08 July 2017

First Impressions: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man 6 (2017) is finally upon us and it doesn't disappoint at all. I've said this before and I'll say it again - it's as if Disney is the only studio that knows what it's doing. True on paper this was a SONY joint, but you felt Marvel all over this, especially since it was one of the MCU films most soaked in its mythology. In a weird way I said before that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) worked really well because it was the least connected MCU film, but Spider-Man: Homecoming works because it's one of the most connected. At the end of the day this discrepancy is simple: neither of those are actual reasons why they're enjoyable films - good films are just good films regardless of whatever extra content you want to use to justify that rationale.

"Get out of the way! I'm trying to get to Bushwick!"
The long road to this film even existing has been well-documented just about everywhere, so I think it's fair to skip it. I do want to talk, however, about how much this seemed like a last minute, cobbled together film, like Marvel suddenly said "Shit! We got Spider-Man! Let's put him in a movie!" That was definitely the vibe in Captain America: CIVIL WAR (2016), which could have existed perfectly fine without Peter Parker's inclusion. Somehow, though, Homecoming came out so damn good. It was almost like it was effortless.

Part of this is probably Marvel really knowing its flagship character better than anyone, although it's a miracle that the SIX writers on this film produced something really memorable, adorable, and powerful. The other part is that when this film rushed into production they didn't push a lot of staggering effects or earth-shaking stakes. Instead, they limited the special effects and focused on the characters and what do you know?! It works!

The stakes are the one thing that actually the one weak point of the film. And it's not like "Oh, Spidey wasn't saving the world, what's the point?" It was just that it was always fairly vague - BRUTAL SPOILERS I guess from here on out, but Spider-Man is really just trying to prevent vague "alien weapons in the neighborhood" from falling into the wrong hands, which I suppose has a potent moment when his Deli is accidentally destroyed, but it doesn't seem all that intense or personal. It of course becomes very personal when it's revealed in a SPECTACULAR moment that Michael Keaton is super-crush Liz Allan's father, which I never saw coming (mostly due to a clever use of race - damn my racism), but makes so much damn sense in the context of the coincidental story and also elevates everything after that. There also isn't really an urgency that Peter Parker should be aware of - he just leaves the dance to "stop" Michael Keaton, but he isn't actually aware of his plan beyond a "He's probably stealing shit again!" Maybe there's some motivation in the fact that he's stealing from his mentor, Tony Stark, but that's fairly weak motivation.

Beyond that though, the cast is a dream come true from the tip-top to very bottom. I'm still kind of whatever on Robert Downey Jr's inclusion (he indeed doesn't do much that we don't see in the trailers), although the bit at the end with Gwyneth Paltrow is great (both to see their relationship back on track, although it's so clear that they go through ups and downs based on her film appearance availability). It's also amazing to see Jon Favreau's Happy Hogan back for more after the director unceremoniously left Marvel. I suppose he's still in Disney's good graces with the Jungle Book (2016) / Lion King (2019) two-punch.

Moving in a circle, the young unknown cast gets most of the focus here. "Fat Harry Osborn" Jacob Batalon is hilarious, although I certainly don't know what Spider-Man character he's supposed to be. Laura Harrier as Liz Allan-Toomes (a slight shift from comic book Green Goblin II wife Liz Allan, but it works) doesn't have much to do, but is fine. There's even a little Betty Brant appearance, which is spot-on. I wasn't totally a fan of the Flash Thompson shift from jerk bully jock to smart but douchey Toni Revolori. He just doesn't have the frame to be really intimidating to Tom Holland. I also can't picture him losing his legs in the War on Terror and gaining the Venom Symbiote. I mean, that's where we're headed, right? RIGHT?

Zendaya as stealth Mary Jane is an interesting take on the character that I was down with. It makes so much more damn sense that Peter eventually pairs up with a nerdy awkward frumpy student rather than a ditzy model. The irony of course is that Zendaya actually is a model in real life. On that note, I will also give credit to a Spider-Man film for finally depicting a High School in modern-day Queens, NY that's actually diverse. Probably still not enough black people for sure, but I'm glad we've finally stopped depicting the youth of Queens as if it's still full of white folk like it's the 1960s still. Big props there.

Moving on to the many many great supporting characters and roles, there were so many great bit parts. Donald Glover finally gets to be in a Spider-Man film, although his role as a two-bit thug is a little underutilized. Still, he plays a character named Aaron Davis, who eventually becomes the Prowler in the comics, which could be a cool thing. Kenneth Choi returning for his second Marvel role after the Howling Commandos, Martin Starr as a professor (that made me feel really old), the guy who plays Nacho from Better Call Saul, Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green as dueling shockers, and Marisa Tomei doing her best to not look completely gorgeous. I do get their philosophy, like why did Peter Parker ever have an 80-year old Aunt, but this Aunt May was totally a chill, encouraging, almost hipster Aunt here. She did get the last line in the film, and it's one of the best, although it also breaks with long-time Spider-Man conventions, which isn't totally a bad thing.

That's one thing I'd be curious about, though - Marvel superheros seem to not really care about their secret identities, or more often, don't even have them. That alter-ego conflict has always been integral to Spider-Man because he's so much more entrenched in every day life than all the other heroes out there. He's not a god, doesn't have a contract to do the right thing, and this isn't his job. He has too many people he cares about and too many insane rogues to fool around with this. I'd be curious to see how the MCU develops this - they've already had more people discover his identity than in the first decade of Spider-Man comic books.

Let's move on to Tom Holland. I have long held the thought that Tobey Maguire was a solid Peter Parker, but missed the mark with Spider-Man, while Andrew Garfield nailed the webhead but definitely did not pull off the shy nerdy high school science student. Tom Holland really does capture everything - he looks the part more than any other actor (hell, a 19-year old playing a High School student is about as close as any film can get), and nails the unsure patheticness of Peter with the jokeslinging comedy of Spider-Man. Everything clicks really well and I'm excited to see how his role develops. There might have been a little bit missing in his arc and a lack of a basis for his motivation (ugh but not worth it enough to show us Uncle Ben dying again), but mostly everything works.

Finally, Michael Keaton. His casting as Vulture is fantastic, and it's sinister while also full of very Michael Keaton-things, particularly when he's allowed to be a Dad, not just a supervillain. It's a remarkably sincere portrayal, so much so that you end up rooting for him a little bit at the end. He's just trying to provide for his family, and although he is a killer, he's not deranged or maniacal. In fact, the way Stark has become a huge asshole, you don't feel sorry at all when someone tries to steal from him. It's more about the struggle of the little guy, and without a real catalyst for Peter's motivation in stopping him, he ends up with one of the better narratives in the film. I'm also pleased he actually survived at the end, unlike every Spider-Man villain ever (besides Sandman), and most Marvel villains.

Speaking of that, let's get into Sinister Six because this film is still just dripping with tantalizing possibilities. I had mentioned wanting to see Shocker and Scorpion among others in my preview, and was pretty pleased here. The Logan Marshall-Green Shocker was probably a little bit truer to the comic Herman Shultz, but the actual Schultz, Bokeem Woodbine was a more compelling character here. They did a nice job making him a henchman rather than anyone really big here. Mac Gargan has a hot cameo, but an ending that promises a bit more, which is cool. And the Tinkerer! Such an obscure villain. They weaved everything together pretty naturally. You get the feeling that Scorpy and Vulture could at least hook up in prison (No, not that way. Well, maybe), then if you add Mysterio and Kraven, suddenly you're five sixths there. This may be dreaming, but still pretty cool. And who the hell knows where that Tom Hardy Venom movie is headed, maybe that's #6.

Back to the worldbuilding, this is how you make a shared universe. After a big event, show the ramifications. The MCU is forever changed with the presence of Alien and Ultron technology lying around, and it's a natural progression for the criminal underworld to get an upgrade. Beyond that, though, you constantly get the feeling of what it's like to actually live in this world, from the Captain America PSAs to Hannibal Buress' contention that he's probably a war criminal now. All these little bits and pieces are what adds up to fully flesh out this world.

I also enjoyed how Peter had to earn his suit, which is of course not really how Stark got to use his own spiffy suit, but it's also proper that Spider-Man is an Avenger but not an Avenger. That feels pretty right. He ought to straddle those worlds between gritty streetfighter and one of the MCU's most powerful heroes.

On that note, Homecoming also does a great job of putting Spidey in all these creative situations where his powers are pretty useless - from uburbia, to the Washington Monument (where he's scared because he's higher than he's ever been), to an airplane where it's too windy for his webs to work. Even at the gas station he's in over his head when he takes the Training Wheels off his suit and it's too advanced for him. It's a great film for learning, hubris, and trying to do the right thing, even if he fucks up constantly. It's great to just see him learn the ropes.

All this is to say that there are definitely some problems here, but it never bogs the film down. If a film just feels bad it's easy to inflate every minor issue. Homecoming feels so good and positive watching it that you don't really get stuck on the shit that doesn't make sense or comes off a little weak. It's got to rank near the top of anything that Marvel has ever done, and assuredly at the top of SONY's list. It's up to you whether it beats Spider-Man 2 (2004), but it's at least on par with Spider-Man (2002), and that's mostly nostalgia talking.

What do you think?

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