SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING – Review
Okay fantasy film fans, here’s a quick memory quiz for you (if you’re well past twenty). You recall what you were doing on that first weekend of May fifteen years ago (can’t be that long ago)? There’s a very good chance that you were making movie history by smashing the existing three-day box office total for a new film. Its title? Why the biggest film of 2002, Sony Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire. For fans of superhero cinema, that year has the same importance as 1978 (SUPERMAN THE MOVIE directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve) and 1989 (BATMAN directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton…more about him soon). Sure, Superman and Batman had been the subject of low-budget movie serials, a story shown in weekly installments, usually a staple of “kiddie” matinees until the mid 1950’s. The Dark Knight had a feature film in 1966, but it was basically and extension of the incredibly popular TV show. But in 78 and 89 they finally got the big budget treatment fans thought they had long deserved. This was great for those iconic characters from DC Comics (formally National Periodicals, now a part of the Warner family), but what about that younger upstarts at Marvel Comics? The major movie “door” had been pushed slightly ajar for the company when BLADE came out in 1998. The door swung out a bit more two years later with X-MEN. Its success started a flurry of legal action to see who had the screen rights to Marvel’s most popular solo character, its corporate mascot, it’s “Mickey Mouse”. Sony, the eventual winner, more than made back the legal fees with that 2002 film and its 2004 follow-up SPIDER-MAN 2 (with the great villain Dr. Octopus, I’m not alone in thinking it’s the better movie of the two). The three films since then seemed to lose that “magic spark”. SPIDER-MAN 3 in 2007 with its villain overload (the Sandman, Venom, and a new Green Goblin) and sci-fi subplot hastened the departure of Raimi, Maguire, and co-star Kirsten Dunst. The 2012 “reboot” from director Marc Webb(?!), THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN made good use of the chemistry between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (as Spidey and Gwen Stacy), but the story was bogged down with corporate intrigue Oscorp’s behind everything). That same problem plagued its sequel, 2014’s, along with, once more, too many bad guys (Electro, the Rhino, and yet another Goblin). It “under-performed” at the box office, Sony decided on a somewhat radical move. By this time Marvel had become a major force in Hollywood, producing hit after hit, starting in 2008 with IRON MAN. Sony wanted to keep the franchise going, so what about a partnership? This agreement bore fruit last May when Spidey was enlisted by Tony Stark to be part of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. This new, younger ‘web-spinner” was a huge hit with audiences and one of the highlights of that smash film. Now he gets to be the main focus of the story, and since Marvel is now steering his film series, it’s like he’s really returning to his roots, his nest (for another arachnid analogy). For that reason, the title seems an near perfect fit, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING. To borrow a lyric from John Sebastian’s classic TV theme song, “Welcome baaack…”.
The film’s first moments quickly establish that we are right in the middle of the Marvel “movie-verse”, by taking us back five years to the aftermath of the “battle of New York” AKA the finale of MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS. After such an enormous disaster, an overwhelmed city outsourced much of the clean-up and repair. One lucky contract went to the salvage firm owned by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). But as they load up various alien artifacts (the Chitauri left behind a lotta’ tech), a group of “suits” appear. Their supervisor (played by a beloved TV authority figure) announce that the contract is void and the Toomes crew should vacate after turning over all the recovered alien “gadgets and gizmos a’plenty” (oops, sorry). This doesn’t go over well with Toomes, and as he leaves he tells one of his workers to hold on to some of their findings. Jump cut to more recent times, and Toomes is running a secret weapons operation, selling and using devices (to pull heists) using those Chitauri power sources and “doodads”. Seems one of his guys, Phineas Mason AKA The Tinkerer (Michael Chernus) is an alien firearms savant. We then see a short video that gives us a Spidey’s eye view of the big battle overseas from last year, all footage shot by Peter Parker (Tom Holland). He’s dropped off at his Queen home via the limo of none other than Mr. Tony Stark AKA Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), who tells Pete to keep a low profile, help with local problems, and check in with Stark security supervisor ‘Happy’ Hogan (Jon Favreau). But Pete is eager to go on another “retreat” with hopes of becoming a full-fledged Avenger. Tony deflects the questions and Peter totes the large metal case containing his new “tricked-out” spider suit up the steps to his apartment. The next day it’s back to the old routine at Mid-Town High : hangin’ with best pal Ned (Jacob Batalon), oogling gorgeous senior queen Liz (Laura Harrier), avoiding the put-downs from the obnoxious ‘Flash’ (Tony Revolori), and trading barbs with snarky Michelle (Zendaya). But the day can’t zip by fast enough for Pete. He stares down the clock, eager to be back on the streets. protecting the public as Spider-Man. And just what dangers await? Well, he foils a bicycle robbery, helps a woman with directions (she buys him churro), and bungles a car theft. Pretty tame stuff, until he spots four masked men trying to grab cash from an ATM lobby. Unfortunately they’re using some of the souped-up weapons from Toomes, and during the melee Spidey has to rescue a man whose business is destroyed from a laser blast. Pete contacts Stark who is insists that he stop pursuing such a dangerous gang and leave it for the Avengers. However, Spidey somehow keeps crossing paths with these hoods and their boss Toomes, who now dons a winged suit of armor to become the Vulture. Can Pete continue to keep his after-school activities from his protective Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). And what will ‘Happy” and Tony do when Peter ignores their warnings? Is Spidey too old for a “time out”?
Tom Holland proves that his scene stealing appearance in last year’s Marvel epic was not a fluke as he carries this story on his very capable shoulders and makes the dual roles of Peter Parker and Spider-Man his very own. Gone is the frequent dour attitude of Maguire and the sneer of Garfield, instead we have the hero, who’s really more “Spider-Teen’ than Spider-Man (but don’t tell Pete that). He’s filled with youthful exuberance and curiosity (I knew he was gifted when I reviewed THE IMPOSSIBLE five years ago), completely believable as a smart, often awkward, but always endearing high school kid. Yes, Spidey always worked best in the comics as a kid (or “tween”) who can easily “get in over his head”. Holland has expert comic timing and sharp line delivery (good yank accent, you Brit. you), and is also a terrific mime, which is a must when you’re covered eye to toe in blue and red spandex. Although we can’t see those hazel eyes through the mask, Holland conveys the character’s emotions through expert body language. As much as Gal Gadot was the perfect “find” for Wonder Woman, Holland’s the perfect “fit” for ole “web-head”. Oh, and he’s got terrific rapport with the other young actors, particularly Batalon as the sweet, nerdy goofball Ned, the kind of best pal we’d be lucky to have growing up. Incredibly supportive, Ned is always seconds away from bursting with excitement and enthusiasm. His ultimate dream, to be “the guy in the chair” is one of the film’s best running gags. Zendaya has an infectious laid-back vibe as the rebellious little “hellion” Michelle, a “tough chick” who will call you out on your BS, guys! At the other end of the spectrum is Harrier as the ethereal dream girl Liz, whose outer confidence masks her vulnerability. She’s the school “angel” who’s surprisingly down to Earth and nice (especially to timid Pete). Revolori gives a different take on ‘Flash’ than we’ve seen in other Spidey flicks. Rather than the violent towering brute, he’s a cruel, sarcastic vain rich dweeb, closer to Reggie in the Archie comics. A most pleasant surprise was seeing Abraham Attah (so heartbreaking in BEASTS OF NO NATION), now a lanky teen playing a member of the academics team. What great casting!
But what of the adults, the “slightly” past their twenties set? Well, they’re pretty fabulous, dominated by the unbelievably intimidating performance of Michael Keaton as one of the earliest (number 2!) comics foes. They say a hero’s only as good as his villain, and Toomes may be the best “Marvel-verse” baddie since we first met Loki. If you had asked me a few months ago to put together a top ten list of Spider-Man villains (and he’s got the best “rogues gallery” after the caped crusader), the Vulture would’ve been lucky to be in a top 20. But to borrow a phrase from Kevin Smith, who said he never cared about Iron Man till Downey, Keaton makes Toomes Spidey’s best movie adversary since Doc Ock. A confrontation out of costume in the story’s third act is perhaps the movie’s scariest scene (this guy will carry out that threat). This is another splendid role in Keaton’s post BIRDMAN “comeback”. His menace is matched by the charm and father-like warmth (really, no kidding) of Downey who continues to add new, interesting layers to tech-master Tony Stark. Of course he’s truly funny, but we see him here as more than just a mentor. Tony is tough with Peter, perhaps because he sees a lot of himself in the “kid”, but maybe he sees the son who he might have raised if he hadn’t been a rich jerk for so long (before the events of the 2008 film). His past co-star (ONLY YOU and CHAPLIN), Tomei, is a sprightly and, odd to say this about the comics character, sexy delight as May Parker (another great running joke is how all the mature dudes in Queens, even Stark, have a “thing” for her). Here’s hoping she’ll get many more scenes, plus a look into her “back story”, in the next installment since she and Holland are also a great team (gotta’ see what happens after the final fade-out). I was happy that we get to see a lot of Favreau (as much as the Iron Man trilogy) as the gruff, “gloomy gus” with a heart of gold that is the tough and tender Mr. Hogan. Plus the film is peppered (watch it) with several terrific comic actors. Donald Glover is smooth as silk as a low-energy criminal informant that has some good advice for Spidey (“Ya’ got ta’ get better at this”). Martin Starr (now on “Silicon Valley” but the best part of “Freaks and Geeks”) as the nervous, jittery faculty advisor to the academics team (“Where’s Parker? Again!”), and Hannibal Buress scores some big laughs as the PE teacher, Coach Wilson.
With only one feature film to his credit, the indie thriller COP CAR with Kevin Bacon, director Jon Watts smashes through, into the big, big leagues with this non-stop entertainment machine. They epic action sequences are masterful, but he makes the small intimate scenes just as powerful. Although six different writers (including Watts) are credited for the screenplay, the film never feels disjointed. Wisely the film makers opted against rehashing the big origin story. We all should recall it, so there’s no need to witness the demise of a third ‘Uncle’ Ben Parker (though it’s hinted at in a brief bit of dialogue). And it has heart to spare, since the best Spidey stories don’t merely focus on his battles and powers, but integrate the fantastic with honest human relationships. While many “super guys and gals” tower above us (billionaire vigilantes, Greek and Norse gods, strange visitors from another planet), Peter Parker and his alter ego are “reg’lar fellas”. To borrow a lyric from the late, great Howard Ashman,”Who’s that hero next door?”. It’s that nice masked man helping the lady find her way around the city. There are great references to the other Marvel movies (why does the school principal have so many military medals on display, the Sokovia Accords are covered in history class), and tributes to classic comics that will warm the hearts of “four-color” fans (“Amazing Spider-Man”, volume one, issue number 33, “The Final Chapter”..nuff’ said!). And another rollicking, pulse-pounding score from Michael Giacchino (even working in a version of one of our favorite TV themes). But even casual movie-goers will be delighted that the “web-spinner” returns to the forefront of exciting movie franchises. It’s a most welcome, very happy homecoming indeed!
5 Out of 5