Media Matters: A Tale of Two Fathers (Spider-Man: Homecoming and War for the Planet of the Apes)
While it has certainly had its share of critical and commercial bombs, 2017 may soon join 1982 and 1989 as one of the best cinematic summers. With Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk set to join Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and War for the Planet of the Apes at the multiplex next week, there has never been a better time to go to the movies.
The two latest releases, Sony and Marvel’s superb collaboration, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the epic conclusion to 20th Century Fox’s prequel trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes, both play with timeless themes of financial and social inequality to great effect. But if we dig even deeper, well beyond the surface sheen of superheroes and super-intelligent simians, these are really stories about the darker side of a father’s love for his family and the ways in which fears or failure, grief, and pain can transform devotion into dehumanizing obsession.
As you might expect, Spider-Man Homecoming, starring the endearing and appropriately adolescent-looking Tom Holland, is by far the lighter of the two films, and therefore, on balance, the better cinematic experience. It nails precisely the right tone, serving up appealing humor and satisfying action, particularly in the final act that (like 2015’s Ant-Man) remains contained and restrained compared to the CGI boss battles that close out many similar features today. It should also come as little surprise that Homecoming was co-written by one of the creative minds behind Freaks and Geeks. That short-lived but well-loved TV high school dramedy always felt like a lost John Hughes project. Homecoming updates the same heartwarming and bittersweet comedic sensibilities, projecting them over the diverse, post-modern high school landscape where the bullies are MATHletes driving Daddy’s Porsche and jockeying discs at underage parties.
Homecoming also does a great job of infusing Michael Keaton’s genuinely menacing villain with just enough social indignation to make him a relatable working class anti-hero. This version of the Vultureis nursing a grievance against the rigged system that keeps the rich and powerful rich and powerful. Far from an egomaniacal madmen bent on universal domination, Vulture is a street level mastermind carving out a living for himself and his family in the best way he thinks he can. He’s ruthless, not evil. He was born with a conscience, he simply traded it into gain financial stability for his wife and child.
Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is a father of a different sort whose interest in Peter Parker’s well-being is two-fold, though in all ways fueled by guilt. He so regrets using Spider-man’s abilities to drive his own agenda in last year’s Captain America: Civil War that he now employs the high tech trappings of his wealth and power to protect Peter until he safely join the ranks of manhood. When Peter circumvents those safeguards, Tony exercises some tough (and sarcastic) love, stripping Peter of the external power he thinks he needs to be a hero. Peter thinks this decision is cold and Tony’s demeanor does nothing to dissuade him, but Stark is actually doing for Peter what he wishes his own father could have done for him. It’s in that deprivation that Spider-man, and the film itself, find their true inner strength and ingenuity.
I heard a YouTube critic call War for the Planet of the Apes “the Schindler’s List of Ape movies.” While that may be overstating it a bit, it’s not too far off the mark. Picking up a short time after the events of the last film and 15 years after a deadly plague has wiped out most of humanity, setting newly-intelligent apes on the ascent, War not only serves as an epic conclusion to this prequel trilogy but as the final act of a grand arc for its reluctant revolutionary, Caesar. Andy Serkis’ performance capture and voice work is phenomenal, but his is far from the only talent on display. Each entirely computer-generated character is so well developed and animated that you soon forget you’re watching a movie that devotes much of its run time to scenes without a single human in sight.
Of course it’s not about apes. Not really. This franchise has always been a sci-fi mirror for societal ills and inequalities. While the original series of films released in the late 60s and early 70s were steeped in the racial tensions of the time, this new trilogy is not bound to any strict narrative symbolism. Instead of standing in for a single race or class of people, Caesar and his apes embody traits in us all—both our capacity for loyalty and mercy as well our penchant for betrayal and revenge.
After spending a decade-and-a-half running and hiding, trying to protect his children and his flock from the few remaining humans on the planet, Caesar is finally pushed to the brink and forced to face the ultimate test. Will he sink to the moral equivalency of “Us vs. Them” (a siren song that calls to us even now as we face enemies with no flags or borders), seeking vengeance for the mistreatment of those he loves most dearly, or will he hold fast to peace and the moral high ground, finding a forgiveness that makes him more than human? Sacrifices must be made either way, but War forces us to think about the point at which we sacrifice too much and lose what makes us who we are—the moral fiber that separates us from both the animals and our enemies. In the end, perhaps the ultimate sacrifice is not the loss of those we love, but the surrender of our pain.
By Will Morgan
Caution Rating: 6.5 (For violence, some frightening images and adult language)
War for the Planet of the Apes
Caution Rating: 8 (For violence and disturbing material)