Thursday, July 6, 2017

Swing Shift: SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING



The latest product from the Marvel Studios factory is Spider-Man: Homecoming, a co-production with Columbia Pictures, that company making less an admission of failure and more a signal of strong showbiz jealousies. The Sony subsidiary hasn’t been able to make a Spider-Man feature as good as Sam Raimi’s since letting him go, but surely the powers that be were only interested in loosening the reins on their rights to the character when they saw the consistent huge grosses and quality control over at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They didn’t want to do right by the character so much as do right by their producers and stockholders. Still, the result is precisely what you’d hope and expect from bringing in the people who brought us the whole Avengers product line. It’s brightly lit and full of good-humored banter, features a great cast of familiar faces playing colorful characters, and stops every so often for a dazzlement of colorful CG. Though the formula’s getting tired, this new entry manages a high degree of charm and fast-paced entertainment (and even a few genuine surprises). In addition to the predictable polish and routine beats of a Marvel plot machine, this widget has a sweetness and an energy that makes it slightly better than average. It’s good fun.

Picking up during the events of last year’s Captain America: Civil War, where this new interpretation of Spidey was first introduced recruited by Iron Man to be a potential second-string Avenger, Homecoming finds Peter Parker (Tom Holland) initially excited to be one of the gang. (This movie’s biggest uphill climb is having to bounce its continuity out of what was easily the MCU’s worst movie, a dull grey 147-minute slog.)  Alas, his dreams will not be coming true any time soon. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gifts him a souped-up supersuit and tells him to stick to being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. The boy’s just fifteen, after all. There’ll be plenty of time to be a real hero when he’s older. This leaves the kid antsy and eager to prove himself, and allows the movie to stretch out with what’s always best about Spidey’s appeal: his average, every day, everyman problems. He has homework, an extracurricular academic challenge team, a cheerfully nerdy best friend (Jacob Batalon), an unrequited crush (Laura Harrier), a bully (Tony Revolori), a sweet prickly teammate (Zendaya), and a kind aunt (Marisa Tomei). He has a lot on his plate, plus the whole sneaking out every evening to patrol the streets, swinging from buildings to stop bike thieves and ATM bandits. 

Writer-director Jon Watts (of the small, tense, kids-in-over-their-heads thriller Cop Car) and his five co-writers understand the inherent charm of Spider-Man. They make him a relatable stressed-out teenager, just trying to fit in and do well at school while testing his powers. (They’re great, after all, and so, too, are his responsibilities.) With a bounce in its step, the movie makes like its hero and juggles the demands placed upon it quite skillfully. It weaves itself into the fabric of the MCU with better deftness than some of its inferiors, rooting its villain (The Vulture, played by Batman and Birdman himself, Michael Keaton) motivation in the aftermath of The Avengers. One of the more memorable villains in this mega-franchise, his backstory has him with a contract to clean up the damage from the alien battle, a lucrative deal that gets pulled when SHIELD classifies the high-tech debris. Now he’s flying in a makeshift jet-propelled wingspan, making his money on the black market, smuggling gadgets stolen from the various film’s climactic calamities (Winter Soldier’s D.C. craters, Ultron’s rattled fictional city, and so on). He and Peter – little guys hoping to make big marks – both have struggles proving themselves in this new outsized ecosphere of heroes and villains, which gives their clash a little charge. Keaton’s world-weariness plays nicely against Holland’s adorably boyish happy-to-be-here excitement, making for a compelling conflict.

Because the bad guy’s a local low-level troublemaker, he first shows up on Peter’s radar. Since the boy has trouble convincing Stark’s assistant (Jon Favreau) to take his calls, he feels obligated to put a stop to the mystery man’s bad deeds as he continually crosses paths with the evil plot. All this and the big dance, too. There’s the usual roster of fun character actors popping up to give the zippy plot some added wit and texture (Donald Glover, Bokeem Woodbine, Hannibal Buress, Angourie Rice, Martin Starr, and Michael Mando among the pleasant surprises popping up in tiny roles). They keep things pleasant and crackling with an agreeable comic charge between big splashy two-page spreads of action – leaping between buildings and off monuments, tussling with henchmen and saving civilians – that make for the usual superhero shenanigans. These are all suitably loud and explosive, but also swing with Spidey’s nimble acrobatics. Watts has managed to make a movie sparkling with enough fun and invention that its small piece pumps some life back to the larger franchise puzzle. It simply feels good to spend two hours with a character whose biggest conflict is wanting to contribute more positive impact in the world than he can manage. It’s easy to root for him.

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