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Film Review – Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017; Directed by Jon Watts)

The solo launchpad film for the third franchise reboot of the friendly neighbourhood wisecracking, web-slinging arachnodude, Spider-Man: Homecoming is extremely fun, sometimes raucously funny, and reasonably well-balanced, considering how many magnetic pulls it must contend with. Director Jon Watts is faced with the task of establishing not only a fresh take on one of the most well-covered superheroes in the movies (through Sam Raimi’s trilogy of films starring Tobey Maguire, as well as Marc Webb’s more recent, lightly-regarded two movies with Andrew Garfield in the title role) but integrating the world of precocious high-schooler Peter Parker (played this time by Tom Holland) with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, which Sony has agreed with Marvel Studios to allow Spider-Man to participate in.

Spider-Man: Homecoming can be a bit of a frenetic mess in light of its in-text mixture of plots, franchise obligations, and even genres. Watts (working from a script credited to six writers whose names I will not take the effort to type out here) works to keep proceedings alternatingly light and weighty, transitioning between and connecting disparate strands of young Spidey’s conflict with a winged tech-stealing villain, the boy’s struggle to learn his abilities and earn the respect and patronage of billionaire technology maven and Avengers linchpin Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), and his negotiation of high school life and crushes on the opposite sex as a teenaged boy from Queens. The latter element sets the tone for much of the film, with Watts acknowleding a debt of influence to John Hughes’ 1980s high-school comedies; Parker even recreates Matthew Broderick’s escape through suburban neighbours’ backyards from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at one point, the original scene flashed on a television screen as he passes to cinch the homage.

This tone of youthful irreverence transfers to the film’s figuration of Spider-Man’s place in the MCU. Homecoming is extremely eager to remind you that it takes place in the same universe as the Avengers cycle; too eager, really, with a self-awareness that borders on the indulgent. Gags and references to other Marvel heroes come hot and heavy, from the first bank robbers that Spidey foils disguising themselves with Avengers masks to social studies class lectures on the superhero-limiting Sokovia Accords to a series of cameos from Captain America (Chris Evans), who has recorded several educational information videos. “I’m pretty sure this guy’s a war criminal now,” mutters Peter’s gym teacher (Hannibal Buress), but then the state mandates the videos be shown anyway (a stealthily razor-sharp commentary on American political and educational bureaucracy if there ever was one).

Holland’s Spider-Man was introduced memorably in the showpiece hero-on-hero battle in Captain America: Civil War (also the source of the Sokovia Accords and Captain America’s transgression of legal norms), and Watts recaps Peter Parker’s perspective via a witty introductory home-movie version of events, filmed by Peter’s cell phone. Energized by the experience and believing himself to be a junior member of the Avengers, Parker is frustrated by the subsequent radio silence from Tony Stark, who insistently recruited him for the dust-up at a German airport in the first place, as well as from his appointed minder, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Attending his science-centric high school for the gifted as a mild outcast with only a single, nerdy friend (Ned Leeds, played by Jacob Batalon), Peter ventures out after classes to foil criminals and serve justice around Queens. As he keeps his arachnid identity secret from his guardian Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and nurses a crush on senior academic decathlon captain Liz (Laura Harrier), Peter Parker is also frantic to unearth a web of crime and/or a dangerous threat which he can thwart in order to impress Tony Stark.

Soon enough, he finds such an opportunity. Perhaps the best thing about Spider-Man: Homecoming is the villain Parker fights against, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes (known as Vulture in the comics). A recurring issue in superhero films lies with their antagonists, who frequently must assume deity-levels proportions in order to represent a credible threat to our superhuman protagonists. This has been less of an issue in the MCU than it has been in DC’s films (Wonder Woman, otherwise a triumphal delight, is hampered by a closing-act evil god battle), and recent highlight Civil War cleverly teased such a pitched super-tilt before turning to something more intimate and character-driven. But it has hardly been an absent element either, and the coming epic dust-up with galactic megalord Thanos in the two-part Infinity Wars film set demonstrates that it isn’t going away anytime soon.

But with an eager puppy of a neophyte suited hero at the heart of this movie, his nemesis ought to represent a similarly grounded threat. Keaton’s Toomes is exactly that, a reliable contractor and family provider (in the comics, he’s from Staten Island, New York City’s oft-forgotten proletarian borough) jerked around by bureaucratic oversight. Unceremoniously removed by a government agency from the Manhattan salvage operation that followed the destructive climax of The Avengers, Toomes and his crew secretly retain scraps of alien technology and use the devices and weapons they craft from these parts to steal more such artifacts. Toomes has made a good living from the sale of these enhanced creations, and rationalizes away Parker’s moral qualms about his illicit trade with a nakedly class-conscious argument: why should privileged elites such as the likes of Tony Stark control this technology, cutting out working people and leaving them to helplessly cope with the consequences? Toomes is a criminal and a killer, but in a Walter White kind of way, it’s completely understandable how he became one (if not quite justifiable, despite his underclass rebel pose). Keaton is very good in this role, and his character in general is a small miracle of scale in a genre prone to overwrought grandeur in its antagonists.

The high-school comedy and superhero vs. supervillain elements of the plot come together in a satisfying and clever dramatic-irony twist at the onset of the third act, as Toomes assumes an additional antagonistic facet in relation to Peter. Homecoming is an extremely Queens film; still a junior hero, Peter has yet to graduate to Manhattan and thus swings not from its towering buildings. Watts’ action sequences move away from those of the prior Spider-Man films in a similar manner, trading in the skyscrapers and traffic canyons of the city for transport vehicles/compartments: a truck, a helicopter and an elevator, a plane, the Staten Island ferry. It also distances itself from previous screen Spideys in eliding completely Peter Parker’s formative loss of a mentoring father figure. The name “Uncle Ben” is not uttered once in the film, his galvanizing death not run through in a third franchise reboot. Tony Stark is the only father figure on offer here, albeit in an ever-distant one. Tomei’s Aunt May, meanwhile, is plied with jokes about how attractive she is, following the approach of her brief appearance in Civil War. That said, she does get the movie’s final word, fantastically cut off though it is.

There’s plenty to enjoy in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Holland seems a strong match for the character over the long haul of an extended, path-crossing franchise web. It’s cleverly funny and sometimes even witty, leaving some room for some challenging ideas in its treatment of Toomes. If it’s often rough around the edges, it is perhaps forgivably and even appropriately so. Like Peter Parker’s enthusiastic but clumsy test-drive of his unlocked Spidersuit set to the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”, Homecoming sees the new Spider-Man franchise beginning to find its footing with brash, youthful energy and with no lack of promising skill and cocky confidence.

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