Saturday, 8 July 2017

IN THEATRES: Spider-Man: Homecoming

There's only one big movie out this weekend...


Following his dalliance with the Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) spends his days alternating between school and his new life as a neighbourhood superhero. When he isn't helping his friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) build Lego Death Stars or pining after the head of his academic decathlete team (Laura Harrier), Peter stops petty crimes and wonders when he can actually become a proper superhero. When he stumbles upon a gang selling hi-tech weapons, Peter thinks he's hit the jackpot. Instead, he's in over his head...

First things first: I didn't see Civil War, so this movie had to live and die on its own terms. And while I was a fan of Spider-Man growing up and read the Ultimate line in high school, for whatever reason, I never got into his live-action adventures. The Sam Raimi movies felt like comical melodramas to me. The emotional beats were so heavy and the direction so broad, nothing about the Maguire movies hit -- not even Spider-Man 2, which people regard as one the best comic book movies of all time. I only caught the first Amazing movie. It was fine, but it was laying so much pipe with Peter's parents and a broader conspiracy that the movie's strongest pieces (namely the relationship between Peter and Gwen Stacey) felt a little squashed.

This is a long way of saying: I really liked this movie. It's fast, funny, and features a great cast. It manages to strike a balance between Peter's high school dilemmas and super-heroics, which were always my favourite part of the character. I think the focus on Peter out of costume is what elevates the movie above the previous ones - it's more relatable, and adds some more stakes when his two lives start to converge.

When it comes to the Spidey side of things, they really nail the characterisation. Spider-Man is very funny in the comics, but he's never been that cool or intimidating. Even under the costume, it's still a fifteen-year-old, and the movie always foregrounds that. He's just an earnest kid trying to do the right thing.

And while he has powers, he's not that experienced or savvy, and director John Watts (had to bring him in at some point) emphasises the toll his adventures take on him. It means even when Peter is a CG character darting across the screen, the way he moves has a weight to it so it never feels like you are watching a video game. The sound design especially is a big help in this respect (I really liked the bit where he gets tangled in his parachute - Watts shoots it from inside the chute, which gives it the right sense of claustrophobia).

Speaking of the action in overview, I really liked how reduced the stakes were; this really is a 'neighbourhood' Spider-Man. The set piece with the most stakes involves the ferry, but even that feels more real than some of the 'giant thing smashes other giant thing' which a lot superhero movies rely on nowadays. And the finale with Michael Keaton's Vulture is pretty straightforward too. It's just two people scrabbling over the surface of a plane (and then a beach). It never feels bigger than it has to be.

Onto the cast. They are all great. Holland is the first actor to play Peter Parker who actually seemed likeable (and wasn't 30). Batalon is great as his best friend and Michael Keaton... Man, this guy has been great for decades, and he is on great form here. He brings that off-kilter intensity to Adrian Toomes and makes him feel weirdly relatable. He's a blue collar guy looking out for his family, and the reveal that Peter's crush is his daughter was awesome. It adds a nice layer of tension to the usual teen awkwardness, and leads to the first real standoff between hero and villain. The fact that it is framed as a teen movie cliche - over-protective dad vs terrified date - makes it weirdly hilarious.

And now to the other side of things. This movie is not perfect. 

While I liked the fact that the movie did not try and regurgitate the origin, I felt like Peter's character lacked a starting point. It's like the filmmakers assume that we are going to be onboard with Peter from the beginning. Peter's arc becomes clear fairly quickly (he wants to become a real hero), but I never felt a sense of evolution or resolution of this arc at the end. 

The female characters do not get a lot to do. They exist either to be pinned after (Harrier's Liz) or, in Zendaya Coleman's case, act as comic relief. She's really funny, but she exists solely to deliver jokes (points to her delivery of the bird - it is one of the biggest laughs in the movie). I hope they do more with the whole 'Allison in The Breakfast Club' thing she's doing.

My other gripe with the movie is the music. We've had three tips at the bat now, and not one of the Spidey themes is memorable. When the most hummable piece of music is the theme from the TV show, you are in trouble. Michael Giacchino is the man, but after this and Rogue One, I'm starting to wonder.

Final thoughts? As a teen comedy, Spider-Man: Homecoming is terrific; as a superhero movie, it's more immersive than usual; as a film in its own right, it's good, but a little superficial. Its adherence to the MCU is both a positive and a negative - it's a positive in that it positions Spider-Man in a broader context that actually makes him feel small (and hence more relatable). But it's a negative in that it demands a knowledge of character from outside the movie, and that is a deficit. The movie is good, but it could have been even better.

Despite its flaws, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a really fun movie. I am actually excited to see the next Spider-Man movie.

Check it out.

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