Monday, August 7, 2017

YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD...: a review of "Spider-Man: Homecoming"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Screen Story by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley
Screenplay Written by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley and Jon Watts & Christopher Ford and Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
Directed by Jon Watts
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

OK...let's break down my personal "Spider-Man" movie scorecard, shall we?

With all of my superhero movie fatigue, there are two superheroes in particular that I truly have no specific need to ever see again for quite some time. The first is Batman. The second is Spider-Man. Now, this is nothing against either character as I love them both but in the case of Spider-Man, since 2002, we have been subjected to the release of no less than five Spider-Man movies, with two of those serving as full re-boots. Now for my personal tastes, Director Sam Raimi's celebrated trilogy is deeply flawed, with only the grand exception of his superlative "Spider-Man 2" (2004) existing as the truly successful one.  With Director Marc Webb's re-boots from 2012 and 2014 respectively, I still stand by his work, where even despite h is flaws, they felt to be ore seamless and carried a weightier poignancy for me.

So, now, and after his surprisingly entertaining appearance within Directors Joe and Anthony Russo's excellent "Captain America: Civil War" (2016) in which Tom Holland more than enthusiastically took over the role of our favorite wall crawler, Spider-Man has now been re-booted for the second time in what is essentially the character's sixth film in fifteen years. As you may be feeling yourselves, this is more than enough to make one swear off any Spider-Man features for a long, long time if not for good.

Well, as you can already gather, I am quite late to this particular party as Director Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Homecoming" has proven itself to be a critical success and box office smash and for me, I am thrilled to announce that I was exceedingly pleased with the results of this new effort. It is unquestionably the best Spider-Man feature since Raimi's second film and easily the most flat out enjoyable Marvel film I have seen since Director Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man" (2015), therefore making it a perfect addition to the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.

"Spider-Man: Homecoming," now with the aforementioned Tom Holland in the titular role as well as his 15 year old alter ego Peter Parker, takes our hero back to high school again but wisely eschews with the origin story altogether, and picking up events long after Parker was first bitten by the radioactive spider and has become a Queens neighborhood vigilante in an ill-fitting, makeshift costume combined with his technologically advanced webshooters and web formula, clearly the very elements that made him catch the eye of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in the first place.

Picking up shortly after the events of "Captain America: Civil War," Peter Parker is returned to his home, which he shares with his considerably younger, and definitely foxier, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), as well as back to his studies at the Midtown School of Science and Technology, where he is a member of the academic decathlon team.

Despite his intense wishes, Peter is not yet allowed or remotely ready to become a full fledged member of the Avengers and is instructed by Tony Stark to just remain where he is in the neighborhood and school, while also under the protective eye of Stark's confidant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). And so, impatient and feverishly impetuous, Peter Parker continues his double life as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and as a hapless high school student with one best friend in Ned (Jacob Batalon), a serious crush in Liz (Laura Harrier) and a bully in his class rival Eugene "Flash" Thompson (Tony Revolori).

Springing back to the aftermath of the Battle Of New York as depicted in Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" (2012), we meet Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a salvager whose company is given the lucrative task of cleaning up the copious damage from the massive destruction until he is forced out of business by the Department of Damage Control, a partnership between Tony Stark and the government. Angered by the loss of his and his team's much needed income, Toomes and his gang covertly swipe some of the alien materials and begin to formulate an arms trafficking business with technologically advanced weapons, including items that allow Toomes to create a flying suit, complete with wings and talons, earning him the title of "The Vulture."

As Peter Parker continuously wishes to prove himself to Tony Stark by gradually discovering and vowing to stop the arms operation run by Toomes, he is tested more than ever before as he grows to understand what is means not just be Spider-Man but what it takes to be a real hero...while also figuring out if he has enough courage to ask Liz to be his date for the Homecoming dance.

Where Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy often seemed to struggle with its tonality as well as its overall storytelling (except for the brilliant #2), and Marc Webb's darker more tragic vision failed to connect with larger audiences, Director Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Homecoming" has more than discovered and therefore, richly succeeded with striking the finest balance yet between the popcorn and the poignancy within the daily adventures, hijinks and struggles of Peter Parker.

Watts has created a bright, often dazzling, seamless, high flying confection filled to the brim with laughs and thrills all anchored ..ahem...heroically by Tom Holland who indeed possesses the unenviable job of re-creating a character that we are all overly familiar with (and frankly, some of you just may be more than a little sick of seeing). Somehow, and marvelously, Holland magically makes the character his own and with no mental traces of either Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield whatsoever (no disrespect to either--intended or otherwise). In Tom Holland, Spider-Man is re-born for the moves and in a fashion that feels to be especially truthful to the source material while offering a fresh take.
Granted, my initial reaction of having Peter Parker return to high school all over again did cause me to exude a tremendously long eye roll. But, now having seen the finished film, it almost feels like a masterstroke. While not an origin film, "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is indeed a film about transformation, discovery as well as a coming of age film as Holland's Peter Parker is truly a teenager, where every emotion is dialed up to 11, where insecurities run rampant against potential growth and that eternal impatience that housed the burning desire for the fullness of life to being RIGHT NOW clashes with the avoidance of the knowledge that maturity and adult responsibilities have not yet been fully earned or even remotely understood.

And with that, the purity of Peter Parker's heart beats loudly through every decision he makes, even when he is dangerously misguided and immature-- a quality that not only allows for the Parker to exhibit some growth over the tenure of this new film but also within the growth of Tony Stark himself, who now finds his life in the role of mentor and Father figure, while also remaining the scoundrel we have come to love over all of the Marvel movies.

Watts has expressed in interviews that he wished for his film to carry a tonality that would not feel out of place in a John Hughes film and that specific quality is proudly upon display through its quicksilver light-footed pace, empathy and affection for all of its characters, and its often laugh out loud comedy. This is not to say that Jon Watts has made Spider-Man a joke, by any means. It is only that he has injected a sense of humor that is smartly tied to the realistic pressures of adolescence--especially ones that are as intelligent and intellectually gifted as the ones presented in this film--as well as the growing pains of growing up, especially when you are a superhero.

On a more significant note, I was so thoroughly pleased to see a cinematic vision of New York that is atypical to what is the norm. Yes dear readers, representation matters greatly and to witness a New York neighborhood and high school that is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and simply open to having several characters who just happen to be people of color as integral pieces of the main storyline was undeniably empowering to me.

And with race, I also enjoyed Watts' insertion of economic class into the proceedings, another quality that made "Spider-Man: Homecoming" a tad more multi-layered than it needed to be but definitely provided the film with its overall tonality. By keeping the action (mostly) in Queens instead of within Parker's Manhattan tales when he was working as the photographer of The Daily Bugle, we are given a Peter Parker, and an Adrian Toomes who essentially serve as grounded, working class heroes and villains, neither of whom are bound for any sense of world domination. Just the attempt to gain a prominent foothold in the larger world.

Additionally, "Spider-Man:Homecoming" is not a film that takes itself too seriously as the comic book movie genre's epic tonality is scaled down several notches, thus making the film more fun and less brooding and turbulent. Besides, the terrific casting of Michael Keaton more than certainly gave the film its own sense of meta satire as we all know of Keaton's past as Batman within Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989) and "Batman Returns" (1992) but also as the star of Alejandro G. Inarritu's ingenious "Birdman" (2014)! From bats to birds to vultures...

Well...color me so wonderfully surprised once again. Just as I was growing weary, the right filmmakers and the right time pull the cinematic rabbits out of the hat and in the case of Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Homecoming," the effect was enormously entertaining, so much so that I am actually  more than anxious to see where Watts, Tom Holland and the Marvel brain trust decide to take him next.

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