Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"Spider-Man: Homecoming": review

Wanting to avoid the crowds, I went to the 7AM matinee of "Spider-Man: Homecoming" this past Sunday. The theater still had plenty of people in it, even at that time of day, and the movie was, last I checked, raking in over 80% of the ticket shares for all movies in South Korea. Marvel has marketed itself excellently all across the world, and Korean expectations for this film were much higher than they were for the superb "Wonder Woman" (reviewed here).

In this instance, the excitement is justified. "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is a good and worthwhile re-re-reboot of the Spider-Man character. You'll recall that we had a foretaste of Spider-Man in "Captain America: Civil War" (reviewed here), a movie that definitively ushered Spider-Man, now played by young British dancer/acrobat Tom Holland, into the MCU (i.e., the Marvel Cinematic Universe), along with Spider-Man's new, hotter Aunt May, played with winsome, MILF-y charm by Marisa Tomei. In "Homecoming," the movie is largely Spider-Man's, although Tony Stark/Iron Man is a minor-but-significant presence in something of a mentor's role for young Peter Parker.

Directed by Jon Watts and starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Robert Downey, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, and Tony Revolori, "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is not exactly a rehash of the Spider-Man origin story (already done twice with Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield): it's more of a coming-of-age story for Peter Parker (Holland) as he grows into his role as a new superhero. Peter is a sophomore who has a crush on statuesque Liz (Harrier). He's best friends with fellow science geek Ned (Batalon); he and Ned sort-of hang out with weird, stand-offish Michelle (Zendaya), navigating the perilous waters of life in a sci-tech high school. Peter lives in Queens with Aunt May but moonlights as Spider-Man. Ever since his "audition" in Germany (during "Captain America: Civil War"—the airport fight), Peter has been on Tony Stark's radar, and Stark has taken a liking to the kid, to the point where Stark has created a whole new StarkTech Spidey suit for the teen to wear. The suit comes equipped with a dizzying array of features and functions, and much of the movie is about Peter and Ned's discovery of just what the suit is capable of doing (taser webs! web grenades! kill mode and interrogation mode!). The movie does an excellent job of getting us into Peter's headspace so that we can understand what it's like to be a stressed-out high-school student (with the unasked-for gift of amazing superpowers) who must keep his heroic identity a secret from those he's closest to. Like most of the heroes we've come to know, Peter Parker walks the razor's edge of a double life.

The movie's main villain is Adrian Toomes (Keaton), whom we later know as The Vulture. Toomes is the head of a cleanup team that moves in after the Avengers have left a mess. When we first meet Toomes and his team, they are in the midst of cleaning up after the Battle of New York (see the first "Avengers" movie, reviewed here). A federal team, the US Department of Damage Control, suddenly arrives and flatly declares that Toomes's contract is now void, and that Toomes can leave. Seething, Toomes quickly realizes that the USDoDC is Tony Stark's creation. With a family and employees to care for, Toomes is left with nothing but the already-scavenged Chitauri weaponry he has managed to spirit away from the Battle of New York. Noting to his men that times are changing, Toomes concludes that he and his men must change, too, and thus begins the career of The Vulture.

These three parallel tracks, then, are what "Homecoming" runs on: (1) Peter's balancing of high-school and home life with his superhero life, (2) Peter's relationship with Tony Stark, a father figure whom Peter is eager to please (as well as Peter's most direct connection to the Avengers, whom he idolizes), and (3) the Vulture's plans to hijack not just Chitauri leftovers, but also newfangled StarkTech gadgetry as a way to strike at Stark. Once Peter begins tangling with The Vulture, things get interesting when it turns out that Peter and Adrian Toomes are only one degree of separation apart from each other—a fact that Toomes figures out first (thus making him one of the better and smarter MCU villains we've seen).

Overall, I very much enjoyed "Homecoming." Tom Holland is a great choice to play Spider-Man, and Michael Keaton's bizarre trajectory from Batman to Bird Man (briefly reviewed here) to the cold-eyed Vulture shows that Keaton is perfectly comfortable in the world of oversized heroes and villains.

Let's talk about what "Homecoming" gets right and what it gets wrong. We'll begin with the positives. The movie's cast is great; Jacob Batalon is funny and earnest as Peter's friend Ned; Zendaya is convincingly nerdy as the aloof brainiac Michelle; Marisa Tomei, as Aunt May, gets what is arguably the movie's funniest line right as we cut to the ending credits. The story focuses a great deal on character development, which is always a relief to those of us in the audience who are older and grumpier than the kids who are concentrating on the quality of the special effects (more on that below). Director Jon Watts proves to be good at pacing the story more or less evenly, and he doesn't allow "Homecoming" to fall into the trap of becoming another cinematic vehicle for Iron Man. Robert Downey is always a likable and compelling screen presence, but he isn't allowed to overshadow Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, and the rest of the young cast. "Homecoming" is also shot through with plenty of humor, some of which is related to Spider-Man's StarkTech suit. (The "interrogation mode" scene gave me a chuckle, largely thanks to Donald Glover's uncharacteristically deadpan performance.) Peter's school tormentor Flash Thompson (Revolori) isn't a physical bully in "Homecoming" the way Flash was in the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield versions; he's more of a psychological tormentor, and it's not a big spoiler to say that neither Peter Parker nor Spider-Man can quite get the best of him because of the non-physical nature of his harassment. Of the three filmic versions of Spider-Man, "Homecoming" gives us the best glimpse into high-school life (keeping in mind that this isn't a typical high school), and it accomplishes this despite being fairly plot- and characterization-heavy.

"Homecoming" has other pluses in its favor. For example, this version of Spider-Man is shown making rookie mistakes consistent with his rookie-superhero status: at one point, our hero webs a guy to a car, thinking the man is a car thief, but it turns out that the man is indeed the car's owner. Later on, and more seriously, Spider-Man's over-eager attempt to take down The Vulture's crew on the Staten Island Ferry leads to a disaster that could have cost many lives. This is a fallible, gawky, and even clumsy Spider-Man—something we've never seen before.* I also need to heap praise on Michael Keaton: his Vulture is a smart villain, but there's one scene in particular, in which we see Adrian Toomes through a car's rear-view mirror, putting two and two together as he realizes who Spider-Man is. The moment is reminiscent of Willem Dafoe's excellent dinner-table scene in Sam Raimi's first "Spider-Man," when Norman Osborn figures out Spider-Man's identity after he sees the gash on Peter Parker's forearm. For Keaton, this is an excellent bit of acting, all seen through a narrow rectangle that crops out most of the actor's face, and it's one of the artistic highlights of the movie.

Now, let's switch to what the movie doesn't get right. Please keep in mind that, even if I go into some detail on these complaints, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, so whatever minuses I mention need to be put in that perspective. First: tone. We now live in a post-"Deadpool," post-"Logan" era (reviews here and here, respectively). This means blood, guts, swearing, filthy humor, and scary examples of human (or even inhuman) evil. Marvel movies have shown they're now willing to go there, and to my mind, there's no going back. The "Guardians of the Galaxy" films (reviews here and here) dialed back the violence and vulgarity a bit, but they, like "Dr. Strange" (review here) brought their own unique and highly original sense of unself-conscious fun to the mix. "Homecoming" feels like a retreat from all that ramped-up intensity, which is a bit disappointing. Then again, one doesn't go to a "Spider-Man" film looking for blood, gore, and casually lobbed f-bombs, so I admit I may be expecting too much. Spider-Man has generally been a more wholesome hero; he's gone the dark route in the comics on several occasions, but his story is generally the story of a teen who somehow remains cheerfully positive despite crushing adversity.

Another problem I had was with the roping-in of Spider-Man to the MCU. If you were to ask me to rank the three cinematic Spider-Men, I'd probably still put Tobey Maguire's version in first place. Maguire gave us a touching, heartfelt performance that allowed us to feel Spider-Man's humanity and compassion. It was far better than the wisecracking turn that poofy-haired Andrew Garfield gave us, and while Tom Holland handles the role with skill and aplomb, the character is no longer a stand-alone thanks to Tony Stark and the Avengers. While it's true that Iron Man isn't in "Homecoming" for long, his presence is with us more or less constantly thanks to the StarkTech suit that Parker wears for much of the film. With every new StarkTech feature—webwings, enhanced espionage mode, a suit AI that Peter names Karen (voice of Jennifer Connelly!)—we're reminded of the pervasive influence of Iron Man. I understand that Marvel Studios has plans for Spider-Man and the larger MCU universe, but I couldn't help feeling that Spider-Man's frequent dependence on Stark detracted from his character at least a little.

Before watching "Homecoming," I saw some non-spoilery reviews of the movie, and many of the reviewers complained that some of the action sequences were choppily edited, making the action occasionally difficult to follow. I'd have to agree. This wasn't like watching Tim Miller's "Deadpool." Miller (and remember that "Deadpool" is his first-ever major film) is a natural when it comes to directing action. Jon Watts seems to be a bit less comfortable depicting fights and frenetic commotion, although I wouldn't say those scenes were badly filmed. It's simply that, now and again, it's hard to figure out who is doing what, and where.

There's also the issue of special effects, another complaint of mine. Back in 2002, when Sam Raimi's first "Spider-Man" came out, some people griped that the CGI animation for Spider-Man looked far too fake. CGI, when used for animating human motion, can be problematic because people, especially when moving fast, risk looking far too light and plasticky. Since the 2002 film, special-effects crews have tried and tried to animate Spider-Man more realistically, but there's no escaping the uncanny valley, it seems. Even in "Homecoming," there are moments when Spider-Man's movements, especially the ultra-fast ones, simply look fake. Given the widespread nature of the problem, which bedevils all sorts of effects-heavy films, I'm not sure this is a specific complaint against this movie. But like it or not, this movie contains moments where it's hard to suspend disbelief.

And as with other recent films, one of the biggest disappointments for me was, once again, Michael Giacchino's musical score. Giacchino has real talent, and I think he's a musical genius, but his best-ever score was for "The Incredibles" back in 2004, and it's been downhill ever since. As I've noted before, his score for "Star Trek" relied too heavily on a single leitmotif played over and over ad nauseam. Since "Trek," his scores have echoed the music of veterans like Alan Silvestri ("Predator," "Back to the Future," "The Abyss," "Beowulf," "The Avengers," etc.) and, more specifically, Danny Elfman ("Batman," Sam Raimi's first two "Spider-Man" films, etc.). The score for "Homecoming" owes a major debt to Elfman and feels like lazy cribbing. For a while now, I've been under the impression that Giacchino is taking orders from directors and producers and studio bigwigs who are asking him to produce their notion of what's needed for a given film. I suspect that, back when he was scoring "The Incredibles," Giacchino had much more leeway to be independently creative, and he rewarded the studio's and the audience's trust by producing some truly awesome orchestrations.** It really is a shame to see how Giacchino has been domesticated over the years, and I hope, one day, that the man gets mad, hulks out, and breaks free of the uncreative chains currently binding and stultifying him. To be honest, while I don't like the "Homecoming" score that much, I can't honestly blame Giacchino for it because I don't think it's really a reflection of who he is.

Those complaints aside, "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is a very good action film that moves along at a merry clip, leavening the plot with plenty of humor, giving us a dimensional villain, and showcasing yeoman's work from the entire cast. As summer blockbusters go, it's worth your while, and if you're a comic-book nerd, you'll appreciate all the sly and overt references hidden and/or displayed throughout the movie.

*True, in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 2," our hero temporarily loses his powers because of a psychological hangup, but that's not the same thing at all. And while Raimi's first "Spider-Man" shows Peter stumbling a bit before finding his feet, that awkward phase is relatively short, whereas in "Homecoming," it's more of a running joke throughout much of the film.

**I could go on and on about how amazing the score for "The Incredibles" is. The movie weaves together the superhero and spy-movie genres, and Giacchino's music is—pardon the pun—an exquisitely pitch-perfect match for the action. It truly is a work of genius, and it helps make the movie. Pixar's film wouldn't be half as good without Giacchino.

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