Spiderman Homecoming and Representation in America

Spiderman Homecoming is one of my favourite Marvel movies so far. It’s fun, exciting, and heartfelt in exactly the way I like Spiderman to be. And now I’m going to skip past all the enthusing I could do about its plot, dialogue, and characters, because there are actual reviewers for that. I want to talk about how this fun, breezy film reflects upon serious issues in America, issues that are all too familiar to someone living in Britain.

Who’s Who in Homecoming

There are three important sets of characters in Homecoming – school, villains, and The Man.

Peter Parker’s school is a youthful and diverse place. The students and staff represent the complex and varied society of a modern global city, without the story ever making an issue out of this. It’s a space that celebrates diversity and representation while recognising that everyone has their flaws and weaknesses. This is the America that liberals want to encourage.

The villains are working class men. They’re mostly white, though with a significant black character. A lot of them are getting on in years. They’ve been shit on by the establishment. Their overriding concern is to look after themselves and their families. This is the America that conservatives want to protect.

Then there’s The Man, as represented by Stark Enterprises and Damage Control. These are economically and politically powerful organisations run by people in suits. They cause problems for everyone else. They’re caught up in the big picture and aren’t good at seeing how that affects the people around them. They’re powerful, patronising, and not as smart as they could be.


You don’t need a degree in semiotics to see how this is symbolic of what’s going on at the moment. The sides of America represented by Spiderman’s school and his villains are in conflict politically. At its extremes, this is supporters of Trump versus supporters of Obama and Hilary. The irony being that they’re both voting for faces of The Man, the big traditional bodies that have let them all down.

I’m not saying that Spiderman Homecoming offers a deep exploration of these themes. I’m in two minds about whether it’s even consciously looking at them, and when I go back to watch it (which I will, many times) that’s one of the things I’ll be trying to judge. But I still think that it’s doing something important. It’s representing both of these groups in a light that is, if not always sympathetic, at least understable. It’s showing that The Man is a third factor in their lives, not the representative of either group. That shouldn’t be an unusual thing for someone to say, but it is. Hopefully by saying it at all, this film will help people to gain a little more insight into the society we live in.

Maybe it will even, as the film suggests, offer hope for reconciliation amid further divisions.

As Cap says, it just might take a little patience to get us there.


Why is Christianity Always Catholic in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

Picture by Claudio Ungari via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Claudio Ungari via Flickr Creative Commons

Have you noticed how often Christianity equals Catholicism in science fiction and fantasy? Think about it – when was the last time the religious side of the story was represented by a Presbyterian, a Methodist or someone of Eastern Orthodox faith? But look at Daredevil – both in comics and on screen – The Sage of the ExilesThe Sparrow, or many other sf+f works – you’ll see Catholicism all over the shop.

I don’t think it’s because there are more Catholic writers than ones of other denominations in sf+f. After all, Protestantism is bigger both in the UK and the USA, the sources of most of my reading and viewing.

I don’t think it’s because Catholic beliefs are any more interesting to extrapolate from. If I was looking for a faith that does something unusual then I’d turn to the liberal Quakers, with their decisions by consensus, their evolving book of faith and their soothing/eery (depending on your perspective) silent meetings. And if I was looking for something full of angels, demons and holy warfare then I could pick pretty much any old school interpretation of any faith.

I think the reason may be that Catholicism provides a bunch of handy story-telling tools. The focus on sin and guilt creates obvious internal conflict for characters. The confessional provides an excuse for characters to say things out loud that would otherwise remain internal. The heavy use of ostentatious imagery and symbolic ritual creates striking visuals for television, comics and film – Quaker meetings are cool and all, but they usually look like a bunch of ordinary people sitting in a plain room, and much Protestantism looks like Catholicism light.

I’m not saying that the use of Catholicism in sf+f is necessarily shallow – far from it, Julian May built a whole universe around the dissident theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. But I don’t think it’s generally chosen for its depth, and the attractions it provides for story-tellers are ones most other Christian denominations can’t match. Much as I’d love to read that Quaker sf story, if I want to then I’ll have to write it myself.

The Dangers of Nostalgia Reading and Viewing

I recently finished re-reading Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone.over sea under stone A YA novel from before marketers had invented the term ‘YA’, it’s a fantasy story about Enid Blyton-esque children pursuing a lost relic in 1960s Cornwall. When I was a kid I loved this book and the whole Dark is Rising series that it’s part of. While I enjoyed reading it again, it was a reminder of the dangers of nostalgia, and of how we’ve moved on.

The Over Sea, Under Stone I remember from my childhood was exhilarating and atmospheric, full of excitement and mystery. The experience of reading it as an adult in 2016 was somewhat different. The characters aren’t all that interesting. Their terribly old-fashioned upper-middle-class lives feel completely unreal, to the point where their family started to creep me out. The sense of excitement and danger just wasn’t there.

I had a similar experience re-watching the original Star Wars before going to see the new film. In my youth, the whole Star Wars trilogy was a magical, flawless thing. Not so watching it now. The acting is hit or miss. The pacing sometimes falls flat. Entire scenes are saved only by the presence of Harrison Ford or John Williams.

It’s tempting to put this down to growing older and losing the innocence of youth. But I like to look at it in a more positive light.

Writing and film-making have come on a long way over the decades. What made for good pacing or deep characters in the 1980s has often been surpassed. Only truly sublime works stand the test of time, and even then have to be understood in context. Creators like Susan Cooper and George Lucas helped to shape the cultural landscape, paving the way for the works that would surpass them.As times goes by we learn more as a species, and that includes improving our ability to tell stories. What has been learned is seldom lost, while new techniques are constantly developed.

As times goes by we learn more as a species, and that includes improving our ability to tell stories. What has been learned is seldom lost, while new techniques are constantly developed. Of course we get better. Of course older stories don’t stand up so well by modern standards. We don’t expect a Victorian terrace to be as warm as a modern house, or a biplane to fly as fast as a stealth bomber. Why would we expect creative technique to stand still?

I still love that the world contains Star Wars and Over Sea, Under Stone. I love that they shaped my tastes. But would I recommend them to anyone who’s now the age I was when I first found them? Probably not. The world has moved on. There are better options now, options that only exist because these came first.

Feeling My Way Back to Childhood – Me and Star Wars

When I was six years old, Dad took me to the cinema for the first time. They were showing a triple bill of the original Star Wars trilogy. It was one of the most amazing moments of my young life.

By the standards of its day, Star Wars was incredible. The effects, the world building, the grand storytelling. To a six-year-old staring at the big screen for the first time that impact was magnified a hundred times over. Entire planets hung suspended before me in the darkness of space. Exciting characters and strange creatures battled for the fate of the universe. Explosions filled my entire vision. There were sword fights and gun fights and dogfights and Han Solo being immensely cool. I was too young to sit through six solid hours of it, and so Dad missed his chance to watch Return of the Jedi in the cinema, but still, my tiny mind was blown.


Thirty years later, I went back to the cinema with Dad to see The Force Awakens. As a Star Wars fan, the journey to that point had been a bumpy one. There were awesome action figures, and then there were broken action figures. There were those first exhilarating extended universe novels, with all the promise they held for more of what I loved, then some less inspiring novels, then deciding I’d grown out of tie-in novels because I was eighteen and wanted to read ‘proper fiction’. There were the remastered films, which brought back the spectacle of Star Wars on the big screen, but with inconsistent visuals and scenes that were better off cut out. There were the prequels, which were their own strange mix of excitement and bitter disappointment.

So here I was again, with Dad, sitting in the cinema as the trailers ended and the credits rolled. I could feel my heart beating in my chest as John Williams’ amazing score sounded against a backdrop of stars and the introductory text scrolled up the screen. I waited tensely to see what this would be – an Empire Strikes Back or a Phantom Menace.

I’ve read some wildly varying reviews of The Force Awakens. For some people, it’s what they were after, a fun space romp. For others, it’s Hollywood treading water in bloated style. I understand the different perspectives. I think there’s something valid in all of them. It’s a matter of taste and of priorities – what you think is important in a film. And having re-watched the original films before seeing this one, there’s a lot about them that hasn’t aged well. I long ago accepted that my childhood fixation is not as perfect as I remember it being when I was six.

But for me, The Force Awakens was a perfect experience. It was everything I loved about the original trilogy, combined with 40 years of progress in blockbuster film-making. The action was spectacular. The characters were splendid. The visuals were jaw-dropping. Han Solo was still cool. There are plenty of flaws, but I was drawn along despite them. For the whole length of the film, I was caught up in a wave of sheer childlike excitement. It was as amazing as I remember the original trilogy being, not just as good as they actually are. This is what Star Wars means to me – it means recapturing the innocence and imagination I once had. The Force Awakens did just that.

And once again, my Dad loved it too. He didn’t even miss out on part of the fun because I was fidgeting.

My cultural highlights of 2014

I’m really bad at keeping on top of modern culture. There’s just so much of it, and so much stuff around the corner behind us that I want to peak back at. That’s no bad thing, just a reflection of how much awesomeness there is out there. But it means that as I think back on what I’ve really enjoyed this year, not all of it’s actually from this year. Still, here are the new(ish) things that really rocked my brain in 2014:


I’ve done more reading recently, as my befuddled brain has emerged from the fog of the last few years. And from that enshrouding miasma appeared a thing of spell-binding beauty – Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic. I cannot recommend this pair of books enough – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are breathtaking in their majesty, their immediacy and their beauty. They’re big, slow, weighty reads, but well worth the heavy lifting. Many thanks to Glenatron and Everwalker for pointing me towards Kay, and to Sheila for the present.

This was the year Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie returned to their old stomping ground of pop culture as magic, launching The Wicked + The Divine. It’s a beautiful looking and cleverly written comic that explores what it is to be an artist, a fan and a believer. There are clever layouts, smart references, intriguing characters and a fascinating plot. The only thing currently matching it is Chew, with its crazy world building, madcap plotting and offbeat characters. These two together show that comics can be fun, wild, entertaining and carry a serious emotional message all at the same time. They also show that the medium doesn’t have to get all dark to get beyond superheroes.


Speaking of superheroes, did Marvel bring their A game this year or what? Agents of SHIELD turned from a limping pet only fanboys would love into a TV show that is dark, twisty and full of character. Tying its fate to Captain America: The Winter Soldier crippled it for most of its first season, but then created a moment of spectacular cross-platform awesomeness. The film and TV show spiralled around each other in ways that let them entertain as stand-alone viewing but break new ground as a cultural project. It helped that the Winter Soldier was a good film in its own right.

As if that weren’t enough, Marvel also brought out the biggest, funnest thing I watched in the cinema this year – Guardians of the Galaxy. A bunch of bickering misfits, forced to work together to save themselves and the universe? A talking raccoon and his walking tree buddy? A dance-off against a villain? Hell yes, I’m in for that. It wasn’t a smart film, or a ground-breaking one, but man was it ever entertaining.

But my favourite new film this year didn’t get a cinematic release, and that’s part of why I loved it. Joss Whedon, mastermind behind Marvel’s Avengers movies, took time out from his regularly scheduled blockbusters to help create In Your Eyes, a beautiful and unusual film about love and an inexplicable magical connection. It also took a bold approach to distribution that, for me, points towards the future I want to see. Just when we thought Whedon couldn’t get any more awesome, he upped his game again.

Aside from that, I’ve been making much more use of YouTube, and particularly recommend the PBS Idea Channel. Every week they come out with a slice of smart commentary, combing intellectual insight with popular culture. So cool.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ3EBR1hlbI&w=560&h=315]



Here’s where we leave science fiction and fantasy behind. I listen to some sf+f podcasts, and a bit of geeky music, but my favourites this year have been other things.

The Revolutions Podcast is an entertaining and extremely well presented show covering some of the most fascinating slices of history – political revolutions. So far it’s covered the English Civil War and the American War of Independence. Now it’s onto the French Revolution. Mike Duncan previously created the excellent History of Rome podcast, but this is even better. If you like history at all, check it out.

Musically, my favourite discoveries this year haven’t been new to this year, but they’ve been new to me. A friend pointed me toward the Wanton Bishops, a spectacular blues rock outfit from Lebanon. For pure grinding energy, they’re hard to beat.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwV5LfxFMxU?rel=0&w=560&h=315]


Then there’s Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. I like to hear clever rapping and pop musicians getting away from tired themes of romance and and self-aggrandisement. Macklemore absolutely hits the spot, backed by Ryan Lewis’s catchy and diverse beats, from pro-equality anthem Same Love to the ridiculously exuberant Lets Dance to recycled shopping tribute Thrift Shop. Even when they’re crafting whole songs about Cadillacs, basketball or trainers, their sheer passion keeps me wanting more.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QK8mJJJvaes?rel=0&w=560&h=315]


But my heart really lies with folk rock, and for that I recommend checking out The Patient Wild. Theirs are beautifully crafted storytelling songs, the sort of thing I can’t get enough of. And a member of the band reads this blog, so everybody wave to Glenatron – hi dude!


As Laura will testify, I’m pretty much obsessed with the card game Smash Up, in which you combine genre favourite factions to battle it out for domination. Whether I’m leading robot ninjas against time travelling pirates, or dipping into madness with the Cthulhu expansion, I would happily play this all day every day. It’s a lot of fun.

I also enjoyed the story/game combo of Device 6, which showed just what great things we can do with storytelling in the age of phone apps. Looking back, it feels like a test piece for greater things to come, but it’s a fascinating and atmospheric test piece.

And now I’m addicted to Minecraft. I’ll probably blog about this another day, but it’s kind of like having a giant Lego set on my Kindle, except a Lego set where zombies try to kill me. I don’t know why I didn’t play it years ago, but I’m glad I didn’t given how much time it’s sucking away.

Other stuff

Tiger stripe espresso beans. Manchester’s beautiful new central library. Costa Coffee’s caramel crunch cake. This year has been full of great stuff. Here’s hoping for more.

And so, in a variation on yesterday’s question, what have been your cultural highlights this year, big or small? Please share some recommendations in the comments, give me cool things to check out next year.