Sunday, July 9, 2017

Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments

Score: 4 out of 5

And just like that, the stench of the Amazing Spider-Man duology is washed away. The admittedly awful and badly Photoshopped poster aside, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a return to the joy that marked the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. It's a celebration of Spider-Man's "homecoming", if you will, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has me excited to see the next film, but more importantly, had me even more excited to see how this one would play out as I watched it. It successfully answers for every sin that the last two movies committed, combining superhero tropes with those of teen comedies while putting its own twist on Spidey's origin story. Creative casting decisions pay off, and while the stakes are smaller in scope than saving the world as in so many other Marvel movies, they feel far more personal with just as much at stake for the protagonists. At long last, somebody has managed to do right by this character again.

We start with Peter Parker already an established superhero who's become a local celebrity in New York, even if the people only know who Spider-Man is and not the kid under the mask. After briefly serving with the Avengers in Civil War and getting a taste of that life, Peter wants to become an Avenger full-time and has started an "internship" with Stark Industries that serves as an apprenticeship with Tony Stark himself, complete with a high-tech new suit loaded with advanced features. He has to juggle this with his school life, particularly his participation in the academic decathalon team, his relationship with fellow decathlete Liz, and his friendship with Ned, his nerdy best friend who geeks out upon accidentally discovering that Peter is, in fact, Spider-Man. This is kind of difficult to do when there's a new supervillain on the loose, a former demolition worker named Adrian Toomes whose business was put under when Stark Industries' buddy-buddy relationship with the government caused him to lose a valuable contract to help clean up New York after the events of The Avengers. Turning to crime, Toomes and his crew now steal advanced technology left behind after the Avengers' escapades to build weapons to sell on the black market, with Toomes piloting a robotic flight suit and coming to be known as the Vulture. As Peter hunts down Toomes, Tony Stark begins to fear that his protege is getting in over his head, especially given how many times the young, inexperienced Peter bungles things and puts himself and others in harm's way.

Where to start? I suppose I could begin with Tom Holland, the third actor to play Peter Parker on the big screen. All I really need to say on the subject is that, when the movie was over, the people sitting next to me in the theater were surprised when one of them told the others that Holland was an English actor, as they were absolutely convinced that he was a born-and-bred New York kid. Holland plays up Peter's youth like Andrew Garfield and even Tobey Maguire never did, and while he lacks the classic nerdiness of Maguire's Peter, his modernization of the basic archetype for the modern age was pulled off beautifully. He's an amateur superhero who just wants to help people and be like his idol, Tony Stark, and as such, he often finds himself in way over his head as he fights enemies that are well above the petty crooks he's cut out for. His attempt to unlock new functions on the high-tech Spider-Man suit that Tony Stark gave him lead to comical bungling, and he finds out the hard way that his trademark web-slinging is pretty hard to do when you're out in the suburbs with virtually no tall objects to swing around on. More seriously, his blundering and negligence ultimately cause serious collateral damage -- nothing like Superman and General Zod's rampage through Metropolis in Man of Steel, but a blown-up deli and a ferry boat cut in half (the latter's passengers only saved by the timely intervention of a very displeased Tony) are nothing to smile about. Make no mistake: this is very much an origin story for Peter Parker. It doesn't have the spider bite, Uncle Ben's death, "with great power comes great responsibility", or the other beats that Sam Raimi and Marc Webb went through in their movies, but it is still a movie about Peter learning what it really takes to become Spider-Man.

Surrounding Holland is an excellent supporting cast. Most of the focus has been on Marisa Tomei as a much younger version of Aunt May, and on Disney Channel star Zendaya as the film's version of Mary Jane (known here as Michelle Jones, or "MJ"), but while they both stood out, theirs were fairly minor roles all around, the latter in particular feeling like she's being set up to be Peter's girlfriend in the sequel. The real highlights among Peter's allies are newcomers Laura Harrier as Liz and Jacob Batalon as Ned. Peter's friendships with Ned and Liz, and his romance with the latter, form key parts of who he is, the characters serving as superhero movie twists on classic teen movie archetypes and getting a lot more development than just the "girlfriend" and "nerdy best friend" roles that they could have been. Ned wishing he could be cool manifests as him eagerly becoming Peter's "guy in the chair", the mission control who supplies him the data he needs, and without spoiling anything, the "meeting the girlfriend's parents" scene when Peter picks up Liz for the homecoming dance takes on an extra degree of discomfort on account of him being Spider-Man. Robert Downey, Jr.'s role is in much the same wheelhouse, serving as a mentor figure who makes Peter feel that he has to choose between school and superheroics, all while he doesn't want to see Peter thrust himself into harm's way. He's a firm father figure who isn't afraid to use some tough love to get Peter to stop acting up, but he's doing so knowing just how dangerous being a superhero can be.

The real star of the supporting cast here, however, is the sort of character that has traditionally been one of the weakest points of many a Marvel movie: the villain. Michael Keaton's Adrian Toomes is a blue-collar working Joe who got stepped on by crony capitalism in general, and Tony Stark in particular, and used his resentment to become a supervillain. Despite his goals being substantially smaller in scale than those of most recent Marvel villains, amounting ultimately to getting rich as an arms dealer, Keaton's performance makes Toomes more compelling than many of his world-conquering compatriots, becoming a far more personal threat to Peter than those guys often did to their respective hero foils. If it weren't for Holland, Keaton would be this film's MVP, and in any event, he is one of its best characters and a great counterpart to Peter, another normal guy forced into unusual circumstances who wound up showing far less responsibility.

Some fairly unspectacular, workmanlike direction ultimately keeps this film from greatness. The action scenes aren't bad, per se, but they're mostly pretty forgettable outside of a handful of moments, most of which wound up in the trailers. Parts of the first act can also suffer from some odd pacing, with a whole slew of great moments scattered throughout but much of it feeling a bit too long and transitioning awkwardly between Peter's high school life and his superheroics, especially in the first act. I attribute this to modern Hollywood's habit of tapping promising indie and TV directors to make the jump to the big leagues right away, rather than sharpening their teeth on middle-budget films (because those sorts of middle-budget films are themselves a dying breed). It may have paid off with the Russo brothers, but Jon Watts does little more than punch his clock here, shoot the film in accordance with the Marvel house style, and go home. It definitely worked to ground this film in the Marvel universe and lore, showing what it must be like to see that world from the eyes of someone who isn't caught up with the Avengers' drama, but at the same time, I missed the unique touches that Sam Raimi brought to his films, or even what Joss Whedon and James Gunn (who, come to think of it, basically forged the "Marvel house style") brought to The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy.

The Bottom Line

Without a doubt the best Spider-Man movie since the first two Raimi films, this is a welcome return to form for a franchise that seemed to be on its way to hell after the last entry, and a great new addition to another franchise. You don't have to have seen all of these to be able to jump right in and have fun.

Oh, and the post-credits scene is a hilarious bit of trolling. Well-played, Marvel.

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