The Onion’s “Film Standard” segments, starring fictional film critic Peter K. Rosenthal, usually tend toward free-floating absurdism delivered with a straight face. Over the course of a three-minute segment, Rosenthal, played by actor Ron E. Rains, will confidently—and erroneously—inform his audience that La La Land’s dance sequences were originally performed without music, which was only added after a disastrous test screening, and that Jaws is an extended metaphor for a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality.
But the “Film Standard” segment on Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to proceed from a fairly specific topical question: What if film critics reviewed movies about men the way they review movies about women? Or, more specifically, what if they looked at Tom Holland the way David Edelstein looks at Gal Gadot? Slate’s Willa Paskin defended Edelstein’s controversial Wonder Woman review for using erotically charged language to describe how Gadot fills out Diana Prince’s brassy bustier, but she also lamented the domination of critical discourse by “straight, white, male libidos”; if critics are going to channel their ids into their work, then everyone should get a turn. Peter Rosenthal is white and male, but, at least in this particular video, there’s some wiggle room on the ”straight” part.
What distinguishes Spider-Man: Homecoming from previous takes on the character, Rosenthal explains, is the way director Jon Watts “daringly envisions the protagonist as a modern-day Lolita, a teenage nymph who tempts adults, both mortal men and superheroes alike, with the most forbidden desire there is.” (He doesn’t mention the screenwriters or the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, because ignoramus though he may be, Peter Rosenthal is a dedicated auteurist.) The story of Peter Parker, aka “lust’s muse,” into Spider-Man is also the story of him coming into “his newfound power as an erotic being,” one whose “very presence inflames the carnal urges of all around them.” It’s around this point in the video that you become especially glad that “Film Standard’s” framing cuts Rosenthal off at midtorso, even as a few downward flicks of his eyes suggest that something may be stirring between his legs.
That’s a projection, of course, but it’s also kind of the point. When Peter Rosenthal praises Holland’s performance for “its singular ability to excite,” the lack of an object for that discomfiting verb—excite who, exactly? and how?—buries his evident desire in a faux-universal infinitive. And when he says that Holland “lingered in my thoughts long after the credits rolled,” he’s accurately conveying his own reaction but without really understanding it. You can feel his excitement mounting as he talks about the movie, projecting his own apparently unconscious longing onto Tony Stark—“also known as Iron Man”—and the film’s villain, Michael Keaton’s Vulture, who is so intent on pursuing Spider-Man he creates a “winged suit” for the purpose. By the time he’s quoting Spider-Man’s “With great power comes great responsibility” credo, he looks like he’s about to burst.
Hey, if Peter Rosenthal gets his kicks watching Tom Holland and his painstakingly shaped abs swinging between buildings, who are we to judge? (Unlike high-schooler Peter Parker, the 21-year-old Holland is well above the age of consent.) But if Rosenthal’s barely checked leering makes you squirm, it’s worth pausing to reflect when other, less imaginary film critics stray into the same territory and when they stop talking about their reaction to a work of art and are only talking about themselves.