Review Date: 7/17/2017
Rating: 4/5 Peanuts
In a Nutshell:
Marvel's prodigal son has come home (hehe) and though it failed to live up to my hopes, Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers the best version of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to-date, if not the best movie staring the lovable wall crawler.
This movie had a lot to live up to, which is always a dangerous prospect in film-making. Spider-Man is such a bankable franchise, and Peter Parker is such a beloved character, that walking the fine line between satisfying fans and satisfying studio execs can take its tole on the final product. The results are almost never as pretty as the projects that were given the creative freedom to make the movie they wanted to make. 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming (more on the name in a minute) had an added layer of complexity given the legal acrobatics required to birth this particular movie. And given all that, I have to say the end result is pretty impressive.
See, after Sam Raimi absolutely stuck the landing on the first two incarnations of the Tobey Maguire-led Spider-Man installments, his bloated, confusing and tonally incoherent Spider-Man 3 was so disastrous that they cut short the franchise. Not to miss out on the upswing of the super-hero blockbuster genre which they helped create, Sony quickly rebooted the franchise, taking a new direction with Andrew Garfield's decidedly mediocre two turns in The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012 and 2014. Nothing against Garfield, but his movies were unnecessarily burdened with trying to force a Spider-Man Cinematic Universe to compete with Marvel's MCU and DC's DCU, not to mention Fox's X-Men franchise, the Star Wars Cinematic Universe... the list goes on but you get my point - interconnected cinematic universes are the new it thing in Hollywood and everyone wants to suckle at the teet.
Unfortunately for Garfield, but fortunately for the fans, Sony read the writing on the wall and canceled further installments in its short-lived Spider-verse. After years of back-room dealings which are themselves worthy of a movie adaptation, Sony and Marvel (Disney) finally came to an accord the likes of which I wish I had been able to study while in Business School. So far as I understand it, Spider-Man has officially joined the MCU, and his adventures are officially canon. Marvel will retain full creative control of "MCU-Spidey", but the profits from all standalone MCU Spider-Man movies (such as 2017's Homecoming - now do you see where they got the name?) will belong to Sony, who has retained the actual movie rights to Spider-Man. Marvel still benefits because they: 1) retain all merchandising rights to Spider-Man, which always pays off when there are good, successful films out in circulation; and 2) they regain creative use of their most popular character to help energize the tiring MCU and (probably) carry the torch forward in a post-Iron Man, post-Captain America Phase 4.
The implications make my head spin just thinking about it, but that's not what this blog is supposed to be about, so suffice it to say this movie had a lot riding on it. And the result of this previously inconceivable marriage of multi-billion dollar rival power houses? Actually they managed to turn out a pretty decent movie. What a brave new world we live in!
Homecoming is a decidedly solid super hero movie. Though not as good as 2004's Spider-Man 2, Homecoming manages to deliver a solid standalone film that is undeniably tied into both a larger Spider-Man narrative arc as well as a tangible part of the greater MCU. Having established the prior existence of Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, Homecoming was blissfully unburdened by re-telling Spider-Man's origin story. Unlike DC, who seemingly cannot help but show us the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne in every single one of Batman's cinematic appearances, Homecoming assumes you know the story beats. Spider bite, dead uncle Ben, great power, we get it. And fortunately for us, they acknowledged that we do get it.
So despite it not being an origin story, we are also painfully aware of Spider-Man still being a mostly unestablished character as far as the greater MCU is concerned. It appears that there is a degree of notoriety that the wall-crawler is getting, but he still a street-level hero (sometimes literally) and I would go so far as to say he's really only a half-step up from the entirely unacknowledged Daredevil (and company) stranded in Netflix purgatory. The Peter Parker / Spider-Man we are presented with is insanely young (15-16) and firmly in high school. It is my great hope that we will eventually get a Spider-Man who is actually, you know, a man, but that remains years away. For now, Peter is shown to be a literal Avengers fan boy, who so earnestly wants to join the ranks of his school's PSA heroes that he spends most of the movie whining about it.
This is where I'll bring up discussion of actor Tom Holland. So far as I'm concerned, the young actor manages to provide us with our best-ever iteration of Peter Parker. While Maguire was applauded for his portrayal of Peter he always struck me as too quiet and too low energy. By contrast, Holland's Parker is a high-energy, earnest, likable kid. He's insanely smart, but not implausibly so - the kind of smart where you believe he can develop his own web shooters and web fluid but not so smart where he's building Iron Man armor on his own. True to form, he's also a "high school loser", but again it is grounded more in reality than comic-book camp. Parker isn't being stuffed into lockers but rather he's simply ignored. He's the kind of kid who fades into the background as so many kids do in high school.
And this is a great contribution to his character. Holland's Peter Parker desperately wants to matter, and he recognizes that leading his academic decathlon team to greatness isn't going to get him there, but being an Avenger, standing shoulder to shoulder with Earth's Mightiest Heroes (of which he undeniably is one based on his power set alone) seems like a great way to get there - and hence his inner struggle. And remember, what separates great characters from merely good ones is that great characters have (believable) internal struggles and do not merely react to external ones in interesting ways.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Spider-Man knows that he's defined by his struggle with being both Spider-Man and Peter Parker. He's the hero that saves the world at the expense of getting the girl, and most of his greatest stories deal with his struggle to balance the competing responsibilities of his dual identities. Its clear that Homecoming's writers understood this, and delivered it in an organic-enough way that we instantly recognized an authentically Spider-Man struggle without it feeling forced.
What helps too is that most of the characters in this movie are also believable. Aunt May is played by Marissa Tomei, someone of an appropriate age to be the aunt of a 15 year old, and a terrific actress who I hope gets more screen time in the next installment. Parker's classmates are believable kids who feel like real, authentic high schoolers. It helps that they're played by actors in their late teens to early 20s and not 30 year olds, but that's a digression.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Michael Keaton plays a believable bad guy. He's no evil mastermind bent on world domination, but a down on his luck working class man who turned to a life science-fiction crime in order to make ends meat. It's this relate-able bad guy that adds so much to the movie, and casting Keaton was an added bonus. Like his equipment, Keaton's turn as The Vulture is larger than life, but only slightly, ("I thought this was the anti-gravity gun") and he truly seems like a dark mirror to Holland's working class super hero.
Given the length of this review, I'll cut it short here. Afterall, the action is what you would expect from an MCU entry, the music is fine though un-remarkable, and the direction is effectively invisible. Marvel's getting really good at its assembly-line production of MCU movies these days, and in the end, Homecoming is no exception. The end result was a fresh look at the eventual future of the MCU. I look forward to what new heights Spider-Man may eventually reach.