by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Debate has arisen in recent years over whether summer popcorn movies actually tell good stories or simply rely on eye-popping special effects, fast-paced editing that tricks the audience into actually believing they are going on a narrative journey, and big name movie stars. Certainly a case could be made for both sides of the debate. Like most things in life, however, we would be wise to consider these films on a case by case basis rather than lumping them together.
The current box office smash, Spider-Man: Homecoming, is the latest in the on-going Marvel series that, while giving fans focused individual stories, is also building an episodic narrative around The Avengers. But the question remains – does it tell a good story?
In order to get into the details of the film, there will be minor spoilers, so reader be advised.
For every person who loves a film, there is another who loathes it. Asking if a film tells a good story is highly subjective. However, there are elements we can identify that would historically indicate a film is hitting themes that are universal in the human experience, themes that ring true to what we agree is important in life. The execution of a film can be dreadful while the story itself is actually solid. Untangling the narrative elements in a film can be a messy process and it is easy to become wrapped up in all the ropes we are trying to untangle. That said, here are three areas where Spider-Man succeeds as a story, at least in the humble opinion of this writer.
Father Archetypes, Sidekicks, and Mentor Figures
Stories that connect and have longevity with audiences often go back to character — are the characters believable? This does not involve the actors’ performances but instead the narrative decisions they make. We want characters that are interesting and capable of surprising us. However, we also want characters that we understand. Since we are only given two hours or so with a character in a film, we need a few short cuts in order to really connect to the story. Archetypes are one way of accomplishing this.
Spider-Man: Homecoming uses archetypes well. Peter Parker has two competing “father figures” in the film – Tony Stark, who is the positive or light father, and Adrian Toomes, who is the negative or dark father. Both “fathers” teach Peter different lessons, but the archetypes do not fall into the “good cop/bad cop” model. At times, Tony Stark is hard on Peter. We question if he is a good “father” at all. The nuances of handling these archetypes are key in order to resonate with the audience.
Peter is also given an archetypal sidekick in the character of Ned. Ned is loyal but also saves Peter in a moment when our hero is desperate for help. Sidekicks often provide some much-needed humor in the midst of the chaos the hero is facing. They also can hold a mirror to the face of the hero at times when she or he has gotten off course.
Finally, the mentor archetype is used effectively in the story. Again, we have two sides of the archetype – with Tony Stark and Happy Hogan. Both mentors are reluctant in their roles. However, we see Tony step up to the challenge when Peter needs him most and Happy learn his lesson the hard way about the boy he is mentoring. Spider-Man uses archetypes effectively and enjoyably. We feel empathy for the characters, celebrate their victories, and mourn their losses.
A Flawed Hero and a Singular Sympathetic Villain
It sounds so simple, yet so many writers push back against having a flawed hero and singular sympathetic villain. While not applicable for every story, it is the approach that succeeds most often in the American film market.
Peter Parker is sometimes immature, often over-zealous, and has many lessons that he needs to learn – but he is our hero. We like him. We want to root for him. In one scene, we see Parker as Spider-Man capture someone who he thought was stealing a car, only to discover that the man owned the car. The loud alarm and commotion bothers everyone in the surrounding area, and leaves Spider-Man having to humorously exit. Seeing a protagonist that makes mistakes makes them relatable. We laugh at them, as we have often laughed at ourselves in similar — though perhaps less dramatic — situations.
Just as our hero is relatable, having a villain that is not only solely evil can be a powerful storytelling device. Adrian Toomes is initially seen as a blue-collar working man who is trying to take care of his family. He is done dirty by uncaring bureaucratic forces that seemingly push him outside the boundaries of ethics. Though we root against him and what he is trying to do, we also see him as a loving husband to his wife and father to his daughter who are left devastated when he is captured at the end of the story. Many superhero films have had trouble giving audiences a singular villain, much less a villain that is relatable. Spider-Man sidesteps these pitfalls and delivers an effective protagonist and antagonist.
Hero’s Journey Structure
A much more lengthy exploration of the story structure could easily be done. But, for the sake of time and space here, we can conclude that Spider-Man loosely follows a hero’s journey/three act structure. We see many of the most common beats and tropes that provide architecture to well-told stories. There is an inciting incident, a call to adventure, a reversal of fortune, a moment when all hope is lost, and a final climactic battle where good triumphs over evil.
As with most other Marvel stories, we are also offered a prologue and a epilogue – once staples of ancient storytelling but less common in our modern cinematic setting.
The structure is fairly solid with a few missteps and loose ends, such as the character of poor Liz and the fuzzy external goal for Peter throughout most of the film. While the story isn’t perfect, it does work and the emotional arc of the film is built well. Is Spider-Man: Homecoming a good story? Well, that is for you to decide for yourself. However, the writers certainly seem to have shown a knowledge of the various tools and methods of constructing scripts that have resonated with audiences for a long time.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.