Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder
Spider-Man: Homecoming- He’s Back!
Written Review by David Carter
Some Preamble (feel free to skip to the review)
Spider-Man is part of what is considered to be the“big three” superheroes who have lead, ignited, and perfected their respective eras of cinematic influence. Richard Donner’s Superman not only made you believe a man could fly, it also took comic adaptations from the TV serials and cartoons and made them viable to the big screen. Tim Burton’s Batman pretty much ignited the fires for the superhero boom we live in today, and it brought about the idea that auteurist aesthetics combined with the pop pulp of caped crusaders was a winning combination.
If those two movies cracked the door open, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man blew the damn door off the hinges.
In 2002 the movie landscape was much different (It would look almost alien to anyone born after 1997). Big blockbusters still only came out mostly during the summer and there were less of them (although slightly debatable because what passed for a blockbuster then is so far removed from now). Superhero movies had kind of fallen on hard times with the last Schumacher Batman film; the slightly unfairly maligned Batman and Robin. Things had gotten too bright and vibrant for a pre-9/11 audience, so after The Matrix dropped down on us like an elephant from a helicopter, Superhero movies followed suit stylistically. There was the good (Blade), the bad (X-Men), and the ugly (The Crow: Salvation). While I’m being kind of hard on X-Men, it did what it had to do to walk the line between gritty realism and Halle Berry in a white wig making nonsensical one liners at a toad boy. The movies were a success (well, not The Crow: Salvation) and the superhero genre was back on the movie menu.
Then 9/11 happened.
I’m not here to talk about 9/11. I’m not that smart and I don’t need a bunch of Jet Fuel-ly Mc-Can’t Melt Steel Beams to lecture me. However, there is something to the idea that a traumatic event can radically alter the zeitgeist and the type of art that’s delivered to the mainstream. So after 9/11 the shift in tones of movies significantly altered. Let me put it this way: If American Beauty is the most pre 9/11 Oscar film ever made then The Hurt Locker is the other side of that coin. It directly affected superhero films too and who began making them. People were ready to feel hope again, but not be talked down to or fed too much jingoistic propaganda (just enough).
Enter Sam Raimi and Spider-Man.
From what I’ve gathered over the years Raimi’s vision for the character wasn’t all that much different pre-9/11. It was largely still a take on the original Ditko/Lee run from the 60’s but when the towers fell some things had to change. For one, there was a shot of Spider-Man catching a helicopter in a web between the Twin Towers that was cut out. The snapshot’s of and commentary from New York citizens, their city pride, and their support of Spider-Man was cranked up (The climactic bridge scene line: “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us” is golden).
And of course.
This doesn’t even touch on the fact the first two movies shattered box office records and are flat out masterpieces of craft, structure, and performance (Spider-Man 3 is a classic case of fun but fatally flawed, but one of those flaws ain’t emo Spider-Man dancing James Brown. Don’t “@” me) that were the gold standard for superhero movies until The Dark Knight came and spawned a million very annoying dudes replacing Brandon Lee’s “The Crow” with Heath Ledger’s “The Joker” as the go to embarrassing grimdark Halloween costume. So why have all this preamble? Well, to understand why Marvel and Sony’s successful joint custody of the web head is such a big deal you have to understand why this character and moment specific introduction is so important. Like Batman and to a slightly lesser extent Superman, Spider-Man has yet to leave our now increasingly fractured cultural zeitgeist. Raimi’s humanistic take on Spider-Man has loomed over the character like a man in giant vulture suit, so much so that when Sony unceremoniously dumped Raimi’s fourth film in favor of a Twilight-esque post Bush era slog of a reboot, they succeeded in killing the franchise in just two movies (Amazing Spider-Man 2 deserves your Batman and Robin ire).
Raimi and screenwriters David Koepp, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Michael Chabon, and Alvin Sargent all understood that what makes Spider-Man so special in the cinematic landscape of tights and fights is that he’s the crappiest wish fulfillment fantasy in the history of wish fulfillment. A brilliant but socially outcast nerd gets superpowers and attractive overnight, only for the powers to be a reminder of a death he failed to prevent and a duty to use his powers to help everyone he can even if it ruins his personal life (he’s also still a socially awkward schmuck, just handsome now).
So how do you handle a character that’s so defined by its cultural introduction and it’s solidly defined set of themes and morals? You update it for an audience raised in generally good times (The Obama years) and cribbing the long lost “teen movie” for good measure.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is the third feature film by up and coming director Jon Watts (whose last film Cop Car is one the best “actions have consequences” stories made in a while.), and Marvel and Sony testing the waters of this joint custody thing with red and blue “menace” himself. The story is pretty straightforward: After debatably stealing the entirety of Captain America: Civil War in one scene, Homecoming follows Peter Parker (Tom Holland who knocks the role out the park) trying to prove himself to his surrogate father Tony Stark (the always enjoyable Robert Downey Jr. returning to a role I’m sure he can do in his sleep at this point) with the hope that if he does well he can be a permanent Avenger. Stark lets him keep his new super suit under the condition that he checks in with Tony’s right-hand man Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau getting to have some fun) and keep to busting the street level crime in Queens.
It’s easier said than done when blue collar construction worker turned black market arms dealer of modified alien weapons, Adrian Toomes’ (Michael Keaton who not only shows up to work but completes his trilogy of bird based superhero movie roles) merchandise starts showing up on the street in a big a way. In addition to tracking down the source of all this mayhem, Peter has to live the life a typical teenager. Quiz Bowl, parties, the homecoming dance, his attraction to the popular and hard-working Liz (Laura Harrier), and keeping curfews with his Aunt May (the always stellar Marisa Tomei who unfortunately doesn’t really get much to do outside of being the butt of the meta “Aunt May is young and hot now” joke). But with the help of his best friend Ned (best new original character and scene stealer Jacob Batalon) and his newly “jailbroken” spider-suit, Peter sets out to prove himself to Tony, unfortunately making a ton of dumb mistakes in the process.
That’s the conflict of the movie in a nutshell. The stresses of adolescent life (instead of Raimi’s adult life focus) rubbing up against the very adult notion of taking on responsibilities so gargantuan that all you can do is start to crumble beneath them slowly. Pete’s too eager and naive to realize that just because he’s brilliant and feels indestructible, the same way we all feel indestructible as teenagers, doesn’t mean that those around him won’t get hurt. In short, it puts the safety of the city on par with his high school social standing and a love life, which to be fair is pretty accurate when you’re 15. It’s what makes his foil for the film so interesting.
Adrian Toomes is a character whose motivations are pretty clear: “The government and the rich have wronged me and people like me. So, I’m going to operate outside the system, even if it causes harm to the people who are supposedly like me.” Keeping very much with the times we live in, it feels like the supervillain equivalent to an upper-middle class pseudo-libertarian saying “burn it down!”, without realizing (or caring really) how much that harms those who aren’t lucky enough to have their type of security. But the twist being, that he really is doing this for the security of his oft mentioned family. He will steal whatever needs to be stolen and kill whoever needs to be killed to protect the one thing bringing him the funds to ensure their future. It’s a cracked mirror of Peter’s attitude toward this whole thing. Peter cares and wants to protect those around him too, but not with the weight he should, whereas Toomes has crossed the line to meet his ends.
In addition to this stellar conflict, the movie just works. Outside of missing auteurist aesthetics and texture, a very clunky third act (blockbuster writers need to take a step back and figure out how story structure, action, pay off, and pacing works at this point) and some Marvel “this still kinda feels like an episode of TV” it’s nearly top to bottom a great time at the movies. It’s got a distinctly loose and contemporary comedy style. You can feel the alt-comedy influence in certain scenes. Which probably has to do with the stellar casting of some of the funniest people working today. Martin Starr, Hannibal Buress, Zack Cherry (who gets the single funniest interaction in the movie), and Donald Glover (a little fan service) all shine. Sometimes when movies cast big like this, these people never really get to flex the comedy muscles. Not the case with Homecoming. Everybody gets at least one great scene or line. Even outside of the comedians, the young cast is all great. I mentioned Jacob Batalon being a stand-out but everybody brings something to the table. I loved Zendaya’s Ally Sheedy-esque Michelle. I enjoyed Laura Harrier’s updated take on the popular girl archetype (popularity is no longer just about good looks and social standing amongst the youngsters). I even liked Tony Revolori’s take on Flash Thompson as no longer a jock/bully but an immature tool (“Penis Parker” is his best burn he can give to Pete). If you notice something about these names and look them up (or you know, see the movie) it’s wonderfully diverse. Not in a forced way, but in a way that makes the school Peter goes to look truly like how New York looks today. The casting is so matter of fact that I feel like you’d have to get right with yourself to really to take any problems with it.
If you haven’t noticed, I’m a pretty big fan of those Raimi movies and I constantly mention them here. I argue however that this movie itself is transparently inspired by those film. You get everything from the second act set piece being a mash-up of Spider-Man 1 & 2’s show stopping sequences (The bridge rescue 1 and the train sequence in 2) to Spidey getting photographed 180 degrees around an American flag, to a Michael Giacchino score that still feels like it’s cribbing a little Elfman in there. Watt’s and company realize that there’s no point in trying to completely ditch what came before it but instead really try and make it modern and fit a new generation’s temperament. The Raimi films spoke to geeky Gen X’rs and older Millennials and gave them something to aspire to at a time when things weren’t their best. Spider-Man: Homecoming does the same for younger Millennials and as of yet named generation that are going through some pretty tumultuous times right now, and maybe feel like they don’t have much control over the tide. The wrinkle being that this is a generation that got to have a black president (who’s also a big Spider-Man dork) who wasn’t perfect but truly tried to make right what went wrong in the proceeding years. They’ve seen people step up to the plate and fight for their rights. They’ve learned that diversity isn’t something to fear but to celebrate. They’ve known an optimism that was all but absent for most of the 00’s. This is their Spider-Man. He’s still clumsy, he’s in way over his head, but he’s got the power and he’ll be damned if he ain’t gonna use it responsibly. I’m excited for the future of this character once again. Go get em’ Tiger.