Spider-Man: Homecoming – A (almost entirely) spoiler-free review.

The latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and the first result of the Marvel/Sony partnership — hit theaters this past weekend, and it was a big hit. That’s good, because this is a movie that deserves to do well. It has a lot going for it, and is a solid addition to the Marvel collection. While I won’t go so far as to call it my favorite movie of the year (Wonder Woman has it beat, hands down), it’s another fun, funny, enjoyable, and overall good quality outing from Marvel’s Studios, and really nails what Spider-Man is all about.

I would give this move a solid 7.5/10, and definitely recommend you go see it. Take your wife/girlfriend/kids, too. This is the kind of superhero movie I think even a casual fan will enjoy. To see why, keep reading.

Normally, in my reviews, I start out with the good stuff, before digging in to the flaws. And this movie, as good as it was, does have its flaws. But there’s an elephant in the room that any dedicated MCU fan is likely well aware of, so let me just get it out of the way up front, so we can move past it:

Spider-Man: Homecoming completely screws up the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline.

If you want all the gory details, I’ve written about it on the Q&A site here. Marvel, in general, tries really hard not to pin their movies down to specific years, which is why the occasional hints that creep in don’t line up. That’s never more apparent than here, where making sense of this movie requires rewriting the entire Phase One timeline. The good news is, it doesn’t detract from the movie itself at all; it’s just something for real  fans to argue about later. So, deep breath, lets move on…

Tom Holland, in particular, nailed the role of Spider-Man

Homecoming starts out with a very short prelude, showing the immediate aftermath of the Battle of New York (the climax of The Avengers) and a private cleanup crew tearing apart some Chitauri wreckage. They are interrupted by a city official, and the newly formed Damage Control (a division of Stark Enterprises), who have been given sole jurisdiction over all alien-related cleanup. The crew’s leader, Adrian Toomes, is furious, but there’s not much he can do about it. That is, until one of his crew notices that they forgot to turn over a truckload of junk, and another casually remarks that he could make all kinds of cool stuff with that junk.

The movie then fast forwards mumblemumble years, as we pick up smack in the middle of Civil War. You’ve probably seen this part in the trailers — Peter video blogging his exploits, then being returned back home by Tony, and told to just go home to his aunt and forget about the Avengers for a while.  Tony gives him a nice present, though — his high-tech Spider-Man suit — but otherwise leaves Peter to his own devices. What follows is Peter’s attempt to fit back into his former high school life, while also trying to prove himself worthy of being an Avenger. As you can expect, it doesn’t go very well.

The movie serves a sort-of dual purpose here.  Mainly, it’s a coming of age story, as Peter matures as a person, both literally, when he goes on his first date, and figuratively, as he starts to figure out what kind of person he wants to be. But it’s also an origin story, of sorts — except, one that never shows the hero’s origins. Rather, we see a super-powered Peter Parker grow into the super-heroic Spider-Man, figuring out what that means, and the responsibility that comes with it, as he goes. Much of the drama in the movie involves Peter working hard to clean up his own messes, while trying to prove to Happy Hogan (his “handler”) and Tony Stark (a sort of unaware surrogate father figure) that he’s ready to do more. But, this Peter Parker, unlike the previous two movie incarnations, is still a very young kid, who has no idea what he’s doing in his own life, much less in his secret second life as a super hero.

Thanks to his secret dual-identity, Peter’s personal life becomes complex. He tries balancing school, extra-curricular activities, and nightly Spider-Man patrols that he can’t tell anyone about. (He tells everyone it’s his “Stark internship”). As we already knew from the trailers, Peter’s best friend Ned quickly stumbles on his secret, which certainly doesn’t make things any easier on him. On top of everything else, Peter has a pretty obvious crush on a senior girl, Liz, that he is in no way prepared to pursue.

To add to Peter’s stress, he soon has to deal with Toomes and his crew, who have been busy in the interim making alien weapons. These weapons end up on the streets of Brooklyn, and Spider-Man quickly learns how dangerous they can be. Toomes’s Vulture (and side-kick Shocker) are Peter’s first real arch enemies, and he spends a lot of time frustrated at what he feels are Tony and Happy underestimating how dangerous they are. So, Peter decides to take matters into his own hands.

The movie does a really good job weaving these two parts of Peter’s life together, without either of them feeling rushed or forced. Peter’s antics as Spider-Man have real consequences for his life as Peter Parker, and vice versa. Routine high-school activities turn into chances for Peter to show his heroic side, while those heroics cause drama in his high-school life. It’s a simple, classic story (one found in almost every “young superhero” TV show), but the movie makes it seamless and compelling. Tom Holland, in particular, nailed the role of Spider-Man at 14; I found his portrayal of both sides of the character collectively more believable (and more in line with my vision of young Spidey from the comics) than either of his two college-aged counterparts in the previous movies. And, despite the rampant fears derived from the trailers, the movie does just enough with Tony Stark to show how Parker is part of the bigger world, without overwhelming the viewer into thinking this was another Avengers movie. Tony tells Peter to be what we all basically want him to be: our “friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.”

Mainly, it’s a coming of age story, but it’s also an origin story, of sorts — except, one that never shows the hero’s origins.

It probably goes without saying that Michael Keaton does an amazing job as main villain The Vulture. He’s an interesting choice for an antagonist — though he is a classic Spider-Man villain, he’s not nearly as well know as some others. But I think Marvel/Sony made the right choice forgoing the same old “big name” villains, and Keaton bring just the right tone to the character: a level of sinister, but not outright evil, derived from years of desperately trying to support his family, and frustration at the people he feels are preventing him from doing it. He was once a decent person, but years of excusing and doubling-down on his bad choices have pushed him past the point of redemption.

Most of the major supporting roles were also well done. Marissa Tomei is back as a far-too-young Aunt May, doing a good job trying to balance the motherly figure of the comics with a younger, hipper, modern single woman. (Though, I have it on very good authority that her wardrobe was awful.) Ned is a perfect foil for Peter, and almost exactly how I imagine a superhero’s best friend would react. The actor never plays him over the top, but always just barely holding back his excitement at being friends with Spider-Man (well, most of the time). And the mystery girl Michelle, played by Zendaya, has a small but very memorable role as a cynical but hilarious bystander, which it turns out may not be so minor after all.

On the topic of the supporting cast, I was interested to see how few of the classic Spider-Man characters appeared in this movie. If you know the source material, this won’t be unexpected; most of Peter’s best-know peers (Gwen, Mary Jane, Harry, etc) don’t show up until Pete’s in college. Despite being mainstays of Spider-Man’s story, particularly Harry Osbourne, this movie felt perfectly whole without them. It leaves Marvel/Sony a lot of room to grow in future movies, which I think is a good thing.

The overall tone of the film was a good fit for the action going on. This was not an epic edge-of-your-seat blockbuster action movie. There was definitely some action, and choreographed very well, but it was definitely not the focus of the movie. The fight scenes were spaced out far enough apart to give the audience time to recover, and Peter time to absorb the fallout, but there were enough of them to give you the feel of Peter’s anxious and high-strung desire to do something. The story also advanced at a good pace; there wasn’t too much exposition, and the movie didn’t waste time on flashbacks to Peter’s spider bite (which is fine — we all know the story). As near as I can guess, the movie spans a few months of Peter’s life, and it managed to convey how those months simultaneously moved way too slow and way too fast for Peter.

Finally, possibly the best part of this movie is the comedy. The film was very upbeat and cheerful, with lots of friendly comedic banter between Peter’s high school friends and frenemies. Tony Stark’s dry personality, and Happy’s sour humor, both make an appearance, and the villain makes the requisite quips and puns, but it never feels overdone or forced. (Well, almost never — keep reading). And Spider-Man himself never stops talking to the bad guys, which is exactly how Spider-Man should be. The comedy just flows naturally into the conversations and action scenes; the audience where I saw it laughed constantly, and never groaned once.

(On a very small but very cool side note, the opening montage to this movie is not the traditional Marvel fanfare; it’s an orchestral version of the theme song from the 1967 cartoon. It was a nice, nostalgic touch for those who recognized it, but safely out of the way for anyone who didn’t.)

Unfortunately, not everything in the movie hit on all cylinders. There were a few rare misses. We’ve already talked about the frustrating timeline confusion, but most people won’t even notice that, so I’m not going to hold it against the movie (much). But there were other problems. Chief among them was the secondary cast, and particularly Flash Thompson. Unlike the Flash from the comics, this one isn’t a physical bully. I think the idea was to portray him as a social media bully, but he doesn’t actually do any social media bullying. He does have a bit of a posse in the movie, and Peter and Ned are leery of him, but about the worst thing Flash does all movie is some 5th grade name calling. If anything, Peter is constantly overshadowing Flash in the eyes of his peers. The dynamic just doesn’t work for someone that’s supposed to be Peter’s nemesis in high-school, only to be redeemed as an adult. Instead, this Flash is the guy that you vaguely remember being annoying in high school and never see again.

In the same vein, Liz (never named Allen in the movie) as a female lead didn’t really click for me, though I think it’s possible she was written awkward in purpose. She is Peter’s secret crush, so he’s awkward around her, it only makes sense that she’s a bit awkward around him. But I never once really bought them as a couple — perhaps it’s just as well that she was overshadowed by Michelle half the time. It’s not that the acting was bad, or that her character as unrealistic, but it just felt like she was a placeholder for plot advancement, and never a meaningful character in her own right.

The rest of the school cast all appear to be people from the comics, or based heavily on people from the comics, but generally do nothing but stand around and watch the action. It probably didn’t help that the only students we ever see, which in theory includes the most popular ones, are part of the Academic Decathalon team. Not a single jock that I can remember.

The Vulture’s crew, too, with the exception of the poor nerd making the toys, felt utterly replaceable. That actually happen, in fact, with the two generic villains that both get to be The Shocker for a while. They were so forgettable that I literally forgot about one of them by the time he reappeared an hour later at the end of the movie.

The film also does seem like, at a few points, it digs Peter into a hole so big they can’t figure out how to dig him out. Peter’s character arc involves overextending himself and making mistakes because of it, then struggling to find a way to fix it. But, twice in the movie, Iron Man has to swoop in and save the day for him, just in the nick of time. It makes for some good drama, and also builds up the story that Peter’s trying hard to impress Tony but all Tony sees is his mistakes. One of those incidents is key to the plot, but makes the other seem redundant, and somewhat diminishes Peter’s own struggle to figure out how to fend for himself, like Peter was never in any “real” danger because the “big boys” were hanging around waiting to bail him out

And finally, while I understand that this story is Peter’s story, and not the Avengers story, at times is stretched credulity to think that a villain like Toomes has been running alien-enhanced guns for 8 years and no one in the Avengers has noticed. It’s even more suspicious that, once Peter makes Tony aware, he doesn’t do anything himself, forcing Peter to confront the threat directly. Tony half-explains this to Peter, that the Avengers aren’t there to replace or interfere with the local law enforcement agencies. But Chitauri weapons in the hands of bank robbers is exactly the kind of thing that the Avengers should be handling.

In the end, the film managed to put together all of the big pieces you need for a good movie, but too much fell flat for me to call it great. It’s easily on par with it’s companion movies in the MCU, but I wouldn’t quit rank it near the top of that list. As a comedy, it was better than Guardians vol 2 and Ant-Man but not Guardians vol 1. As a solo movie, it was better than Thor or Iron Man 3, and edges out Ant-Man here too, but its not as good as Doctor Strange or any of the Captain America movies.

The good news, though, is that Marvel has yet to release a bad movie; even the lowest quality Marvel movies are still well above average for action movies, and the good ones like Homecoming are a delight to watch. You should absolutely put this on your list — it may be one of the best Spider-Man movies yet made.

 

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