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Spider-Man is not a party trick!

Movie

Spider-Man: Homecoming
(2017)

 

A supremely satisfying superhero movie that shows everyone, even the sometimes laurels-resting Marvel, taking the reins of their most renowned property for the first time on the big screen, how it should be done. I wasn’t as down on the Andrew Garfield incarnation of Spidey as most, although he certainly didn’t deserve the “amazing” adjective before his name. Spider-Man: Homecoming, in contrast, wisely keeps its hero’s lowered stakes in sight throughout, and in so doing keeps you invested in his trials and tribulations to a degree all but foreign to the genre.

Scott Mendelson’s Forbes review complained that Homecoming turns Peter Parker into “a dangerously incompetent would-be superhero”, overplaying his inexperience to the extent that he becomes a “consistent threat and menace”. He adds that Jon Watts’ movie is reduced to another de facto origins story (minus the origins). I wouldn’t actually argue with either of the points he’s making, but his interpretation, that you “actively root for Peter to stop being Spider-Man… because he’s terrible at being Spider-Man” was certainly way off my own response to Peter’s failings.

Part of the inherent problem – or at least, obstacle to overcome – facing the superhero genre is the unbeatable hero needing to spar with ever-more indomitable adversaries – and consequent carnage – to justify their lauded status. It can lead to fairly unnuanced plotting and characterisation, which is why Homecoming feels like a breath of fresh air. Yes, Peter screws up with a certain degree of consistency, but only at one point does he actually require an intervention.

Besides which, the map of the movie is one in which his failures can largely be laid at the door of neglect by his elders and self-nominated mentors who should be moulding his talents, rather than his own inherent inadequacy (that he is essentially rewarded at the end for doing the same thing he was chastised for earlier shows either the writers’ flippancy or Tony Stark’s hypocrisy). Plus, it’s simply a damn sight more thrilling to watch a sequence not knowing how the hero is going to get out of that one, given the multiple erroneous decisions he has made en route. Even more so when that sequence is infused with complementary humour preventing it from descending into the functional.

I’d have more sympathy with the origins story complaint – God knows, we’ve seen enough of them – if Watts and his co-screenwriters (five of them!) weren’t so deft and inventive in showing “Penis” Parker learning the ropes, or webs. Yeah, it’s an argument to say it would be better to have him on an Avengers level of confidence from the off, but you entirely miss the potential of his enduring teenage rites of passage. It would be more the pity if, come the next sequel, he’s too proficient, bringing with it a danger of the diminishment of his unique superheroic stature.

And Holland is having so much fun as Peter, a pronounced geek but an uber-witty one with it, that the picture would become unbalanced if he had that super-confidence as Spider-Man diffusing his frustrations as Peter, the guy who is “reduced” to building a Lego Death Star with his best buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon, possessed of spot-on comic timing). Lest we needed reminding this version of Parker is occupying John Hughes territory, a clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off accompanies his less-than-elegant traversal of a leafy-gardened suburban sprawl (the picture takes delight in reminding us that not everywhere has a convenient edifice to swing from, most pointedly when Parker is compelled to perambulate across a park).

He has a bully to contend with (Tony Revolori, making good on his Grand Budapest Hotel potential, as Flash Thompson), an impossibly inapproachable girl he moons after (Laura Harrier’s Liz) and the desert-dry pal who harbours a secret crush (Zendaya as Michelle). Of the latter, the Hughes trope that the relationship the audience is rooting for is the one the hero is too blind to see is in full effect (Hughes made the mistake in Pretty in Pink of bending to the will of Hollywood physics and giving Molly Ringwald Andrew McCarthy over oddball Jon Cryer, while in Some Kind of Wonderful he course-corrected; Michelle’s actually much more Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club than either Cryer or Mary Stuart Masterson, though). Zendaya’s as perfectly cast as Holland and Batalon, reading Somerset Maugham in a gym class, with the reveal that she’s “MJ” a nice little take-it-or-leave-it.

The picture does a great job pulling Peter in different directions. He wants to step up as a hero but Stark ignores him. He wants hang out with Liz but superhero duties keep calling. And there’s the staple stone left mostly unturned by recent Marvel and DC (does anyone care about Clark Kent being in disguise?); Homecoming makes superlative use of the secret identity device.

You might argue the “villain susses out the hero’s identity” device has been done enough, particularly since Homecoming essentially offers a variant on Spider-Man’s dinner scene with Willem Dafoe, but I can only say it doesn’t come across as well-worn. The reveal that Liz’s father is the bad guy is played for all its worth, with an infectiously unsettled Peter forced to shoot the breeze with Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) at the latter’s residence. And the ensuing drive to the homecoming dance, as Toomes gradually adds two and two together and makes Spider-Man, is marvellously sustained.

Another area superhero movies have tended to fall short of late is in the villain stakes. How many memorable ones have there been, particularly in the Marvel arena (I single Marvel out because the deficit is more glaring, given their superior quality in most areas)? Only Loki has encountered any degree of longevity. The Vulture, despite being laden with the umpteenth tech-suit in this lexicon (Green Goblin, Dr Octopus, the Rhino), is an entirely vivid creation.

That’s party down to a reliably wired performance from Keaton, who definitely still has that Beetlejuice spark, but it’s also a reflection of a motivated bad guy with just enough under the hood to make him seem fleshed-out. He’s a family man, one who has been done over by the one percent (namely Stark) and sees no reason why they should reap all the rewards in their ivory towers.

It’s a continual irony of the Marvel franchise that its most popular and enduring big-screen character should be one of the despised privileged, despite the series’ endeavours to puncture that bubble (that’s a charismatic lead actor for you), but this is the closest the they’ve comes to genuinely sticking it to the Stark. Toomes maybe needs to be a bit more filled in than he is, to make the leap to murderer, but nothing needs to be added to the picture of removed, out-of-touch and prideful Tony’s exalted status.

Toomes is, naturally, left standing – he’d need to be, if there’s going to be a Sinister Six movie, at least with the original line-up, and it would be daft not to go there at some point: dafter still to try doing it without Spidey, as one of Sony’s baffling, clutching-at-straws, attempt to muster a separate Spider-Man movie universe of which Holland, and Spider-Man, is not a part – and it’s an additionally validating note that he refuses to divulge Peter’s identity to a not-so-fellow inmate, recognising that Parker is after all, an honourable kid.

Also effectively distinguishing Peter from his peers is his will to preserve life. Not in the slightly flaky, reactive sense where city-wide disaster porn cuts to a scene of a superhero nominally saving some faceless people (Age of Ultron responding to Man of Steel), but in a genuine way where – to flip Mendelson’s complaint to a positive – you’re willing Spider-Man not do anything that might hurt anyone.

I don’t tend have any puritan sensibilities about this aspect of superhero movies, although it has clearly provoked much debate in respect of the Snyder-verse, but here it absolutely underpins the character. You don’t want a teenager with that on his conscience, and so it reflects a relatability to the characterisation that simply isn’t present in the rest of the Marvel universe, no matter what their – undoubted – respective merits. So Peter saving Toomes is a big deal, as are his escapades around the Washington Monument and the Staten Island Ferry, no matter how often he puts his foot in it.

Does Peter learn anything in Homecoming? I wasn’t under any illusion he needed to, certainly not with a big neon sign saying “character development”, or that Marvel were supposed to be straining to force such progressive arcs – they’re more akin to pre-HBO TV in that sense – so Film Critic Hulk’s essay didn’t really vibe with me. Peter’s a teenager, so lingering growth is ephemeral by design. What’s a lesson one minute is forgotten the next, and what seems like a mountain to climb is scoffed at in retrospect (Hulk’s rallying cry to the merits of Wonder Woman is rather testament to how easy it is for a serious think piece to clutch shallow thematic material as justification for what you want a movie to be on emotive grounds).

There’s also the problem that, if you scrabbling around for profundity in the superhero-verse, you are, nine times out of ten, onto a lost cause (which is in no way to denigrate them, but they do not, on the whole resonate in that way). The glibness Film Critic Hulk levels at Homecoming makes me appreciate it more, not less, because it avoids the sometime painful sincerity he cites in Spider-Man 2 (a movie I really like, but I don’t need to hear the “With great power comes great responsibility” mantra again any time soon). There’s also the simple guide that superhero movies in which our heroes stumble on the way to further self-gratification and narcissism is probably a more accurate reflection of real life than any Hollywood arcs showing three-act growth, just as long as we recognise them for what they are.

Going back to the set pieces, because that’s what I’d instantly want to see if I was a kid, and is pretty much what I want to see done well as a big one, the Washington Monument is tantamount to the perfect action sequence. Intimate yet extravagant in scope, building constantly with different threats and challenges, and breaking into applause for the money shot of Spider-Man back flipping over a police helicopter before flying through a window and saving the occupants of the plunging lift. It’s breathless, exhilarating and funny (Flash trying to save his trophy).

The ferry scene is similarly well-sprung, illustrating how Peter’s condemned for what he doesn’t achieve rather than what he does (98% there), and for which, rather than encouraged to learn how to make up the difference, he receives vilification (you might argue the FBI would have sorted things, left to their own devices; clearly, they’d have ended up dead).Particularly amusing is the switch from hollers of “Spider-Man!” to applause for Iron Man saving the day.

The truck heist is also effectively staged, although more memorable for the subsequent interlude of Peter stuck in a Department of Damage Control vault, talking to his in-suit computer Karen (appealingly voiced by Jennifer Connelly) and trying out the costume’s capabilities, before getting bored/frustrated.

The fact is, near-disaster at the hero’s behest is a much more interesting way to muster tension than a clean sweep. You don’t want it overdone, but the early gambit, where Peter takes down “the Avengers” before having to save Mr Delmar (Hemky Madera) and his cat, works for precisely that reason.

In contrast, much of the plane sequence, at least until Spider-Man has to guide it to a safe crash site, is a collection of blandly organised pixels; in itself that says something positive, as it’s the only part of the movie that left me largely indifferent.

Tellingly, it’s also the one that most resembles a standard superhero action set-to (director Watts rises to the challenge of big features with ease; it’s only a shame Marvel is content on giving its Avengers pictures to the competent Russo Brothers, since style is one thing the studio should be taking away as a lesson from Watts here). Yes, maybe Peter’s hi-tech suit is a little overcooked, since as comedic as it makes his learning curve, he should be identified without all that supporting paraphernalia, but that’s precisely why the second half hastens his having to fall back on improvised, Kick-Ass gear.

Marisa Tomei is as hot as ever as Aunt May, Jon Favreau gives good comic timing as the endearingly dismissive Happy, Stan Lee gets a jolly cameo (ones where he’s called on to be naturalistic always work better), it’s nice to see Pepper again (I miss Gwynie on the big screen, even if no one else does), Donald Glover delivers an amusing twist on grilling a perp for information (no, I didn’t realise his character is Miles Morales’ uncle), and Chris Evans gets the biggest consistent laughs in the picture with his Cap high school propaganda videos (the end-credits clip is an absolutely entirely deserved slap in audience’s faces, one worthy of Joe Dante).

For me, though, the most surprising element was the fate of Logan Marshall-Green’s Jackson Brice (as the first “Shocker”). Marshall-Green’s role is so small, I couldn’t quite believe that was all there was to it, even to the extent that I wondered if he might not be altogether dead, that the combination of gauntlet and weaponry tech did something to his genes, and that he might turn up again, perhaps as a new version of Electro, just with a different origins story.

Of course, Spider-Man: Homecoming has more than enough villains to be getting on with, having already given us Bokeem Woodbine’s second Shocker, Michael Chernus’ Tinkerer (his best moment comes when he admits to inspecting Toomes’ phone calls) and Michael Mando’s end credits eventual-Scorpion (another tech suit).

Marvel would do well to take note of what worked so well with Keaton’s baddie here, as opposed to so many forgettable ones they’ve overseen. Even more so for Peter himself. Homecoming is an instant home run for the character, the best Marvel movie since Iron Man Three and a testament to why the character is an instant shoe-in as the best superhero when done right.

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