Love and Boh in ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’

Midtown High has been “blipped” back following the events of Avengers: Endgame, where half of all life was erased from existence while the other half dealt with their absence for 5 SOUL-CRUSHING YEARS. Everyone wonders what’s next in the wake of a massive existential threat, and all Peter can think about after the ordeal is MJ. In lesser hands, this would come off as selfish and self-centered. Thanks to Tom Holland and Zendaya’s winning chemistry, and a supporting cast that follows their bumbling lead, Peter and MJ’s tale of high school love is irresistibly charming. I may have hated high school, but I’m in love with the way Peter and MJ are in love with each other.

It’s amazing that the follow-up to Endgame can be as warm and bubbly as a movie like Far From Home. (Renaming Thanos’ universe-spanning fallout from “The Snap” to “The Blip” does wonders for the film’s lighthearted tone.) Yes, Iron Man’s shadow looms large over Peter, but the film interiorizes that conflict to bring to the fore another that requires just as much courage: the high school crush.

Midtown’s science team is embarking on a trip across Europe. Characters like Ned and Flash have an agenda to mark this special occasion – Ned to go on a bachelor’s escapade, and for Flash to… *checks notes* vlog about his travels. For Peter and MJ, the trip is all the more special in that it reduces Midtown High’s population (a representation of their own microcosmic world within the larger MCU) to a factor of just the two of them.

The Blip doesn’t make Spider-Man expand his friendly neighborhood outreach; rather, it’s made him realize just how much he feels about MJ. This trip to Europe presents a romantic opportunity to tell her the truth atop the Eiffel Tower. Getting MJ isn’t the goal nor is he asking her to the school dance as we are conditioned to expect. Peter’s only goal is to shed his mask in front of her.

Charmingly, this winds up being the biggest obstacle in the film. The elementals are nothing more than projected illusions concocted by Mysterio; even Nick Fury and Maria Hill aren’t actually Nick Fury and Maria Hill. What’s real is Peter and MJ’s affection for one another, and the apprehension that stands in the way. Peter doesn’t flinch when it comes to situations of escalating danger that puts innocent lives at risk. That makes him a superhero. But it takes actual guts for Peter to talk to MJ, and that’s what makes him human.

He doesn’t know it, but MJ wears a mask too. When she tells Peter and Ned they ought to download a VPN to avoid being tracked by the government (which sounds exactly like what the heir to Breakfast Club’s Allison would say), it’s an excuse to make conversation. School affords us plenty of instances to “randomly” bump into our crushes and make spontaneous conversation which we surely didn’t rehearse in our heads. Peter and MJ’s social dynamic is put to the test going abroad. How do they hang out without the convenience of sitting next to each other in class? And what are their feelings, really, when removed from school?

When Flash resumes his ritualistic dunking on Peter aboard the plane, MJ does Peter a solid and flips it back to Flash. If anyone’s going to make fun of Peter, it’s going to be her. But consider the opportunity that presented itself – a way to make fun of a brash classmate that just so happened to involve making eye contact with Peter.

Peter isn’t nearly as smooth or lucky, and we’re endeared to the way he wrestles with the butterflies around MJ. Of course he’d run into her at the lavatory (a very un-romantic place to bump into someone), and of course he’s called into action when he’d rather be with MJ. What Peter doesn’t realize is that MJ is wrestling with those same butterflies.

Love comes easier to everyone else. Aunt May and Happy Hogan are an item; Ned and Betty ease into a summer fling over an in-flight meal, and Brad Davis, another character who shares feelings for MJ, is confident in his attempts to get closer to her. A lesser version of this story would’ve exploited that love triangle, and the ensuing competition for MJ would’ve rendered her a damseled object. (See: the original Spider-Man trilogy.) Thankfully, director Jon Watts plays it breezy and upbeat, allowing Peter and MJ’s clumsiness to tell this story of socially hopeless romantics.

Zendaya has found a second life playing an awkward misfit— with a killer mop of hair reminiscent of my best emo days that I have no choice but to stan. Her MJ might still be in danger on occasion, but she has agency and her own desire. It’s rewarding to see that it takes courage for her to talk to Peter, too.

In Italy, MJ is infatuated with a new word: Boh. It’s a fitting word for their dynamic across Homecoming and Far From Home. Boh in Italian, as MJ explains, could mean “I don’t know” or “Get out of my face,” and the brevity of the term and the uncertainty of what it means suits them just fine. They know how they feel individually, but they can’t read each other’s minds so they hide behind a routine of shoulder-shrugging awkwardness and joke-making to break the tension. If that’s not what it’s like being around a crush then I don’t know what is.

At the opera, their dynamic approaches the next stage, Peter managing a full sentence without falling apart (“You look really pretty”) and MJ returning Peter’s sincerity (“You look pretty, too”). They speak like hearts fluttering and fidget around each other like a dorky dance.

When the trip goes kaput and the class is doomed to head home, Peter is so desperate for that one special moment that he retreats to the same compliment as if to pick up where they left off. “You look nice,” he says, too little too late (and too quietly) as MJ assumes the trip is over and so long Eiffel Tower. They both have notions of romance and hold onto these self-defeating illusions, completely oblivious that their dynamic and attempts to stir a grand moment is, in fact, romantic. Peter and MJ have an obvious yearning to be together, but no clue as far as how to act on those feelings.

Sarcasm and routine dunking are MJ’s defense mechanisms that keep these feelings for Peter at bay. Because she’s worried Peter might not feel the same way, just as Peter worries too. That’s why it’s both adorable and heart-wrenching to watch Peter and MJ collide. They are both hilariously and tragically stuck inside their heads.

It’s super-heroic watching people confident and in their element. It’s cinematic to recognize our awkward selves on the big screen.

Their body language would quell all the worrying, if only they could just see. Like when MJ forgets how to breathe around Peter, or how Peter deathgrips his backpack when he’s standing before MJ. No one gets you flustered quite like the person you like. They’re simultaneously comforted by each other’s presence as much as they are vulnerable. It’s no wonder they don’t know how to act or how to be. It renders them afraid of taking any sort of leap— so much so that they set themselves up for rejection.

Peter understandably is frustrated with himself for never being able to say what he feels in the moment. When MJ opens the door before Peter can knock (and seconds later when she says yes before Peter can ask the question), we see she’s frustrated with herself too. “I’m not ready for this trip to be over,” Peter says, and it’s the first acknowledgement that there’s clearly something between them.

Just as Peter is ready to tell her how he feels, MJ reverts back to her defense mechanism, calling out Peter as Spider-Man. Because there’s no way this is actually happening, no way that the boy she likes actually likes her back so surely this had to have been the reason for him acting so strange lately!? MJ is more confident that Peter is Spider-Man than whether he might like her back.

Peter doesn’t tell her as planned; he’s given an out, and allows himself to believe this was too good to be true. But he does confess that he’s Spider-Man, and this shift in what he chooses to keep secret and what he’s willing to reveal says all we need to know about how he truly and madly feels toward MJ.

The most significant battle in the end was for Peter and MJ to face each other with no expectations or illusions of grand romance. That they like each other is the truth, finally, and they didn’t need to be on the Eiffel Tower to see. Conquered and in arms, MJ can no longer contain herself as she plants a peck on Peter’s lips – the most appropriate, earned, and satisfying first kiss in any Marvel film ever, and the perfect top off to this crazy and dizzying web they’ve spun.

This might seem like a ton of grief for something that otherwise has such a simple solution i.e. “Just tell her how you feel.” For the anxious, the stammering and those prone to self-defeat, it is never that easy. Revealing who you are and how you really feel requires strength; it requires rehearsing scenarios in your head a thousand times, fooling and making a fool out of ourselves. We rarely approach any romantic situation like how they do in the movies.

What a treat, then, to see a movie – a superhero movie of all – that approaches love a little closer to us.

On Gaming and Re-embracing an Identity

I knew I was going to buy Anthem when I saw the preview last year. It wasn’t the premise that sold me, despite the high-concept sci-fi allure a la Mass Effect, nor was it the fact that you get to fly around like a knockoff Iron Man— which looked freakin’ breathtaking.

The heroes you play are called freelancers.

I fell in love.

As a freelance writer, my days aren’t nearly as action-packed, but I gotta say, sometimes it really does feel like you’re fighting enemies (an insanely competitive job market), giant bugs (sending and resending invoices), and massive titans (clients who aren’t specific, or keep changing the terms). Anthem, too, sports some double entendres that I feel deep down in my core. At one point a nemesis says, “you’re useless, freelancer.” It’s like, I know. Sheeesh.

I haven’t been this ecstatic about a video game in 4 years. Because 4 years ago, I thought I was done with gaming. Continue reading

She’s 7 Years Old

She’s one. It seems like yesterday when she was born. I still have no idea how to hold her or how to get her to stop crying. There’s the milk, the baby mobile, the walker – things she can’t reach for, turn on, or climb into without some help. I can relate. This is all new to me. I don’t know how to father, parent, be responsible. She points at what she wants, moment to moment. She leads, I follow. Here’s the bottle. The mobile. Okay, now the walker, then the rocking of side to side that somehow does the trick. The bottle again, really? I’m getting up faster than I can sit down. Some moments are quicker than others.

She’s two years old and running around. She loves running around. When did she learn how to do this? I can’t get her to stop. I miss being able to hold her. I miss sitting down. I miss a lot of things. She pauses by the stairs as if she’s getting ready to climb Mt. Everest. She begins, clutching each step, slowly hurling herself up each hill. Exhausted (or is that excitement), she moves onto the next one. I’m trailing behind, close as a shadow, arms out and watching intently as she goes. She keeps swatting away my attempts to help her. For some reason I think of the saying: “Behind every kid is an anxious parent.” No way that that’s true. Stop, I tell her. That’s the last one, please come down. Please. She keeps on going.

She’s three years old. She plants herself in front of the TV, in front of the Disney princesses and talking animals that she’s seen a hundred times, onto a hundred and one. I can’t get her to move. It was all she could do before. Time comes in waves, cresting one moment, flat in another. That’s enough, I tell her. You’ll fry your brain. “No,” she says. Oh no. This is the start of her rebellion. Soon she’ll be wearing anti-establishment shirts and have temporary tattoos running down her arm. I stand between her and the TV. She gets up, finally, trying to push me out of the way. I won’t budge or at least I think I won’t budge when I look at the screen, at Mulan staring at her reflection, Rapunzel saying she’s got a dream, Elsa having a moment in the snow. Her voice, too, chimes in, singing along. It’s her favorite part. I step aside. It’s my favorite part too.

She’s four years old. I’m sitting in her pretend restaurant – the living room with teapots, cups, and plates strewn about. I’m thinking about the mess. She’s worrying about dinner. Technically, it’s lunch, but I’m not about to upset the chef. I go over the menu, written in crayon: noodles with red (spaghetti), cheese (meaning “burger”), or dog (as in “hot”). Don’t get me started on the prices. All of this seems familiar. Not the restaurant but the pretending. “What do you want?” she says. The service is very blunt here. “I want you to stop growing,” I say, and she stares at me. She wasn’t born yesterday, no matter how much it may seem like it. “Cheeseburger then,” I say, and I actually want one. She mulls it over, then, changing her mind completely, reaches for the teapot and says, “How about tea?” How can I say no to tea?

She’s five years old now. Five. Years. Old. It bears repeating because it doesn’t feel true. As if in order for something to be true I have to be ready to accept it first. Picking her up from school, it nonetheless occurs to me I’m getting older. I was just here, in kindergarten. I get a flash of my mother waiting outside my classroom, though I’m seeing it from her point of view. I think I see me at five-years-old but I realize it’s my daughter stepping out of the classroom and telling me she wants McDonald’s – the same thing I recall saying to my mom. Everything feels like now and yesterday, as if I’m not quite here but in between, experiencing two things at once. This quiet dance we keep doing, like we’re passing each other in time.

She’s six years old. We are at the beach and we gradually work our way towards the water. She lets go of my hand and takes off, abandoning with abandon, running to the other kids as they chase and retreat from the small cascade of waves brushing along the shore – one of my favorite things to do with her, now she wants to do without me. I realize this is how it’ll be. She’ll keep growing up while I will do the getting old-part and I will never be ready when it happens. That moments have come and gone and you don’t know they have until after. Moments I’ve dreaded and anticipated but feared I’ll never get the chance to see, except I was there for them. Miraculously, I was there. Like a shadow, her shadow, always.

She’s seven years old. I get her a Gameboy. Sorry, a Nintendo 2DS XL. They have sizes now. Didn’t I have a handheld Nintendo not so long ago?

She’s seven years old. Now she has one, like I did when I was seven years old.

She’s seven years old.

She’s seven years old.

She is seven years old.

‘Star Wars’ and the Nature of Expectation

“This is not going to go the way you think.”

There’s a reason this was the money quote for The Last Jedi. The very placement of this film as the middle chapter inevitably invites the comparison to Empire Strikes Back. Writer-director Rian Johnson seems acutely aware of this and it becomes his main storytelling drive to take everything we know about Star Wars and turn it on its head, much to the benefit of the franchise.  Continue reading

Blade Runner 2049: A Real Human Being

Do androids dream of electric sheep? Perhaps androids could if they actually slept. There’s not a single scene in Blade Runner 2049 where a character, human or replicant, is seen dozing off. Considering the experience of the film, that might precisely be the point. Each scene is so beautifully and evocatively rendered that it feels as though we’re in a dream, which goes on to complicate what’s “real.” Blade Runner may have asked what it means to be human, but 2049 forces us to reconsider the validity of emotions and memories and whether they’re exclusive to the human experience. Because if the human experience can be manufactured, what does that make humanity other than a baseline for something better?  Continue reading