Gags as Story Engine in Spider-Man Master Plan 1

by Ryan Mogge

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

Long before Betty was in a coma, Archie one page gags filled my favorite digests. The form is simple: a few panels establishing the premise, a few panels executing the idea and then a twist usually capped with a pun. While Spider-Man: Master Plan 1 is certainly more fluid than a series of one pagers, it has the same rhythm throughout.

Robbie Thompson and Nate Stockman create a world in which Spider-Man’s work as a hero is undercut again and again by the unexpectedly ungrateful in his city. His spider sense first gets tingling over a stolen car whose owner snaps at Spider-man rather than offer a thank you. This happens several times in the story, leading to the ultimate indignity of having a little boy make a grossed out face at poor Spidey.

Beyond this narrative turn (and well-trod Spider-Man territory), we have smaller bits that function similarly. These are not jokes per se, but depend on irony and surprise for humor. For example, after he has foiled every plot on the way to Stark tower on faith that he can do it all, Spider-Man get a moment of relief that he will be able to stop the crime at the center of things. Of course, things cannot go as expected.

Thompson builds to the moment effectively, by setting and subverting expectations before hitting the reader with the irony of alerting a criminal mid-crime of a hero’s presence with the alarm installed to stop the robbery in the first place. All of that narrative play is fun, but what sells the moment is Stockman’s art. Spidey’s frozen pose, eyes somehow more bug-like than usual. The pink and purple color of the alarm also create a perfect dissonance to the color palette of the scene.

While there may be ramifications of the media connecting Spider-Man with Crime Master, this issue works as a stand alone story about a busy night. The issue is a good light read, mitigating any real danger so that the reader can simply enjoy the goofs.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

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3 comments on “Gags as Story Engine in Spider-Man Master Plan 1

  1. So, I’ll use this to discuss Spiderman Homecoming.

    It is hard to say whether or not this is the worst comic book movie of the year. Wonder Woman is really hard to rank. Half of it legitimately among the best normal superhero movies ever, half of it is among the worst superhero movies ever. The highs and lows are two extreme, with no middle ground, to easily rank around the much more consistent Spiderman Homecoming. But in a year that has had Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 and LEGO Batman (and the gloriously insane looking Valerian and Thor movies to come, it is hard not feel disappointed). Honestly, it would have been better placed last year, as it is better than the boringly typical Doctor Strange and has a lot of similarities to Civil War in its problems. But ultimately, it is a good movie.

    The big idea, which is where the new Spiderman finds its unique interpretation, is that this is the first Spiderman movie where the act of being Spiderman is hard. In the Raimi movies, being Spiderman is easy. The problem is that being Spiderman gets in the way of your life so much that you lose your job, wreck your relationships and have your surrogate father figure kidnap your girlfriend. It is about the impact of being Spiderman on the rest of your life. And in the Amazing Spiderman movies, being Spiderman is easy. The problem is that everyone else in the world refuse to bow to your obvious superiority by virtue of birth and get in the way of your attempts at being awesome (with heroism being optional). Here, Peter finds the simplest of tasks to be struggles. Stopping a bike thief is a mission in itself when you then need to find out who the stolen bike belongs to. What this creates is a Coming of Age story about learning how to be ‘adult’, where adult means being the best superhero you can be. And as Peter learns more, he also gains a more mature perspective on his end goal.

    But ultimately, the problem is that there is one action sequence too many. Either the Washington DC or Ferry scene needed to be cut, with the important elements folded into the other sequence. And that extra time should have been spent developing everything else.
    There are three key strands to Spiderman Homecoming. The plot, taking down the Vulture; and the twin storylines of Tony’s mentoring and the school elements, which form the emotional arc of the movie. But we have too much of the plot, and not enough of the emotional arc. And a big part of it is the need to have too many action sequences instead of development of characters.

    On the Tony side, part of the problem lies with their use of Happy Hogan. Tony is done really well, used carefully and in small doses to both keep Robert Downey Jnr’s paycheque relatively small and to maximise impact. Tony is a distant father figure who is trying to do the best he can, but not really sure how and isn’t as present as he should be. Making his father’s mistakes, even as he tries to avoid doing so (also, just want to say, Downey, after an amazing performance in Civil War, is just as strong here. Something about the Supporting Roles is really bringing out the best in him. Here, he plays Tony more towards comedy than drama, but he still hits things perfectly. Utterly pitch perfect comic performances when required, and great in the dramatic moments). But what this means is that Peter’s key character interaction for this half is Happy, who is written as a guy too busy to babysit Peter and hangs up on him. Happy doesn’t need to be a supportive coach (in fact, from both a dramatic and comedic standpoint, it works better if he isn’t) but he needed to feel more present. Favreau is funny in the role as always, but it felt like there needed to be more of him, especially in the Washington DC stuff. A bigger Happy presence would mean that the movie would do a better job at establishing Peter’s normal, giving Tony’s carefully placed scenes more impact. Instead, the ‘mentored by Tony’s stuff feels incidental to the story until all of a sudden, it isn’t.

    Though the school stuff is much worse than the Tony stuff. Which is a shame, as it was the most interesting element. The previous movies had rushed through the school years, and one of Homecoming’s big selling points was the focus on those years. And yet, the Homecoming dance that the movie is named after is barely a story element until the very end (well, to be fair, the movie is actually called Homecoming for the same reason that it introduces Damage Control and has a major story point be that Peter is begging Tony, essentially, to be in the next Avengers movie. Ultimately, the key purpose of this movie is for Marvel to get Sony to spend $175m, before marketing expenses, saying ‘We fucked up Spiderman, and thank God Marvel can Marvel/Disney are now in charge’.)
    Zendaya is transcendent in her role as Michelle, stealing every scene with her hilarious, brilliant character. And yet, at the very end of the movie, she has a scene that feels like it is supposed to be a conclusion of her arc, except she never has it. So instead it feels just like a fanservice moment. And that sums up every problem with the school stuff
    Like the Tony stuff, it needs to establish a normal better. There is a sequence that feels like It is supposed to establish that normal, but it feels like it is constantly undercut by Spiderman. The idea of the school being an important location fails, as it any true attempt to establish Peter’s relationship to key school characters like Liz and Flash (this also applies to Aunt May, who barely has a presence). Especially, especially Liz. It takes half the movie to get any real insight into her, and it is far too little. And this stuff is important, because the movie wants it to mean stuff. Thighs like his relationship with classmates and his life in school clubs is supposed to feel important.

    There is a great emotional arc hiding here. Peter wants to be an Avenger, and fully commits to it, disconnecting himself from the real world. But he learns the importance of that normal world he is disconnecting from, putting the effort into his real life as he understands the importance of being a friendly neighbourhood Spiderman. And that arc is there, but except for the Tony scenes, all the emotional parts are missing. Which is a problem, when Tony is carefully used throughout. Homecoming needs to properly commit to stuff like Happy’s coaching or Liz’s house party.
    Because the problem is, all this stuff is supposed to replace Uncle Ben/Great Power. This movie takes the idea of ‘we’ve done this too many times before, let’s downplay it’, leading Uncle Ben to only be indirectly referenced. But Uncle Ben isn’t properly replaced with anything. Without Great Power, this movie needs this stuff to work. And it doesn’t

    It is no wonder that that Peter’s best relationship is with Ned (who is essentially Ganke). Ned is actually involved in the plot, and so is constantly involved. Because the plot stuff works so well. Thanks to fantastic tone management, the movie is always fun and that makes the plot stuff work really well. Constantly entertaining, creating great sequences, whether it is big, frantic set pieces or slower moments like the Inside Damage Control scene. The emotional arc may not work, it you’ll be enjoying and laughing throughout it often doesn’t matter.

    And it helps that the Vulture is an amazing villain. Not as good as Ego. Ego was a fantastic example of perfect thematic appropriateness, fantastic performance, great plotting and emotional connection all coming together. The Vulture only has the first three (there is something designed to give him that fourth dimension at the very end, which would have worked perfectly were it not for the fact that the movie constantly messes up the emotional arcs).
    The best thing about the Vulture is that he doesn’t have a plan, or a revenge plot. He has an operation. A subtle difference, but a meaningful one. He’s a crime lord, running a gang who Peter slowly breaks down throughout the movie. And his operation is actually very cool. This sort of gang ends up being wonderfully refreshing, especially considering it is actually good. It is awesome seeing Peter attempt to take down an operation piece by piece. Really unique, and more superhero movies should take the idea. Could probably do a good Batman movie about breaking up Penguin’s criminal empire.
    But it is more than just the great operation. Keaton’s performance is amazing, and the Vulture costume looks amazing. The very tactile nature of it, with the greater focus on the machinery than, say, Falcon’s, creating an amazing silhouette and just feels interesting. And Keaton’s character, who has gone through a corrupted version of Peter’s arc, is fantastic. Best part of the movie, possibly.

    And even the smaller stuff is great, outside of Keaton. Naturally, when your villain runs a gang, you have Peter have to deal with a range of smaller threats that can’t involve Keaton. And those scenes work, thanks to great writing of Peter and pretty good action. Nothing to match the train scene of Spiderman 2, but always enjoyable. And the fact that people like legitimate Renaissance Man Donald Glover gets to cameo in these scenes helps make sure everything is so strong. And the focus of putting Peter out of his comfort zone, fighting crime in the suburbs, Washington DC, a ferry etc is fantastic for creating a range of gags or interesting moments/action sequences.

    Honestly, the humour is always fantastic. The emotions of the school stuff may be bad, but the humour is fantastic. I’ve already said that Michelle is a scene stealer with her hilarious lines, not a single one fails. The movie finds many ways to make Spiderman funny, both the act of learning about the suit and the circumstances he finds himself in. The Captain America cameo is amazing, especially because of the choice to use the terrible costume from the first Avengers movie. One of my favourite little touches is Betty’s terrible performances on the school news thing. Constantly funny, the movie that finally gets how funny Spiderman stories are supposed to be.

    One thing that works well in the movie, but is slightly worrying going forward is the suit. It is basically the Iron Spider suit, with all of the high tech gizmos. It works perfectly in this movie, where a key idea is Peter learning he doesn’t need that stuff to be a hero. But it feels too high tech for young Peter’s costume (I’d love it for an adult Peter, especially one inspired by Scott’s stuff. Whether Horizon Labs or Parker Industries, this would work perfectly). But I’d rather a young Peter relied more on his ingenuity and natural abilities, not high tech AI, an array of gadgets and Stark designed websites with a million different firing solutions. It feels like Peter has gotten everything handed to him on a plate, and while he is still growing up, he should have to work for it more (this is part of the reason why I think the easiest way to improve this movie is to replace Peter with Riri. Nothing wrong with Riri movies giving her a high tech suit of armour, because Ironheart is supposed to have that. And the combination of her MIT dropout status and her anti social tendencies mean you could easily get rid of the school stuff and use that space to fix the Happy stuff)

    But ultimately, a decent effort. It achieved its goals, both in being a two hour long ‘stop hitting yourself, Sony’s and as a fun movie that properly introduces a Spiderman that you want to see in future Marvel movies. But it does feel a little too insubstantional, and struggles to find a place in a year that released LEGO Batman, Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 and the good half of Wonder Woman (much better than the bad half of Wonder Woman, though)

    But the scene where they develop the Tony/Pepper relationship after Civil War’s surprising development is everything wrong with the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a greater entity, which is a shame as I am really invested in their relationship.

    • I like reading Matt’s take on movies and comics for a couple of reasons. One: They’re well thought out (with the (possible) exceptions of Rebirth/Waid bias that seems to transcend logic and border on fanatacism, but I can read through it and understand). Two: He likes things very, very differently than I do.

      Lego Batman: He found something deep in it. I found a 20 minute sketch stretched out for 1:45. Wonder Woman: He found great highs and great lows. I found it mostly fun and fine with a terrible first 10 minutes (it looked like outtakes from 300).

      Guardians of the Galaxy: He found Ego a compelling villain. I found him to be a CGI glowing ball of light that the heroes had to fight, just like in 75% of superhero movies that last 10 years.

      Spider-Man – Homecoming: He found the school stuff lacking in emotional development. I found it to be the best depiction of Peter in high school created in a movie (by far), and I HATE that they insist on having Peter be a high school student, because that’s the least interesting era of Peter Parker.

      Because I loved this movie. I thought it was only faulty once or twice (the ship scene was ruined by the previews, because you knew that no matter what happened while Peter was fighting Vulture and Scorpion and Shocker that the boat would get cut in two and Spidey would hold it together, ruining all drama from the scene.

      On the other hand, the Washington monument scene was one of the three best Spider-Man scenes ever (Doc Ock and subway in II, Airport in Civil War, and this).

      I have more thoughts on this, but I need to run. And I don’t disagree completely with Matt, I just come into many movies with a different perspective and goal in my superhero movie watching than he (and the rest of you).

      I also am sad that this was reviewed instead of the consistently excellent Spider-Man (by Bendis) that is really doing a great job, especially by bringing Goldballs into it. Because Spider-Man is back to being the best Spidey comic again, even though Slott’s Amazing has been very, very good lately.

      • ‘with the possible exceptions of Rebirth/Waid bias that seems to transcend logic and border on fanatacism’
        I’m offended. My objections on Waid are rooted on logic!
        Joking aside, I am glad you enjoy my comments. The big hope is that someone can read them and, even if they have a wildly different perspective. Just as I love some of the insights you provide (and in all honesty, I want to like DC Comics, as I’ve always been more a DC fan than a Marvel fan. I don’t like hating Rebirth, but they need to make something other than Deathstroke that is readable. Waid, meanwhile, I think is a lost hope*.)

        On LEGO Batman, I thought it did a great job setting up the sketch, then spending the rest of the movie breaking the sketch down and building it into something new. Once Dick Grayson turns up, it stops being a sketch and starts being an interogation of the underlying assumptions. I thin the fact that it shows that that depiction of Batman goes so horribly wrong and then p[rovides the fix so that Batman saves the day is what transforms it from something other than a sketch. THe entire movie builds up to the point where Batman is trapped in the Phantom Zone and told ‘you aren’t exactly a good guy’, and I think the fact that it does that means it is more than a sketch, but a legitimate narrative.

        On Guardians, I actually never got the chance to talk about Ego a lot, because I was trying not to spoil the movie too much. But now that everyone is watching it, I’ll explain why I thought he was so great. I think the important thing is that he wasn’t a CGI glowing ball of light for most of the movie. He was in a human body, reconnecting to Peter. And that is a big reason he works so well. We spend an entire movie seeing how meaningful it is for Peter, only to have him turn on us. The fact that he spends most of the finale as a bunch of CGI doesn’t change the fact that all the key scenes that make him great have a human body. Even in the climax, during that sensational moment of emotional catharsis where the Chain starts playing and proves that it deserves to be the Guardian’s iconic anthem, Peter is talking to the human Ego. He is more than a CGI Ball of light.
        To expand, I described above the four key things for a great villain. He was thematically appropriate. Firstly, in a movie all about bad fathers and the effect they have on the children, he is the ultimate bad father. Abusive and without love, caring only for himself and harming Peter as a result. But he also speaks perfectly to the greater theme of the Guardians as a whole. Empathy v Ego. The Guardians constantly struggle with this (‘somethign good, something bad, bit of both’ is the ultimate quote, but I want the excuse to write an essay on a close reading of Gamora’s line ‘and if he’s evil, we’ll kill him’). Ego, unsurprisingly, is the ultimate example of the worst the Guardians could be. To the point where he literally has empathy chained up as his pet. Ego’s villainy comes entirely from his inability to see outside of himself, to be so self obsessed that people only matter for how they help him in his quest to become what he thinks he already is, the only form of life that matters. He kills Meredith Quill the moment she becomes inconvenient to his plans, and has nagelected Peter all his life until he needed to manipulate Peter.
        Kurt Russel’s performance was fantastic, giving Ego a seeming humanity that made him easy to connect to. A character that was easy to love, the ‘perfect father’ we wish we all had. THe perfect performance to show why Peter was falling for him. But there was something ever so slightly off. You think it has to do with his alien origins, I mean, he is a god, small g. Except that it isn’t. It is the emotionless sociopathy that lies hidden beneath everything. And when the twist comes, Russel’s performance, stripped of pretense, shows a character utterly lacking in empathy.
        Great plotting is there, because Gunn plays against expectations to create essentially a long hangout movie. Which is exactly what Ego needs. Ego is a devil figure, tempting Peter, and the movie does exactly that. A simple villain plot, but the exact plot Ego needs. We spend a movie fallingin love with this benevlent figure as he finally gives Peter the game of catch he always wanted, before suddenly revealing a dark side and hurting us, giving us a final fight full of real stakes. I’ve heard of people who spent the entire finale in tears, and I can believe it. I almost was.
        And the emotional connection? I’ve basically made that obvious, but it is becaus eof all the effort building him as Peter’s father before the twist. Is he the obvious villain? Yeah, no one else could be. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Peter/Ego connection is done so well that the emotional stakes are at their highest in the finale.
        So that’s why I think he’s such a great villain. Marvel doesn’t usually hit all four of those quadrants (though recently, both Zemo and VUlture hit three out of four, and almost cross the finish line. Zemo’s plotting is hurt by the fact that the politics stuff is so meaningless and the movie needed to focus the Civil War on Bucky, not the Sokovia Accords. And the twist that was supposed to provide the emotional stakes for Vulture wasn’t as effective as I wished).

        On SPiderman Homecoming, you are obviously right that this movie did by far the best job out of all of them at showing high school Peter (though best scene showing high school Peter belongs to the Caferteria scene in the first SPiderman). Unfortunately, between Raimi barely touching the school stuff in his movie, and Webb’s Amazing Spiderman movie ending with ‘Fuck ‘WIth Great Power Comes Great Responsibility’ ‘, that isn’t the highest standard.
        I do love all the high school scenes, btu I do wish we got a lot more. For example, Michelle was my favourite character, stealing every line with her jokes. But when she says ‘My friends call me MJ’, there quite simply wasn’t enough stuff in the movie where MIchelle bonded with the characters as opposed to simply stating scene stealing lines. Liz didn’t get as much screentime as she deserved. I would have loved to see some development of their relationship (as in, I wanted more time to see their dynamic and see what they mean to each other more than ‘Peter likes her’. Obviously a key idea in the movie is that the relationship never gets the chance to start). Honestly, the Homecoming Dance should have been a story point early in the movie, somethign constantly beign built up to, instead of in background decorations. Making the Homecoming Dance feel like a climax to the school stuff. Essentially, everything we have at school is great, but it felt minimal. It had just enough to make sense, but felt like there should be so much more.
        But yeah, the movie is just so viscerally pleasing at so many poitns, it is easy to fall in love with. Consistently enjoyable, with some stand out sequences. I completely agree with you about the Washington DC scene beign great. I love that it isn’t a big battle, but more about the tension of whether Peter can get to the elevator at times. And yeah, after Marvel has done a great job not revealing too much with their marketing lately, it is so sad to see this movie be marketed so poorly by Sony, revealing everything. It really hurts the ferry scene, which already struggles with how obviously it compares to the train scene (great list of top Spidey fights, by the way).
        Ultimately, my opinion is that Spiderman Homecoming is an easy movie to love, but a movie that could so easily foster a deeper love. It isn’t a bad movie, it is a really good one. But even though I love it, the love is nowhere near as deep as my love for Logan, LEGO Batman, GOTG v2 and the good half of Wonder Woman

        And yeah, Bendis’ Spiderman is going well. I think Invincible Iron Man is Bendis’ ony great book at the moment, but Spiderman continues to truck along as a consistently good book. I’d happily agree that it is the best Spiderman book on the stands, though I say this as a guy who never likes SLott’s work as much as I want to.

        _________________________________________________________________

        *I ended up getting the chance to read some of his recent Champions and Avengers, and was surprised how bad they are. It is tragic that after Bendis and Hickman had the Avengers the centre of the Marvel Universe (and I don’t even like Bendis’ Avengers), Waid has turned the franchise into Marvel’s appendix. Now books like Iron Man and Captain America are the core, while Avengers isn’t even as important as its own ancillary books like Uncanny Avengers and Ultimates.
        And that’s ignoring all the other problems, like how Waid introduced a brand new hero so poorly she was instantly wallpaper suitable only for ‘third hero on the left’ in a single splash page of an event, writing a character he cocreated so poorly she doesn’t sound anything like character in her own book, and having the entire Avengers told the modus operandi of the villain and then forgetting about it (and I’m talking about ‘I should trust this person I was explicitely told was a deciever’ and ‘the only way that’s true is if she has the powers the Vision told us she had. That would be impossible’ type of problems).
        And I finally feel like I can articulate some of the issues I’ve had in the background of a lot of his work, especially his Archie. Despite knowing his heart is in the right place, when it comes to writing women, he has this faux-chivalry style that strikes me as insultingly patronising.

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