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Film Review: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ is an utterly joyous experience

 
 

Out of all the superhero movies released in 2017, Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts (Cop Car) and starring Tom Holland, has been met with the most mixed reaction from moviegoers. Sure, kids, families, comic book geeks and those sold on the promise of the MCU (yes, this is a Marvel Studios production!) are already lined up outside of various theaters, shaking with anticipation, but snobs and those sick of superheroes are already fileing their “Is Amazing Spider-Man actually the best?” hot takes with their editors and wondering why the hell we needed a third Spider-Man reboot in 15 years.

It’s not like The Wizard of Oz was a remake, or that we seem never to question when some director decides to tackle the Bard’s most popular works in a Fresh And Modern Way, but six — count them, six — honest-to-Christ superhero films are making their way to theaters this year. There’s never been so many films of a single genre dominating the popular consciousness. To them, if superhero movies were an actor, they’d be Jude Law, and the Chris Rocks of the world would be cracking jokes left and right about how they’re everywhere. It’s also not like it’s been a banner year for them, either, given that each that’s come out so far has been interesting and well-received critically.

Well, as it turns out, Spider-Man: Homecoming is quite fun, and well worth your time, not your skepticism. It may not be the best example of the genre out there this year, but it’s certainly the most crowd-pleasing.

Peter Parker’s got your typical teenage problems: Working up the confidence to talk to the girl he likes, getting picked on by the rich jocks at his Queens high school, helping out his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) around the house, and an internship with a big corporation to worry about. Oh, and occasionally he dresses up in a high-tech suit made by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) himself, Tony Stark (his boss at his internship!), and fights crime as Spider-Man. After stopping a group of alien technology-wielding thieves, Peter tries to track down the people responsible, and winds up getting in a little bit over his head in the thick of things. Or rather, he gets in a little bit over 400 feet above the ground, where the villainous Vulture (Michael Keaton) commands the skies. Will Spider-Man be able to stop him in time for Homecoming? Aww, fuck it — you get the gist. Just be thankful it’s not another origin story!

As it stands, Holland’s portraying the youngest version of Peter Parker ever seen on the screen, at one point correcting Tony Stark to point out that he’s 15, not fourteen like ol’ shellhead thinks (just think- Maguire was in college by the end of the first film and employed and engaged by the third installment in the Raimi trilogy, and Garfield, though in his 30s IRL when he took on the mantle, had his Spider-story start in PP’s junior year of high school). And it’s to Watts’ credit that he makes this youth well-apparent and utilizes it in a way that feels fresh and relatable. Make no mistake: Tom Holland is as good a fit for this role in this particular style as Maguire was back in the aughts. He’s got a fantastic, stuttering energy as Peter, and he wears every single emotion on his sleeve without overacting. It helps that he’s surrounded by an excellent supporting cast of diverse teen actors, from his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalan) to his bully flash (Tony Revolori, who is sure to shock anyone who’s seen The Grand Budapest Hotel here) to the bookish Michelle (Zendaya, who is given many of the film’s best lines) to Peter’s overachieving love interest (Laura Harrier). He feels like a kid when he’s surrounded by his peers, like the iteration of the character that graces Saturday morning TV in the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon (though Nick Fury isn’t training him with a group of young superheroes here), but Watts doesn’t let that prevent Peter from being a compelling superhero. In some ways, it’s a much more organic way to show his evolution as a hero than the forced insta-morality of his origin story, and it feels similar to the way he’d grow over the course of an arc in the comics.

When under the mask, Holland exudes a wise-ass charisma that easily bests both prior actors’ takes on the role, and is probably the closest to the bad stand-up humor that the character relies on in the comics. Yes, this means there’s none of the quips that fanboys laughed a little too hard at to convince themselves they were having a decent time during the Amazing Spider-Man series, and each verbal gag either lands or is agreeably punny enough to roll your eyes at in an endearing way. But what Watts and Holland do best is capture the agile physicality of the character, and he’s a joy to watch in motion. Though there’s no single stand-out action scene (the ending fight with Keaton suffers a little from the fiery night-time aesthetic that blighted the third act of Wonder Woman, but the thematic action within the ending is way more interesting here), he’s got a fluid grace to his movements that doesn’t feel like the result of excessive CGI manipulation. And wisely, Watts includes plenty of physical humor as well while Holland’s in the suit, and that alone makes this a significantly more interesting take on the character than what we’ve seen before. Ever sit on your stoop/porch/whatever and wonder how Spider-Man would swing and glide around through your neighborhood, even though you’re out in the suburbs? Homecoming has the answer, and it’s fucking hilarious.

Keaton’s fantastic here, and god help every critic who makes a Birdman joke in talking about his take on the Vulture. He’s easily one of the most interesting villains in the MCU, and that might be because he’s not an impressively powerful god or a German family man who seems to have the superpower of excellent timing or a corrupt businessman looking to snarl the words “Tony Stark” at the audience. Instead, he’s more like one of the Netflix street-level bad guys, in that he’s a crook who’s stumbled upon impressive alien tech in the wake of the Battle of New York, who hires a gang of tech geniuses and muscle to steal more items of interest and often unimaginable power. His design is one of the more interesting takes on a classic Spider-Man villain, perhaps tied with Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus as being the most striking in the series, and it takes equal parts from the Falcon design employed in prior Captain America films and a classic fighter pilot’s get-up, and Watts is able to make it look terrifying on screen. Under the fowl cowl (lol), Keaton’s able to go from menacing to humorous to pensive in a way that a lot of the Marvel villains often struggle with, and a late revelation about his character only succeeds in complicating him more, which Watts handles deftly. And his resolution is significantly more interesting than the way these characters are typically dispatched by the heroes. You may find yourself slightly delighted by the way it turns out, too, and I highly recommend you stay through and after the credits to get the full story.

All in all, Spider-Man: Homecoming might be the best blockbuster of the summer, just on the virtue of how utterly joyous it is to watch with a crowd of like-minded fans.

Other adults also make a great impression, from Donald Glover (who I’ll only say might make nerds faint with what he’s implying here), to Hannibal Buress as a lazy gym teacher, to Kenneth Choi as Peter’s principal, to the scene-stealing Silicon Valley cast member Martin Starr as one of Peter’s teachers. Everybody seems to be having a fantastic time, and it’s infectious. The only real weak link is Tomei, who is serviceable in the role, but is subject to too many “Hot Aunt May Who Fucks” jokes early on and isn’t given much of a chance to make more of an impression other than that. This May is too frazzled by her responsibilities as a single parent to make a difference as a moral arbiter for Peter, which works well enough when trying to insert a mentor character like Stark into the mix, but it also feels like the culmination of a trend that we’ve been moving towards ever since people complained about how long Rosemary Harris’ speeches were in the Raimi films. Still, her casting seems to be more of the stunt that so many accused it of being initially, and it’s a bit of a bummer that we’ll have to wait until a sequel in order to see if she’ll be given more to do.

Perhaps the biggest fanboy worry prior to Homecoming’s release was about how Spider-Man would be able to fit into the MCU and vice-versa, and I’m here to say that it does a pretty excellent job at merging that character and that universe with a “chocolate-meet-peanut-butter” quality. None of the MCU elements are as intrusive as the advertising would have you believe, and you’ve already seen most of the shots of Robert Downey Jr. in the finished film in the advertising. He’s a fun mentor figure, and it’s nice to see devil-may-care-who-gives-a-shit Tony Stark back, as opposed to the heavy-is-the-head version of the character that we’ve had since Iron Man 3, and he feeds off of Holland’s energy nicely. People’ll be pissed about how integrated Stark tech really is in Peter’s suit, but I ultimately liked it- it keeps Holland talking, and it’s used well in some funny training sequences. Other than the Stark business, Watts and company introduce some fun additions to the MCU in this film, and are able to utilize the universe’s history in a very fun way (starting with, of course, Kenneth Choi), but it never overwhelms the film’s core motivations and conflicts. It’s definitely not Avengers 3.5, and isn’t burdened with moving the whole damn universe forward like the Captain America movies are always forced to.

Watts’ direction is a bit more mixed than I would have preferred (his action sequences are garbled, and occasionally he takes a few cues too many from Can’t Hardly Wait and other classic teen films), but he nails the high school comedy tone, and he’s able to do some fantastic things to the Spider-Mythos here in order to orient it for a new audience. That starts with the setting, which, above all else, is essentially changed in the best of ways, as Spider-Man’s world is completely refocused on Queens (aside from a school field-trip to DC that has its place in the story but is a weird pace-kill). That line in the trailer that Stark has in the trailer about him being “a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?” It’s totally true here, and I don’t think Spidey sets foot in Manhattan during the runtime. That means no gigantic CGI swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper, and more hunting down neighborhood crooks who steal people’s bikes and foiling small-time bank robbers across the street from the local bodega. Yes, there is a bodega cat in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and if that’s what’s really going to get you to give this movie a chance, we probably should hang out sometime. It feels grounded in a way that the previous installments haven’t (there’s no generic waterfront skateboarding or tourist-trap sightseeing here) and part of the joy of it all comes from seeing how the film will handle its next setting. It’s arguably more iconic on a true New York level than any superhero film that’s come before it.

All in all, Spider-Man: Homecoming might be the best blockbuster of the summer, just on the virtue of how utterly joyous it is to watch with a crowd of like-minded fans. It’s sure to delight kids and adults alike, and it’s incredibly exciting to see a really compelling version of this character brought to the screen, free of the occasional stuffiness that works against the otherwise excellent Raimi movies and the angst and shitty filmmaking that sank Marc Webb’s attempt to revitalize the franchise for Sony. Their partnership with Marvel offers a compelling path forward for studios that have no idea what in the hell to do with their properties (coughFantasticFourcough). It’s so exciting to see something this earnest and joyous hit the theater, and I’m sure there’ll be more to say about it after the dust settles on Monday. But for now, what a joy it is to behold.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.

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