07th Jul2017

‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr, Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Zendaya | Written by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers | Directed by Jon Watts

Spider-Man-Homecoming-Poster-2

Obviously, “Homecoming” has multiple meanings, not least of which is Spider-Man’s switch to the cool side of the Marvel fence, outside of Sony’s control. Makes sense. One could argue that the very DNA of the modern Marvel movie machine is based on what made Sam Raimi’s first two movies so successful: larger-than-life characters tackling real-world themes, with a lightness of touch that didn’t undermine the gravity of the drama. It’s a difficult balancing act; one which Marc Webb’s aborted reboot largely failed to replicate.

Today, Marvel is a blockbuster production line of Toyota-like efficiency, and part of its success lies in squeezing the authorship out of its directors. It was too much for Edgar Wright, who exited Ant-Man and was replaced by Yes Man Peyton Reed. Spider-Man: Homecoming is directed by another indie upstart, Jon Watts, who cut his teeth on the decent horror flick Clown and the corruption thriller Cop Car. The timing is apt, with Wright’s Baby Driver tapping its auteur foot in the next auditorium. Can Watts stamp his mark on Spidey?

Before we get to that, another question: Can audiences deal with another origin story? This is clearly a conversation that uber-producer Kevin Feige et al held prior to the development of Spider-Man: Homecoming. They were wise to give Peter Parker (Tom Holland) his intro in Civil War, because it gives us a shortcut into his story.

First, we meet Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a contractor dealing with the alien mess left over from the Avengers’ ruckus in New York. He’s unceremoniously booted from the job, because the Avengers themselves are going to deal with it. Toomes smells corruption. So, he snatches a bunch of alien tech and lays low.

Eight years later and 15-year-old Peter Parker is enjoying his “Stark Internship”. This really means that he’s honing his powers and his spider-senses, dealing with low level crime. He has a (Stark-made) super-suit with its own inbuilt A.I. (which, in a nice touch, is voiced by Jennifer Connelly, wife of Paul Bettany, who once played Iron Man’s onboard computer buddy).

One night, out on the prowl, Peter happens across a bank robbery and is floored by a superweapon. Could this be Toomes’ goon squad?

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) steps in. He is playing mentor to Peter. He doesn’t want the kid to push himself too hard too soon. But Peter just wants to be an Avenger, so he pursues his instincts and discovers that the elusive Toomes is also known as the Vulture: a hulking airborne nemesis with razor-sharp wings and a fetish for lasers.

Meanwhile, Peter is also being a teenage kid, which means he’s busy trying to hide stuff from his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), hanging out with BFF Ned (Jacob Batalon), and falling in love with Liz, a beautiful senior (Laura Harrier). The Homecoming dance is just around the corner. What is more important: Young love or crime-fighting?

With the Avengers gang increasingly feeling the burden of superheroism – all in-fighting and collateral damage concerns – Spider-man: Homecoming is here to provide the bright, positive counterpoint. Peter genuinely enjoys his powers, to the point where his weakness is his naiveté, and this is the main source of tension.

Early on, Peter’s stumbling attempts to harness his abilities are good fun. It’s one of a few origin tropes included here – the other main ones being the exclamation “Oh, cool!” whenever Peter discovers a new move, and Ned’s interrogation of his buddy’s superhero mechanics. These early scenes also dovetail with one of the film’s few real themes: the universal childhood frustration that no one takes you seriously.

Holland is sensational in the lead role, embodying all the excitement, frustration and doubt of a teenager trying to actualise himself in the world. The 21-year-old brings all of the humour and easy charm he showed in Civil War. At times this kid comes across like a PG-rated Deadpool.

While there is great chemistry between Peter and Ned, it is unfortunately lacking between Peter and Liz. Maybe this nods to the common truth of the groundless infatuation of youth, but ultimately she exists to accommodate a giant third act revelation. Which is okay, because that revelation produces some funny and tense scenes. It’s the film’s one real curveball, and the only sequence which truly satisfies on a dramatic level.

Downey, in a supporting role, is a charmless and boring presence, his Iron Man a total buzzkill every time he appears. Moreover, Stark’s criticism and praise of Peter seems arbitrary. The kid keeps doing his own thing regardless, which Stark moans about until he’s suddenly cool with it.

Evil genius duties fall to Michael Keaton. There is a lovely irony in seeing Keaton dress up as the Vulture after having seen him in Birdman, itself an allusion to his iconic Batman role. Keaton is a vital figure in the modern CBM movement, and it’s a joy to see him relish his role here.

However, much is unclear about his character. By the end I was still not sure of Toomes’ motivations or intentions. He’s presented as a disenfranchised, blue-collar union man – but then he bullies and murders his staff like an executive psychopath. What is he actually trying to achieve? It feels like we’re lacking a scene or two explaining his endgame.

Returning to the original question, what’s Watts like as a micro-director promoted to the big time? Like the Trevorrows, Tranks and Vogt-Roberts before him, entirely ordinary. Like his predecessors, the character interplay is often sharp but the action is messy and overwhelming, seemingly heavily delegated. Two key airborne battles between Spider-man and Vulture are particularly murky and incoherent. He directs without style a script with a little wit but precious little substance. Expect regulation action beats and weak emotional cues.

And where are the Cinematic Moments? Every other shot in Wonder Woman seemed elemental and iconic; somehow hand-crafted to maximise the frame and trigger the shivers. Alas, Homecoming is a movie evidently built by committee (six writers!) and its compromises – while not bringing us close to the Spider-man 3 trough – drag it into the mire of a swamped genre. Thank goodness for Holland, then, who elevates the film from a weak average to a rock-solid average.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is out in cinemas now.

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