Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017, Dir. Jon Watts):
The Marvel movie universe has been burdened by franchise-building, character cross-overs, and “more is more” bloat for so long that the offhanded trifle that is Spider-Man: Homecoming comes as a shock. Given the cinematic history of Spider-Man, which has included a mostly entertaining trilogy from Sam Raimi and a mediocre reboot starring Andrew Garfield, the filmmakers probably concluded that off-the-cuff was the way to go. Why make a big deal about relaunching the franchise for a third time when the last three Spidey films had been greeted with the equivalent of a giant “meh”? No, the only way to prove the viability of our favorite web-head would be to keep things low-key and rebuild trust with audiences. At least, tech genius billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), aka Iron Man, agrees: “Just stay close to the ground,” he advises his young protege Peter Parker (Tom Holland), aka Spider-Man. After stealing the show in Captain America: Civil War (the events of which are recounted in funny selfie vids that open the film), Peter might be eager to join the Avengers and take on world-threatening baddies, but he’s still too wet behind the ears to do so. Thus we have a Spider-Man movie that locates itself firmly in Queens for its duration (except for a detour to Washington DC and a climactic showdown on Coney Island), where the only thing of value at stake is our hero’s ego, and the most suspenseful scene involves getting to an academic decathlon on time.
Refreshingly straightforward compared to other recent comic book movies, Spider-Man: Homecoming is intent on justifying its title — this is a Spider-Man movie that returns to the basics. Skewing towards a younger crowd, the movie doesn’t even bother regurgitating Spidey’s origin story for the third time. Instead, we hearken back to the comic’s roots, in which Peter is a wide-eyed high school sophomore only beginning to understand his powers. “Can’t you just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?” Stark implores, and much of the movie’s narrative is fueled by Peter continually grasping beyond his reach. Sure he’s getting bored with helping old ladies out with directions while dressed as Spider-Man, but he’s not prepared for the consequences when he squares off against higher-level villainy. While the film’s nominal menace comes in the form of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a wayward construction boss who kits himself up with alien tech in the aftermath of the first Avengers movie and becomes the Vulture (Birdman, indeed), even the threat of the Vulture pales in comparison to the personal calamities in Peter’s life.
Whether he’s klutzing around the neighborhood and knocking over innocent treehouses and delis in the process, getting dissed by school bully Flash (“Everyone sing it! Penis Parker!”) or failing miserably to catch the attention of brainy Liz (Laura Harrier), this is a Spider-Man who is mostly inept, swamped with anxieties just about any teen can relate to. The clear touchstone here is John Hughes movies, right down to the boppy eighties soundtrack (between this film and La La Land, A Flock of Seagulls must be cleaning up on the royalties this year) and the bittersweet comedy resulting from Peter’s unrequited love. Just to drive the point home, we have Peter making a mad dash through the neighborhood, a la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which plays on a neighbor’s TV as he rushes by. Not everything is retrograde, though: Peter’s classmates are a multiracial lot, and instead of a geeky Asian racial stereotype like Long Duk Dong from Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, we get Jacob Batalon as… well, Peter’s geeky Asian sidekick Ned. Call it progress, of a sort.
Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s more casual pace allows for plenty of sly humor and asides. (The best running gag involves Captain America (Chris Evans) providing advice to the students in the form of corny public service message videos.) Director Jon Watts, a veteran from The Onion network, keeps the jokes flowing, and he gets a lot of comic mileage out of Peter’s decidedly un-heroic demeanor. The film’s funniest bits tweak superhero conventions, as when Peter switches to “interrogation mode,” delivering less-than-intimidating dialogue in a Batman-style basso profundo voice. Even the usual razzle-dazzle CGI effects are more ropey this time around, as if to reassure us that it’s okay to think of this movie as a cartoon. On the other end of the spectrum, Marisa Tomei’s redoubtable Aunt May is anything but a cartoon. Usually presented as a septuagenarian, she’s now a salt-of-the-earth, hot Italian mama who nonetheless remains sweetly oblivious to her nephew’s superhero activities. Most of the supporting characters get in on the relaxed vibe, including Donald Glover in a walk-on as a criminal with important life advice for Spidey, and Zendaya as Michelle, Peter’s caustic classmate who may or may not have a crush on him (I guess we’ll have to wait for the sequel, presented in the vein of John Hughes’ Some Kind of Wonderful, to get the answer to that one). As the baddie, Keaton is required only to be growly and understated, but he gets to cut loose in the film’s finest scene, in which he shares a “fatherly chat” with Peter that brings the strands of Peter’s civilian and superhero lives together in unexpected, bracing fashion.
Deflating and poking fun at itself at every turn, Spider-Man: Homecoming is an amiable movie — maybe too amiable. Watt keeps the plates of the plot spinning, but one never feels like anything momentous is at stake. Peter’s romantic troubles are presented in perfunctory fashion, as is most of the film’s action, save a sprightly tussle between Spider-Man and the Vulture on the Staten Island ferry (not coincidentally, it’s one of the few sequences in which Spider-Man gets to save folks in genuine peril). Whatever one can say about Sam Raimi’s interpretation of Spider-Man with Tobey Maguire, he never failed to bring verve and angst to his films. Verve and angst are the reasons Lee and Ditko’s original comic became a hit: for all the wisecracks and lighthearted action, we could always feel the weight of Peter’s double identity, and how the responsibility of being a hero constantly short-circuited his personal life. Holland’s Spidey, more squeaky-voiced and smaller in stature than previous iterations, hints at those tragedies behind the character, but Homecoming is too interested in having a breezy good time to consider anything weighty for very long. Even the big plot turn of the third act — Peter deprived of his suit, reliant on his faith in himself to succeed — seems more like a bump in the road than an actual challenge. Homecoming‘s featherweight fun might make for a good respite from other recent Marvel movies which have carried the world on their shoulders; it also means that it departs from memory the minute you depart the theater. Still, you’ll most likely remember the final scene, in which Aunt May is caught in the midst of an expletive. More gutsy moments like that might elevated the film above what it actually is: a pleasantly vanilla franchise kickstarter.