Tuesday, July 11, 2017

'Spider-Man: Homecoming' review

I don't care what anybody says about them now- Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films were an essential part of my evolution as a movie fan. I've said this before, and I will say it many more times. The 2002 origin story was the very first "PG-13" movie I ever saw, and every few years I would get excited at the prospect of watching a new adventure with the friendly neighborhood superhero. I grew up with those movies, and for me, the version of Spider-Man that Raimi and Tobey Maguire created is how I perceive the character. I read plenty of Spider-Man comics, but when I think about the web-slinger, my mind goes back to Raimi's universe and Maguire's dorky take on the hero. Andrew Garfield was fine as well, but Marc Webb's messy features ensured that he wouldn't have much of a lasting impact as the character. But even though it's been a decade since Raimi stepped away from the franchise after the disappointing Spider-Man 3, his impact is still felt in my mind. I will always see Spider-Man as the conflicted romantic, the good-hearted kid whose life becomes a saga of epic proportions.

I point all this out because Marvel's Spider-Man: Homecoming is the complete opposite of those films. After the disastrous box office performance of 2014's The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony chief Amy Pascal struck a deal with Marvel honcho Kevin Feige to bring Spidey to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a move that many fanboys long thought to be impossible. Tom Holland made his debut as the character in last year's Captain America: Civil War, and it was a delightful cameo that slapped a smile on my face. I was so excited to see one of my favorite superheroes fighting alongside the Avengers, and I was thrilled at the possibility of a younger, fresher Spider-Man. Jon Watts' Homecoming takes Peter Parker back to high school, shooting for the tone of a John Hughes movie in an attempt to tell a coming-of-age story with Spider-Man. Where Raimi preferred epic melodrama in his take on the deeply hero, Watts prefers to inject the character with a youthful spirit that is felt in just about every scene of this reboot.

And for many, this will be the great appeal of Spider-Man: Homecoming- to see the hero in the more fun, crowd-pleasing setting that the MCU provides, especially after a dour reboot that failed to turn Spidey into a dark 'n' gritty vigilante. Homecoming is a rock solid film, a superhero flick that is fast and funny, sharply written, and engaging from start to finish. But for me, it provides a version of Spider-Man that I don't find particularly interesting. For all of its charm and low-key blockbuster pizzazz, Homecoming is a very frivolous movie, one with a story that feels perfunctory and a tone that is much more comedic than I would prefer a Spider-Man movie to be. Watts and his team of screenwriters (6 people are credited with the script!) veer wildly close to turning the web-slinger into a family-friendly version of Deadpool, which is something that I didn't think I'd ever say. So while Homecoming is fun and it's great to see Spidey back at Marvel, this film just can't quite put it all together. It's an amusing one-off and still a very good piece of work, but not the great, nuanced film that this character deserves.

Spider-Man: Homecoming opens in the aftermath of the climatic Battle for New York, with blue collar worker Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) tasked with cleaning up the mess of Loki and the Chitauri. But when government workers come in and tell Toomes that his men are let go, he reacts with anger and disdain- oh, and he also keeps some alien weaponry. Cut to 8 years later, a jump that theoretically means that this film takes place in 2020, and Toomes and his merry band of cronies (Logan Marshall Green, Bokeem Woodbine) have managed to use that technology to create a weapons market of their own. Toomes becomes the Vulture, and he uses his scientific genius to take from the rich and the powerful and make a fortune of his own.

Meanwhile, Peter Parker (Holland) is recovering from his first fight with the Avengers, a battle that saw him head to Berlin to face down Captain America (Chris Evans) and assist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Parker is given a pretty great suit upgrade by Tony, but the billionaire refuses to let him become a full-fledged member of the Avengers. After all, Peter is just a 15 year old kid, and he still has high school to get through. And currently, he's not doing so hot with balancing his superheroics and his personal life. His best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), comes to discover his secret, he has a flirty relationship with a popular senior girl (Laura Harrier), and he's consistently bullied by Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori). However, all of that boring high school stuff comes second to Peter's main concern- stopping the Vulture and becoming an Avenger. But over the course of his adventure to stop Toomes and his crew, Peter learns that being a kid for a while might not be such a bad thing.

While all movies are ultimately subjective, I think that Spider-Man: Homecoming is a film that will especially provoke a wide range of responses despite its quality. Overall, this is a really solid flick. It has a good character arc for Peter Parker, incorporates the Marvel Cinematic Universe well, and it's consistently compelling and amusing. By all measures, this is a good, highly entertaining Marvel movie. And if previous big-screen iterations of this character disappointed you for their lack of loyalty to the comic books or the heart of Peter Parker, this will more than likely be the Spider-Man film for you. In that case, this is the rare instance where I'll say that you should pay no attention to my opinion. Comic book Spidey fans are going to absolutely love this movie. But for the generation that grew up on Tobey Maguire, with Spider-Man being the biggest and most famous superhero on the planet, I believe that many will have the reaction I did to Homecoming. Sure, it's good, but something is missing.

Going into this film, I already had a lot of problems with the mere concept of the whole thing. I hated that Tony made the Spider-Man suit. I hated the idea that Peter needed Iron Man to come save him whenever things got tough. I hated the thought of having a version of Spider-Man who was a cog in the Marvel machine. Surprisingly, I didn't hate any of these things in the context of the movie. This is the story that Homecoming is trying to tell- Peter's coming of age, not just as a high school student, but as a superhero. With that in mind, everything that director Jon Watts decides to do makes sense. But after a trilogy that imagined Spider-Man's actions and his personal life as a kind of melodramatic Greek tragedy, accompanied by some innovative visuals and villains that directly tested his humanity, it's kind of disappointing to find a version of Spidey where everything feels so small in the grand scheme of things.

Trust me, I've already read and listened to plenty of people who claim that the small-scale nature of Homecoming is its greatest appeal and that it's more true to the character than Raimi ever was. I get that. But Homecoming removes so much of the drama inherent in Spider-Man by turning him into a bumbling kid who just really wants to be a superhero. There's no conflict between Peter's personal life and his life as a superhero in this film. Sure, the character arc ensures that we understand that Peter has learned to cherish his childhood and have fun with his place in life. But while Holland plays this version of Spidey to perfection, he's never able to effectively sell the character's inner battle. When it comes to going to a school dance with the girl he has a crush on or going to stop the Vulture from his greatest weapons heist yet, you know exactly what he's going to do. There's something to be said about Spider-Man being a novice who has to learn how to balance being a good superhero with his own life. But it's a whole different ballgame when you essentially turn him into a wannabe Avenger who attempts to impress Tony Stark at every turn.

It leaves you with a movie that doesn't have much in the way of dramatic momentum or emotional consequence. Peter isn't fighting to protect those he loves or fighting a battle to keep his identity a secret. He's just trying to impress his idols. The result is fun, but also fairly pointless. Nonetheless, Homecoming is bolstered by a set of strong performances across the board, starting with Tom Holland. I don't particularly like this more comedic rendition of Spider-Man, but I respect Holland's performance- he's simply perfect for the role. He's funny and charming, giving vibrant life to what is undoubtedly the most humorous main character that Marvel is working with at the moment. Holland has a great foil in Michael Keaton's Vulture, who emerges as another strong villain from a franchise that has been lacking in compelling antagonists for the good part of a decade. Marvel is finally learning that the audience has to empathize with a villain to a certain degree, and there are times in this movie where I really did wish that Peter would just leave Toomes alone.

And considering that I was not encouraged at all by Tony Stark's appearance in this movie going in, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed both the presence of the character and the performance of Robert Downey Jr. Positioning Tony as a father figure to a young superhero is an interesting development that will grow more poignant as Stark's run in the MCU comes to a close. Other Marvel regulars like Jon Favreau's Happy Hogan and Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts get solid parts as well, but the real stars come in the younger supporting cast. Jacob Batalon is terrific as Ned, Peter's best friend who also desperately wants to be an assistant to Spider-Man. Laura Harrier has some strong moments as Liz, Tony Revolori's Flash really doesn't make much sense despite his good performance, and Zendaya displays some promise for the future as Michelle.

For all of its flaws, Homecoming still has no shortage of rousing and funny moments. An early scene depicts Peter's video diary as he chronicles his journey with the Avengers in Civil War, and it had me in stitches as soon as I realized what they were doing. Watts films all the action scenes with a zippy energy that helps the film overcome its sterile visual palette, an issue that has plagued almost every Marvel movie with the stunning exception of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. The early setpieces all have a sense of fun about them, with the strongest coming during Peter's attempt to rescue his friends from a collapsing elevator at the Washington Monument. The climax delivers the film's much-needed emotional heft, and while there aren't any scenes that stick out in my mind as being some of Marvel's best, Spidey delivers when it counts.

I know that this positive review probably sounds unnecessarily harsh, but after the film was repeatedly showered in praise this weekend, I felt it necessary to dig a little deeper into what I didn't enjoy about it. Basically, for my generation, this will never be the defining version of Spider-Man. Just like Andrew Garfield and Marc Webb could never escape the shadow of Tobey Maguire and Sam Raimi, Tom Holland and Jon Watts aren't able to do that either. Maguire and Raimi were working in an era where they were pretty much the only superhero game in town- now, there's a million other heroes just like Spider-Man. But for whatever Homecoming may be lacking, it's still a remarkably fun blockbuster that puts Peter Parker in a good position for the future of the MCU. Marvel chief Kevin Feige has said that Spidey will be the anchor of Marvel's next phase after the fourth Avengers film in 2019, and having seen this movie, that makes sense. Marvel has been great at always maintaining a brand image of family entertainment, and this version of Spider-Man fits the bill.  If Watts and Holland manage to incorporate a bit more dramatic heft next time, it'll be much appreciated. But for what it is, Homecoming delivers the goods.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.2/10)

Images courtesy of Sony

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