(2017—Director: Jon Watts)
Low ★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Earlier this year, I was visiting my local library when I came across a DVD of Cop Car, the 2015 sophomore effort of writer-director Jon Watts (Clown). I chose to borrow it. By the time its 88 minutes of kids joyriding in a police cruiser with corrupt cop Kevin Bacon hot on their heels were over, I knew I had discovered a confident cinematic voice that could accomplish so much with so little. Then I learned that Watts was directing Spider-Man: Homecoming (or: How Sony Gave Up and Made a Deal with Marvel). Such a move would normally cause me some anxiety, but I also suspected that the studio collaboration might permit more directorial influence on the final film than previous entries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). As it turns out, my suspicions were refreshingly correct.
Following his debut with the Avengers from last year’s Captain America: Civil War, an enthused Peter Parker (Tom Holland, The Impossible, The Lost City of Z) returns home to New York where he lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny, The Wrestler). Peter resumes his double life as an average high school student and as “the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man”. Eager to break free of the constraints set by mentor Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Peter sets out to defeat the sinister Adrien Toomes/Vulture (Michael Keaton, Batman, Birdman, Spotlight), which Peter soon realizes will require more than just a nifty supersuit.
Spider-Man: Homecoming succeeds on the strengths of Tom Holland’s turn as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Michael Keaton’s turn as Adrien Toomes/Vulture, and the film’s overall on-target technical execution. Holland’s Peter Parker nails that adolescent naīveté found in his average high school priorities and in his secret and thrilling role as a local New York superhero and aspiring Avenger. Holland’s age, compared to that of previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, also aids in his portrayal. The film’s bigger revelation, relative to the rest of the MCU, is Michael Keaton’s antagonist. From the pre-logo opening that smartly returns us to the aftermath of 2012’s The Avengers, Keaton plays Adrien Toomes like a leech, making resourceful the by-products of superhero conflicts on Earth. By 2017, Toomes no longer hesitates in using the alien technology for shady heists to make a better living for himself and his cohorts. Already, this is one of the MCU’s strongest villain motivations and sets up for a dramatic reveal later in the film that surpasses any dramatic reveal attempted in earlier MCU installments. Such delights are only enhanced by director Jon Watts’ effortless delivery of the film. Watts orchestrates editors Debbie Berman and Dan Lebental to cut in the right places, while the sound team (including senior re-recording engineer Kevin O’Connell) and the visual effects team unleash the film’s technical ferocity.
Holland and Keaton, with director Watts and crew, work so proficiently together that they practically render superfluous the entire supporting cast. Aside from the ever-commanding Robert Downey, Jr. popping in and out to babysit Holland’s webslinger, the many side characters contribute little to the story. Most prominent of these is Jacob Batalon’s Ned, who serves as Peter’s best friend and “guy in the chair”. Ned’s discovery of his best friend’s secret superhero identity makes for one of the film’s early funny moments, but he never veers beyond puppy-dog best friend loyalty, even after Peter ditches him at a party. Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and his non-jock, wannabe-smartie version of bully Flash Thompson is a fascinating shift towards a more contemporary version of bullying, but the film sets aside little time for that model to demonstrate itself. Lastly, having Beast of No Nation’s Abraham Attah just make fun of Flash’s imperfect intellect a couple of times and singer Zendaya’s emulation of Ally Sheedy from The Breakfast Club adds a few needless speed bumps to the film’s pacing.
To speak of Spider-Man: Homecoming in a positive light requires a discussion on the two elements (one minor and one major) that it lacks. Many comic book fans have already noted Peter’s lack of an obvious “Spider-sense”, one of his key superpowers. In all honesty, its absence did not occur to me in the slightest throughout the film’s runtime—a testament to my admiration for the film’s strong technical crafts and breezy narrative. The major absence, aside from a glimpse at an urn on a shelf and a short conversation between Peter and May, is that of the death of Peter’s Uncle Ben, which marked a milestone in Peter’s growth as a superhero in past film iterations. That absence does strip Homecoming of substantial heart, but the safety net of the film belonging to the MCU sets a proper context—this story finds Peter Parker at a crossroads between his introduction to the larger superhero world (last year’s Captain America: Civil War, revisited at the start of Homecoming in an amusing mockumentary format) and full membership into the Avengers team. Only marginally does the nonappearance of Uncle Ben’s death bother me when watching Homecoming.
Was Sony wise in sharing Spider-Man with Marvel? I would say, “Yes.” Whatever parts Homecoming may lack or fall short in accomplishing, those appear debatable and fleeting compared to the film’s steady thrills and compelling hero-villain dynamic. Spider-Man: Homecoming had, at the start of 2017, little-to-moderate chances of ending up as my favorite superhero film of the year. With only November’s dual offering of Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League remaining on the calendar, it would not surprise me anymore if Homecoming survives to claim that title.
(Parental Note: Spider-Man: Homecoming is rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for sci-fi action violence, some language, and brief suggestive comments.” It is also rated A-III (adults, acceptable viewing for older teens) by the Catholic News Service. The combat scenes result in bloody cuts and bruises on faces. One insubordinate and blackmailing henchman gets reduced to a pile of ash in an instant. Another henchman gets knocked from a ferry into a river by a tumbling car. Many innocent bystanders find themselves in peril. Plenty of property damage ensues, although at a much lesser extent compared to previous Marvel films. Expect some vulgar language, mostly in a high school setting. One character using school library computers during a school event gets caught by a teacher and the character offers pornography viewing as an alibi. The film cuts to credits right before a character finishes exclaiming with an F-word.)