The Surveillance Capitalism of "Spider-Man: Homecoming"
Celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society - unfettered, free to express themselves globally. They embody the inaccessible result of social labor by dramatizing its by-products magically projected above it as its goal: power and vacations, decision and consumption, which are the beginning and end of an undiscussed process.
- Guy Debord, 'Society of the Spectacle'
"Spider-Man: Homecoming" is shit.
Well, there's things about it that work (2, specifically - I'll get into them below). But this movie is still shit. Literal shit: the excrement of late capitalism.
Let's cut right to the chase. The primary function of this movie is to sell you the dream of capitalism. When it's not doing that, it's trying to sell you specific products. It might be easy at this point to say, "So what?" Or something like, "Don't all movies do that?" No.
No, most movies aren't 2 hour long commercials for an entire economic system.
Some blockbusters are semi-commercials (see: Michael Bay).
"Spider-Man: Homecoming," on the other hand, is a hard sell promoting America's current system of capitalism.
What's the sell, specifically? That happiness & spiritual fulfillment could be achieved by endless consumption. You could be as happy (or interesting!) as any of the characters... all you need to do is buy X, Y, and Z. This is a highly unusual addition to the Spider-Man film franchise.
The first Spider-Man films by Sam Raimi are wonderful. It was highly anticipated at the time and paved the way for the next two decades of superhero cinema. These movies were the products of global hyper-capitalism, yes. But the movies sold a different dream: one of wonder, one of thrill, one of schmaltz. It has it's flaws, but they're not egregious nor overwhelmingly malicious.
As far as the Andrew Garfield cycle goes, I never took them seriously, so never really watched it. Although, now I might...
But this newest Spider-Man movie, starring a screechy-voiced Hitler_Youth-esque.exe Tom Holland, appeared on the surface to be a fun, innocent mass-media experience.
At least, that's how the movie presented itself during the marketing campaign. I kept calling it "Vaporwave Spider-Man" to my friends but perhaps that was projection on my part.
The multicultural cast, the digital cinematography, the rebooting of Michael Keaton, Spider-Man's hoodie, the poster font, made by Disney - I don't know why I thought this would all add up to some brilliant underground superhero movie.
It didn't... but that's not why this movie sucked.
"Spider-Man: Homecoming" sucked because it seemed to be a film designed by a ruthless big data algorithm. Human hands were seldom felt.
Injecting a dreamlike cameo of Donald Glover, who's sleepwalking his way through the role simply doesn't authentically work... except at the level of shallow capitalism.
Donald Glover's casting decision was more about showing his face, to force a "See! Look! Remember this guy!' reaction from the audience.
Mr. Glover is an amazing performer. But he was not cast to utilize these talents. His image in this movie was pure exploitation. But this is just a small example - a metaphor.
Aunt May being "younger & hotter" was obviously a decision based on Google's mining of the porn data of young men.
But if it wasn't obvious enough with honest reflection, the movie makes it blatantly obvious.
Extras throughout the movie are constantly reminding Peter Parker, and the audience, just how hot they think Aunt May is.
The greatest accomplishment of "Spider-Man: Homecoming" will end up being the cementing of young men's masturbatory fantasies for years to come.
If you think about it, in the absence of any other contribution, this is a horrific influence on culture. I mean, it's not the worse thing ever. But it's just so... weird. Like... Why?
Luckily the movie has an evil plan besides boosting online porn traffic.
To spend hundreds of millions of dollars to supplement the masturbation of young boys seems, just, ugh. But what else could such a casting decision mean?
The main goal of Marisa Tomei's role is plain: sexual association between the movie & target audience creates a deep emotional bond with the franchise, furthering the overall theme of the virtues of late capitalism, and thus functions as exploitation taboo-spectacle to get teen boys into the theater in the first place.
Aunt May's character is the ultimate cynical choice. A teen boy can at least purchase Doritos or Lego's... but the only way to quench the desire inflamed by Aunt May is through some other means of consumption. But what is it?
To assume anything else is to ignore her cinematic sexualization from beginning to end.
In the context of the entire film, Aunt May is there to remind you: consume, consume, consume.
Aunt May exists & has the same qualities as the other girls Peter Parker becomes infatuated with: revealing clothing, swooned over by all eyes, with no inner-life outside of Parker's needs.
And again, these qualities by themselves aren't bad.
But it's the specific blurring of sexualization with all the female characters which include the protagonist's aunt which is note-worthy.
It signals to a kind of fetish fulfillment the mass media is capable of today - and one that will definitely be weaponized to perfection in the near future.
Disney knows what teen boys search for, and delivers their darkest fantasies in the safe embrace of a PG-13 movie.
This kind of surveillance cinema serves you the perfect alibi - mass entertainment - with a big wink & nod: how it reflects & satiates your most intimate Google searches.
No wonder the audience think it's hot. The idea was taken directly from their browser history.
Aunt May in "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is a product of the 21st Century's surveillance capitalism.
But it's not just horny young boys. Nearly EVERY type of person gets a love bomb of validation, and they're depicted neatly in their preordained place somewhere in the grand scheme of late capitalism.
The weird disaffected goth girl is shown with her stylish journals & Sylvia Plath shirts. She acts in a particular way as a spectacle for others.
The chubby sidekick is told he looks amazing in his fedora hat by a hot girl. He's the loveable buddy of the main hero, and he eats a certain brand of Doritos, plays with a certain kind of Lego set.
The message is clear:
Act this way, buy these things, and you will be accepted into the family... of late capitalism.
The consumption celebrity superficially represents different types of personality and shows each of these types having equal access to the totality of consumption and finding similar happiness here. - Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
"Spider-Man: Homecoming" is emotional propaganda.
Of course, The Disney Company is advertising their products as well. They're not just doing the work of the Federal Reserve. This is a mutually beneficial PSYOPS.
For example, the Star Wars franchise gets plenty of shout-outs.
The entire Marvel cinematic universe is referenced ad nauseam.
This is all done to keep the merchandise of The Disney Company front of mind. To keep their inventory moving. That's the only reason for these decisions.
And if you add all these decisions, it turns out that that's the ultimate end of this movie. Not an aspect, but it's soul. It's center.
If you read Disney's annual reports, it's in black & white what would motivate this behavior.
Disney movies don't make enough money for it to be a self-contained industry.
The movies of the Disney Company have become advertisements for their ancillary products: rides, merchandise, digital products, clothing, etc. And that's okay. But that's what it is.
And they're the top movie company on the planet. Is this cynical capitalism run amok?
I don't want to completely rip apart this movie like some douche-y arm chair hipster philosopher. I was genuinely excited for it. And I'm not some superhero fan boy, and honestly don't give a fuck about this extended universe or that extended universe.
Culture has reverted back to the days of the movie serial. I am examining the form of these serial stories more than the content within the continuity of these serial stories.
There were two things about the movie I really did love.
Read on only if you don't care about spoiling the narrative enjoyment of this movie.
But the plot twist of Michael Keaton being Peter Parker's love interest's dad is superb. There was an audible gasp in the audience. The notion didn't even cross my mind.
It's a brilliant twist grounded in raising-the-stakes of the story to electric heights.
The 2nd thing I loved about this movie was the last 10 seconds.
Aesthetically, it's brilliant.
The tone is spot on, the edit is spot on (you know the one... with The Ramones); the animation is perfect.
The last 10 seconds was the tone I expected for the entire film. Although the movie wasn't able to deliver for one hour & 59 minutes & 50 seconds... those last 10 seconds were perfect.
By the way... The perfection of the final 10 seconds fits right in with the overall function of the movie, being to sell you the dream of late capitalism. The very ending leaves you with an exuberant high: a high so intense that you couldn't fathom asking for your money back ;-)
But in between the beginning & the final 10 seconds, it's cutting-edge cinematic hypnosis.
"Spider-Man: Homecoming" was made to keep you allured by the experience, then pumped up to enthusiastically buy as you're dumped back into the "real world" aka the gift shop.
Actually, can we talk about the fetishization of The Avengers in this movie? It's super weird. Reminds me of a revolutionary period in America where living soldiers are deified.
Like a supernatural revolutionary period in America.
Shouldn't Americans not be mythologizing, essentially, police officers? Seems like a dangerous move - putting so much adoration & faith in an unregulated, unchecked new super power.
LOL I know this is a ridiculous point, but run with me for a moment...
Wouldn't such universal fawning over powerful vigilantes erode trust with democratically-elected governments? Or do they exist within a federally-regulated hierarchy of command?
Could a mutant get so popular, then, that it could run for president? Would they be capable of leading the majority of non-mutants? What's to stop them from offering a new war-time government during "unusual circumstances"? What's to stop a Machiavellian power-hungry mutant from doing the same thing?
Does that mean the people living in the Marvel cinematic universe are all citizens of an unspoken paranormal military dystopia? Is Disney trying to tell us something?
Feels like propaganda for a fictional supernatural military dictatorship. It's just odd!
Imagine if General Mattis had a mandatory VHS tape teaching high-schoolers how to exercise; or if everybody in the country desperately wanted to be just like General Patton; if Halloween stores every year sold costumes of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. That's kind of how The Avengers are in this universe - they're just a bunch of soldiers & commanders
What we see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is state power shifting from a democracy to a benign dicatatorship of elite soldiers.
The Avengers are also referenced to excess. It's as if nothing else existed in Peter Parker's world except products & services offered by The Disney Company.
Characters were like, "Woah!! You know CAPTAIN AMERICA??"
The effect of this non-stop internal enthusiasm for these supernatural soldiers becomes dull with repetition, and once again, ends up functioning more as a cynical choice to push merchandise... and not to tell an interesting story, and after a while, not even to entertain.
Prior Hollywood movies, for decades, have functioned to sell things: sell ideas, sell dreams, sell products, sell celebrities.
And I'm sure there's plenty of instances where Hollywood films were covert PSYOPS to persuade global populations of certain lifestyles - specifically the supremacy of 20th Century capitalism. But we're in the 21st Century now, and everything is different.
Surveillance Capitalism means these giant companies know what you know, and without having to ask you. Gone is the necessity of focus groups. The movie is part of a network of people & information that is shared by millions. The movie knows that, you know that.
That's why the movie opens like a Snapchat story. It's a familiar aesthetic that needs no further explanation. "You & I know what we're referring to," the movie says.
There's also no origin story. There's a presumption of shared knowledge with the media of surveillance capitalism. This presumption is letting you know the movie knows what you know.
That's the surveillance part.
The movie also superficially leans toward liberal values. I suspect that's because big data reveals most consumers are liberals.
Mostly all of the characters, except for Peter Parker & Tony Stark & Michael Keaton (you know, the psychological nucleus of the movie) are minorities. Peter's love interest, Peter's presumed future love interest, his side-kick, his high-school bully, his teachers, the people he interacts with on the street... It's a United Nations of characters, which was a refreshing touch.
There's 'far out' sci-fi technology shown that's only one or two steps away from existing luxury products. Things like Spider-Man's artificially intelligent suit appear really cool at first, until you recognize the effect it has on your viewing experience.
I overheard somebody in the theater say, "Wish I had that suit!"
It's natural to presume that once you step outside the movie theater, if you were fully immersed in the movie experience, that the next artificially intelligent platform you see you're going to think something like, "Hehe, I'm gonna be like Spider-Man and buy this!"
This is a generalization, but that's the thinking behind these cinematic choices.
And it's not just one decision that communicates this. It's all of the different types of choices made throughout the movie that point the finger in this insidious direction.
The results from this kind of hypnotic reinforcement of consumerist values is significant. With time, and with repeated exposure, this stuff can nudge whole populations in certain directions.
By the way, there's literally a new Audi at the end of the movie shown with an A.I. operating system. The A.I. resembles the one in Spider-Man's suit.
The product plug is subtle, and near the end of the film... but it seems to confirm the link between the superhero technology and commercially available products.
Ultimately, the movie apologizes surveillance capitalism.
It's not the specific products itself that made this movie come into existence. Obviously, I don't know the true motivations behind the making of this movie. All I have is the movie itself.
But from scene-to-scene, the message remains the same:
It's safe for young people to be consumers.
"Spider-Man: Homecoming" exists to sell you the dream of late capitalism, in an increasingly uncertain world, with heightened economic insecurity, with decreasing support for capitalism.
Here late capitalism is unquestioned, eternal... and the road to personal salvation.
It's not so much about buying specific products, but about buying into the system of buying.
And it's done through seduction marketing.
Aunt May keeps you hooked on free porn. Peter Parker embers a desire for luxury goods. Tony Stark defines the ideal of modern self-actualization: a billionaire with access to anything he wants at any moment. Parker's friends represent the varieties of marginalized youths successfully integrated into late capitalism - the same marginalized youths which, in real life, are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the system.
Everybody is integrated into the capitalist dream, each adorned with a purchasable lifestyle.
Interestingly, the only true working class character, Michael Keaton, is the villain.
His climactic rant could've been an extract from Marx, as he raves about class conflict. But just as his argument's getting good, what happens? The dialogue is interrupted by explosions.
There's no space for class consciousness in a movie about the denial of class via the relentless pursuit of consumption.
The climax of the movie hinges on ideas of inventory and asset management. This reflects precisely the function of the movie itself: keeping products moving.
Jon Favreau boxes up merch from The Avengers and moves them to a new location. The final sequences involve tracking this merchandise, and seizing this merchandise.
Of course, the movie itself spends 2 hours cataloging its own parent company's merchandise: The Avengers, Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, new celebrities, its various cross-promotions with Audi, Doritos, and other products that washed right over me.
So I'm not surprised a movie subconsciously about capitalist taxonomy has a climax that revolves around the taxonomy of the top capitalist in this fictional universe, Tony Stark.
Arguably, the true hero of the movie is Tony Stark, and not Spider-Man. Despite the movie's title, Spider-Man is the apprentice... Stark is the master. His shadow hangs over the entire film.
Peter Parker doesn't even make his suit. Spider-Man's powers are proprietary to Stark Corps LLC. His essence is on loan. And although Spider-Man saves the day, Tony Stark gets the girl. It's a weird movie.
Tom Holland portrays the character with a neurotic distance, which also prevents heroic identification with Peter Parker. At every moment he's unlike us - too smart, too weird, too lucky, too awesome. It's hard to see him as anything else besides not me.
To further the metaphor, we're also introduced to Peter Parker through a series of Snapchat stories, shot from the POV of his iPhone. So our very first introduction to his character is also at an arms length, mediated through an artificial filter of genuine experience.
When the regular resolution of the movie returns, we are officially introduced to Peter Parker but his face is still obstructed by his smart phone.
It's Tony Stark who we see for the first time unobstructed. The path to identifying with Tony Stark is immediate. He swaggers his way through the scene, and we love it.
We love it because even though Stark's character, like Parker's, also represents an impossible ideal, there's an element of his character which is inherently within us.
This identification mechanism is similar to the way so many low-income Americans were able to identify with presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Even though he was a multi-millionaire with an obvious disdain for the lower-class, there were aspects of his outward personality which people identified with regardless: how he "spoke his mind," his simple emotional language, his enviable lifestyle, etc.
Even though both Trump & Stark are both unlike us, we identify with them because we feel they COULD be us, in some alternate dimension... or are strikingly similar to people we know.
Peter Parker, on the other hand, never achieves this identification effect in total. Our connection with Parker is aloof, sporadic. Peter Parker is technically the hero but he's treated like a buddy character with a ton of screen time.
Spider-Man makes a few key decisions, including the direction of his life, but every decision is mediated by Tony Stark. His suit, his fate, all framed by this other character.
We cheer when Tony Stark arrives, we laugh when he's on screen, he seems to be driving the entire story forward.
The question is, What difference does it make who we identify with?
But this extra-identification with the swaggering billionaire entrepreneur strengthens the argument that this movie was made to be an apology for surveillance capitalism.
To be a self-actualized billionaire is good. In fact, it's the greatest good of all the good.
The values of the movie are consistently clear: This is who you should be idolizing.
Money. Consumption. Power. Vacation.
Why would this be an important agenda for a media company to propagate?
According to The Washington Post last year, "A majority of millennials now reject capitalism." The article details how 51% of people aged 18-29 do not believe capitalism is the best way for society to be organized.
We saw the effects of the 2016 presidential election, and similar populist swings on both sides of the political spectrum around the world.
There's also this iconic exchange between a millennial and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi:
A decline in faith of capitalism by millennials could be catastrophic for the whole system. After all, the system runs on faith. Our money is backed by faith. It's crazy, but it's true.
Ignoring this trend could eventually lead to the breakdown of civil society, if unmitigated by strategic forces. The masses simply won't take their increasing enslavement as a permanent method of social organization. Either new, more subtle methods of enslavement are necessary, or messianic figures with a new blueprint for society will emerge... or it'll all just collapse.
Something is bound to buckle soon.
So, I can see how a media company that dominates 26% of the market share of all movies in the United States would have a role in the persuasion of national attitudes.
A change in economic conditions is listed as the #1 threat to The Walt Disney Company, per their 2016 annual report. Take a look.
The Disney Company has a history with FBI cooperation, with the patriotic persuasion of mass attitudes (see: Victory Through Air Power), and with having a deep vested interest in the current economic system.
It behooves Disney to create psychological propaganda targeting millennials to participate in the current (fragile_ economic system. This keeps the engine of consumption moving forward for everybody - especially for the Disney empire.
I'm not saying that's what's going on. Nor do I have any proof. An honest assessment of the film, however, leaves me with two conclusions. "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is either: