Spider-Man: Homecoming - Jon Watts
Spider-Man has been kicked around by Marvel and Sony’s cinema teams nearly to death, but right off the bat, Spider-Man: Homecoming had the potential to be the best adaptation to ever bless the live-action comic universe. The fact is, Andrew Garfield should never have been Spider-Man, and Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man movies should never have happened, if only because the second is such a horrible mess it retroactively improves the first Garfield outing and softened my feelings for Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. That, especially, should never have happened. Garfield is too cool-guy to play dorky Peter Parker, and his Spider-Man too smarmy to take seriously as a hero. Tobey Maguire plays to both of the character’s strengths: he’s convincingly awkward out of the suit and charmingly witty in it, and was incontestably the best version of the character we had on-screen until Tom Holland hopped aboard the unprecedented Sony-Marvel partnership, surpassing both to claim the title as The Best Movie Spider-Man.
He’s funny, slick, endearing, and vulnerable over the course of Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the nuances of the subtitle are inescapable: watching Holland’s Peter do almost nothing but swing and flip above the city and bumble around as a high schooler at street level for the first forty-odd minutes of the film, you get the sense that the character is truly home under Marvel’s care, and you can almost forgive these forty minutes for kind of meandering. After three movies of alternately rigid and sloppy plotting, the chance to just watch Spider-Man be Spider-Man shouldn’t be taken for granted, and is really a joy to see; but we also can’t ignore the fact that the movie feels aimless for a long time, until the ferry scene glimpsed in the trailer. Here, finally, we come as close to the “with great power” stuff as the movie dares, nicely set against an echo of Spider-Man 2’s train sequence. Having just deus ex machina’d Peter from a failing attempt to rescue a rupturing ferryboat, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) tells Peter that if he’s no one without the custom-made suit Stark lent him, then he shouldn’t have it. You know: if he can’t be responsible, he doesn’t deserve its power. This, finally, provides conflict a little greater than “how can I get my crush to notice me,” and sees the movie picking up the thematic threads left dangling in the film’s Vulture prologue.
Marvel has a much tougher time setting things up with these villain-in-a-nutshell scenes than they do with their credit stingers, the nadir of the technique being the prologue to Ant-Man. To some extent, even the most serious Marvel films are tonally breezy, but they rarely feel so cartoonish. The idea to retool the Vulture’s origin so that his suit is a composite of Chitauri technology left over from The Avengers is inspired, reassuring us that the thematic baggage of Captain America: Civil War isn’t forgotten. In fact, it dovetails neatly with the power/responsibility tension that defines Spider-Man: actions have consequences, and every action is ultimately justified, so act responsibly. The problem is that, while the Vulture’s motivations check out, they do so in the blandest way possible--with Michael Keaton at his most prosaic everyman vs. the stern, unempathetic corporate representatives who won’t budge an inch to let he and his men make their living, no duh we’re going to side with the guy, ideologically. It’s cheap, and I can’t help but think that developing the character’s villainy parallel to Spider-Man’s heroism would have made it less so, sharpening up the delineation between good and evil as a series of choices in an uncondescending, but suitably comic-booky way. The Vulture never gets more time to develop beyond that opening scene, coasting on the “doing the wrong thing for the right reasons”/”For my family” rationale we’ve seen before, placing him well below Doc Ock, and even Green Goblin, on the scale of interesting Spider-Man villains. Still, it’s a refreshing change from Electro’s jealousy issues and The Lizard’s de facto evil, and his costume is easily one of the best designs in the MCU.
Let me be clear: Spider-Man: Homecoming is a good movie! As disconnected as the first half feels, it’s a lot of fun in isolation. Every joke lands, even if Peter doesn’t always; but seeing him fall flat on a rooftop after attempting a bigger swing than he’s used to making, or sprinting through a park in the middle of the night when he finds himself without buildings to swing from, grounds Spider-Man in a way the previous two entries never did. Ditto for the scene where Spider-Man does a backflip for a delighted pedestrian. He’s a kid with extraordinary powers, but he’s a kid first, and the movie makes that clear in an unforced way. He builds Lego Deathstars (Marvel’s going to make use of their Disney ties, so just accept it) with his best friend; can’t speak to his crush without stuttering; has a place of honor on the school debate team; and finds thirty minutes of waiting to be an eternity. Outside of Peter, the supporting cast is uniformly great, featuring an unusually diverse cast: Peter’s crush Liz Allan (Laura Harrier) is black; his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is Filipino; Flash Thompson the bully (Tony Revolori) is Italian, and Peter’s not-very-secret-admirer Michelle is acted by Zendaya, which is some inspired casting. The film toys with audience expectation in this regard for a reveal that adds some appreciable punch to one of the movie’s tensest scenes, ramping up to the also-titular homecoming dance. Although the character is rather static, Michael Keaton is second to none at projecting working-class malice, and the Vulture’s better-than-average standing in Marvel’s stable of disposable antagonists rests solely on his professionalism. He can’t not act the hell out of anything.
And what’s a superhero movie without big set pieces? Apart from the ferry and its overtones of Spider-Man 2, the Washington Monument and the climactic battle around a Stark-owned “moving plane,” transporting classified tech, are the movie’s other pivotal action pieces, and they’re handled pretty well by Marvel’s standards. The monument gives Peter a chance to demonstrate a lot of time-crunched improvisation: the debate team is trapped in an broken elevator on the top floor, and he isn’t quite strong enough to break through the thick glass on the ventilation windows at the top of the monument without help. None of these movies are going to win awards for cinematography, but there is effort put into highlighting the peril of the situation, with dizzying shots from the top of the monument and some swoopy camerawork following Peter through the air and into the elevator shaft. In another callback scene, this time to Amazing Spider-Man 2’s clock tower sequence, Peter saves Liz from a lethal fall down the shaft. This, more than any other, feels like the point at which Sony officially passes the Spider-Man torch to Marvel. The plane scene, in which Peter does his best to thwart the Vulture’s hijacking attempt, is nicely handled and ends in a fiery, albeit brief, showdown between the two that may not take advantage of the Vulture’s potential for cool aerial battles, but proves serviceably climactic nonetheless.
If there’s a real complaint to lob at the movie, it’s exactly that: Homecoming is serviceable, and sometimes great, but it pushes no envelopes. At this point, asking for Marvel to shake things up is futile (at least until Avengers: Infinity War), but the fact that this movie is not an origin story, and that the name “Ben” crosses no one’s lips at any time, is incremental progress from a studio that could sit back on its haunches and see no change in its revenue stream. It’s not that far off from the origin-story mechanisms Marvel has fine-tuned to a science, and it’s tempting to be cynical and say that every movie under their banner is just a slightly tweaked configuration of the same elements, because there’s some truth to that statement. Homecoming is essentially Ant-Man with better jokes and better villains. But then there’s that scene, just prior to the Vulture taking off on his nefarious plot, when he appears to crush Peter under tons of rubble (accomplished by his independently mobile Vulture suit while Peter and the Vulture verbally duke it out, a la Spider-Man’s climactic battle. Callbacks everywhere!) Since the movie’s not called Vulture, we know Peter isn’t dead, and we see him a few minutes later, alive but certainly not well. He’s pinned beneath an iron bar and slabs of concrete, and there is nothing cute or quippy about any of it: he’s a terrified kid afraid of dying, like any sensible person. But he’s also a New Yorker, and he talks himself through it, until he lands on the right words--“Come on, Spider-Man! Come on, Spider-Man!”--and with a visibly tremendous effort, climbs out of the rubble.
It’s not a flashy scene; there’s no orchestral swell or cut-happy editing to dramatize the moment, but it’s just as impactful as Raimi’s train sequence because it beautifully frames the simple courage it takes to be not only Spider-Man, but a hero at all. Ant-Man doesn’t have that. Even Doctor Strange lacks a defining moment of this caliber. Here’s everything that drives Peter Parker in a single sequence: his belief in his own ability to overcome. It’s cliche, but it doesn’t feel it, because it’s not told to us. He doesn’t verbalize it later to the Vulture before landing a knockout punch, and he doesn’t confide it to Ned before strutting off into the ending credits. If the next Spider-Man outing can pick up on this sort of nuance and stay true to the authentic personality they’ve brought to this Peter Parker, the best Spider-Man adaptation may still be just over the horizon. For now, however, Spider-Man: Homecoming is officially the third-best live-action Spider-Man film. It’s good to have him back.
"Curtains" is where you can catch movie reviews by the Metal Lifestyle staff.