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Review: "Spider-Man: Homecoming" (2017)


Title: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Genre: Superhero Film/High School Comedy

Director: Jon Watts

Stars (primary actors): Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr.

Bias: Aside from the normal “comic nerd” disclaimer, it’s worth noting that Spider-Man is probably my favorite comic book character.

Grade: A-

In A Nutshell: Peter Parker (Holland), aka Spider-Man, fresh off of his introduction to the superhero world in Captain America: Civil War, struggles to find his place in a larger world of superheroes. After being sidelined by Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), he discovers a criminal gang – led by the Vulture (Keaton) - stealing alien technology and selling it as massively destructive super weaponry.

This is, for many reasons, a challenging film to review. It’s the second reboot of the cinematic version of the character – following Sam Raimi’s initial trilogy starring Tobey Maguire and the two-film false start of Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 starring Andrew Garfield. It’s also the sixteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Because of those factors, there are three ways to look at the movie:

How does it work as a film?

How does it work as a Spider-Man film?

How does it work as a Marvel film?

To begin with the first, while this is in no way groundbreaking cinema, the direction by Watts – handed the reigns to this franchise after two low-budget films – is remarkably breezy and self-assured. He’s not reinventing the wheel, but there are inspired moments of storytelling, such as the hilarious video diary retelling of Spidey’s role in Civil War or the genuinely tense adaptation of one of Spider-Man’s most iconic moments, in which he’s trapped beneath tons of debris and must summon the strength to free himself. Additionally, it can’t be overstated how important Tom Holland’s performance is to this film. Watts, and screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, center much of the first act of the film on Peter Parker, high school student and aspiring superhero.

The film is equal parts an homage to the high school-centric films of John Hughes (Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club) and superhero film, and while the separate parts lack a certain originality on their own, the whole becomes greater than the sum of their parts because of the humor, charm, and heart Holland brings to his Peter Parker and Spider-Man. The previous film incarnations tended to lean heavily on their actors’ performance of the former, while relying on spectacle to carry the latter. Holland balances the two, making Peter and Spidey equally engaging characters. The decision to leave the well-trod territory of Uncle Ben’s death and the lesson of “great power/great responsibility” out of this film helps in this.

That origin, powerful as it is, weighs the Maguire and Garfield Parker down with so much pathos and tragedy that the films lose the fun that is, arguably, such an important part of the character. Interestingly, this allows the film to pull off a thematic approach that, while subtle, ties together the two otherwise messy halves. Rather than focusing on a character burdened with an immense loss, Peter is dealing with smaller-scale challenges. Spider-Man, as originally conceived by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, is a high school student who must try to balance the opposing challenges of his two identities. At the same time, the fact that he’s so young separates him from the older superheroes and villains surrounding him. He’s in that terrible space of teenage life where you feel like an adult, yet you’re regularly treated like a child. In Homecoming, this is where the character is both as Peter Parker struggling with high school life, and as Spider-Man, not quite ready for the challenges of being a real superhero.

Where Spider-Man: Homecoming works (and even excels) is in centering the character in that space, throughout. In focusing on the small scale – the climax isn’t the character trying to save the world, or even the operatic conflict between Iron Man and Captain America at the heart of something like Civil War, but instead focuses on Spider-Man trying to stop a robbery – the film becomes as much a departure from the now-standard superhero film as Guardians of the Galaxy was. It’s a Spider-Man film that’s very much about being a teenager in an adult world, where the stakes – whether it’s protecting your neighbors, disappointing your mentor, or asking your crush to the Homecoming dance - are objectively smaller, yet feel no less important. Like I said initially, this is a difficult film to review, and I’ve been working through where I come down on it as I write this. Despite having underdeveloped supporting characters, some shaky pacing, and a climax that initially feels somewhat anti-climactic, I feel like this is a film (and a Marvel film, and especially a Spider-Man film) that I’ll revisit regularly. It’s fun and endearing, and while not perfect, grows on you after a while.

Shout-out: Since I haven’t really mentioned him, I’ll go with Michael Keaton. He manages to be sympathetic and menacing and then even more menacing. Also, the last (pre-credits) moment. Best last line in a Marvel film.

To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix: See it in theaters, then see it again, then buy the Blu-Ray and probably watch it every month or two. That’s my plan.

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