Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017) 3 out of 4 stars.
With every further installment in the current iteration of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” I feel ever more compelled to preface my review of the film just released with a recap of all that has come before (which I will not do here, however). In the case of the Spider-Man movies, my deliberations are made even more fraught by the fact that we have witnessed three different attempts – in just 15 years! – to launch a series with a viable leading man in the role, which means we have thrice seen Spider-Man (aka Peter Parker) in high school, grappling with newfound powers, simultaneously awkward and super-awesome. To be fair, the first entry – simply titled Spider-Man, released in 2002 – came out before Marvel launched its interconnected mega-franchise (with Iron Man, in 2008). Then, in 2012, hoping to set up the wise-talking web slinger for integration in the new cinemaverse, Marvel put out The Amazing Spider-Man, which rebooted the character from the beginning. Both actors who incarnated Mr. Parker – first Tobey Maguire and then Andrew Garfield – did fine jobs, the former in three films, the latter in two. For whatever reasons (also not to be recapped here), Garfield stopped in 2014. So now we need a new guy. Bring on Tom Holland (who made his first appearance in the role in last year’s Captain America: Civil War).
The good news is that Spider Man: Homecoming is actually a lot of fun (as were some of the previous ones). And at least this is not a pure origin story, yet again. There is no Uncle Ben, solemnly intoning, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Given that I had made a vow to yell at the screen if I heard that phrase one more time, this was a net positive (especially for my fellow audience members). Instead, we find ourselves just a few months after Civil War (though the movie begins, in medias res, after a brief prologue, in the middle of that other film’s climactic battle sequence), as young Peter is not only struggling to understand his abilities, but also navigating high-school social politics (here, he’s 15, younger than in versions 1 and 2). So … it is both not an origin story … and an origin story (minus Uncle Ben, absent and never mentioned). The older male figure who acts as mentor here is Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), played, as always (since 2008, anyway), by Robert Downey, Jr. I would be lying if I did not admit to not only Marvel fatigue but Downey fatigue. Fortunately, he is missing more often than not (especially when Peter really wants him around). Which, all to the good, leaves more screen time for Michael Keaton (Spotlight).
Keaton plays Adrian Toomes, an entrepreneur with a salvage business who ends up on the wrong side of the deal to clean up alien artifacts after the events of The Avengers (if it is not clear to you by now, Marvel links all of its movies the one to the other, the better to make each of them indispensable). Flash forward 8 years, and he now operates on the wrong side of the law, using that otherworldly technology to build illicit weapons which he sells on the black market. It’s lucrative work, but his need for more artifacts to increase output will drive the plot. And, as do all Marvel villains, he has a special suit, as well (powered by said technology), in the form of giant wings, allowing him to fly. Indeed, director Jon Watts (Cop Car) and his large team of writers clearly thought it would be funny to cast Keaton, who recently starred in Birdman (a film which, itself, riffed on his past role, long ago, in Batman), as a character (listed in the credits as “Vulture,” though I am pretty sure we never hear that mentioned in the actual film) who can actually fly. Too clever by half? Maybe, but who cares? Keaton is perfection, and a great foil for Holland, with an especially surprising (and therefore satisfying) plot twist given to him at the end.
But back to Peter Parker. There is much to love here. The world of the movie is nicely rendered and richly textured. It is particularly nice to see a racially diverse cast playing the parts of Peter’s friends, love interests, etc., without any mention of ethnicity or race as a factor: heretofore gentle Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel) plays Flash, Peter’s consistent bully; Zendaya (Disney Channel’s K.C. Undercover) plays Michelle, a classmate with yet another plot surprise in store for us; Jacob Batalon (North Woods) plays Ned, Peter’s best friend (and fellow nerd); and Laura Harrier (FX Canada’s One Life to Live) plays Liz, the aforementioned love interest. Together, they look and feel like modern-day kids, lending Spider-Man: Homecoming a certain verisimilitude that supports the science fiction. And Holland is great, cocky and bumbiing, both. The special-effects team supports him well, and the action zips along, eventually pitting him against Keaton’s “Vulture.” One other thing the film gets right is keeping the stakes relatively small. The fate of the universe is not at risk (let’s assume those stakes will shoot up again soon, however, at least in the next Thor movie). How nice to not have to watch a movie filled with so much digital debris that any sense of involvement in the outcome gets lost in the VFX maelstrom.
And yet … I ask: did we need another Spider-Man? If Holland tires of the role, or if this or subsequent films make less money than hoped for, will we start over, once more? At some point, one becomes numb to the charms of a series that can never quite emerge from the starting gate. Still, as an entertaining set piece with meaningful character interactions and strong action, Spider-Man: Homecoming holds out the promise of more good things to come. Here’s hoping … and maybe next time they can give a better role to Marisa Tomei (The Lincoln Lawyer), here, as Aunt May, completely wasted in one of the few under-developed role in the film. Imperfect, yet very entertaining, this film mostly delivers.