7/01/2017

Review: 'Spider-Man: Homecoming' Soars When The Training Wheels Are Off


Spider-Man represents everything that's great about the Marvel Universe. He's the working-class hero, gifted with amazing powers, yet his struggles are no different than yours or mine, with the whole exception of supervillains trying to kill him every day. And with those abilities comes the responsibility to use them for the greater good, that whole "With Great Power..." thing. The Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn't felt right without him, to be perfectly honest. With Spider-Man: Homecoming the MCU has finally been set right, and they did it with a film that's funny, light on its feet, a little bit retro, a little bit modern, and different than any Spider-Man we've seen on the big screen.


Different how? Haven't we seen how young Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man a bunch of times already, including just a couple of years ago by Sony? That's just it. Spider-Man: Homecoming skips all of that origin stuff we already know and jumps in with both webs, and somehow it's made a stronger film by doing so. Marvel and Sony, who struck a deal to bring Spidey to the MCU after the latter's failure on The Amazing Spider-Man, have gambled correctly that we already know everything we need to know about his past. We know how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man, but how does Peter Parker learn to handle the responsibility that comes with it? All while trying to survive high school?


If it sounds like something out of a super-powered John Hughes flick, it's clear that's where director Jon Watts (of the little seen thriller Cop Car) and a handful of writers wanted to take it. And with new star Tom Holland, the third actor to play Peter Parker in recent years, and also the youngest, it actually feels like a film that should be set in high school. Oftentimes it feels like Spider-Man by way of Harry Potter-at-Hogwarts, and that's pretty cool for a superhero movie set in the Marvel Universe. Parker is exactly the dork we expect him to be. He's got an equally nerdy pal, Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), a girl he's seriously crushing on (Laura Harrier) who is way out of his league, an annoying bully in Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), a doting Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, there's something weird about a sexy Aunt May) and other teen issues to deal with. But it's pretty tough when you've just finished hanging out with the Avengers, stealing Captain America's shield, and having Tony Stark on speed dial.


While Stark is dealing with the fallout from 'Civil War', Parker is placed under the not-so-watchful eye of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), who is busy preparing for the Avengers' big move into a new HQ. That leaves Parker free to do pretty much whatever he wants, and that does not include being a "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man" as Stark suggests. He instead latches on to a weapon ring led by The Vulture (Michael Keaton), who has assembled a crew powered with leftover alien tech. Other than the high school stuff, the plotline closely resembles the Marvel One-Shot, Item 47. That Chitauri tech from The Avengers sure has some staying power; it must be laying around everywhere across New York just waiting for bad guys to find. Vulture, who has reason to beef with Stark, has decided to take that tech and go into business for himself. If only it weren't for that meddling Spider-Man!


This version of Spider-Man is like none before it. Peter Parker is a kid fully from our time, one with the social media age and all that entails. If a kid nowadays got superpowers and fought the Avengers, he'd be Instagramming and tweeting the heck out of it. Who could blame him? And that's our Peter Parker. But he's still finding his way, and dividing his attention between school stuff and superheroics leads to a lot of mistakes and disappointments.  You can probably guess most of it; Parker is torn between doing cool stuff with his friends or stopping the Vulture, and his secret identity causes problems getting with the girl he likes. And at least in one case it very nearly gets everyone killed. And while we've seen it before elsewhere it feels fresh and new as part of the MCU, and with a tone that is even lighter than the Marvel movies tend to be. It really does feel like Ferris Bueller's Day Off  and The Breakfast Club on occasion, partly because of the many nods to them. But Parker isn't a model teen, he isn't perfect. He bucks authority (Stark, Happy), oversteps his bounds, and gets into trouble. His imperfections are what make him cool.


While many will be jazzed by Spidey's high-tech suit, a gift from Stark, it felt like an abandonment of Peter Parker's greatest attribute: his intelligence. Call me an old fogey but one of the best things about Spider-Man is that he was a homegrown hero, with a suit crafted from Parker's ample brain and imagination, not some slick, heavily-armed warsuit provided by a billionaire. This thing lets Spidey zip around the city at top speed, has multiple fighting forms and web combinations, along with more gadgets than a garage full of James Bond cars. Sure, it's "cool" to look at, but it takes away from Spidey that he's always relying so much on Iron Man. The number of times Iron Man arrives as a crutch to help get him out of trouble is seriously deflating.  It does ultimately pay off, in a tough confrontation where Stark reads Parker the riot act: “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t be wearing it.”  Sound familiar? Stark does turn out to be the perfect mentor figure, though. He's the only Avenger who truly gets where Parker is coming from, and in some ways this is as much a step forward for Stark as anyone else. Too bad this isn't his movie. Spider-Man: Homecoming reaches its most impressive heights when the training wheels are off and Stark isn't around.


There are plenty of killer action sequences, given the blistering amount of speed that a Spider-Man fight should have. The highlights are a daring rescue atop the Washington Monument, and a showdown with Vulture on a Staten Island Ferry that recalls one of Tobey Maguire's best moments from the Sam Raimi movies. But the real pleasures come from watching Parker cope with the problems that come with being a high school student. The title 'Homecoming' has multiple meanings. There's Spidey's "homecoming" to the MCU, and then there's the actual school dance, which as you probably guessed turns into more than just a cool yearbook opportunity. Between Batalon, Revolori, Harrier, Zendaya Coleman, Abraham Attah (the kid from Beasts of No Nation is movin' up!), and others, the ethnic diversity reflects what a high school in Queens should look like. They make for an entertaining and believable supporting cast for Holland to play off of. Easily a better fit for Peter Parker than Andrew Garfield was, Holland gives the role the youthful energy it needed. Where's that been?


The MCU is littered with mediocre villains but The Vulture isn't one of them. While we don't get a lot of backstory, we don't really need it. It's all summed up in one scene early on. He's a guy who has been screwed by a system he sees as unfair, and Stark is the face of that system. What makes Vulture interesting is that he isn't a traditional bad guy by any stretch. He's not an angry god or an evil robot, he is in a lot of ways like the flipside to Spider-Man, using his wits to do what he thinks is right. A twist towards the end stretches the bounds of credibility and sends Vulture into one-note villain territory, but even then Keaton is never less than fearsome.


There are lots of little moments that stretch the bounds of credibility, like ANY high school kid being able to hack into Tony Stark's computer system. Come on, man. I don't care how smart Parker and Ned are, that shouldn't happen. And a final act twist, which complicates homecoming something fierce, is telegraphed from a mile away, probably a byproduct of the four credited screenwriters. Other than the Stark connection, and a very funny Captain America cameo, Spider-Man: Homecoming isn't seriously tied down by Avengers continuity. I'm not sure it could have been the same movie otherwise. Hopefully that freedom will become a trademark of the franchise moving forward, because we're going to be seeing a lot more of Spider-Man than any other Marvel character. And while Spider-Man: Homecoming isn't quite at the head of the class yet, it does something I didn't think possible, and that's breathe new life into the character, and the Marvel Universe is better for it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5