Thursday, July 13, 2017

Film Review: Spider-Man Homecoming

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable 
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Acceptable
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

I am hesitant to call this the best Spider-Man movie yet.  

But I will say that this is the most fun Spider-Man ever.

The story begins in 2012 with the aftermath of The Avengers on a devastated New York.  Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his salvage crew are in the process of cleaning up the damage, including the alien hardware.  But a joint venture between the federal government and Star Industries, muscles him out of his contracts without compensation which will ruin his family and his employees financially.  That is until a member of his crew Phineas Mason (Michael Chernus) realizes that they can make weapons out of the alien tech they never turned over.  This starts Toomes on a life of theft and black market arms dealing.

We then pick up Peter Parker (Tom Holland) where we saw him in Captain America: Civil War. Director Jon Watts does a hilarious job of showing us footage that Peter Parker filmed on his cell phone during that movie.  It captures the humor and zeitgeist of the teenage millennial in the best way.  

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) allows Peter to keep the teched-out suit he made him.  Peter keeps patrolling his neighborhood hoping to be called up by Stark to the big leagues.  Meanwhile at his school of Midtown Science, he hangs out with his fellow Sophomore best friend and sidekick Ned (Jacob Batalon) who both make googly eyes at Senior Liz (Laura Harrier).  Peter gets bullied by snobby Flash (Tony Revolori) and gets sarcastic comments from Michelle (Zendaya).  All the while, Peter tries to keep his crime-fighting a secret from his aunt May (Marissa Tomei).  But then Peter stumbles upon Toomes crew and takes it upon himself to take them down.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the first feature film starring Spider-Man that is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Rather than trod well-worn ground that has been covered in the original Spider-Man Trilogy and in The Amazing Spider-Man films, Homecoming goes in a different direction.

I remember watching an interview with Jackie Chan once.  He became the largest martial arts star in the world during a time when there were so many other trying to claim that mantle from the late Bruce Lee.  What set Chan apart, he said, was that he decided not to imitate Lee.  If Lee would use a punch, Chan would use a kick.  If Lee would go dramatic, Chan would go comedic.  This made Chan stand out and forced him to be more creative than the others.

I can see the same thing applied here with Homecoming.  Director Jon Watts and writers Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers understand what has come before them and do their best to avoid it.  The most noticeable thing is that even though this is the first in a new series for Spider-Man, it is not an origin story.  This allows for a lot of the brooding we found with the death of Uncle Ben to be jettisoned and allows for a much lighter tone.

I laughed more during this movie than during some all-out comedies.  The jokes really do fly fast and furious here and most of them land nicely.  And while the other Spider-Man franchises started in high school, the setting was really incidental to the story.  In Homecoming, the setting is essential to understanding the character.  In fact the title emphasizes that this is a high school movie.  Peter is a hero, but he is also a high school kid.  He is immature in all the ways that teenager can be without being too unlikeable.  He has a good heart and a sharp mind, but he lacks wisdom and insight.  This film taps in to that universal experience of surviving high school drama that John Hughes did so well.

Hughes influence on this movie cannot be overstated and sometimes is made explicit in the film.  This is a movie is a high school soap opera and that is not a bad thing.  This is where the film derives so much of its heart and humor.  There is a particularly Ferris Buellerian sequence where Spider-Man has to chase someone but he is in the suburbs with no tall buildings from which to swing.  What follows is hysterical.  And even though the movie is funny it never winks at the camera too much so that you don't take the action seriously.  This is not an easy balancing act, and yet Watts pulls it off amazingly.

Even though this is not an origin story, this is a film about Peter becoming the hero we all know him to be.  And at times it is wonderful and painful.  There is one scene where Liz invites Peter to go swimming when he needs to head out on a mission.  The set up is so good that I emotionally gave Peter permission in my head to enjoy himself because he is, after all, still a kid.  But Peter is constantly pulled by his higher calling.  One of the things that Watts does so well is that Peter is always on the outside looking in.  Throughout the film we see Peter looking in at normal high school life which is something so close to him and yet he is set apart.

One of the things that the movie reminded me of was St. Terese of Liseiux.  Peter, like most young people, wants to go out and save the whole world.  But throughout the movie he is constantly reminded that someone has to look out for the little guy.  It reminded me of The Little Flower when she said that we need to do little things with great love.  It isn't that Peter's actions aren't great.  It's that he comes to understand that someone has to look for the least ones.  The beginning of the film is a reminder that even the big heroes like Iron Man sometimes cause inadvertent pain to the ordinary men and women they are trying to help.

On another side note, I was impressed by the relative modesty of the characters.  Yes, Holland does walk around in his underwear, but the girl he admires, Liz, dresses very femininely without being too revealing.  Even when she went swimming I think she wore a one-piece.  And the same can be said of most of the cast as I recall.  There were a few genital and pornography jokes however, but nothing too terribly vulgar.

Special note should be given to Holland's performance.  He is fantastic as Peter.  Compare him to the vacant pseudo-coolness of Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver and you can see what real charisma looks like.  He embodies that teenage mixture of contradictions like awkward and confident, smart and stupid, brave and scared.  You can understand him being intimidated by a girl and yet why she would be attracted to him.  And all the while, he shows you the depths of his angst in his looks.  His physical acting while in the suit is also fun and expressive.  He hits just the right town with body language and voice.  One of my favorite moments occurs after Peter has screwed up badly and his first question after all is said and done is, "Is everyone safe?"  He delivers it with such selflessness and shame that my heart broke a little.

Much has been made of Keaton's performance and it isn't bad, but it is also not his best.  The main problem with it is that unlike when he played Batman, he doesn't really embody the character.  When he played Bruce Wayne, he was Bruce Wayne.  When he plays Toomes, he is Michael Keaton putting on a performance as Toomes.  But what his performance lacks in this area, it makes up for in style and energy.

The rest of the supporting cast is good as well.  Downey Jr. has very little screen time, but he delivers some one of the most emotional "dad moments" of the movie.  Tomei is also good, but she is not given nearly enough to do.  Batalon, however, steals the show as Ned.  He might be my new favorite Marvel character.  He infuses a great non-ironic sense of "gee-whiz" to this movie that I haven't seen since the character of Russell from Up.

And make no mistake, this is an action film.  The film builds to an exciting showdown that raises the stakes emotionally in a way that I was not expecting.  

I had fun at this movie from start to finish and I cannot wait to see it again.  The only reason I haven't given a higher star rating is that I am waiting to see if the humor has a diminishing return upon subsequent viewings.  And the humor is such an essential part of what makes this movie work.

But I do have to say that Spider-Man: Homecoming might be the most fun I've had at the theater this year.

4 out of 5 stars

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