Spider-Man: Homecoming swings into theaters this week, and it is, in many ways, a great movie. It's funny, self-aware, and the stunts are fun — all good things for a superhero movie in 2017.
But what struck me most is the update to Joe Manganiello's gelled-up monster with a chain wallet and Chris Zylka's basketball douche from the 2012 reboot. There's a new Flash Thompson in town.
Spider-Man: Homecoming has a different kind of bully — a nerdy bully.
Tony Revolori, a 21-year-old, plays the type of bully I'm more familiar with: the arrogant smarty pants who also somehow achieves coolness. This deviates from the comic book series, which has always portrayed Flash as the stereotypical athletic bully. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Flash is a needy member of the decathlon team with a floppy pile of curls that he probably parts with a comb. He wears polos and pops the collar. He studies like crazy and wants to be smarter than Peter Parker, who has always been a boy genius. When Flash isn't cramming for academic decathlon, he's deejaying house parties in the suburbs. (His stage name is DJ Flash. Minus points for creativity.) This Flash is by no means a physical threat to Peter Parker. He's not going to toss a punch; he'll bully Peter Parker in other, more insidious ways. (His nickname for Peter is Penis Parker. Plus points for creativity.)
This is important, because not all bullies wear basketball shorts, you know? The archetypal bully, at least in mainstream American cinema, tends to be a burly jock. He's dumb. He cuts class, and he spits on all that is good. He's Josh Bryant from The Princess Diaries or Kiefer Sutherland in Stand By Me. He's Biff from Back to the Future or even the trio of kid-bullies from Stranger Things. In cinema, it's usually the brains vs. the brawn, which makes for easy watching — you know exactly who to root for — but doesn't always resonate.
Revolori's interpretation of Flash is a big indicator of Spider-Man: Homecoming's devotion to NYC verisimilitude. I'll be the first to admit that New Yorkers take the cinematic treatment of our city very seriously. No movie or television show will ever be able to portray the New York experience because, well, there isn't a singular version of it. But Spider-Man: Homecoming does a pretty good job of presenting the trajectory of a smart kid from Queens. Tom Holland, who plays Spider-Man, spent three days undercover at Bronx Science, a public school in Manhattan that NYC residents have to test into. The school in the movie is a version of this real-life school; it's in the Bronx, and it has a diverse array of kids who all — hooray! — actually look like and act like NYC high schoolers. In this world, the upper echelon of public schooling in New York City, the bullies aren't the football players. They're nerds, like Revolori's sneering Flash Thompson.
There are other moments that demonstrate the movie's determination to be "realistic," like when Spider-Man tries to fly across a golf course and discovers that he has nothing to cling to. Or when Peter eagerly vlogs his first experiences as Spider-Man (how very 2017). There are also unreal moments, like the fact that the Staten Island Ferry still carries cars. Overall, though, the movie succeeds because it keeps one foot in the reality door, constantly checking in with what actually happens. Flash Thompson in the comic books may be a burly idiot, but that's not always how it goes down in 2017. These days — at least in New York City — it's pretentious deejays all the way.
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