Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The young avenger


SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

A Spider-Man movie, that isn't a Spider-Man movie, but is?  (Review summary best read in the voice of would-be Spider-Man Donald Glover, for whom we shall shed a small tear, and always wish the best.)

2017
Directed by Jon Watts
Written by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, and Jon Watts
With Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Jacob Batalon (Ned), Jennifer Connelly (Karen), Marisa Tomei (May Parker), Laura Harrier (Liz Allan), Zendaya (Michelle), Tony Revolori (Flash Thompson), Donald Glover (Aaron Davis), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), and Michael Keaton (Adrian Toomes)

Spoiler alert: moderate


After a decade and a half spent with their signature character locked away, Marvel finally got their Spider-Man back.  The ink on the contracts hadn't even dried before the webslinger made the leap—just in time for Captain America: Civil War, into which Marvel crammed their beloved son (whether wisely or not), giving him a featured cameo that, in fairness, was maybe the best part of the whole movie.  And now comes Spider-Man: Homecoming—its very title (again, wisely or not) an explicit reference to the momentousness of the event.  So, let's recap: for the first time, the role's been filled with a remotely age-appropriate actor; for the first time, the character is where he belongs, living in a world of other superheroes, filling a niche nobody else could; and, for the first time, the company that made him would get the chance to do Spider-Man right.

And then they made this movie instead—the wrongest Spider-Man of all.

Which, of course, isn't the same as being the worst.  It's not even the same as being less than great—maybe the biggest irony of Homecoming is that the least-right Spider-Man film could, without even too much handwringing, likewise be described as the most-good.  Yet it's downright perverse, in my estimation, that returning Spider-Man to the fold actually meant reorienting the character so hard it could could give Sam Raimi the spins.

Turns out you can't go home again.

Thanks to Civil War—and thanks to Marvel's successful strategy of collapsing their rich and potentially wide-ranging cinematic universe into a single ongoing TV show that merely happens to be theatrically-released—the swarming army of Jons and Chrisses whom Kevin Feige hired to write and direct this thing have been required, as part of their job description, to fit Spider-Man like a puzzle piece into the Avengers movies.  This, obviously, has necessitated a bizarre reimagination of the character's external circumstances, that couldn't be further from where the character started out in 1962.

Homecoming begins where Civil War left off—actually, that's wrong.  It begins where The Avengers left off, with a prologue to establish the villain.  After that, it begins in the middle of Civil War, thereby setting up the dynamic that will drive this film (and bring Peter Parker to the edge of ruin): Peter is inexperienced and overwhelmed, and, recognizing this, Tony "Iron Man" Stark has taken on the role of Peter's unfathomably shitty mentor.  If that doesn't sound like a proper Spider-Man story to an outside observer, then I guess we should mention that the outside observer isn't entirely correct: it is, after all, a substantially direct adaptation of Spider-Man's brief Iron Spider era—which, rather crucially, was written in the mid-2000s, in a milieu where Spider-Man had revealed his identity to the world and Peter had found himself wading ankle-deep into middle age.  Thus does the sheer offness of Homecoming enter the picture, when it decides to take a story about an established adult hero and drop it into a movie about a teenaged rookie, in the process coming very, very close to turning it into a tale less about Spider-Man, per se, than a brand-new character who might as well have been named Iron Man Junior.

If nothing else, it did have the virtue of being different.  But that first proper scene also makes you believe in comic book movie miracles.  By giving everything it's got to this Peter Parker, a flailing fanboy who happens to have superpowers of his own, Homecoming tells a Spider-Man story after all, about great power and great responsibility, and about slowly inching toward the day we all know can never quite come—the day when Peter can finally look at himself in a mirror, and truly believe in the good man he sees.

Homecoming is blessed to have a Spider-Man who can deliver that story—indeed, the best, most perfectly balanced Spider-Man there ever was.  Obviously, Tobey Maguire was a helluva nerd as Peter; Andrew Garfield was extraordinarily douchey behind the mask (which sounds like a rag, but it's spot-on characterization).  I tell you, I love them both.  But Tom Holland can do all the things Maguire and Garfield did well, only he does them better, and he can do them all at once.  That means we finally have an actor who can explicate the mystery at the heart of Spider-Man, which is that while "Spider-Man" might just be a performance Peter puts on, both for his own amusement and to make himself feel cool in the only way he knows how, the confident superhero he pretends to be is the most authentic of all possible Peter Parkers.  (Not for nothing does this film directly riff on Ferris Bueller, the most supreme of all teenaged wish-fulfillment fantasies.)  The Spider-Man Screenwriters Association gives Holland all the right material to put his best foot forward; what we get, for our part, is the most revelatory performance in a superhero movie in years.  (And remember, this is in a time when great superhero performances are actually pretty commonplace.)  Holland's exactly what Homecoming needed, in order to totally work: a lead who first understood what his character should be, then took that character intact through a story that breaks with so many of his cherished traditions—for example, the cherished Spider-Man tradition of "not having a costume with a talking AI in it."  Though, credit where it's due, Pete's long sojourn with a computer sidekick is an excuse for some truly lovely exchanges.

Of course, when you break it down to its elementary particles, Homecoming is still made of the same basic stuff as every other Spider-flick—above all, the part where Peter finds a crappy dad with superpowers.  But in turning the evergreen father figure into a neglectful superhero, rather than a mad scientist asshole one setback away from becoming a goblin, a cyborg, or a giant cannibal lizard, Homecoming frees up its antagonist's slot for something simpler.  (The even better side effect is that it lets Peter himself breathe a little bit more, too.)

Not only does he not have to worry about this father trying to kill his girlfriend or literally chew his face off, he also doesn't have to worry about this one dying, either.  (And, for what it's worth, True Believer, this movie doesn't mention Uncle Ben at all.  Of all the many things in this movie that feel like a cold soda on a hot day, this has got to be the most unexpected.)

Even the downside is an upside: old Robert Downey, whose disinterest in Iron Man has been radiating off the screen for a while, but which was cleverly used to anchor the narrative in Civil War, is worked into the story once again in Homecoming—after all, Tony's borderline-criminal disregard for Pete is the foundation stone of their relationship.

Now, the plot is emphatic boilerplate—and it's almost invigorating, in its way, to have a movie where the external conflict doesn't involve much more than Spider-Man fighting a punch-clock crook, which is what he does in 90% of his actual comics.  Well, our villain this time is the one Raimi didn't get to use, the Vulture (never quite named as such in the film).  He starts as Adrian Toomes, possible Trump voter and blue collar businessman, who got screwed over a few years back when his contract with the City of New York to clean up the alien wreckage from the ending of Avengers got preempted by national security concerns (and, also, by a self-dealing fatcat by the name of Stark).  Having stolen a truckload of the alien tech anyway, Toome's spent the intervening period reinventing himself as an arms dealer specializing in super-weapons.  Business is good—or, at least, it is, until a meddlesome spider-guy gets involved.

And that's pretty much the long and short of it—for Spider-Man's dramatic arc is almost entirely about how Iron Man doesn't trust Spidey enough to fight bona fide supervillains (and he shouldn't, because young Pete sucks at it), but is also too self-involved to do anything about the problem himself, leaving Peter with the choice to do nothing and let people die, or grow up, prove Tony wrong, and take matters into his own hands.  (It's no spoiler that he does, and this eventually leads into Homecoming's single dangerous flirtation with outright bullshit screenwriting; but, I've got to admit, because it's bullshit in the best comic book tradition, and because it pushes Homecoming the closest I can imagine any superhero film ever getting to "Hitchockian," it's very easy to forgive.)  Toomes does have the significant benefit of being written with a sense of humanity to him, and being played by Michael Keaton, though let's get this straight: hype notwithstanding, it's not a great performance.  Not that it isn't a pretty darned good one, though, leavened into a genuine vitality by Keaton's sighing way of committing evil deeds in order to keep his dignity in a world that's denied it to him.

And, still, if the Vulture is the best MCU villain since Loki, remember that just about anybody could trip over that particular bar.

This actually leaves a lot of time for Homecoming to fill; but if there's one thing this movie has absolutely no problem with, it's filling time, namely with the most straightforwardly appealing slice-of-life superheroics and superhero-adjacent shenanigans in forever.  As to the latter, Homecoming is pretty much a full-on comedy, appealingly eager to explore Peter's life as a nerd in a magnet high school full of cooler nerds.  It's a good comedy, too, from its throwaway jokes, that could rest easy in any high school comedy (like the hilariously low-talent morning announcements) to the cute-as-a-button ways it jams the MCU even further down our throats (Captain America shows up to rap with the youth, which is exactly as delightfully lame as it sounds), all the way down to the awesome high school archetype ensemble the film's assembled, notably Ned, Peter's even-dorkier best pal.  Somebody could plausibly rework Homecoming into a pretty neat teen movie that doesn't have Spider-Man in it at all.  (It would be a strange one, though; something I have elected to find seriously charming about Homecoming is the way it executes its high school comedy with the apparent intention of garnering a G-rating, yet still manages to be massively funny.)  Even so, hewing strictly to Peter Parker Can Definitely Lose would be to deny the hang-out phase of Homecoming its even better half—for it also features the finest, most wonderfully easygoing "superhero does chores" montage since Superman itself.

Homecoming is, in a word, fun.  It is intoxicated with the thrill of the mundanely impossible—director Jon Watts, though no doubt beholden to far too many stakeholders, nevertheless does an estimable job of making Homecoming so exceptionally joyful.  (With, I noticed, a special penchant for wide 'Scope shots that make for an odd, but very effective, punctuation to this film's bevy of web-spinning gags.)  Meanwhile, he handles the action more-or-less well, the best bits coming before the climax—Spidey's jaunt to the Washington Monument is actually pretty close to my favorite Spider-Man set-piece (marred solely by a strident call-out to Raimi's original Spider-Man, that just jarred me right out of the picture).  But even Homecoming's climax in the sky (of course it has a climax in the sky) is still quite conceptually cool—and it has the advantage of being vastly more self-contained, more focused, and (importantly) more concise than the average superhero flick's aerial dust-up.

If there's a real flaw to be found, and there unfortunately is, it's where Raimi (and even Marc Webb) succeeded.  It's where Watts just flat-out fucks up.  It's layering the ecstasy of Spider-Man with the agony.  (Nothing is helped by Michael Giacchino's score: if Giacchino's work on Dr. Strange felt faintly like a course correction toward more interesting music in Marvel movies, Homecoming could just as easily have been released with preexisting MCU stock cues.)   Anyway, we get a reasonably well-done "Spider-Man lifts a heavy thing" moment, but soon enough, we find Homecoming stumbling through both its emotional climaxes, first failing to completely commit to the moral dimensions of Pete's last struggle with the Vulture—and, then overstepping its storytelling bounds entirely.  In the last few minutes, a film which, amazingly and spectularly alike, actually has been about Spider-Man decides to run what feels like half a reel from Iron Man 5—or maybe now it's 6.  It is, in reality, only about 90 seconds; but it is intrusive and egregiously terrible.

You want (at this point, you need) a little bit more from Pete—just more volume would do it, really, and I have every confidence that Holland, left to his own devices, would've made better choices than the ones Watts and Feige leave available to him—but, instead, here's a cameo, enjoy.

It's one disagreeably middling way to end such a largely excellent movie.  (Caveat: the post-credits stings are extra-worthwhile this time around, especially the second—though the first and more substantive of the two clearly just belongs in the movie proper.)  But a semi-soft wrap-up does not, in any sense, invalidate the rest of it.  Homecoming takes what looks like a grotesquely misguided idea and, somehow, turns it into the savior of the summer.

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