I’ve said approximately eleven thousand times that I can’t understand why it’s so hard to make a decent Superman movie. The character has been around the better part of a century, and we all know who he is and what he’s about. It shouldn’t be that hard to come up with a decent big budget version of him once every few years, but so far history has called bullshit on that.
Spider-Man has suffered the same problem, though less acutely. Sam Raimi’s original wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, but it was an appealing adventure that proved successful both critically and commercially. The sequel is widely considered one of the best super hero films ever made. And then this happened. Then this, which was better but still somehow utterly boring. And finally this, of which we will never speak again.
I’d take any of those over most of the Superman movies. But it’s still not much of a track record when you step back and look at the whole. So when Sony came to their senses and worked out a deal to bring Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I joined the ranks of the cautiously optimistic. When I heard Michael Keaton had been cast as the villain, I was officially on board. Batman gone bad? Are you serious?
And then came the masterstroke of Spidey’s inclusion in Captain America: Civil War, a movie that I otherwise remember almost nothing about. After a bland string of films about bickering groups of heroes that must overcome petty differences to keep (VILLAIN) from acquiring (MACGUFFIN) and using it to (DESTROY/ENSLAVE) the (WORLD/UNIVERSE), I can’t deny Marvel had me feeling the first glimmerings of superhero fatigue.
But that one time when Captain America got punked with his own shield went a long way toward making some things right.
So was my anticipation of awesomeness fulfilled?
Much was made of some fundamental changes to the Spider-Man “formula”, and I’ll admit to being concerned with some of it at first. I’m certainly not opposed to changing traditional aspects of long established characters, so long as it somehow enhances the narrative. But change for it’s own sake isn’t necessarily progress. For example, I was fine with Zack Snyder making some changes to Superman’s family dynamic. I’m just not sure that making Pa Kent such a cynical dickbag is what I was looking for.
Getting back to Spider-Man, I’m happy to report that while many of the changes are significant, for the most part they manage not to feel gratuitous. Peter Parker himself, always portrayed as a high school student, is now played by Tom Holland, an actual teenager at the time of filming. Peter’s Aunt May, normally an elderly spinster, is now played by Marisa Tomei, who always looks like she’s just finished a hot yoga class. Still, she is technically of a chronologically plausible age in relation to her nephew.
And Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), Parker’s traditionally Aryan nemesis, is now most decidedly not that. Meaning, he’s still a prick and is still always up Parker’s ass, but is now Nerd Commander of the Math Club rather than hyper-meathead star quarterback. And he’s called “Flash” because of how quickly he can crunch numbers in his head, and not because of his mad athletic skills. All of this is fine and as I’ve said, presented in a way that feels more like an honest attempt at verisimilitude and less like stunt casting.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been told that Peter Parker attends school in Queens, New York. It’s just the first time it’s actually looked that way. And it’s a cast that appears multicultural because it needs to be, rather than due to some vague algorithm that always spits out a variation of “one black and/or Asian per 4.5 white faces”.
Okay great. Whoever reviews movies for NPR will fucking love this. But for me, the problem with recent Spider-Man films has been a combination of tone and far too many/too stupid antagonists. This is the Achilles heel of many super hero flicks, as they try so hard to be dark and gritty they forget that super heroes are also supposed to be fun! And if you’re anything like me, you’re tired of adventure films that focus more on the villain’s visual identity than finding a good reason for them to exist in the first place.
And if you’ve seen one confusing visual spectacle whose central point of conflict is a cartoonishly ill-defined conspiracy, you’ve seen them all.
This brings me to my favorite part of the review, where I tell you that Spider-Man: Homecoming suffers from none of those things. Although they spend perhaps 90 seconds setting it up (speaking generously), the machinations of Michael Keaton’s Vulture are fairly easy to understand. For once the world is not at stake; this ends up being a personal story of survival and reprisal between two characters who would seemingly prefer not to have to fight.
Homecoming follows as many of the traditional Spider-Man beats as it discards, but what it adds to the mix is not just welcome, but overdue.
And remember what I said about tone? This certainly isn’t the first Spider-Man film, and it may not even be the best – but it’s the only one so far with a palpable sense of joy. Parker himself comes across as the energetic, curious, socially awkward boy genius he’s meant to be. Gone is the navel-gazing melancholy of previous film incarnations. When this Spider-Man gets into trouble, you care not just because you’re supposed to, because he really feels like a good kid who’s just a little in over his head.
Finally I should point out that yes, Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) does figure into the story. But fortunately, Spidey’s association with him doesn’t dominate as much of the film as some of the pre-release posters threatened.
For the most part this is a mentoring situation and for the most part, it actually adds to the appeal of both characters. That’s not to say it’s perfect. Other aspects raise more questions than you really want your audience thinking about while they’re watching your movie. But considering the effort that clearly went into making this better than the average hero flick, I can be forgiving.
I’d love to lay that praise at the feet of a screenwriter, but Spider-Man: Homecoming has no fewer than six of them credited. Jon Watts is the latest seemingly anonymous guy to drop out of the sky and direct their first zillion dollar tent-pole film with precision and efficiency. I don’t know if Marvel is growing these people in a dish, or if this is just the kind of top-notch quality control that’s sorely missing over at Team DC.
Maybe the names of all six of those screenwriters refer to the AI subroutines that now create our entertainment instead of people. All I know is that whatever was in the water when they cooked up Spider-Man: Homecoming, they should bottle some of it up and share it with the rest of the MCU.
Hell, if it’s available as a vape kit or something I can drop in my coffee, I could use a hit of that before my morning commute.
Zing! Here’s the trailer.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."