SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME proves Marvel’s formula-breaking *is* their formula

You know when people say “don’t watch this one unless you’ve seen the last one”? Well, that statement may just peak with Spider-Man: Far From Home, particularly when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The ‘one’ in particular isn’t even the previous solo Spider-Man film, 2017’s Homecoming, because the MCU has changed the game when it comes to how sequels work. Homecoming introduced the supporting characters in Peter Parker’s direct orbit but Jon Watts’ precious picture was neither Tom Holland’s first bow as the character, and Homecoming serves as an important part of the ongoing, overarching narrative in the first era of the MCU which concluded recently with the ‘one’ I am talking about – Avengers: Endgame. That’s the film you need to have seen before Far From Home as Watts’ Spider-Man film serves as an extended epilogue to the epic conclusion to the Infinity Saga, not to mention a coda to that first, decade-spanning era.

Far From Home is about the legacy of an era which reinvented exactly what the ‘superhero movie’ was. Marvel Studios, under Kevin Feige’s aegis, took the formula and tropes we had come to know and understand from the previous three decades since 1978’s seminal first Superman adaptation, through a legion of Batman movies and beyond, and subverted them pretty much from the get-go. Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man didn’t spend half a dozen films hiding his identity as Bruce Wayne did – he came out and told the world right at the end of his origin story. The MCU interweaved characters and narratives to develop the first ongoing, television-style serialised structure in cinematic history. Along the way it brewed up broad comedy, epic action, science-fiction and half a dozen other genres—often within the same films—inside which the traditional ‘superhero’ nestled.

What we have seen in previous Marvel pictures before Endgame, and which Far From Home makes abundantly clear, is that Marvel’s self-aware subversion of that formula has *become* their formula itself.

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Mutated Anxiety at the Millennium: X-Men (2000)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We start with Bryan Singer’s original, 2000’s X-Men…

Though not always discussed in the annals of great comic-book cinema, or even considered the height of its own franchise, Bryan Singer’s original adaptation of X-Men is a seminal moment in superhero cinema.

Before Singer brought Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s formative 1960’s Marvel Comics property to the screen, after over a decade of attempts by a range of filmmakers (most notably James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow), comic-book cinema was principally dominated across the 1980’s and 1990’s by two heavyweights: Superman and Batman. The former ruled the late 1970’s into the 80’s before falling from grace with a succession of sequels whereby the budget went down as the schlock went up, while the latter moved away in the 90’s from Tim Burton’s initial Neo-Gothic vision into a high camp, overblown blockbuster confection. Beyond these behemoths, comic-book films were curiosities – The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Crow, Darkman, Spawn – films which either garnered a cult audience or disappeared from the radar entirely.

X-Men changed all that. While not the first Marvel property brought to bear on the big-screen, Singer’s film was without doubt the first adaptation of their source material to go mainstream as a major box-office success – two years earlier, the Wesley Snipes-fronted Blade arguably also did well but was too violent and pulpy to reach a wide audience, and many to this day are unaware it even *is* a Marvel adaptation. X-Men changed the game. X-Men showed that comic-book movies could be more than kitsch spectacle or showy theatrics. Superheroes could be *real* people with heart and soul, their villainous antagonists complicated foes, both morally and psychologically; plus, these films could, much like the related genre of science-fiction, work as powerful allegory and social commentary. In other words, comic-book cinema could do what actual comic-books had been doing, without much in the way of critical respect, for decades.

While X-Men absolutely gives in to some of the silliness that weakened comic-book movies of decades past, it also shows what is possible in this sub-genre, and unknowingly lays down a template for the eventual rise and domination of superhero cinema.

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Scrooged (1988)

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is my favourite story in all of fiction. Honestly. For all the hundreds of movies or TV shows I have seen, or books I have read, it always comes back to Dickens’ story of cold-hearted London businessman Ebernezer Scrooge and his Christmas Eve haunting by the three spirits who show him the error of his ways, and teach him to be as good a man as the good old world had ever seen. It’s a timeless, beautifully structured, gloriously heartfelt narrative which doesn’t just imbue the meaning of Christmas—a time we all take a breath and enjoy the people in our lives—but what it means to be a good human. With any great piece of fiction, an innumerable amount of takes and reinventions are destined to lie in its future – which leads us right to Scrooged.

Richard Donner’s comedic take on the Dickens legend feels particularly apposite in terms of the age it was written. Scrooged is post-Wall Street, the epitome of Reagan’s corporate America, hence why the choice is made to reinvent the character of Scrooge for a new age in Bill Murray’s vicious, irascible Frank Cross and make him a powerful TV executive. Everything about Frank’s life speaks to the consumerist, vacuous nature of entertainment the 1980’s truly gave birth to – he is a Scrooge for the MTV generation, appropriately. Donner’s film therefore provides a new way into Dickens’ story, which traditionally is adapted as either a straight TV or cinematic version of the 19th century parable, or a modern, updated take on the character of Scrooge.

The difference with Scrooged is that Dickens’ story is a construct within Frank’s existence itself; he may be presented as a modern Scrooge, and experience the same essential journey and epiphany as the character of Scrooge does, but the ‘meta’ approach to Scrooged sees an adaptation of A Christmas Carol as part of the story itself, with Buddy Hackett no less as an improbably accented Ebernezer. This creative choice makes Scrooged read as a satire on Christmas entertainment, as well as Dickens himself, while also playing out the same redemptive beat for the character of Frank. Everything about the film is done with a knowing wink of the eye and tongue very much in cheek. Even the title suggests Dickens is being *done* to our main character.

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