Saturday, July 8, 2017

Friendly, Neighbourhood - Spider-Man: Homecoming, Reviewed

(Spoiler-free, as always!)

Spider-Man Homecoming is not only the best Spider-Man movie to date, besting not only the tepid Andrew Garfield iterations but also the mostly beloved (2/3) Tobey Maguire films that really kicked off the modern superhero film, but may also be the best film yet to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. See it, and see it soon.

It's tough to compare the MCU to anything else in cinema; the closest comparison is probably James Bond, and by the time it reached 16 films there were a couple of missteps in the batch (your mileage may vary, but for me we are talking about Moonraker, Octopussy, and Diamonds are Forever). Kevin Feige has kept Marvel on track by recognizing what makes each character great, and not being afraid to tinker with established formulae, even switching up genres from time to time.

Tentpole rookie Jon Watts (Cop Car, The Onion News Network) has concocted a brilliant summer beverage that is equal parts Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and... John Hughes. This unconventional combination lets him play with themes of high school angst, coming of age, the outsider's perspective, and of course, heroism.

Homecoming is as much a Peter Parker movie as it is a Spider-Man movie, in the same brilliant way that Iron Man is as much about Tony Stark as his armoured alter-ego. And as we saw in Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker is one great kid, and Tom Holland brings his likeability across in the most effortless fashion since Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly. Smart, funny, humble, but tormented too; ike any 15 year old, he struggles with becoming a man, impatiently awaiting the day he gets called back to assist the legendary heroes of the Avengers, and making do after school by nabbing bicycle thieves and the like. Despite living in the tough borough of Queens, he does what he can to keep his neighbourhood, well, friendly.

Spider-Man has, without a doubt, the best origin story in comics, but we are all familiar with it, so the filmmakers wisely chose to give us a break from it. The ghost of Uncle Ben still looms large in the story though, as young Peter Parker's commitment to responsibility is always given priority, especially to his Aunt May, now played with considerably less frailty by the excellent Marisa Tomei.

Aided by his best friend (and eventual confidante) Ned (Jacob Batalon) who reminds me a lot of Miles Morales' (the other Spider-Man - look, it's a long story) best chum Ganke, Peter navigates all the normal challenges of high school - prepping for college, bullying, talking to girls - all while guarding his secret identity and abilities. Eventually he is compelled to prove himself to his mentor Tony Stark by single-handedly unraveling a network of arms dealers re-purposing salvaged and stolen alien tech from the first Avengers movie.

They are led by Adrian Toomes, the best Marvel villain since Loki, played with equal parts blue collar approachability and intensity by Michael Keaton. Unlike many of the baddies who preceded him, Toomes neither wants to take over nor destroy the world, he just wants to get paid in order to provide for his family. That he does this with a robotic winged suit makes him no less compelling, and the fact that he is never audibly referred to as the Vulture makes him a no less brilliant adaptation of a classic Spidey villain.

In fact, we may just have to give this one the prize for best reiteration of a goofy-looking vintage design ever. They don't even look a lot alike aside from the hints of green and the fuzzy collar, but the beak-like mask, tiny glowing green optics and menacing but inimitably practical clawed feet round out the look exquisitely.

Beyond the look, the idea of a supervillain motivated by what he feels is his own victimization by the rich and powerful of the world (and not without some degree of justification, it must be said) adds a fascinating element of class struggle to the inevitable good/.evil interplay of a traditional comic book movie.

The story is tight, the characterizations solid, the portrayals fantastically nuanced with no cardboard cutouts whatsover. The action sequences are handled really well, with the best rendering of 'whatever-a-Spider-can' we've seen. The humour is almost ever present but never oppressive, and NEVER at the expense of the character; you can visualize every joke inside a word balloon without difficulty. Even you are unfamiliar with the character (Welcome to Earth, by the way!), there is enough solid movie-making at play to satiate anyone who enjoys  big fun at the movies.

But beyond that, there a moral core that is so important to not only the character, but the MCU in general. Homecoming probably has the lowest body count of any Marvel movie in terms of on-screen death. The smaller scale of the story also means we don't have to watch skyscrapers topple into each other for a change, which is absolutely fine by me.

For a movie to have an understated philosophical compass like this but still recognize the unfettered joy of being a hero, webslinging one's way around the Big Apple, and balancing it with the guilt of lying to one's family and friends about it makes Homecoming the best movie by 8 writers I've ever seen.

My second favourite thing about the movie though, is how effortlessly it slots itself into the existing Marvel universe. In addition to the established history of the MCU there are new comic callouts, like the addition of Damage Control, a company dedicated to cleaning up the aftermath of superhero battles which has had its own comic series. One of Toomes' henchmen calls himself the Shocker, and only upon this reveal did I notice he was wearing a quilted jacket inspired by his comic namesake.

The intermittent appearances of Tony Stark, doggedly trying to be a role model and mentor (despite having less integral responsibility than his young protege) are the strongest link to what has gone before, but Captain America even makes a couple of brief cameos in the form of educational videos screened by a jaded phys ed teacher who declaims them by saying "I think this guy is like a war criminal now or whatever, but I have to show the video...".

Jon Favreau's portrayal of a beleaguered  and put-upon Happy Hogan is also a welcome callback to the film and director that launched the MCU. His unwilling appearance in the home movie Peter makes during Civil War is one of the best things in the picture. (You can see this fantastic movie within a movie here, and there are no spoilers unless you haven't seen Civil War yet.)

Perhaps most telling of all: anyone can bury their hero under a ton of rubble, but doing so in a way that so clearly references a classic Spider-Man moment from the comics (which has been homaged numerous times in the funnybooks) shows the depths of both the knowledge and respect Watts has for the character. Other easter eggs abound, such as Peter's high school principal being a likely grandson of one of the Howling Commandos from WWII. Oh, and my new favourite end credits scene, finally displacing the shawarma outing from The Avengers.

The only thing I might have changed, had anyone asked me, would have been to make Aunt May a little less sturdy and independent. In the comics, there is a mutual interdependency between them that I find endearing. May is constantly worrying about her nephew, but most of the decisions Peter makes are for her well being. Rather than making her elderly and frail (seriously, what would the age gap have been between May and Peter's dad? Like, 20, 30 years?), I think it would have been intriguing to have May struggling with a social anxiety disorder, or perhaps dealing with depression brought on by the tragic loss of Ben Parker. I mean, who is to say she isn't, and not to make her helpless, but to underpin Peter's feelings of responsibility to her. But that is a nit I barely feel compelled to pick, and Marisa Tomei has always been a treat to watch onscreen (or even just get inappropriately referenced by Tony Stark).

Sony Pictures made an incredibly smart move handing the reins to one of the most popular comic characters of all time back to the people that clearly care the most about him. I cannot wait for the next film in this series, and I'm immensely grateful that Spider-Man will be swinging into Infinity War next May, and that Marvel's Phase Three is not hanging by a thread, but swinging gracefully even as it expands by leaps and bounds.


  1. So excited to read this....I have to wait until August, so appreciate the spoiler free review! Spiderman was one of the few cartoons I was allowed to watch as a child so very excited to hear that this one is good!