Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Spider-Man: Homecoming provides not only the usual popcorn movie supeheroics, but also a healthy dose of adolescent angst. Genre films symbolically dissecting the high school experience are tremendously common, and I had my pick of subjects, but for the second time this summer, revisiting the Marvel Cinematic Universe has put me in mind of Joss Whedon.

It's easy (some might say "appropriate", or even "necessary") to filter the 1992 feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer through knowledge of the 1997 TV series that was created to replace it, and incontestably succeeded, as far as pop culture mass consciousness. Writer Joss Whedon, a short-term staff writer on the TV shows Roseanne and Parenthood, was famously upset at how his first produced full-length screenplay turned out, and very happily took the opportunity to grab control of the material and bend it to something closer to his own vision, and it was with the 1997-2003 Buffy that the legend of Whedon, one of the great geek idols of the 21st Century, began.

I'll not be doing that, anyway; I've tried three times to get through the show, and invariably found that my interest petered off well before the end (my best record: cleared the fourth season finale, had momentum, made the fatal decision to backtrack to the start of Angel). Nor do I think it's necessary: even as a standalone film, the Buffy movie has enough of its own points of interest that "led to this other more popular thing" isn't the only reason we ought pay attention to it. Among those points of interest isn't necessarily that it's particularly good, for there are quite few large and not-so-large problems, the most conspicuous being that it kills off its very good secondary villain in favor of an utterly dreadful primary villain. It's also much too rushed, clipping through its 86 minutes like it has somewhere extraordinarily important to get to right this minute, and cannot be bothered to let there be any variations in the pace once it starts throwing vampires at its vampire slayer.

Still and all, not the piece of shit I was expecting, not even close. Given the enormously degraded standards for teen horror films in the 1990s - and calling Buffy the Vampire Slayer "horror" is undoubtedly begging the question - I might even be compelled to call this one of the highlights of that genre during that time period.

Since you are using the internet and care enough about pop culture to be reading a movie review website, I have to assume you know the basics of Buffy, but let's go ahead with a light plot summary: somewhere in the Los Angeles metropolitan region, there lived a high school senior named Buffy (Kristy Swanson). And she did live the life that a girl named "Buffy" from SoCal almost certainly must: she's a gorgeous blonde cheerleader, image-obsessed, has no sense of consequence or the future. She's also, as it happens "The Slayer", the one-young-woman-alive-at-any-given-time who has been chosen by the powers of light to serve as the one true enemy of all vampires. And she views this, as, like, so lame. It falls to the teachings of Merrick (Donald Sutherland), the Watcher (the Powers of Light's representative on Earth, whose mission is to protect and guide the Slayer) to open up the potential that surely must lie within this apparently bubble-headed twit and encourage her to embrace her solemn duty, while naturally still getting ready for the upcoming senior dance.

I must first register an annoyance that I've been carrying around for some two decades: Joss Whedon doesn't know dick about horror. In multiple accounts, he's talked about the origination of Buffy and Buffy as his frustration with movies where the girl always ends up dying, never standing up for herself and fighting back the monster. Which is a simply asinine thing to say after a full decade of slasher movies, a genre so dedicated to the girl who does in fact fight and win after all of the other teens of all genders have died that we have the phrase "Final Girl", coined by a gender theorist, to describe the phenomenon. And if Whedon's point was the that blonde girly-girl ended up dead, while the sexless brunette saved the day, that seems like a powerfully narrow point to make.

Nonetheless, let's give him credit, and say that yes, the sight of an acutely shallow valley girl forced to confront the fact that she is capable of greatness, and that carries with it a grave responsibility, is genuinely novel. I'm not certain that Buffy the Vampire Slayer hits this theme on all cylinders: it is amazingly mean in its first half, when Buffy and her friends (among them Hilary Swank in her big-screen debut, not doing much to suggest that Boys Don't Cry was a mere seven years in her future) are playing into every grumbling stereotype about overly wealthy white girls with no responsibilities or interests other than material consumption (compare, if you will, the three-years-later Clueless, which is able to mercilessly satirise its characters while harboring real affection for them). It's so content to paint Buffy as a trivial moron that the film has a hard time switching into the mode where we have to genuinely feel for the character, and root for her and her personal growth. Swanson does a great deal to help this change along, modulating but not discarding the irritated valley girl in her facial expressions and vocal reactions as Buffy grows deeper and more self-aware. Her Buffy is a somewhat more constant version of the character than the one who was written down, and the result is more of a genuine broadening of her perspective while remaining the same person, as opposed to simply having a personality transfusion halfway through.

The film's lightly sour, mean tone towards its characters can probably be in part ascribed to to a mismatch in sensibilities. We know, a quarter of a century later, exactly what Whedon's sense of humor consists of, and under what circumstances it works best, and while Buffy is obviously a learning-curve work (to say nothing of the changes made to the script in filming), much of his characteristic quipping remains firmly in place. ("Kill him a lot!" is obviously pure Whedon, among other lines) The film's director, Fran Rubel Kuzui, seems to have had a considerably different interest in the material, pushing for simultaneously a more biting sense of sarcasm and also a much drier tone. Though how much of the latter is due entirely to Sutherland (whose laconic performance stands out like a sore thumb from the rest of the movie, in a good way). The marriage between the two sensibilities is not a happy one. I would go so far as to say that the only genuinely and consistently funny thing is Paul Reubens's performance as the vampire Amilyn; he figured out the precise amount of camp that the material needed, and enthusiastically provides it. This ends up hurting the film a little bit even as it helps salvage it; Reubens's approach is so perfect at leavening Kuzui's impulse towards flat satire that everyone who isn't Reubens seems that little tiny bit worse as a result. Swanson, to be fair, manages to be a little campy herself, so at least Buffy comes off looking better than most of the side characters. Still, the film is clearly not as funny as it needs to be.

All that being said, it's still a largely satisfying story of a high school student staring adulthood dead in the face and responding with a resigned "fine, I'll do it". It's a bit less fine as a story of a gymnast-turned-cheerleader-turned vampire hunter; Swanson has the right physicality for the part, and the incongruity of seeing gymanastics moves in an action-horror film has some distinctive charm. The big limitation is that Buffy's a slightly terrible vampire movie: besides Rutger Hauer's insubstantial performance as the vampire leader Lothos (a silly, frivolous turn that lacks the fine tuning of Reubens's performance - it's kitschy instead of campy), the whole thing looks offensively cheap, from its first scene in the off-the-rack "Dark Ages" through to all of its vampire attacks; by the middle of its second season, the television Buffy was thoroughly outgunning the production values of this film, and that was on the budget afforded by a C-list TV network. I doubt very much that Kuzui and crew took the material seriously as a vampire film, which the TV show always did. I would suggest that at the very least, the "vampires are a serious threat, but not really" vibe of the 1987 "vampires and teens in California romp" The Lost Boys would have been well within Buffy's grasp and surely would have been to its benefit. At an absolute minimum, throwing another $10,000 or so at the costume budget would have helped.

The result is a film that feels like it has no real stakes, and I mean that sentence in all the ways you'd like. Buffy is a well-conceived character with an effective arc, and Swanson inhabits that arc to solid effect, but it really and truly does not feel like it costs her anything. Fine if we're looking at a nasty-minded satire about valley girls, which Buffy's not really, no matter what it seems like at first; less fine if we're looking at a funny-atop-serious fable about dealing with the end of high school and becoming a functioning member of society. There's a better Buffy than this one, and I'm not talking about the TV show; this very movie, with a more level tone and perhaps a bit more breathing room in the structure, could have been a very good high school genre film. Instead, it has to settle for merely being an above-average high school genre film at a time when the average for those things was not tremendously high.