Spider-Man: Homecoming marks the third iteration of the web-slinging superhero franchise since the turn of the millennium. Sam Raimis Spider-Man trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007) starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst was largely responsible for inaugurating the modern superhero film, and at its best (particularly Spider-Man 2) it achieved a thrilling, romantic pop perfectiona true comic book come to vibrant, moving life. A scant five years later the franchise was rebooted as The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), with Marc Webb at the helm and Adam Garfield and Emma Stone playing the lead roles. The overstuffed 2014 sequel was a critical and commercial disappointment, partially because its story and characters took a backseat to a narrative design clearly intended to set up an entire Spider-Man universe of sequels and off-shoots that, alas, came to nothing.
So, now we have Spider-Man: Homecoming directed by Jon Watts (Clown, Cop Car), a veteran of The Onion News Network-turned-indie filmmaker recruited to give the franchise a hip new spin, with relative newcomer Tom Holland in the role of Peter Parker, the teenage science geek who has developed all manner of arachnid-esque superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. Of course, those who follow the ever-expanding Marvel Universe have already met this iteration of the wall crawler in a memorable cameo in last summers Captain America: Civil War (2016), which effectively brought him into the multi-billion-dollar world of the Avengers.
Homecoming picks up where Civil War left off, even showing us part of that films action from Peters literal vantage point via his smart phone before he joined the melee. Peter, who is all of 15 years old and a sophomore at a tech high school in New York, desperately wants to be part of the Avengers, but his mentor, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), is understandably reluctant about letting someone who isnt old enough to drive to join the team. He does, however, have his driver/business manager Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) keep a begrudging eye on him while also supplying him with a high-tech Spider-Man costume that is basically a tighter, more streamlined version of the Iron Man suit, complete with a chatty artificial intelligence (voiced by Jennifer Connelly) that is good for some witty banter.
And there is quite a bit of witty banter throughout Spider-Man: Homecoming. In fact, one of its primary pleasures is its bubbly, effervescent quality, which at times makes it feel a bit like a tween-movie version of a superhero epic. The film doesnt shy away from the more self-conscious, humorous aspects of being a teenager, and it gets plenty of mileage from Peters relationship with his goofball-best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who early on discovers his spider-secret and is probably more thrilled about his secret identity than Peter is. There is also a romantic subplot involving Peters crush on fellow classmate Liz (Laura Harrier), who is a head taller than he is and several years more mature, which makes for some amusing moments of genial awkwardness. The story is packed with references to 21st-century adolescence and its obsession with digital technology, so it shouldnt come as much of a surprise that the opening segment in the film is literally an extended selfie.
The story is also admirable for its villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a hard-working contractor who is shuffled aside by the government after winning a contract to clean up the mega-mess made at the end of The Avengers (2012) (see how hard theyre working to tie everything together?). He turns to a life of crime instead, rechristening himself Vulture due to the massive mechanical wings he uses to go about his business of stealing alien hardware and using it to create weapons to sell on the black market. Keaton is a good enough actor that he gives Toomes a genuine sense of pathos; his villainy is both practical and ideological, as the global economy tends to crush people in his position and his only outlet for both self-fulfillment and providing for his family is to work in its darker recesses (its also a kick, of course, to watch the formerly cowled star of Tim Burtons 1989 Batman playing the heavy).
Unfortunately, despite some admirable setpieces, Spider-Man: Homecoming doesnt quite work. While it is frequently enjoyably, it is also an overly managed and manufactured product, designed and refined to fit neatly into the Marvel Universe without causing any ripples. Raimis trilogy and Webbs first Amazing Spider-Man had genuine personality and felt original, even if they were simply rehashing characters and plotlines that had existed in comic books for decades. Homecoming feels too much like moviemaking-by-committee, and if Watts has a directorial personality, it isnt to be found here (his gritty, lean-and-mean Cop Car is a decidedly better film).
Watts makes the film fast and funny, and in Holland he has an interesting and engaging hero who is believably heroic and goofy (he really acts his age), but the sheer number of credited screenwriterssix, including crude humor experts Jonathan Goldenstein and John Francis Daley (Vacation, Horrible Bosses), Watts and his regular collaborator Christopher Ford, and LEGO Batman Movie scribes Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers)attest to both the too-many-cooks scenario and the obvious desire to make the film as meta as possible, often at the expense of anything genuinely emotional. The dialogue is witty and sometimes very funny, but none of the relationships outside of the odd couple pairing of Peter and Ned has an weight or meaning beyond plot necessity; there is no real dramatic import in Peters crush on Liz, and when it does try to get emotional, it feels like a sitcom. Of course, I must give credit to the filmmakers for avoiding yet another end-of-the-world scenario in favor of action sequences and a big climax that are more contained and character-focused, but you cant help but feel that Homecoming is simply trying too hard to not rock the boat when it could have made some real waves.
Copyright 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Sony / Columbia Pictures / Marvel Studios
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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