Thursday, July 13, 2017

Friendly Neighbourhood – Spider-Man: Homecoming

Tom Holland as Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Spider-Man: Homecoming’s title is pretty apt, considering it’s not only a high-school drama, but the return of Marvel’s primary poster boy to the warm embrace of their Cinematic Universe. Since Sam Raimi’s original run at the series, which culminated with 2007’s confused, schizophrenic Spider-Man 3, we’ve been subjected to attempted reboot films in 2012 and 2014 that failed to inspire either critical praise or box-office dollars. In more than just the comic-book sphere, Sony Pictures has been desperate for a hit, and everyone’s favourite wall-crawler just wasn’t cutting it. So – in a shocking display of foresight, creative integrity, and financial savvy – Sony execs inked a deal with Marvel Studios to allow Spider-Man to be recast and featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a first appearance in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. As it stands now, the MCU is officially Spidey’s home, and Sony will take home all the profit from his appearances (save merchandising rights, which Marvel was smart to grab in the deal).

This works to our benefit as moviegoers in a few ways, not the least of which is that a beloved character is finally in the hands of creators who know what the hell to do with him. That Peter Parker (Tom Holland) will be allowed to participate in the ongoing shenanigans of the MCU is another plus, given that franchise’s monster success and its proven ability to deliver smart, emotionally driven superhero stories. With Civil War, Spidey already felt at home – and with Homecoming, he truly settles in.

Among Homecoming’s many joys – and they are many – the chiefest might be its relatively tiny scale. You’d be forgiven for thinking, based on the film’s advertising, that it was as much an Iron Man movie as a Spider-Man movie, and that its connection through Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to the cosmic scale of the greater MCU would invite an equally broad-ranging story. Not so. This is very much a tale about the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, who is on first-name terms with the proprietor of his corner bodega; whose first crimefighting act we see in the film is the return of a stolen bicycle; whose connection to the Olympian members of the Avengers is as fleeting and faraway as the Stark Tower silhouette that looms in the distance from his perch on the fire escapes of Queens. Unlike the previous Spider-Man films, which focused on Peter’s struggle to balance his personal life with his responsibilities as a hero, Homecoming depicts a Peter who actively craves more responsibility. After his taste of high-stakes action among the Avengers in Civil War, Peter is unceremoniously dropped right back into his high-school life and his relatively low-stakes duties as Spider-Man. The thrust of the film is his search for his true role in this world of gods and monsters that’s so much bigger than he is – his yearning to discover what kind of hero he is, and what kind he wants to be. The character’s typical waffling about not wanting to be a hero at all – and the origin-story baggage that accompanies it – is mercifully discarded here. (The removal of the origin story in particular was so refreshing to me, as someone who professes that if he has to see Bruce Wayne’s parents gunned down one more time he will swear off the character forever.)

Holland’s appearance as Spider-Man in Civil War was an unexpected treat in the midst of an already great film, thanks to the way he seemed to effortlessly portray the kind of Peter Parker that we hadn’t seen onscreen in years: the upbeat, sincere, wisecracking, and most of all young little hero from the Big Apple. Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire did their best in the role, with Maguire coming out looking a little bit better, in my opinion – though he lost some points by the end with his overwrought nebbishness, he was at least more affable than the infinitely smug and insincerely “cool” Garfield. But neither seemed to capture the essence of Spidey the way Holland did in those scant few minutes of MCU screen time. Now, given its own feature film, we get to see this performance blossom into its full potential: Holland is in pitch-perfect tune with the high-school-drama tone of Homecoming, which is a more convincing teen movie than I’ve seen in years. The characters at Midtown High actually feel like teenagers – with Jacob Batalon as Parker’s sweet, dorky, very relatable best friend Ned (“the guy in the chair!”), Zendaya as the hilarious, fiercely independent Michelle, and Tony Revolori as a re-imagined Flash Thompson, whose bullying feels much more realistic than the jock archetype the character’s usually associated with. (Revolori plays him as a rich kid who can’t understand why people like Parker more than they like him. He's cruel to Peter not through physical violence but through words and social media.) The cameraderies and rivalries among these characters feel like a cross-section of a real-life high school, which makes the transition into the film’s larger conflict – Peter’s repeated attempts to sabotage a local arms dealer named Adrian Tooms (Michael Keaton) – ring with deadly tension.

Jacob Batalon and Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

The kid’s only fifteen, after all. He gets in way over his head in his attempt to qualify himself for Avengers membership, and places himself in real danger of death and mortal injury. Peter tries and fails and tries again. He’s vulnerable and sincere and likable. And in his defiance of Tooms, who takes on the mantle of famous Spidey rogue The Vulture when he repurposes alien tech from the disaster of the first Avengers film, Peter displays the heroism that’s innate to his character, willing to sacrifice his own life to stop Tooms simply because “selling weapons to criminals is wrong.”

Keaton’s Tooms is another of the film’s real triumphs, with fully understandable personal motivations that bolster the down-to-earth scale of the film. He’s a family man first and a criminal second – and though he presents himself as the opposite number to Tony Stark, the billionaire one-percenter who rains destruction down on blue-collar workers like him who are just trying to support their families, it’s revealed that he’s not really as downtrodden as he claims. He has a huge, beautiful house and a great family; he’s got it made. It’s his inability to see the truth – that he’s much more like Stark than he would ever admit – that makes him a tragic villain in the classic Spider-Man vein, part of a rogues’ gallery full of troubled crooks with their own twisted sense of morality. Keaton flips the old Batman switch with Tooms, providing a two-faced performance as both a loving father and an unscrupulous baddie that fills the screen. There’s a scene in which Tooms is driving Peter and his daughter to their high-school dance and begins to divine Peter’s secret identity, and a beautiful transition occurs when he realizes who this boy really is, realization giving way to a shift in personality as the glare of a red stoplight suddenly turns green and illuminates the sinister flip from dad to vulture. It’s both an homage to Taxi Driver and a proof of concept from Jon Watts, the director of Cop Car, who wrings extreme tension out of characters simply talking in a car.

Homecoming is the ultimate rejection of the DC-led grimdark, a superhero film that strips back the excessive scale of most blockbusters and contents itself with providing a rewarding, funny, heartfelt film full of appealing characters and believeable stakes. It’s classic summer-movie entertainment in the simple joys it provides, making you laugh, keeping you on the edge of your seat, and injecting that level of fun with a deeper layer of purposeful storytelling. And as a Spider-Man film – one that gives us a Peter Parker who is unequivocally charming, fallible, and true to the qualities that made him a beloved hero in the first place – it’s undeniably the best I’ve ever seen.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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