Monday, July 22, 2024

Spider-Man Homecoming Shows Us A Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man

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Much like this summer’s Wonder Woman, Marvel’s newest movie Spider-Man: Homecoming remembers that heroes are defined by their desire to do good rather than what skill set they possess. Jon Watts has managed to take a character on his fifth movie and third iteration and make him feel fresh and exciting. Gosh, this movie is fun.

Marvel and Watts decided on a novel approach for an origin story. Instead of spending needless time recounting how Peter Parker (Tom Holland) got his powers and the events surrounding it, they skip right to the heart of the matter. How Peter learns that with great power comes with great responsibility.

Spider-Man: Homecoming barrels along with barely a pause. Peter is 15, a sophomore in high school. The movie shares his boundless energy and bottomless enthusiasm. The film revels in Peter’s sincerity and emulates rather than deconstructing or mocking it.

Peter’s desire to be a hero and be part of the Avengers is partly hero worship and partly a gnawing need to contribute. The script illustrates time and time again Peter’s struggle to figure out not just how to use his powers but where he fits into the larger scope of things. He just wants to do something. Even if it’s just asking Liz (Laura Harrier) to the homecoming dance.

There’s a sweet, dorkish effervescence to Holland’s Parker. You can’t help but feel for the kid whenever he gets himself into trouble, or his friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) blurts out that Peter knows Spider-Man. One of the many charms of the movie is how well it builds up tension both in Peter’s world and in Spider-Man’s.

The chemistry between Holland and Batalon is natural and unforced. Batalon’s Ned acts as part confessor and fanboy to Holland’s Peter. When Ned finds out that Peter is Spider-Man he is overjoyed and quickly wants to help. “I can be your guy in the chair!”

Spider-Man: Homecoming, more than anything, remembers the awkward uncertainty that is being a kid in high school. Even Peter’s crush Liz, while one of the most popular girls in school, notice how she carries herself. Or take Flash (Tony Revolori), a cocky, brash rich kid who bullies Peter but who still seems like a kid trying to figure out his place.

The beauty of the film is that all of this feels organic to the larger storyline. When the movie deals with Peter’s relationship to any of these characters it never feels like it’s stalling or dragging its feet. The time spent eating with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Peter is just as precious and enjoyable as when Spider-Man is fighting Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton).

Keaton’s Toomes is, in reality, Marvel’s Vulture. They wisely never have Toomes call himself the Vulture, or have anyone else do so. This is not because of shame or desire to be seen as a ‘serious’ movie. It’s because the character of Toomes as created by Watts and company is not a ‘super-villain’ or even a costumed villain. Adrian Toomes is a man who’s trying to support his family.

At the beginning of the film, we see Adrian the owner and head of a junk salvage team cleaning up the wreckage of the first Avenger’s battle. The government steps in and fires them. Adrian begs and pleads with them. He’s bought trucks, hired extra help; he has a contract with the city. This could ruin him if he loses this job.

Serendipity and desperation lead to Toomes and his men becoming arms dealers for alien tech. Toomes is pragmatic to a fault. At one point he kills a man by accident and while he admits it, doesn’t seem bothered by it. After all, he’s dead, and there’s not much he can do about it now. The climatic battle between Adrian and Peter is action packed, yes, but it’s the speech Toomes gives before the fight that really stands out.

Throughout Spider-Man: Homecoming, Watts and company have shown time and time again the working class and middle-class people of Peter’s New York City. The deli owners, the neighborhoods, even people like Liz who live in the suburbs. These are the people who Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), while well meaning, sometimes forgets about. It’s part and parcel of what makes Holland our “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.”

But Peter is just a kid. So when he’s confronted with Toomes’s bitterness towards the billionaire class, he’s confused. What’s so bad about Mr. Stark? After all, he gave Peter this nifty new suit.

Adrian Toomes is Marvel’s best ‘villain’ since Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. This is because, like Loki, we understand Toomes’s rage and motivation. For Toomes, it stems from love and commitment, but it got misplaced somewhere along the way.

The fact that Watts and company have woven all of this together more or less seamlessly is a sign of either luck or talent. The supporting characters are just as interesting and entertaining as the main ones. Some of them like Michelle (Zendaya) do nothing to further the film’s plot, but instead serve to plant seeds for further story developments in potential sequels.

Zendaya’s Michelle “MJ” is a refreshing bit of character reboot/update. She’s a sarcastic weirdo but not a “sexy” sarcastic weirdo. A tomboy but not a fetishized tomboy. The movie does a lot of her characterization in the background. Notice how she’s always reading a different book. Or how she easily answers the questions at the Academic Decathlon when she’s forced to substitute.

Unlike the comics, MJ’s personality is the thing that sticks out about her, not her looks. It’s clear that she likes Peter and Ned, maybe Peter a little more, but it’s never played as a triangle. She’s a kid trying to figure herself out, just like Peter. She’s fifteen, just like Peter.

Watts balances all of this perfectly. With a credit of six writers Spider-Man: Homecoming never feels disjointed or bloated. There’s a singular tone and focus to the movie. Watts also allows some coy visual style to creep into the film. I loved how the traffic light reflects off of Toomes’s face on the car ride with Peter. There’s an homage to an iconic panel in the comics that works whether you know it or not. It’s earned and poignant, and beautiful.

Much like Sam Rami’s Spider-Man, there’s an underlying Shakespearean tragicomedy to Peter Parker. The boy can not catch a break. His life is a constant lesson in how every action has a reaction. Yet, at the same time, it maintains a sense of fun and joy.

The action set pieces are great. The special effects are great. This is part of the Marvel Studio franchise, so everything looks good. But it’s the characters that make Spider-Man: Homecoming work. There’s heart, fun, and kindness within these people. There’s a desire to make the world a better place.

Until recently, superhero movies were beginning to be exercises of sturm and drang. Noisy, visually messy, battles with global stakes. It’s refreshing to see a superhero movie where the stakes are comparatively small. But to Peter Parker, they are no less important.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

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