Skip to main content

Spider-Man is not a party trick!

Spider-Man: Homecoming
(2017)

(SPOILERS) A supremely satisfying superhero movie that shows everyone, even the sometimes laurels-resting Marvel, taking the reins of their most renowned property for the first time on the big screen, how it should be done. I wasn’t as down on the Andrew Garfield incarnation of Spidey as most, although he certainly didn’t deserve the “amazing” adjective before his name. Spider-Man: Homecoming, in contrast, wisely keeps its hero’s lowered stakes in sight throughout, and in so doing keeps you invested in his trials and tribulations to a degree all but foreign to the genre.


Scott Mendelson’s Forbes review complained that Homecoming turns Peter Parker into “a dangerously incompetent would-be superhero”, overplaying his inexperience to the extent that he becomes a “consistent threat and menace”. He adds that Jon Watts’ movie is reduced to another de facto origins story (minus the origins). I wouldn’t actually argue with either of the points he’s making, but his interpretation, that you “actively root for Peter to stop being Spider-Man… because he’s terrible at being Spider-Man” was certainly way off my own response to Peter’s failings.


Part of the inherent problem – or at least, obstacle to overcome – facing the superhero genre is the unbeatable hero needing to spar with ever-more indomitable adversaries – and consequent carnage – to justify their lauded status. It can lead to fairly unnuanced plotting and characterisation, which is why Homecoming feels like a breath of fresh air. Yes, Peter screws up with a certain degree of consistency, but only at one point does he actually require an intervention. Besides which, the map of the movie is one in which his failures can largely be laid at the door of neglect by his elders and self-nominated mentors who should be moulding his talents, rather than his own inherent inadequacy (that he is essentially rewarded at the end for doing the same thing he was chastised for earlier shows either the writers’ flippancy or Tony Stark’s hypocrisy). Plus, it’s simply a damn sight more thrilling to watch a sequence not knowing how the hero is going to get out of that one, given the multiple erroneous decisions he has made en route. Even more so when that sequence is infused with complementary humour preventing it from descending into the functional.


I’d have more sympathy with the origins story complaint – God knows, we’ve seen enough of them – if Watts and his co-screenwriters (five of them!) weren’t so deft and inventive in showing “Penis” Parker learning the ropes, or webs. Yeah, it’s an argument to say it would be better to have him on an Avengers level of confidence from the off, but you entirely miss the potential of his enduring teenage rites of passage. It would be more the pity if, come the next sequel, he’s too proficient, bringing with it a danger of the diminishment of his unique superheroic stature.


And Holland is having so much fun as Peter, a pronounced geek but an uber-witty one with it, that the picture would become unbalanced if he had that super-confidence as Spider-Man diffusing his frustrations as Peter, the guy who is “reduced” to building a Lego Death Star with his best buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon, possessed of spot-on comic timing). Lest we needed reminding this version of Parker is occupying John Hughes territory, a clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off accompanies his less-than-elegant traversal of a leafy-gardened suburban sprawl (the picture takes delight in reminding us that not everywhere has a convenient edifice to swing from, most pointedly when Parker is compelled to perambulate across a park).


He has a bully to contend with (Tony Revolori, making good on his Grand Budapest Hotel potential, as Flash Thompson), an impossibly inapproachable girl he moons after (Laura Harrier’s Liz) and the desert-dry pal who harbours a secret crush (Zendaya as Michelle). Of the latter, the Hughes trope that the relationship the audience is rooting for is the one the hero is too blind to see is in full effect (Hughes made the mistake in Pretty in Pink of bending to the will of Hollywood physics and giving Molly Ringwald Andrew McCarthy over oddball Jon Cryer, while in Some Kind of Wonderful he course-corrected; Michelle’s actually much more Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club than either Cryer or Mary Stuart Masterson, though). Zendaya’s as perfectly cast as Holland and Batalon, reading Somerset Maugham in a gym class, with the reveal that she’s “MJ” a nice little take-it-or-leave-it.


The picture does a great job pulling Peter in different directions. He wants to step up as a hero but Stark ignores him. He wants hang out with Liz but superhero duties keep calling. And there’s the staple stone left mostly unturned by recent Marvel and DC (does anyone care about Clark Kent being in disguise?); Homecoming makes superlative use of the secret identity device. You might argue the “villain susses out the hero’s identity” device has been done enough, particularly since Homecoming essentially offers a variant on Spider-Man’s dinner scene with Willem Dafoe, but I can only say it doesn’t come across as well-worn. The reveal that Liz’s father is the bad guy is played for all its worth, with an infectiously unsettled Peter forced to shoot the breeze with Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) at the latter’s residence. And the ensuing drive to the homecoming dance, as Toomes gradually adds two and two together and makes Spider-Man, is marvellously sustained.


Another area superhero movies have tended to fall short of late is in the villain stakes. How many memorable ones have there been, particularly in the Marvel arena (I single Marvel out because the deficit is more glaring, given their superior quality in most areas)? Only Loki has encountered any degree of longevity. The Vulture, despite being laden with the umpteenth tech-suit in this lexicon (Green Goblin, Dr Octopus, the Rhino), is an entirely vivid creation. That’s party down to a reliably wired performance from Keaton, who definitely still has that Beetlejuice spark, but it’s also a reflection of a motivated bad guy with just enough under the hood to make him seem fleshed-out. He’s a family man, one who has been done over by the 1% (namely Stark) and sees no reason why they should reap all the rewards in their ivory towers.


It’s a continual irony of the Marvel franchise that its most popular and enduring big screen character should be one of the despised privileged, despite the series’ endeavours to puncture that bubble (that’s a charismatic lead actor for you), but this is the closest the they’ve comes to genuinely sticking it to the Stark. Toomes maybe needs to be a bit more filled in than he is, to make the leap to murderer, but nothing needs to be added to the picture of removed, out-of-touch and prideful Tony’s exalted status.


Toomes is, naturally, left standing – he’d need to be if there’s going to be a Sinister Six movie, at least with the original line-up, and it would be daft not to go there at some point: dafter still to try doing it without Spidey, as one of Sony’s baffling, clutching-at-straws, attempt to muster a separate Spider-Man movie universe of which Holland, and Spider-Man, is not a part – and it’s an additionally validating note that he refuses to divulge Peter’s identity to a not-so-fellow inmate, recognising that Parker is after all, an honourable kid.


Also effectively distinguishing Peter from his peers is his will to preserve life. Not in the slightly flaky, reactive sense where city-wide disaster porn cuts to a scene of a superhero nominally saving some faceless people (Age of Ultron responding to Man of Steel), but in a genuine way where – to flip Mendelson’s complaint to a positive – you’re willing Spider-Man not do anything that might hurt anyone. I don’t tend have any puritan sensibilities about this aspect of superhero movies, although it has clearly provoked much debate in respect of the Snyder-verse, but here it absolutely underpins the character. You don’t want a teenager with that on his conscience, and so it reflects a relatability to the characterisation that simply isn’t present in the rest of the Marvel universe, no matter what their – undoubted – respective merits. So Peter saving Toomes is a big deal, as are his escapades around the Washington Monument and the Staten Island Ferry, no matter how often he puts his foot in it.


Does Peter learn anything in Homecoming? I wasn’t under any illusion that he needed to, certainly not with a big neon sign saying “character development”, or that Marvel was supposed to be straining to force such progressive arcs – they’re more akin to pre-HBO TV in that sense – so Film Critic Hulk’s essay didn’t really vibe with me. Peter’s a teenager, so lingering growth is ephemeral by design. What’s a lesson one minute is forgotten the next, and what seems like a mountain to climb is scoffed at in retrospect (Hulk’s rallying cry to the merits of Wonder Woman is rather testament to how easy it is for a serious think piece to clutch shallow thematic material as justification for what you want a movie to be on emotive grounds).


There’s also the problem that, if you scrabbling around for profundity in the superhero-verse, you are, more nine times out of ten, onto a lost cause (which is in no way to denigrate them, but they do not, on the whole resonate in that way). The glibness Film Critic Hulk levels at Homecoming makes me appreciate it more, not less, because it avoids the sometime painful sincerity he cites in Spider-Man 2 (a movie I really like, but I don’t need to hear the “With great power comes great responsibility” mantra again any time soon). There’s also the simple guide that superhero movies in which our heroes stumble on the way to further self-gratification and narcissism is probably a more accurate reflection of real life than any Hollywood arcs showing three-act growth, just as long as we recognise them for what they are.


Going back to the set pieces, because that’s what I’d instantly want to see if I was a kid, and is pretty much what I want to see done well as a big one, the Washington Monument is tantamount to the perfect action sequence. Intimate yet extravagant in scope, building constantly with different threats and challenges, and breaking into applause for the money shot of Spider-Man back flipping over a police helicopter before flying through a window and saving the occupants of the plunging lift. It’s breathless, exhilarating and funny (Flash trying to save his trophy).


The ferry scene is similarly well-sprung, illustrating how Peter’s condemned for what he doesn’t achieve rather than what he does (98% there), and for which, rather than encouraged to learn how to make up the difference, he receives vilification (you might argue the FBI would have sorted things, left to their own devices; clearly, they’d have ended up dead). Particularly amusing is the switch from hollers of “Spider-Man!” to applause for Iron Man saving the day. The truck heist is also effectively staged, although more memorable for the subsequent interlude of Peter stuck in a Department of Damage Control vault, talking to his in-suit computer Karen (appealingly voiced by Jennifer Connelly) and trying out the costume’s capabilities, before getting bored/frustrated.


The fact is, near-disaster at the hero’s behest is a much more interesting way to muster tension than a clean sweep. You don’t want it overdone, but the early gambit, where Peter takes down “the Avengers” before having to save Mr Delmar (Hemky Madera) and his cat, works for precisely that reason.


In contrast, much of the plane sequence, at least until Spider-Man has to guide it to a safe crash site, is a collection of blandly organised pixels; in itself that says something positive, as it’s the only part of the movie that left me largely indifferent. Tellingly, it’s also the one that most resembles a standard superhero action set-to (director Watts rises to the challenge of big features with ease; it’s only a shame Marvel is content on giving its Avengers pictures to the competent Russo Brothers, since style is one thing the studio should be taking away as a lesson from Watts here). Yes, maybe Peter’s hi-tech suit is a little overcooked, since as comedic as it makes his learning curve, he should be identified without all that supporting paraphernalia, but that’s precisely why the second half hastens his having to fall back on improvised, Kick-Ass gear.


Marisa Tomei is as hot as ever as Aunt May, Jon Favreau gives good comic timing as the endearingly dismissive Happy, Stan Lee gets a jolly cameo (ones where he’s called on to be naturalistic always work better), it’s nice to see Pepper again (I miss Gwynie on the big screen, even if no one else does), Donald Glover delivers an amusing twist on grilling a perp for information (no, I didn’t realise his character is Miles Morales’ uncle), and Chris Evans gets the biggest consistent laughs in the picture with his Cap high school propaganda videos (the end credits clip is an absolutely entirely deserved slap in audience’s faces, one worthy of Joe Dante). 


For me, though, the most surprising element was the fate of Logan Marshall-Green’s Jackson Brice (as the first “Shocker”). Marshall-Green’s role is so small, I couldn’t quite believe that was all there was to it, even to the extent that I wondered if he might not be altogether dead, that the combination of gauntlet and weaponry tech did something to his genes, and that he might turn up again, perhaps as a new version of Electro, just with a different origins story.


Of course, Spider-Man: Homecoming has more than enough villains to be getting on with, having already given us Bokeem Woodbine’s second Shocker, Michael Chernus’ Tinkerer (his best moment comes when he admits to inspecting Toomes’ phone calls) and Michael Mando’s end credits eventual-Scorpion (another tech suit). Marvel would do well to take note of what worked so well with Keaton’s baddie here, as opposed to so many forgettable ones they’ve overseen. Even more so for Peter himself. Homecoming is an instant home run for the character, the best Marvel movie since Iron Man Three and a testament to why the character is an instant shoe-in as the best superhero when done right.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

You are, by your own admission, a vagabond.

Doctor Who Season 10 - Worst to Best
Season 10 has the cachet of an anniversary year, one in which two of its stories actively trade on the past and another utilises significant elements. As such, it’s the first indication of the series’ capacity for slavishly indulging the two-edged sword that is nostalgia, rather than simply bringing back ratings winners (the Daleks). It also finds the show at its cosiest, a vibe that had set in during the previous season, which often seemed to be taking things a little too comfortably. Season 10 is rather more cohesive, even as it signals the end of an era (with Jo’s departure). As a collection of stories, you perhaps wouldn’t call it a classic year, but as a whole, an example of the Pertwee UNIT era operating at its most confident, it more than qualifies.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ (or Zootopia as our American cousins refer to it; the European title change being nothing to do with U2, but down to a Danish zoo, it seems, which still doesn’t explain the German title, though) creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). It’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

So credit’s due to co-directors Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (of The Simpsons, Futurama, and latterly, the great until it kind of rests on its laurels Wreck-It-Ralph) and Jared Bush (presumably one of the th…

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.