Saturday, July 8, 2017


The official beginning, after a high-profile cameo appearance in Captain America: Civil War, of the third Spider-Man movie cycle of the still-young century brings with it a huge risk of reboot fatigue. Who needs, much less wants, to see the origin story yet again? Not I and not you, presumably, and neither, fortunately, do director Jon Watts and his five co-writers. You never see or hear of poor Uncle Ben, whose tragic fate is only implicit in a reference to everything that's happened to Peter Parker's Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) in recent times. Homecoming is the sort of superhero movie we need at this point, less concerned with beginnings or becoming, though it's still all about Peter (Tom Holland) proving himself as a hero, than with the everyday business of fighting crime and helping people. The stakes are lower here than in any other Marvel movie except Ant-Man: the climactic battle has Spidey thwarting a mid-air robbery rather than saving the city or the world. Yet they don't feel insignificant, and Homecoming feels less like an "ordinary" superhero movie than, say, Age of Ultron does. This reboot isn't just a do-over for its own sake to indulge a new generation of creators, but an effort by Sony Pictures to get Spider-Man right, with the help of Marvel Studios, after the retrospective debacle of the now-underrated Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield films. The new film is a more successful effort to translate many of the tropes of the earliest Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics to the 21st century.

Peter is back in high school, on this time he and his usual supporting cast of age-peers, many of them racially diversified with little fuss, all attend an intellectually elite science-and-technology school. That includes archetypal jock-bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), who here becomes an underachieving asshole, while Peter remains the archetypal outcast, for the ironic reason that he's always bailing out on school activities to seek out crime as "the Spider Man from You Tube" while awaiting a summons from Tony Stark (must I say?) to join the Avengers. He's chafing at the bit, his superheroism kept on a tight leash but also largely ignored by Stark henchman Happy Hogan (as usual, Jon Favreau) and various infantilizing protocols built into his Stark-designed deluxe costume. Peter sees a chance to impress Stark when he stumbles upon bank robbers using exotic high-tech weapons that nearly devastate Parker's neighborhood. Thanks to a prologue, we know that these are the handiwork of Adriam Toomes (Michael Keaton), a disgruntled blue-collar entrepreneur who has his salvage contract for sites wrecked by the alien invasion from The Avengers abruptly snatched away by a federal government collaborating with Stark. Toomes and his inventive techies decide to keep what they've gleaned, retooling the alien tech into weapons, and in Toomes' case, a flying costume that earns him the nickname "Vulture," for stealing more alien tech to sell on the black market. Spider-Man's skirmishes with Toomes' gang escalate, with neither side fully appreciating the destructive power in play, until the Washington Monument and the Staten Island Ferry are nearly wrecked -- at which point Tony Stark grounds Peter. Like the typical parent who doesn't get it, and with a great irony that the man himself partly appreciates, Stark only sees his young protege behaving irresponsibly and dangerously, blaming him rather than the bad guys (who should be left to the authorities to deal with, Stark says hypocritically) for all the destruction. Stripped of his high-tech suit, which he'd hacked with the help of best buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) in order to access extra features, Peter now must really prove himself by continuing his war against Toomes, even after he learns that Toomes is the father of Liz (Laura Harrier), Peter's current crush, and after Toomes quickly deduces that the awkward kid taking his daughter to the homecoming dance, who looks at him with a constant expression of horror, is more than he lets on...

Like Civil War, Homecoming is sort of a generic "Marvel Universe" movie, or at least an Iron Man 3.25 thanks to the participation of Downey, Favreau and Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as Captain America himself (a shameless Chris Evans) in a private hell of mind-numbing PSAs. It cleverly calls back to Civil War by showing us the buildup to that film's famous airport fight from the vantage of Peter's cellphone and teases the hero's graduation to the Avengers, only to have Peter keep his distance, as Marvel and Sony presumably will keep their distance hereafter, in order to remain, in Stark's own words, a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man. That's a good call, because Homecoming leaves us ready to explore Peter Parker's milieu more. Like Sam Raimi's cycle, if not more so, Watts gives Spidey's world a real-life feel as Peter scrambles to keep up with schoolwork, struggles to have a social life, and patrols his inner-city neighborhood. Tom Holland and the other kids all seem to have the right amount of charisma, the standouts being Batalon as a kid living out his sidekick dream of being "the man in the chair" and Zendaya as the sardonic school rebel who may yet end up the love of Peter's life. The villain role doesn't demand much of Michael Keaton at a time when he's become one of our leading character actors, but he lends the part authoritative menace and the overall idea of a working-class villain is in keeping with the early comics. In some ways, and not just because of Stan Lee's dependable presence, this new film is more faithful to those earliest comics than even the Raimi films, down to a recreation of Spidey's most famous inspirational feat of strength from the Ditko era. I'm not prepared to say that Homecoming is the best Spider-Man movie, but I definitely liked it better than the Webb films and was happily surprised to find it not imitating the Raimis very much. In short, Homecoming amply justified its existence as a new take on Spider-Man, but one thing about it really annoyed me. This is a film set in the present day, either 2017 or 2020 depending on when you think The Avengers took place, yet its high-school students sure listen to a lot of oldies music, mainly from the Eighties.Really? I don't even consider myself a fan of modern pop music, but I find this preposterous and clueless, even as I can guess why Marvel does this. All this tells us is that we've yet to see a superhero movie fully integrated with modern youth culture, but until we see such a thing -- if we really want to, that is -- Homecoming will do.

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