Spider-Man: Homecoming movie review: boys and their alien toys

Spider-Man: Homecoming green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Thoroughly charming. Spider-Man’s signature light comedy works surprisingly well even as this story is uniquely steeped in the darker Marvel Cinematic Universe.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love the Marvel Cinematic Universe
I’m “biast” (con): tired of Spider-Man
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Oh, god, not another Spider-Man movie! We’re all tired of Spider-Man, aren’t we? Didn’t we all groan a little when he showed up in Captain America: Civil War because we knew it meant more standalone Spider-Man movies? (I mean, of course it did. Like how every Avenger gets their own movie: Iron Man and Cap and Thor and Ant-freakin’-Man and Black Widow– oh, wait.) It was only just five years ago, in 2012, when we got Andrew Garfield as The Amazing Spider-Man (with its sequel only three years ago), and that was only five years after the final movie with Tobey Maguire as the teenaged webslinger, in 2007’s Spider-Man 3. Seriously, Hollywood: come on.

“Right this way to your own franchise, kid...”
“Right this way to your own franchise, kid…”tweet

So I really was not in a good mood for Spider-Man: Homecoming. And yet… I found it thoroughly charming.tweet Tom Holland (The Lost City of Z, In the Heart of the Sea) as Peter Parker is delightful (and at only the tender age of just-turned-21 a couple of weeks ago, the closest in age to the high-school character yet). The signature light-comedic tone of the Spider-Man stories works surprisingly well even within the overall much darker Marvel Cinematic Universe, of which this is a part… perhaps because Peter’s interaction with the Avengers here is limited to snarky Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.: The Judge, Chef) and his driver, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau: The Jungle Book, Entourage), who appears to believe he needs to supply the snark when his boss is not around.

This Peter Parker lives in a New York City indelibly shaped by the Avengers…

But maybe the best way in which Homecoming works in the MCU is that it is positively steeped in it in a way that none of the other films have been before; it is clearly part of this series and yet stands very much apart, too.tweet Peter lives in a New York City — he is from Queens, as always — that has been indelibly shaped by the Battle of New York that occurred at the end of 2012’s Avengers, the one that devastated much of midtown Manhattan. The story’s villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton: The Founder, Spotlight), is an ordinary working guy who turns to crime when he is forced off his city contract cleaning up after that battle when Tony Stark snags a federal contract to do the same thing on a larger scale; Toomes is incensed at the whiff of corruption and rich-guy cronyism that seems to entail: Stark is now gonna profit off the mess he helped create? (It’s tough to disagree with Toomes here, or with the other hypocrisies of Tony Stark he later points out.) Toomes is running a black market in weapons that fuse human technology with alien doodads scavenged from Avengers battles all over the world, which is a wonderfully twisted — and entirely plausible — extrapolation of the heroics we’ve so far witnessed only up close. Here is a whole big world in which superheroes and alien demigods and attacks by more advanced civilizations are real: How do ordinary people cope with that? How do they react to that? How does the culture change to make room for that? (One thing we learn: Captain America has made some cheesy educational videos that kids are forced to watch in school. It’s a brilliant way to bring that light Spidey touch to the MCU.)

“Spidey Suit 2.0 is gonna have some pockets, so I can stop hauling this stupid backpack around.”
“Spidey Suit 2.0 is gonna have some pockets, so I can stop hauling this stupid backpack around.”tweet

Peter’s journey falls under that cultural angst: it’s not only adolescence that is tripping up this would-be superhero,tweet though there is that, too. Reboot this may be, but it’s not Spidey’s origin story again; we don’t have to watch poor Uncle Ben get sacrificed to Peter’s moral development once more, thank goodness. Instead, this is about how a genius 15-year-old who isn’t challenged even at his awesome science-centered high school tries to balance his desire to become an actual Avenger, a part of the team in the same way he was in the big fight at the Berlin airport in Civil War, with his desire to just be as much of a regular kid as his radioactive blood and mutant powers allow him to be. He’s got a huge crush on pretty, supersmart Liz (Laura Harrier: The Last Five Years), and the school’s homecoming dance is coming up… But that’s not what the title refers to (and in fact, the contrivance of the dance is one of the film’s weak points): the homecoming is the one from Berlin, and what Peter is going to do with that taste of life as an Avenger. We’re supposed to be eight years on from the Battle of New York — so either the year is 2020 here, or the battle took place earlier than 2012 — but either way, that means that Peter was only seven years old when the battle happened and will have little memory of a world before the Avengers. Holland may be terrific at making us believe that his Peter is authentically consumed with his dilemma, but the unique setting in which he is wrestling with it — we don’t often see science fiction movies that grapple with the long-term aftermath of alien invasiontweet — goes a long way to helping sell it, too.

There are problems here. The film is too long — there’s plenty of room for judicious editing that would have brought the movie in under two hours; it’s well over that — and there’s a piece of plotting that is so ridiculous that it momentarily jars you right out of the story. The central setpiece action sequence on the Staten Island ferry (which, ahem, does not carry cars) is pretty lackluster; the action bits are where indie director Jon Watts stumbles with his first big-budget film.

“They let me keep this jacket from Birdman, isn’t it great?”
“They let me keep this jacket from Birdman, isn’t it great?”tweet

But fortunately there’s tons of good stuff to make you forget that. The sly humor of casting of the always superb Keaton — former Batman and Birdman — as Toomes, who is also known as Vulture for his alien-tech-powered flying armor — never gets old. And the entire supporting cast is sharply on point in a comedic way that we haven’t seen before in the MCU, from Peter’s best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), who has some ideas about how he can best perform as sidekick to a superhero; to teachers such as Peter’s subversive academic decathlon coach, Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr: Amira & Sam, Veronica Mars), and Toomes’s overenthusiastic engineer, Mason (Michael Chernus: The Family Fang, Aloha); to Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei: The Big Short, Love the Coopers), whose tolerance of Peter’s strange behavior gets pushed a bit too far.

I worry about May’s wardrobe, however: 70s hippie chick simply does not suit her. It is perhaps the least persuasive element in a movie about a sweet, good-natured mutant teenager who plays with a lot of dangerous alien toys and yearns to be a member of a superhero squad.

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