Coming of age, time travel, Lady Birds and Spider-Men
Life can only be lived in one direction, and memories become fuzzy with age. Time travel is one of the most popular subjects of storytelling for good reason. It not only allows us to go to places we could never go, it gives us perspective on a time and place we’ve already been. In movies, characters can see a different version of themselves or an alternate reality.
Not all time travel in film is literal, though. While movies like “Back to the Future” (any of them) put characters in a literal time machine, some films allow us to see into the future without a DeLorean in site.
2017 provides a litany of examples, including a couple of standouts. “Lady Bird” pits Saoirse Ronan as the titular teenager up against her equally headstrong mother. Lady Bird doesn’t see it, but the two share more than their discount haircut.
The film reveals this in beautifully subtle ways: It’s little conversations that show how deeply they care about those around them. Lady Bird with her first boyfriend, and her mother with a depressed priest. The way they get emotional about “The Grapes of Wrath” on tape, or about the perfect dress at a thrift store. The frustration Lady Bird’s mother displays isn’t entirely uncommon: she wants more from her daughter, and Lady Bird can’t understand why she isn’t enough.
It’s easy to be sucked into this dichotomy as director Greta Gerwig displays it onscreen. The audience gets to see two versions of the same character, more or less, at the same time. In doing so, Gerwig allows us to insert ourselves into the film. The parent-child dynamic might be the most obvious, but it’s far from the only example.
In “Spider-Man: Homecoming” director Jon Watts builds something similar between Peter Parker and Tony Stark. This comes with a little more self-awareness between the two characters, at least as the film develops. In a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too type move, Stark provides Parker with the tools he needs to succeed before leaving him to his own devices.
If that sounds familiar to fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it should. If your eyes just glazed over — don’t worry, I’ll shorthand it for you. It’s the same maneuver that turned Tony Stark into Tony Stark. When that mediocre fake-parenting move falls short, it turns into confrontation, which leads to this line from Parker: “I just want to be like you.”
Stark retorts: “I wanted you to be better.”
That echoes a similar sentiment in “Lady Bird,” where Lady Bird’s mom delivers one of the best lines of the film: “I just want you to be the best version of you that you can be,” to which Lady Bird replies, “what if this is the best version?”
These are obviously two very different stories, but they share similar themes as coming-of-age films. Plus, let’s be honest, Ronan would make an absolutely killer Spider-Man. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” hits the same notes of pseudo-time travel as “Lady Bird” — Stark and Parker’s characters mirror each other in many ways. They’re smart, hard-working characters who are missing key pieces of their family.
We can stay the superhero course with “Logan.” When Logan meets X23 (Laura), he wants nothing to do with her. That makes sense if you know anything about the character — he doesn’t want anything to do with most people he meets. But the two are on a collision course; call it fate, destiny and shared DNA, I guess.
If Lady Bird’s mother sees hope in her daughter, Logan sees redemption in Laura. Imagine if the original Star Wars trilogy had been told from Darth Vader’s perspective, and you’ve got a pretty good idea for how the tone of “Logan” functions. This makes for a particularly grim, and powerful, example of what I’m getting at.
Movies give us the ability to unpack our own thoughts and ideas through a third party. Whether it’s seeing a future version of ourselves like in “Lady Bird,” a past one like in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” or trying to prevent a past version of ourselves from becoming a current version of ourselves like in “Logan,” it’s all time travel. Well, from a certain point of view.