Spider-Man: Homecoming – A Good Balancing Act

This is the first standalone Spider-Man film in the MCU. Spider-Man was previously introduced in Captain America: Civil War where he fought alongside the other Avengers. Before that he was simply a local crimefighter whose superpowers were spider-like abilities to crawl walls, superhuman agility and enhanced mobilities and the ability to shoot high-tensile strength spiderwebs at his enemies. In Civil War, his abilities are further enhanced with the help of a brand-new high-tech suit by Tony Stark. This Spidey film explores the character following his adventures with the Avengers. The film must now contend with two challenges. First, it must prevent Spider-Man from becoming a gimmick. With many of his advanced capabilities coming from Stark’s technology, it is easy for the character to over-rely on technological features and lose his essence. Second, previous movies have seen set the precedent for conflicts that involved saving the universe. A movie that is setting up the “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” cannot possibly have stakes that high. At the same time, this film needs to be interesting enough to hold up after a number of awesome films.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is able to overcome both these challenges. Even though Parker has the new and improved Spider-Man suit he got from Tony Stark, the film isn’t about the suit. Despite having every advantage, for instance, Spider-Man’s able to survive and defeat his enemies because of who he is as a fighter on the inside, and not what the suit provides him. He almost drowns in his high-tech gear, but successfully beats Chitauri technology in an old pair of red tights.  Furthermore, it manages to keep the film interesting by using the technologies that have come from the Chitauri in the aftermath of the first Avengers’ movie. The challenges are still formidable – after all, it had taken a team of six Avengers, much older and much more established than Spider-Man to defeat them the last time. But the context is much more local. The film basically uses what is exciting about villains from outer space without having to involve them at all. So, Parker can be the “friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man” and still be a total bad-ass about it.

There were two other note-worthy things about the form of the film. First, since our protagonist is only 15 years-old, the film needs to feel young. Tom Holland certainly does his part by playing the role to perfection. But beyond that, the film conveys levity and freshness through the use of music. Particularly in the first half of the film, when Spider-Man is established as a superhero, the accompanying music shows that this development is light and fun, rather than serious or epic. But the music doesn’t try to occupy centre-stage like it did in Guardians of the Galaxy (that film did it perfectly, but we don’t want that to become a hack, do we?) It is much subtler, and complements the developments on screen rather than highjacks them.

Second, the film made me think about how movies use flashback. In the scene when Spider-Man has almost been defeated by Vulture, and he must find the strength to get back up and fight, Parker stares at his reflection in a puddle of water that showed his mask as being only a part of his face. As a viewer, I can see that Parker’s dilemma in that moment is about whether he can do what is right when he doesn’t have his suit. This visual is also accompanied by Parker remembering Stark’s words, “If you are nothing without the suit, then you don’t deserve the suit.” In my opinion, this made an otherwise powerful scene too loud. I don’t understand why directors and editors choose to insert scenes or lines we may have previously heard/seen in the film as flashbacks in later scenes. If the film is engaging enough, the audience is already clued in to its tone. Adding extra dialogue is simply unnecessary and leads me to believe that the director considers his/her audience stupid.

In conclusion, Spider-Man: Homecoming can retain all of the charms of being a teenage superhero film while still holding up against the weight of the movies that have preceded this one.

 

 

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Made In Heaven: A triumph for character development

When was the last time you saw an Indian series that portrayed relationships as deep and complex as they are? Made in Heaven is that series. After its success and the success of her last film Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar, one of its creators, is on a roll. She is fast proving that she can explore relationships like few others can. I must admit I was sceptical about this series when I saw its poster. The poster shows the six lead characters (three men and three women) and I mistakenly got the sense it would be three one-boy-one-girl stories. Made in Heaven is quite the opposite. Set in New Delhi, it is the story of two wedding planners who run a company called Made in Heaven and plan grand weddings for the rich. But that is not all it is. Through this basic premise, the story explores societal biases and hypocrisy. It does a deep dive into human nature.

The biggest strength of the series is undoubtedly the development of its characters – not just the lead characters but also side characters. You understand why people behave the way they do. The choices they make and the hypocrisies they exhibit are not random. They help the viewer understand the character. These characters are not one-dimensional caricatures. The most obvious example of this is Karan Mehra, a character played by Arjun Mathur. At the very outset it is established that he is a gay man. But unlike conventional portrayals of homosexuality in Indian film (television has only just begun exploring the subject), where if a person is gay, that’s all they are, Made in Heaven shows that being gay is a part of Karan. He has a life in addition to that. His relationships with multiple men don’t just put forth the point that he likes men, but show his escapism, something that would have remained just the same had he been straight. He’s a man struggling to come to terms with himself, to create a successful business and repay the massive amounts of debt he’s taken on. These things aren’t told through contrived dialogue or on the nose scenes, but is shown seamlessly throughout the series.

A subtler example of character development is Shobita Dhulipala’s character, Tara. Tara undoubtedly has the most well-presented character arc. At the beginning of the series, we admire this woman who’s defied the trappings of class. She married rich, but she married for love even as the world misunderstands her as a gold-digger. Her husband (Adil, played brilliantly by Jim Sarbh) has invested in her company, but she is her own person. This façade unravels as the show progresses. As a clue about this is revealed towards the end of the first episode, when she convinces Aaliya, a middle-class woman, to get married to her rich fiancé despite his family violating her privacy. “Its five fucking thousand crores. Don’t be an idiot,” she tells her. As a viewer I stop taking Tara for granted and begin to pay closer attention to who she is.

Towards the end of the series, the writers make sure I have no clear answers. She has married her husband for money, but she also loves him. She craves her own identity but takes pride in calling herself Mrs. Tara Khanna, an indication that her past life is behind her and she is now a part of elite, even though she has no friends there. She can be sensitive to the injustices suffered by other women in the show, but she is routinely terrible to her mother and sister because they haven’t escaped the poverty trap. And that’s what makes Tara special. She is complicated, as human beings are. Her inner contradictions also explain the outrage she feels towards her best friend (Faiza, played by Kalki Koechlin) when Faiza has an affair with Adil, when she herself had once initiated a relationship with Adil while he was engaged to another woman. As with Karan, Tara’s past comes to the fore as organically throughout the series as the narrative moves forward. And the real win for Tara’s character, and a testament to the writing of the show, is that I empathised with the character throughout, even during her darker moments.

The show’s primary focus is on the institution of marriage. Many Hindi films can lead us to believe that marriage is the ultimate goal of a romantic relationship, that it is the beginning of ‘happily ever after’. Made in Heaven rejects this idea and instead goes on to demonstrate that marriages come in all shapes and sizes. Any psychological or material safety it provides can come at a cost. For instance, when Karan’s landlord’s wife (Ayesha Raza) finds out that her husband (Vinay Pathak) has been watching recordings of Karan having sex with a man, she chooses to believe the lie that her husband is gathering evidence to evict Karan than face the uncomfortable truth that could destroy her marriage – that her husband is gay. Similarly, Aaliya and her fiancé Angad are an idealistic couple at the beginning of the episode. They don’t seem to care about money (even five fucking thousand crores) and claim that they don’t lie to each other. But when faced with the sceptre of the future, Angad lies to his parents about her past even though that was against her wishes. And she lies to Angad about her motivations to reconcile with his parents. We see that love isn’t always enough to keep a couple together. Sometimes, there are other binding agents. Despite this, Made in Heaven doesn’t have a purely cynical view of marriage. It does show couples who have weathered challenges and are still on the same page and in love. Only those form a minority when compared with all the other kinds of marriages out there.

In addition to marriage, Made in Heaven uses relationships to help understand characters. In the end, we realise most characters may not have clear motivations or consistent actions, because they don’t know who they are. This is most evident with Adil’s character. Adil cheats on his first fiancé with Tara and cheats on Tara with Faiza. While he is most certainly a douchebag, Made in Heaven gives layers to his character through his interactions with both Tara and Faiza. He is a character who doesn’t know what he wants and cannot deal with intense milestones within his relationships. Similarly, Faiza’s interactions with her therapist (again, kudos to the makers for normalising therapy) show her own internal contradictions. Her desire to not lose her friend even as she can’t stop seeing that friend’s husband. Faiza’s confusions are even clearer because she is dependent on the men in her life (her father, ex-husband and Adil) to keep her afloat. Even though she doesn’t want to lose her friend, she can’t rid herself of the need for a man who will take care of her.

Made in Heaven is clearly extremely well written. A number of episodes try to uncover problems of the patriarchy (dowry, widow remarriage, superstitions…). These issues may look like they’ve been addressed in other films and TV shows, but this show is written and directed with subtlety that doesn’t make them feel stale or cringey. Made in Heaven holds a mirror to society but it doesn’t try to assume a position of moral uprightness. It lets the viewer see and ultimately perceive the subtext of the show for himself/herself. All this while making the view invested in nearly every character in the show. Even side characters get a clear arc, like Karan’s landlord and his family and the production manager of the company. This isn’t to say that the writing is flawless. Kabir (played by Shashank Arora), the cameraman who also narrates bits of the series is not as well fleshed out as the rest of the cast. True, he gets a few scenes towards the end of the series, but it doesn’t seem like enough.

All in all, watching Made in Heaven made me tremendously happy. It is the second time that I have seen an Indian TV series that is world class (the first one being Sacred Games).  If you’re like me, you probably consume mostly American (and maybe some British) television. In which case you’ll understand when I say that mainstream Indian television with its poor writing and production quality cannot hold a candle to even mediocre sitcoms from the West. Made in Heaven is a small change in the status quo. Here is a show that tells the stories of people like me in a way that even a person completely unfamiliar with the Indian milieu will understand and appreciate. I hope this trend continues, and I cannot wait to binge watch Season 2.