Sunday, July 9, 2017

Spider-man: Homecoming - It's Fine

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Directed byJon Watts
Produced by Kevin Feige Amy Pascal
Screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein John Francis Daley Jon Watts Christopher Ford Chris McKenna Erik Sommers
Story by Jonathan Goldstein John Francis Daley
Cinematography by Salvatore Totino

Spider-Man: Homecoming is here, and it’s just fine. That is a profound and shocking statement for sure. Who knew, Marvel Studios knew how to make a good movie that (re)introduces their marquee character into the most popular section of the Marvel multiverse. That consistency of quality, is, however, part of what has made my reaction to this movie so puzzling. It’s not that I don’t like this movie, it’s that I don’t feel much about it. “Homecoming” isn’t a gross piece of product as film like previous Spidey film Amazing Spider-Man 2. It also isn’t a profound entry into the genre or provide a truly novel experience like Wonder Woman. Yes, it provides some interesting variations on Marvel’s bread and butter and genre as whole, but these aspects never culminate into something greater. More puzzling it isn’t boring; the worst sin a movie could commit. Homecoming is just fine. Maybe this reaction is just further cultural proof of the superhero subgenre’s actual maturity and standing.

Still there are some things worth considering when it comes to Homecoming. For the first time Marvel is introducing a character that has been culturally saturated well before principle photography began. The first Spider-Man franchise run by Sam Rami is the Marvel equivalent of Richard Donner’s Superman (both directors even follow similar trajectories with each franchise). When I think of Spider-man on film, it’s of Tobey Maguire the same way the first image of Superman is of Reeves. That isn’t to say Tom Holland is a poor fit for the role, he’s probably the best live action Peter Park and Spider-man we’ve ever had. I just want to illustrate the kind of cultural headwinds everyone faced when starting the third Spider-man film franchise in 15 years.

This cultural penetration provides for an interesting variation in the normal paces of a first film in one of these kinds of things. Homecoming is emotionally an origin movie without any of the cumbersome, repetitive, plot mechanics of a Spider-man origin film. And it’s emotionally where I think this film falls a little short. While the movie doesn’t utter the famous “with great power comes great responsibility” line it plays in that same register as Peter tries his best to prove himself to Tony Stark and become a full-fledged Avenger. When it comes time for the cathartic moment of Spidey lifting a big heavy thing that lack, an assumed emotional beat, created an unfulfilling result. Tony Stark’s admonishment that “If you're nothing without the suit, then you shouldn't have it,” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. The emotional journey of this movie is built around remixing one of the most well-known themes in all of American pop culture without any of the original notes. It’s not a bad remix, everything about this movie is coherent it just didn’t quite land.

That assumed knowledge on the part of the viewer explains Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige’s view of the movie more as an introduction, not an origin.

“Well, I didn’t think we were bringing him back, or redoing him – I thought about introducing, for the first time ever, a Spider-Man in the [Marvel] Cinematic Universe. That you didn’t know it before, but even during Iron Man 1, there was a little kid, somewhere in Queens, who was named Peter Parker.”

This notion of a secret or previously unexplored history is again one of the aspects of the movie that intrigue. As it relates to the villain of the piece, Adrian Toomes(Michael Keaton) and his crew of small but successful gunrunners and weapons manufactures. After the events of The Avengers, there was a lot of alien scrap left around and after being beaten out of a cleanup contract by a deal between Stark Industries and the Federal Government (creating Damage Control) Toomes and his men go into business for themselves. Operating for nearly a decade without any interference by the tin man or the Feds. Until the sudden appearance of that irksome menace Spider-man! It’s that kind of continuity that is a plus for these sorts of films, quickly establishing Toomes and his crew in about 5 minutes.
It also helps that Michael Keaton turns in one of the better villain in this vast franchise. While functionally a dark mirror, Keaton’s age and menace provide Holland a mirror not of himself at the present but of the future. And even while he thematically mirrors the lead, Toomes is an antagonist with his own understandable reasons that hide a Trumpian lie at the heart of his modus operandi. Toomes casts himself as this working-class hero, who turns to gun running after being stepped on by the elite Tony Stark. Except, he has a nice house in the suburbs of NYC, sends his daughter to the “rich” high school, and is a contractor. He’s just as white collar as Stark, but with less money. Now his crew, featuring a slew of good character actors like Bokeem Woodbine as the Shocker, they are working class.

You’d think with one of the most well-known aspects of Peter Parker, that he is a nerd, one of these movies would’ve already been a high school flick, but they haven’t. They’ve all actually been off camera college features. Until now, Homecoming really digs into the high school dynamic of things with an admirable and modern diverse cast. It’s here that Cop Car director Jon Watts really shines. Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson is reimagined as something of a rich alpha geek who mercilessly tortures Peter. Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) gives things a fun buddy dynamic. I wish we could’ve gotten more of Laura Harrier as Liz Allen for a host of narrative reasons, but mostly because the character is an undercooked quasi love interest and that sort of deal went out of fashion decades ago. Peter referentially gazes at Liz putting up a sign at one point and wonders if she’s wearing a new shirt. That sequence epitomizes this films objective distance to that character.
As with all Marvel films, this is character focused. It’s also the first chance for Marvel Studios to make a big movie about a street level hero that isn’t relegated to the pretentious and unfulfilling Netflix side of things. There is an excellent smallness to this movie that once again shows that proper emotional priming and storytelling is worth 100x more than apocalyptic cgi blazen spectacle. That doesn’t stop this movie from reenacting the metaphoric 9/11 in one of the most literal ways possible, but it still works.

The biggest complaint with the movie is the decision to film most of its action sequences at night. Spider-man isn’t really a night time hero and the darkness obscures the action. That's the biggest dig you can really come up with. 

Homecoming is fine. In a summer season dominated by largely forgettable and bad films, the sheer unobtrusive quality of Homecoming automatically makes it one of that levels best. It’s also the least interesting superhero film you’re going to see all year. 

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