SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING Review
Director: Jon Watts
Genre: Superhero, Action
Spider-Man may be one of the most popular superheroes of all time, but any moviegoer can tell you that his cinematic adventures have woven a troublingly tangled web. While Sam Raimi’s first two movies successfully introduced audiences to a morally conflicted Peter Parker grappling with the weight of great power and great responsibility, the third film in the trilogy brought us a dancing emo Tobey Maguire, for better or for worse. Marc Webb’s 2012 reboot introduced an element of mystery revolving around Peter’s deceased parents, but the sequel fumbled any hope of success by trying to sell us Paul Giamatti as a cartoonish Russian gangster and killing off its most likable character, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy. Fortunately, in their strange new joint venture, Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios have miraculously managed to deliver a fresh take on the web slinger. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING succeeds by remembering one detail about the character that past movies ignored: He’s a teenager first and a superhero second.
HOMECOMING opens right where last year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR left off. Having just been whisked off to Germany by Iron Man’s billionaire alter ego, Tony Stark, in an effort to reign in a renegade Captain America, a starry-eyed Peter Parker returns home to New York eager to prove himself worthy of joining the Avengers full-time. Unfortunately, Peter finds himself dealing with little more than stolen bicycles and struggling to stay focused in achingly dull high school classes. When Peter stumbles upon an illegal operation involving stolen alien weapons and Adrian Toomes, the head of a New York salvaging company, he realizes he’s onto something big. Though Stark dissuades him from tackling such a dangerous threat, Peter sets off to prove that Spider-Man deserves to be taken seriously.
If I stay completely still, that scary capitalist bogeyman back there won’t see me . . .
The plot may sound conventional (as Marvel films go), but the beauty here lies in the decision to make this more a high school coming-of-age tale than a superhero epic. Peter is constantly working to prove that Spider-Man is indeed a man, and not, as Tony Stark once called him, “Spider-Boy.” Still, it’s impossible not to see him as a kid, and that’s the point. Director and co-writer Jon Watts, who previously helmed the small 2015 thriller COP CAR, nails even the most oddly specific details of high school life, from awkward morning announcement videos to the ever-present hand-painted posters advertising the imminent homecoming dance. Take out the spandex onesie and the action scenes and this film would play nicely as a sweetly sincere and funny John Hughes-ish high school comedy. (Watts even includes several direct references to the ’80s-era filmmaker in this movie, including a chase scene inspired by FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF.)
Much of the action is confined to the school and Peter’s home borough of Queens. This Spidey is still testing the limits of his powers and even battles a slight fear of heights, having never scaled a skyscraper before. As a result, the action scenes are particularly compelling, as Peter is every bit as surprised and scared as the audience. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino keeps the camera close to Spidey during most of the action, favoring a sometimes shaky, handheld style over the traditional smooth, gliding shots present in Raimi and Webb’s films. In comparison to more recent Marvel flicks such as GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, the action feels small in scale, yet this seems a perfect fit for a young character still coming to terms with his abilities.
TFW Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield are giving you conflicting advice on how to play Spider-Man.
In terms of its cast, HOMECOMING is populated with faces both old and new. As Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr.’s wry sarcasm feels a bit too familiar at this point and occasionally comes across as overdone and played out. Personally, this biting, incessant sarcasm represents my problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, which, aside from the uniquely flavored Guardians of the Galaxy films, seems to have found and stuck with a very specific self-aware and sardonic tone for everything from ANT-MAN to DOCTOR STRANGE, creating a string of recent films plagued with a disappointing feeling of sameness and drab consistency. Thankfully, HOMECOMING shakes off this formulaic atmosphere for the most part, and for much of the film, seeing Stark struggle to offer fatherly words of wisdom to an anxious teenager is refreshingly funny, providing a nice break from his usual cool-as-a-cucumber attitude.
As in every Spider-film, we have Aunt May, here given a young, hip makeover with the casting of Marisa Tomei. At last we’re given an aunt who feels less like a distant grandmother and more like a concerned parent. Tomei’s May can actually relate to Peter on a personal level, and is wise enough to wonder at his frequent nightly excursions. It feels oddly jarring not to have any trace here of Uncle Ben, Peter’s traditional moral compass, but I can understand why Sony and Marvel didn’t want to put us through having to watch the poor old man get tragically murdered for a third time.
Nobody told Michael Keaton that BIRDMAN finished shooting four years ago
One of the standout performances comes from Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, a working-class bad guy who takes the “super” out of “supervillain” in the best way. Toomes has his threatening moments to be sure, but Keaton’s conversational line delivery (despite some melodramatic, clunky dialogue) and expressive facial features transform what could have become a caricature into a fully-developed human being. In the decades since he brought us Tim Burton’s Batman, Keaton has become almost too nuanced an actor for superhero movies, but here Marvel has given him a complex, fun, and wildly unpredictable character that fits his unique talents for both relatable comedy and threatening intensity, a legitimately memorable and realistically motivated villain I find myself hoping will return in future installments.
Yet even with all of this going for it, HOMECOMING would never have worked without a likable, believable Peter Parker. Tom Holland tackles the role with gusto, injecting every line with the wild energy of a young teenager chomping at the bit, yet taking every opportunity to stumble and stutter his way through the awkward moments of adolescence. It’s a sign of Holland’s comedic grace that the expression on his face when he glimpses the villainous Toomes and the look he adopts as he asks his crush to the homecoming dance are identical.
In fact, practically all of the younger cast members stand out in this film, from Jacob Batalon as Peter’s charmingly geeky best friend Ned, to former Disney Channel star Zendaya as Michelle, a comically pessimistic social justice warrior. For once, we actually have high schoolers in a Spider-Man film who don’t look 25 years old. This is just one of many testaments to the realism of the world SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING establishes. It sets itself apart from Marvel’s usual offerings by scaling everything back and presenting itself as a funny, endearing high school story with a healthy dose of web fluid thrown in.