“What happens when Tony Stark gaslights a fourteen year-old”
Spider-Man: homecoming is the third attempt by Sony to get us interested in the Spider-Man franchise. The new twist this time around is that they are getting help from Peter Parkers “parents”, Marvel. This is an interesting and ground breaking deal between the two studios in as much that neither will benefit financially from either studios film, but will still cooperate and share the character and actor for their own iterations of the “new and improved” Spider-Man franchise. Directed by John Watts, Spider-Man stars Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Marissa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Zendaya, Robert Downey Jr. and Donald Glover.
Let’s get something out of the way first and foremost, Sam Rami’s Spider-Man was my very first comic book movie I saw in theaters. I don’t have the best memory, but I do remember the experience vividly. Three friends and I went to the Ameristar Casino movie theater in Kansas City, Mo. We got there late and begged to get in after they had sold the theater out. We had to sit on the steps in the aisle and missed most of the trailers (I love trailers. I really love trailers). None of that mattered though, as the next 120 minutes played out on screen. I sat enraptured by what I saw on screen. I had seen the Superman movies and enjoyed them, I had seen the Batman movies and enjoyed them as well but this, this was it for me. The spectacle, the heart, the tension, every moment on the screen just filled me with awe and wonder. It has and will continue to be one of the best movie going experiences of my life. So what does that mean for this new take on Spiderman and my review? I haven’t honestly given it a rating yet and I am still figuring out how to separate the two experiences. It would be unfair of me to compare the two, but equally impossible for that not to influence the experience I have had with this one. We’re just going to have to work this one out together.
In this newest iteration of Spider-Man, Peter Parker is a fourteen year old high school sophomore living in Queens, riding high after his first big outing with the Avengers. Given a new and improved costume by Tony Stark and a mission to stay “low to the ground”, Peter quickly goes from being the eager new trainee, to high school super hero bristling at the limits set before him. After constant reproach by Tony Stark, Peter Parker sets off to save Queens without the help of the Avengers.
This movie quickly sets itself apart from the previous iterations of Spider-Man. This isn’t a film about a super hero saving the world from a global threat or some criminal mastermind. This is a film about a kid trying to prove himself to everyone around him. The stakes are smaller, the world is smaller and the film is better for it. Tom Holland’s portrayal of Peter Parker/Spider-Man is light, full of energy and charming to boot. Immediately we see his excitement at all the opportunity his newfound powers have given him. He’s flying to Germany on his first mission, Tony Stark has built him a brand new suit, and he gets to meet every one of his childhood heroes. It’s no wonder he spends most of his days after his first outing checking his phone just waiting for the next mission. Watching Peter take on the “ground level” threats we also understand why he isn’t ready to start fighting an enemy like Baron Zemo, Winter Soldier, or Ultron. Peter just isn’t at that level yet. But like every fourteen year old kid, he’s headstrong and unable to see just how dangerous the world is around him. This sets up the unseen enemy of the film, Peter’s impatience. Yes there is a guy flying around in an alien powered wing suit, yes there are new and more devastating weapons being sold in his neighborhood, but peter is still young enough to be blindsided by the impatience of youth and it thwarts him at every turn.
The main villain isn’t a pushover though. Adrian Tooms/Vulture is a menacing and complex foil on a better level than most Marvel villains to date. Michael Keaton is deeply intriguing in his portrayal of Adrian Tooms. A man set on a dark path by desperation is always compelling and Michael Keaton does not phone it in here in a role that could have been hammy and over the top. It’s a quiet menace fueled by a fierce loyalty that gives this character the gravity it needs. Backed by his easter egg filled team (the Shocker, and the Tinkerer), Adrian Tooms turns from a life of salvaging after his company is forced out of business to that of a super weapon arms trafficker. One of the best things this film has going for it is how well it interweaves the plot lines of our hero and villain. They meet and interact in such a fluid and natural way that it almost retrospectively critiques previous Marvel films inability to do this so well. Peter Parker doesn’t set out to find his new enemy until we get the best of what Spider-Man comics has always had to offer. Spider-man comics have always had the conflict of Peter’s personal life versus his “professional” life. While out trying to enjoy a high school party he sees an explosion in the distance and knows he has to go see what he can do as Spider-Man to keep his city safe. We get the normal Marvel “sense of humor” as he races to a back alley gun deal that turns into a full fledged chase culminating in a brief interaction between hero and villain. Quickly we find out that Peter is out of his depth against the Vulture. The scene is only seconds long but the tension is palpable as our hero falls uncontrollably into a river from a devastating height.
If you have kept up with the trailers of this movie, a large section of the middle is disappointingly spoiled. The Washington monument and ferry scenes could have been fantastic set pieces with their surprising twists if Marvel hadn’t gone the DC route and given everything away. They are shot beautifully for sure. They are fantastic renditions of everything we have seen before in Spider-Man films but they somewhat fell flat in the wake of spoiled laden trailers and TV spots. This brings up what is my biggest disappointment with Spider-Man: Homecoming. For every inventive idea that finds its way up on screen, nothing here feels fresh. Nothing here feels new and that is a devastating path this film has committed to. Peter has to learn the ins and the outs of his new A.I. integrated suit, but we’ve seen that before with Iron Man. Peter bristles against the controlling leadership of Tony Stark, but we’ve seen that with Captain America: Civil War. Peter is a lone hero set on a path against a foe he cannot hope to overcome and we have seen that countless times from Marvel. The building blocks of this movie are largely made from the structure of every Marvel movie we’ve already seen.
This isn’t to say what is happening narratively is boring to watch or terribly shot. When Peter Sneaks on to a ferry to take down the vulture, there is tension. There is no foreseeable way off of the ferry and Peter is trapped fighting a stronger and more adept foe. When all seems to be lost for our hero is when things take an emotional downturn for Peter. Iron Man swoops in to save Peter and the ferry but all of Peter’s impatience has taken a toll on his relationship with the Avenger. Stripped of his new suit and privileges as an Avengers trainee Peter must decide whether to continue fighting crime truly on his own. The dark dramatic turn is what sells this movie to me. The strength of Spider-Man lies in his inability to look away when bad things are happening in his city. Tom Holland and Michael Keaton shine during the lead up to and climax of this movie. From Peter losing his suit to the credits rolling there is not a poorly acted scene to be had. Tension boils over and comes to a head in scenes and plot points I won’t spoil for you because it would ruin the best fifteen minutes of this film.
As with every super hero film, our hero and Villain must confront each other one more time. The action is a little muddled by poor film making but the emotional struggle is shining light that should not be overlooked. Peter does not win in the traditional sense. Yes, Vulture is defeated and sent away to prison but it isn’t by Peters doing necessarily. It is by the sheer desperation of both characters that Vulture fails. The strength of this movie is in understanding that Peter Parker would never let the villain die if he could do anything to save him. The strength of Peter Parker is in his infallible will to do the right thing even through the sacrifice of his own personal life. He knows that Vulture knows who he is and it still doesn’t stop Peter from saving him. It’s a fantastic way to close out a climax that could have otherwise ended in a “-and the villain died of his own machinations” style ending. As expected Tony Stark sees the error of his ways and welcomes back our hero with open arms. Unexpectedly our fourteen year old hero has learned his lesson and declines what feels like a once in a lifetime opportunity to stand alongside the avengers to keep watch over his beloved city of Queens as the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man”.
This movie had some serious scrutiny to overcome introducing Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sony and Marvel came to a groundbreaking deal to make it happen and rolled the dice on a younger actor with very few acting credits to his name. Tom Holland is a charming kid who carries the emotional weight of a character focused on doing the right thing to a fault while still allowing the levity that we have come to expect in a Marvel movie. When scenes get dark or tense this kid pulls out some serious acting chops better than we’ve seen in Ant Man or any of the Thor movies to date. Michael Keaton again shows us why he’s had such a resurgence in his acting career as of late. Adrian Tooms is a deeply charismatic villain that oozes the subtle menace of a powerful mob boss. When he threatens the main character you believe it because of Michael Keaton’s performance. Jacob Batalon is as lovable as the bumbling best friend as you’d hope he would be seemingly more excited by Peters super powers than he is. Marissa Tomei is largely serviceable as the new Aunt May giving off the “hip forty year old mother” that was to be expected. Disappointingly Robert Downey Jr gives a much more sour performance of Tony Stark, the disapproving father figure. The two more unexpectedly interesting characters are played by John Favreau as Happy Hogan and Donald Glover as Aaron Davis.
There is so much about this film that shines. The action is fun and the drama is rife with tension. The character ark of the hero is relatable to anyone who has struggled to prove themselves to their parents, to their jobs or teachers. There aren’t any bad or poorly acted scenes to really call out. So why is it that when leaving the theater there’s no lingering joy or anticipation for the next Spider-Man movie to come? As I said before, there was a lot for this movie to live up to for me when it comes to bringing the next iteration of Spider-Man into my local theater. But it isn’t that that kept me from leaving the theater with a great experience. What ultimately drags this film down is Marvel’s inability to innovate and grow with their fan base. Happy Hogan is peppered throughout the film and it feels as though John Faverau (the director if Iron Man who also plays Happy Hogan) is just standing their smugly in every scene reminding us that if it weren’t for him none of this would have happened. Standing their smugly telling us that for the most part Marvel has been trying everything it can do to get back to innovative story arcs that stand out as a commentary to our current world view.
Maybe I’m looking too deeply into what I am expecting in my movie going experience and maybe it’s best to sit back and enjoy a fun pop-corn flick that gets me out of the hot sun in summer. But that isn’t why I enjoy comics and it isn’t why some of the greatest ones stand the test of time. The best stand the test of time not only because they share with us the thrill of swinging through New York City or flying high above Metropolis, they stay with us because we suffer with the character and learn with them. Because they push their characters and test their morality. Spider-Man: homecoming gives us the thrill of learning to use our new-found super powers but it just doesn’t do anything to stay with you after the credits roll.
Written by Justin Griswold