Patton Oswalt, ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming,’ and the Public Progress of Grief

Two sources of inspiration for many – one fictional, one real – took public steps forward in their grieving process this past weekend.
By  · Published on July 11th, 2017

Two sources of inspiration for many – one fictional, one real – took public steps forward in their grieving process this past weekend.

Maybe it’s the writer in me that feels the need to pick out narratives, but I couldn’t help but notice how fitting it was that Spider-Man: Homecoming hit theaters the same weekend that Patton Oswalt announced his engagement. Even on just a nerd level, there’s a nice sense of symmetry to this: Oswalt has been doing standup about visits to his local comic book store since even before superheroes were cool, and for years, Oswalt was an important bridge between Hollywood and the comic book culture that many thought would never break through to the mainstream.

There’s also a deeper and more solemn link between these two events. It’s strangely appropriate that Patton Oswalt and Peter Parker — two figures that have helped countless people come to terms with their understanding of grief — would both be emerging from the much-publicized death of a loved one in the same weekend. In a weird kind of way, that made this a powerful weekend for those still in the midst of their own grieving processes.

Let’s start with the actual person. Ever since the sudden death of his wife Michelle, Oswalt has made a point of speaking candidly about his grieving process. While many in his shoes would’ve (understandably) chosen privacy, Oswalt instead chose to remove some of the stigma around sadness and grieving, serving as an inspiration — or at least a kindred spirit — to those who were still coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. In an August 2016 post, for example, Oswalt wrote that “102 days at the mercy of grief and loss feels like 102 years and you have shit to show for it,” noting that he was nowhere near possessing “closure” or a “new sense of self.” Just this past March, Oswalt told NPR that the true grieving process looked nothing like the sexy journey of self-discovery we see in the movies. To hear Oswalt say it, his grieving process involved countless more days where he would eat crackers for breakfast and watch The Princess Bride on a loop in a daze.

Watching Oswalt process and progress through his grief has been an important education for those unfamiliar with the stages themselves, and seeing Oswalt find happiness should’ve been a powerful moment for his countless fans and admirers. But despite Oswalt’s candor about his own grief process — or maybe even because of it — some fans were upset to hear that Oswalt was remarrying little more than a year after the death of his wife. Those comments are easy enough to find if you go looking; I won’t darken the pages of Film School Rejects by sharing them here.

What I will share, however, are the explorations of grief that soon followed. Most notable was a blog post by Erica Roman, herself a recent widow, who openly lambasted others’ “negativity” about Oswalt’s grieving process. The article was even shared by Oswalt himself, who admitted to feeling the same degree of rage at his critics that Roman expresses in her piece. There was also a more clinical piece in the Huffington Post by grief specialist Jessica Hanson that attempted to explain why grief rarely fits into the neatly shaped boxes we prepare for it. Both authors emphasized what plenty of people already knew: that Oswalt’s engagement was neither unhealthy nor, really, any of our damn business.

That brings us back to Spider-Man: Homecoming. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps through sheer serendipity, Jon Watts and company have created a fascinating treatise on the concept of grief. Audiences around the world have watched Uncle Ben die countless times in films, television, and comic books; few characters of Spider-Man’s popularity have been so thoroughly defined by the loss of a loved one. And while we can feel Uncle Ben’s absence throughout most of Spider-Man: Homecoming in how determined Peter Parker is to go the superhero path alone, it’s also not a loss that is as all-consuming as it has been in earlier iterations of the character. This isn’t the Tobey Maguire of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, forever haunted by a single moment in time. This is Tom Holland’s Peter Parker coming to terms with his grief and finding moments of happiness and (dare I say) normality on the other side.

It’s not hard to point to the absence of an Uncle Ben death sequence as one of the reasons why Spider-Man: Homecoming offers a youthful exuberance not seen in the other movies. Ben’s death in Sam Raimi’s trilogy serves as both that series’ greatest strength — the driving force behind Peter Parker’s understanding of power and responsibility — and one of its most crippling weaknesses. No matter how many times Parker’s life seems to be on the upswing, his signature failure is always looming in the background, creating an emotional weight that Maguire carries like an anchor around his neck in all three films. Tom Holland’s version of Spider-Man is no less haunted in his own way, but by not grounding the film in a moment of tragedy, Spider-Man: Homecoming is free to take a big step forward in the grieving cycle. The film doesn’t need to pause every few minutes to remind us of the loss of Parker’s loved one, but neither does it need to present Parker as frozen in time. And any parent or guardian who takes a grieving child to see the film would do well to show that it’s OK for Parker to feel sad too, but that things really and truly do get better.

As Jessica Hanson wrote in her piece, grief is an intensely personal process, and seeing Peter Parker play with LEGOs, crush on a girl, and obsess over superheroes will undoubtedly help kids out there make sense of their own sadness. Grief may not be at the forefront of Spider-Man: Homecoming, but maybe that’s what makes its treatment of grief so darn important. We don’t always need the Batman-esque hero whose life remains stuck in a few moments of despair. Sometimes, we need someone who is willing to show us all what it means to take a step forward.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)