parker let himself be guided by his sense of entitlement he ended up unleashing Venom. The film was bad in a lot of ways, to be sure, but it seemed that Raimi and company did at least understand that Parker needs to be spurred more by his genuine guilt over the harm that befalls people when he operates from entitlement.

I think people have been misreading the issue of Peter not seeming to think about Ben's death. We got nothing of substance about Uncle Ben in the comics and we got to see and hear more of Ben in the Raimi film. But what we got in the comics origin and the first Raimi film is to see Peter's legitimate guilt and shame that someone he loved died because of his sense of entitlement. Neither the Webb reboot nor the new iteration of Spiderman convey the piercing nature of that kind of guilt. This new Peter Parker seems to mainly act like the entitled Parker who has not yet seen his Uncle Ben dead, which is I guess what I've been finding jarring about the film as I've thought about it.

That said, I consider this new film a step up from Garfield Parker (as scripted by the guys who gave us Bayformers), who kept getting cheerleader speeches from dead loved ones who were telling him to basically just keep being true to himself so the new Holland Spiderman isn't THAT cringe-inducing, but he reminds me why I think Maguire's take on Parker (barring the still bad 3rd Raimi film) has gotten a bit too much flak.

As my brother was putting it, Parker broke the rules in a way that he should have gotten the courtmartialed for, but because he lucked out he won the medal. From a logistics/tactical standpoint the Vulture was more concerned to avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties than Parker ever was in this new film.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...