Spider-Man: Homecoming Synthesizes All Spideys

Movie Review: Spider-Man – Homecoming

Tom Holland and director Jon Watts prove there’s still room for ‘comic’ in the comic book universe as they return to basics in the highly entertaining Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming

4/5

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downie Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Gwyneth Paltrow, Donald Glover, Tony Revolori, Laura Harrier, Jacob Batalon, Tyne Daly, Hannibal Buress

Directed by: Jon Watts

Running time: 2 hrs 13 mins

Rating: PG-13

By Katherine Monk

To quote the wrong franchise: “Why so serious?” They are comic books, after all.

In a bid to bring grown-up sensibilities to the comic book universe in the 1980s, writers and artists gave us the ‘graphic novel’ — long-form fiction with moody illustrations and darker content that fleshed out the metaphysics of the superhero condition. A comic book notion of Superman melded with the Nietzschean Übermensch to give us deeper thoughts, existential meditations and a rather somber palette that bore little resemblance to the cheap inks and primary colours associated with comic book adolescence.

Filmmakers looking to adapt comic book characters to the big screen tended toward the graphic novel treatment, turning the likes of Batman and the Man of Steel into latter-day martyrs, destined to carry the cross of humanity and suffer, panel to panel, station to station, franchise to franchise for all eternity.

It was all meaty and seemed vaguely meaningful. But it wasn’t much fun. Then Deadpool happened. Ryan Reynolds proved you could poke fun at the comic book essence of a character without compromising its emotional integrity, or insulting the fanbase with a sarcastic wink. Comic books could be comic again — thank God. Or to the fanbase, thank Stan Lee.

The great creator of the Marvel Universe always knew you needed a smirk in addition to a superpower, which is why wisecracking Spider-Man is considered the jewel in the Marvel Crown — and to now, the most profitable comic book property on the big screen.  The first trilogy starring Tobey Maguire pulled in over $1 billion, and even the second, not-so-amazing series featuring Andrew Garfield racked up close to that much.

Bringing the sarcastic superhero back for another round certainly smacked of sheer exploitation. Yet, while Spider-Man: Homecoming may be a blatant cash grab, it’s also hugely entertaining. Moreover, it may be the first Spider-Man movie to capture the blithe spirit of the original comic book character.

Maguire’s Spidey was steeped in Shakespearean earnestness as he grappled with his great power and his great responsibility. Garfield’s Spider-Man lacked a critical sense of humour — at times, feeling more like a morose poet than a wisecracking superhero. But young Tom Holland, the kid who survived the tsunami in The Impossible and played Billy Elliot on stage, feels like the Peter Parker I grew up with: Adventurous, outgoing, participatory and sarcastic without being deeply cynical.

It’s not the easiest mark to hit, but Holland nails it on the first beat — essentially playing little sibling to older, wiser, far more jaded superheroes.

Picking up where Captain America: Civil War left off, we meet Peter Parker on a bit of a high: He just teamed with the Avengers and Iron Man, so he’s feeling a little chuffed. Kids his age are talking about Spider-Man as a hero. Even the pretty girl he crushes on (Laura Harrier) thinks Spider-Man is kind of cool.

Peter Parker should be living the adolescent dream. The only problem is, he can’t share his buzz with anyone. Not even his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) knows the truth, leaving Peter to pester the likes of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) for more heroic outings, while maintaining a decent high school grade point average.

At 15, this is the youngest embodiment of Spider-Man so far — which is one of the reasons why director Jon Watts (Cop Car) had a relatively fresh page to work from. Peter has yet to be burdened by the weight of superhero morality. He’s still a kid trying to navigate the emotional pitfalls of high school: peer approval, parties and, heavy sigh, pretty girls.

Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein (Horrible Bosses) and John Francis Daley (Freaks and Geeks) bring details to the high school setting that immediately pull us in, from the shop teacher who choruses “keep your fingers away from the blades” to the use of Peter’s own iPhone footage of his experience in the great superhero Civil War.

At 15, this is the youngest embodiment of Spider-Man so far — which is one of the reasons why director Jon Watts (Cop Car) had a relatively fresh page to work from. Peter has yet to be burdened by the weight of superhero morality. He’s still a kid trying to navigate the emotional pitfalls of high school: peer approval, parties and, heavy sigh, pretty girls.

Peter’s maniacal replaying of the iPhone footage isn’t just generationally correct, it puts Peter in the broader context — as well as dispense with the standard origin story prerequisites. In other words, we don’t have to watch Peter get bitten by a radioactive spider. We don’t have to watch him figure out his web glands or his changing physiognomy: He’s the Spider-Man from the comic books, only he’s 15.

He’s not old enough to play with the big kids, and that’s the central dilemma. When he realizes his new suit is still in ‘training wheels mode’ and he’s expected to finish high school before embarking on his crime fighting career, Peter does what any kid his age does: He bends the rules to fit his own needs.

He modifies the suit. He recruits his best friend to be ‘the guy in a chair’, and before long, he’s facing down the likes of Vulture (Michael Keaton) — a small businessman who salvaged alien technology from Civil War’s Ground Zero and now sells it to criminals for a sickening profit.

Keaton is familiar with the superhero drill, and more than a dozen movies into the ‘MCU,’ Robert Downie Jr. is fire-forged icon as Iron Man. Surrounded by these solid veterans, young Holland can indulge the softer, less-formed sides of Spidey without sacrificing character integrity.

It’s Holland’s ability to capture the restless adolescent spirit that needs public affirmation, but also wants to hide under a rock, that makes this Homecoming such a giddy treat. He’s a recognizable kid struggling with identity issues — only on an exaggerated scale.

Throw in other winning ingredients for the target demographic, such as Marisa Tomei as a sexy Aunt May, a mandatory cameo from Stan Lee as a grouchy old man, and even a nod to the original ’60s TV cartoon in the opening bars of the score, and you have a film that synthesizes all the Spider-Men past and present into one character we can all relate to: A kid looking to make his mark in the world while still being able to laugh at himself.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS.CA, July 7, 2017

Read Katherine Monk’s movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and here on the The Ex-Press archive.

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Review: Spider-Man Homecoming

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Tom Holland and director Jon Watts prove there's still room for 'comic' in the comic book universe as they return to basics in the highly entertaining Spider-Man: Homecoming, a movie that captures the goofiness of the web-slinging superhero and his unique brand of cute nerdiness. -- Katherine Monk

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