Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Directed by Jon Watts

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This is the third new Spider-Man movie since 2002, but this time around we waste no time with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) before the radioactive spider bite turns him into a crime-fighting, wise-cracking superhero.  In the past versions of the story, the first sequence would establish Peter’s non-superhero life.  He’s a high school student with a crush on Mary Jane, he lives with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and he’s a bit of a social outcast.  There’s also the cliche high school bully, often played by an actor who looks 30.

Then Peter gets bitten, and the second sequence is all about him discovering his powers.  But as an audience, we know what he’s about to discover, so as Peter asks “what’s going on?” we already know the answer.

Homecoming ignores much of this.  We don’t see how Peter was bitten, how he figured out what he’s capable of, how his Uncle Ben was killed or how he built his web shooter.  We learn very quickly everything we need to know, and this allows us to get to know Peter/Spider-man as a high school student and crimefighter.  The ‘normal’ from which we start out is Peter already as Spider-man.  This means that his transformation will go beyond simply getting bitten by a spider.

And that gives Peter a more interesting character journey.  He was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War in which he only had a scene or two.  When Homecoming begins, there is a brief expository sequence, shown through Peter’s video diary, catching us up on what we might’ve missed or forgotten.  Peter works for Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), and he hopes to become part of the Avengers.  Peter starts off as a restless kid who wants to join his favorite team, but they have no use for him as of yet.

Peter’s journey, then, is about biting off more than he can chew and understanding that, despite his abilities and good intentions, he’s still just a kid who may cause more damage than he can fix.  Early in the film he thwarts a bank robbery but discovers that the robbers are using very strong, sci-fi laden laser guns which cause a small explosion, destroying the neighborhood sandwich shop to which Peter is a regular visitor.

He wants to track down and stop whoever is selling these guns, and he can’t figure out why the Avengers, mainly Tony Stark, doesn’t seem to care.  This all builds to a fiery act 2 climax in which Peter tries to thwart an arms dealer, led by the movie’s villain “Vulture,” (Michael Keaton), on a Staten Island Ferry.  The weapons are too much for him to handle, and they end up splitting the Ferry in two, and that’s when Iron Man shows up to fix the damage Peter has caused.

In a stern talking to moment, like a father to a son, Tony tells Peter that he had it handled.  Stark had warned the FBI who were there to arrest the arms dealers, and all Peter has done is cause more trouble.  Tony takes away Peter’s Iron Man-esque suit as a punishment.

The one gripe I have with this is that Stark’s idea to put an end to Vulture’s weapons-dealing is to call the FBI.  Vulture’s weapons literally vaporize people, so you’d think Stark would understand that the Avengers are needed to put an end to this.  Either that or he didn’t do his research.

Anyways, in act 3, Peter goes back to being a high school kid until he runs back into Vulture, or Adrian Toomes as his real name is, when Toomes turns out to be the father of Peter’s homecoming date, Liz (Laura Harrier).  The act 3 battle leads to an invisible plane on which much of Tony Stark’s equipment is being transported to their new base in upstate New York.  It’s an explosive battle and an entertaining one at that, unlike many of the superhero third act clashes.  The action is big and bold, but it never gets too confusing or goes too far.  It’s a nice set piece, as it should be, but it doesn’t feel burdened with excessive CGI and green screen, even though by necessity it was loaded with both of those components.

Having proven himself to Stark, Peter receives an invite to join the Avengers, but he elects to stay closer to the ground, working as our “friendly neighborhood Spider-man.”

There are six screenwriting credits on this movie.  That’s insane, and it’s a miracle that it holds together with so many voices involved.  Generally when that many people are pulled into a story, it will lose something and become a watered down version of something else we’ve seen a million times before.

But Homecoming is fun.  There are some cliche superhero moments (Peter seeing his reflection in the puddle), but the story always feels fun, mainly because Peter is a joyous character.  Peter Parker, in part incarnations, has been silent, put upon and angsty.  But here Parker is alive.  He’s hard not to like, and the movie creates a more thought out high school world around him than other versions of the story.

Peter’s bully?  He’s a teammate on the mathlete team.  His best friend?  Well I don’t know if he had a best friend in the other movies, but here he’s pals with Ned (Jacob Batalon), a kid who finds out early on that Peter is Spider-man, allowing for plenty of jokes in which Ned becomes the audience surrogate, asking all the questions we might ask if we found out our friend was a superhero.

His friends aren’t dumb, in other words.  Oftentimes there is so much effort put into making sure someone doesn’t uncover Peter’s true identity, and in order to make the movie more dramatic, these characters are put in positions where they could find out but don’t.  The effect is that these characters sometimes come across as dim-witted or at least pretty uninteresting, since they don’t have much of a role other than to tease the audience with how close they get to knowing the truth.

But the characters in this movie are allowed a chance to feel real and thought out.  There are a bunch of great side characters played by the likes of Martin Starr (Silicon ValleyFreaks & Geeks), Hannibal Buress, Donald Glover and even Nacho from Better Call Saul, though only for a shot or two.

Homecoming is a little long, but it’s not hard to watch.  Michael Keaton is great as the villain even if he is a little hard to believe, as many villains are.  He states his theory on the world and reasoning for becoming the way he is, just so you know the writers put some consideration into his backstory, but we see Toomes go from hardworking construction manager, cleaning up the damage from the events of The Avengers, to becoming a flying, villainous bird person because of a single slight.  He might be the pettiest villain I can remember, and while his story works just fine, it could use a little more room to develop.  In past Spider-man movies, the villain becomes the villain over the course of the story, but here, Toomes becomes the villain in a quick prologue and then is just the villain the entire time for the rest of the movie.

So, to finish off, good movie that doesn’t transcend its genre but doesn’t try to.  And what does that mean anyway?  It’s not like most movies transcend their genre.  But my favorite recent superhero movie was Logan, and maybe I’m romanticizing it more as time goes on, but it’s a superhero movie that tells its own story, with stakes, consequences, and a strong character.  It feels like a story with a man who just happens to have super powers.  I’d put Spider-man just below that but above a movie like Wonder Woman which had plenty of heart, character and a strong message in its second act, but slowed down in acts 1 and 3 when it resembled almost every other superhero movie I can remember (leap through time to show the character’s backstory, then the loud, almost obnoxious climax with energy beams and loud music in the third act).

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