Reel Opinions


Friday, July 07, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Of the three major comic book movies we've had this summer, Spider-Man: Homecoming comes the closest to feeling like an actual comic book brought to life.  Yes, it has its share of spectacle (including a thrilling sequence involving a New York ferry that is almost split in two), and there's a villain flying around in a mechanical bird-like outfit that makes him look like the final boss of a video game.  But at the center of it all, it's all about Peter Parker (Tom Holland, reprising his scene-stealing portrayal from last year's Captain America: Civil War), his being Spider-Man, and the people and community that surround him.

Watching this movie made me realize how little we actually see superheroes interacting with regular people.  Here, we get a sense of Peter Parker/Spider-Man's world as a teenager.  And it's not just the kids who make up his world at school, such as nerdy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon, providing strong comic relief), secret crush Liz (Laura Harrier), the obnoxious Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), or the odd Michelle (Disney Channel star Zendaya), who always seems to be hanging around on the outskirts of her scenes, observing everything.  We also get to see Parker's New York.  We see his favorite deli for sandwiches, we see him argue with an old man who lives in an upstairs apartment (cue the obligatory Stan Lee cameo), and we get to see his hang-outs.  There is a sense of a community and a world outside of the superheroics.  To long-time fans of the character, this will make sense.  After all, he's always billed himself as the "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man".  It's about time we actually get to see him interact with the community and the locals.

This is also a much more care free Spider-Man than we have seen in the earlier two franchises we got.  This Peter Parker seems to actually enjoy being a superhero, and is not haunted by the death of dear old Uncle Ben.  There's no "with great power comes great responsibility", no radioactive spider (although it is brought up once), and no origin story, thank goodness.  We get to jump right into Peter learning the ropes of being Spider-Man, balancing things out with his social and school life, and hoping to impress Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) enough that he might possibly join the Avengers.  This feels right, as well.  After two previous cinematic attempts at telling how Spider-Man came to be, here is a movie that just gives us what we want.  We know who Peter is, and where he came from.  This movie gives us him trying to make a name for himself in a world that's already filled with so many costumed heroes, Captain America himself is being forced to do educational videos for teens about fitness and puberty. (This results in one of the funniest running gags in the film.) This is more about a new young superhero trying to stand out in a crowded market, rather than a villain's nefarious plot to rule the world.

Of course, there is a villain, although he's not exactly after global domination.  Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) was a blue collar worker on the clean up crew to fix up Manhattan after the climactic battle of 2012's The Avengers.  He lost his job, and happened to get his hands on some alien technology left over from the battle.  Seeing an opportunity, he started making his own weapons from the technology, and began selling them to criminals.  Now common bank robbers are using his high-tech guns in their crimes.  He's also devised a flight suit for himself, dubbing himself The Vulture.  As much as I have enjoyed many of the Marvel Cinematic Films, the one constant problem to me has been the fact that the villains are seldom if ever memorable.  And while I wouldn't call this one perfect, Adrian/The Vulture is easily the best so far.  He has a sympathetic angle, in that he's simply a man trying to make a living for himself in a world that he feels has jilted him.  After all, didn't Tony Stark build his fortune on selling weapons before he became Iron Man?  There is a logic and progression behind the character, and he's not your typical mustache-twirling baddie who kidnaps the hero's girlfriend and challenges him to a final showdown.  He may be wrong, but in his mind, he's just a guy looking out for his middle class family. 

I have heard some criticize Spider-Man: Homecoming as being too slight for a superhero movie, as it focuses too much on Peter's school and personal life than it does his heroics.  I strongly disagree with this assessment.  The key element that made the character of Spider-Man stand out when he was introduced is that he was a regular person beneath that suit, and that the comic explored his personal life, issues, friends, bullies and social problems.  This is the first movie in the series to properly address this side of the character.  Sure, the previous five films glanced at this part of the character, but never made it as integral as here.  And while we've had some fine young actors portray the heroic "web-slinger" in the past, Holland easily holds the top honor, with his sense of humor and his agility when he's wearing the Spider-Man costume.  With his numerous one-liners and comedic banter with Ned (whose idea of a good time is constructing Lego Death Star models), this movie veers closer to comedy than previous Spider-Man films.  But here again, the movie is smart, and knows when to let the jokes fly, and when to take itself seriously.

The most surprising thing about the film is how well it all works, despite the fact that director and co-writer Jon Watts is not very experienced.  Known mostly for small, independent films, Watts handles most of the big action sequences quite well.  Yes, there is some questionable special effects work that pops in, and a few moments where the action moves too fast for the camera to keep up.  But, he clearly has an understanding for the character and the world he inhabits.  He also does a great job of introducing Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is clearly the main purpose of the film.  The other surprising thing is that the film has six credited screenwriters, yet it never once feels like a corporate product, or something where a bunch of writers were fighting for control of a script.  This is one of the few times where a large team of writers have created something kind of personal, while still thrilling enough to be a major summer movie. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming serves as a great introduction to the character's new place in Marvel's cinematic plans, and I can only assume that future films will build on it, and give us something grander.  I can only hope that the inevitable increase in size and scope does not diminish the personal and humorous tone that this one has in spades.  With so many superheroes locked in struggles with tyrants, evil gods, aliens, and planet-devouring monsters, it's kind of nice to just focus on a kid who is all about his community and learning the trade.

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