Jon Watts (2017)
I don’t know about you, but for me this summer “blockbuster” season has been shaping up to be perhaps the most disappointing in recent memory, with the unrelenting dreck of films like the latest Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mummy and King Arthur only occasionally mitigated by Wonder Woman and the second Guardians of the Galaxy. Then along came a Spiderman that frightened those summer doldrums away.
Not that there was any particular reason to expect this third reboot of the Spiderman franchise in fifteen years to be anything special. Director Jon Watts is a novice in the area of feature films, being best known for his work on The Onion News Network. He had five other writers who worked on the script for this film, which does not bode well for any kind of unified or coherent presentation. And star Tom Holland as the new Peter Parker/Spiderman has never carried a movie on his young, relatively puny shoulders before, though his brief scene-stealing stint as Spidey in last year’s Captain America: Civil War was a memorable introduction to his talents.
But Holland as the new face of the franchise is one big reason for the film’s success. Holland, 19 when he first played the part in last year’s Civil War, looks much younger and is believable as the 15-year-old high school sophomore he plays in the film. Toby Maguire was 26 and Andrew Garfield 28 when they first played the character, and so were beyond the adolescent angst that has always been one of the things that made the web-slinger of the comics the most popular of all Marvel’s heroes. Holland capitalizes on his character’s status as high-school nerd.
It’s no accident that Spiderman: Homecoming often has the feel of a John Hughes movie from the 1980s. Holland has been quoted saying, “My goal was to try and kind of be our generation’s Marty McFly.” Apparently Watts had the cast watch Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future films as well as Hughes films like Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club and especially Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There’s even a sequence of Spiderman chasing through his neighborhood, making casual quips to the neighbors as he runs through, directly reproducing the famous chase scene at the end of Ferris Beuller. And not only is there a climactic scene at his school’s homecoming dance from which Peter has to duck out to take care of important business, not unlike Marty McFly at the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance, but there is a direct echo of Back to the Future II when Peter slips into a new flashy Spiderman uniform designed for him by Tony Stark that at first hangs loosely around his body, but shrinks to fit him like a glove when he hits a button—precisely as Marty McFly does when he first dons his “future” wardrobe in 2015.
But these little homages to ’80s teen flicks are merely there to underscore the spirit of the film, which tries to recapture that era’s spirit. Holland is a kind of misfit (as every adolescent ever has felt her/himself to be) with a huge crush on an older girl, the cool senior Liz (Laura Harrier). He plays in band and is on the Academic Decathlon team, both of which he neglects while he waits for a call from Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) to take part in the next big Avengers mission. Meanwhile he patrols his own neighborhood, not quite getting the hang of superherodom: His first missions include recovering a bicycle that may or may not have actually been stolen (he leaves a sign on it asking for the owner to reclaim it); assaulting a man who seems to be about to break into a car that turns out to be his own; and finally helping an old lady find the subway, who rewards him by buying him a churro. He finally does get himself a bit of notoriety when he foils an ATM holdup, though the crooks escape through the use of high tech weaponry. But the point is that Peter not only has real-life teenage concerns in his personal life, but he also is a typical adolescent just trying to figure it out in his superhero life as well, which is what makes him endearing.
Some of the supporting characters are quite memorable as well. Zendaya (best known from TV’s K.C. Undercover) plays the super-quirky Michelle, one of Peter’s Academic Decathlon teammates with a mildly obsessive interest in him. Jacob Batalon (who ironically plays Sancho Panza in the upcoming film The True Don Quixote) is Peter’s even nerdier high school best friend Ned, who becomes Spidey’s obligatory sidekick. Perhaps Watts’ true pre-production stroke of genius is the casting of Marissa Tomei as Peter’s long-suffering Aunt May, who strikingly transforms Peter’s surrogate mother from the conventional kind old grandmotherly widow of previous Spideys to someone more age-appropriate for the aunt of a 15-year-old boy, and someone who, unwittingly, has a bevy of admirers among the neighborhood men and boys.
But chiefly, Holland is complemented by Michael Keaton’s brilliant performance as Spidey’s new super-villain nemesis, the Vulture. Keaton’s contribution goes beyond the mind-bending cinematic hall of mirrors that his casting creates, with the Vulture resembling uncannily Keaton’s Birdman character, which in turn was a sly allusion to his creation of the dark and complex Batman in 1989. It was Keaton who ushered in the new generation of film superheroes with complex characters and motives, and he does something similar for villains with the character of Adrian Toomes, introduced in the first scene as a salvage contractor who is driven into bankruptcy by the government’s teaming up with Stark Industries to monopolize the cleanup of the widely-scattered alien weaponry left scattered around New York after the first Avengers movie. Toomes’ plight, which drives him to become a high-tech arms dealer in defiance of Big Brother and the super-rich, makes him a sympathetic adversary, and one who connects with Peter’s own working-class roots.
That mention of Stark Industries brings up another big difference between this Spiderman and previous incarnations: With this reboot, Spidey joins the Marvel Universe—something previously prevented by contractual obligations and the rights various studios had to certain characters. This is the subtext of the film’s “Homecoming” title. I’m not all that certain that this is an improvement, since it simply means that Peter’s story will now be intertwined with those of the countless other Marvel heroes whose stories play off one another in what will soon be scores of interconnected films. Which means whether it’s Spiderman, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, etc., etc., ad infinitum, every film is just another sequel. Not the greatest situation to inspire creative originality. Still, it adds a few wrinkles to this Spiderman. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is Peter’s mentor—when he’s doing his Spiderman thing, Peter says he’s working at his internship for Stark Industries. Stark wants Peter to develop his skills some more before he becomes a full-fledged Avenger, but Peter makes himself something of a nuisance calling his “contact,” Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man movies), until Hogan basically tunes him out. This makes Peter try to handle Toomes alone—a mistake which we can somewhat blame on Peter’s delusions of grandeur, but perhaps even more on Stark and Hogan’s failure to take him seriously. Another typical adolescent quandary.
One other thing the Marvel universe adds to the film: It gives us Chris Evans as Captain America making hilarious public service announcements played at Peter’s school.
Finally, there is one more particularly refreshing thing about this film: For once, the hero is not trying to save the entire world, or even the galaxy, from threats of ultimate evil. Peter is, in fact, just a friendly neighborhood Spiderman, trying to stop crime in his own community, or at most in the borough of Queens. There’s something much more real and human in that. So the action scenes may not be as fantastic as in some other superhero movies—I usually doze through those anyway. (So, as usual, I wouldn’t bother to pay extra for the 3D screening of this if I were you). This Spiderman is much better in the simpler scenes of Peter’s personal life and relationships. It’s a film that has a lot going for it, including a few doozies of plot twists that I certainly didn’t see coming. If you have any interest in superhero movies, you’ll leave this one wanting more. I’m going to go with three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare on this one.