Film Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Second time's the charm as the latest reboot of the Spider-Man franchise forgoes an origin story to give us a seriocomic high-school drama where life-and-death issues are literally life-and-death issues.
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It does no good to compare the two Spider-Man series, the original and this second reboot, which follows the creditable but underwhelming The Amazing Spider-Man reboot of 2012-2014. With due respect and a deep bow to Sam Raimi, whose first two Spider-Man films were signature achievements in onscreen superhero believability, tone and storytelling, Jon Watts' Spider-Man: Homecoming may be the most sheer fun audiences have ever had with the character.

It's not a matter of comparison, since Raimi in 2002 had a different and more burdensome brief, having to help lay a foundation for what superhero films would become. (Bryan Singer's X-Men two years earlier did likewise, and both needed 1998's Blade to establish that comic-book movies had to be not comic-booky.) Webslinging off the shoulders of giants, Spider-Man: Homecoming is the first Spidey film to have the advantage of a pre-established cinematic mythology, allowing it to dispense with such formalities as an origin story and to concentrate on the superheroic learning curve, one that of necessity is usually glossed over in a montage or a short set-piece. And because learning involves stumbling, falling and missteps, the curve has space for organically arising humor—a hallmark of the Disney-owned Marvel Studios' "Marvel Cinematic Universe," to which the Spider-Man franchise, in a remarkable collaboration between Disney and Sony Pictures, now belongs.

That Watts was able to do so cohesively with a script credited to three two-man screenwriting teams, including himself, is impressive enough. The fact he avoided lighthearted, "Greatest American Hero"-style slapstick but melded humor with dead-serious menace and weighty, life-or-death stakes is even more so.

Building from Spider-Man's (Tom Holland) introduction in last year's Captain America: Civil War, which established 15-year-old Peter Parker as a superhero fanboy who can't believe he's been recruited to play in the major leagues, Spider-Man: Homecoming fleshes out that backstory with an opening scene of Peter vlogging during and on his way to and from the airport battle in Civil War, to which Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) had brought the previously urban-myth hero caught on YouTube videos. In a flashback set eight years earlier, we meet Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) a salvage-company owner cleaning up at Avengers Tower—the Midtown Manhattan headquarters of the superhero team in The Avengers (2012)—following the Battle of New York against alien invaders. Because the battle left "exotic materials" all over, the newly formed federal Dept. of Damage Control takes over and abruptly throws him and his crew off the job.

There's a plot omission here over recompense for breach-of-contract, which isn't a nitpicky point since it's the very threat of financial ruin that pushes Toomes to take the detritus he's salvaged so far and, with the help of henchmen including Mason (Michael Chernus, identified as Phineas Mason/The Tinkerer in the end credits), turn them into weapons for underground sale and for use in robbery and for raiding Damage Control transports. Eight years down the road, Toomes is a neighborly sociopath who's devised a turbine-powered, winged flight suit that, in an inspired visual, he wears with an old-fashioned flight jacket whose furred collar recalls the feathery tufts of vultures.

Two months after the Civil War events, Peter, a sophomore at the Midtown School of Science & Technology, is antsy to get back to the big show. He stops smalltime crime, breathlessly reporting each to Stark's exasperated right-hand man, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), and one night tries to thwart what seems a simple ATM robbery. But the crooks have high-tech weapons, and in the ensuing fight a deli across the street gets incinerated. After Hogan impatiently doesn't listen to Peter's claims, the teen takes it upon himself to learn more about the weapons, stop whoever's responsible, and prove himself—all leading to a classic heroic-journey story given down-to-earth humor and pathos.

Much of this stems from Peter's relationship with May (Marisa Tomei), his youthful aunt and guardian; his sole friend, fellow geek Ned (Jacob Batalon); and his academic decathlon team, which includes his crush Liz (Laura Harrier), his nemesis Flash (Tony Revolori) and self-styled world-weary loner Michelle (singer-actress Zendaya, who gives depth to what could have been a rote role). As if this high-school "Freaks and Geeks" vibe couldn't be more pronounced, the teacher heading the team is the wonderfully ever-deadpan Martin Starr, an alum of that late, great show. Turning up in cameos are Tyne Daly as head of Damage Control, Gwyneth Paltrow as the Iron Man movies' Pepper Potts, standup comic Hannibal Buress as Coach Wilson, Michael Mando ("Better Call Saul") as Mac Gargan (setting him up as the supervillain the Scorpion), and Chris Evans as Captain America in a couple of beautifully cheesy high-school videos ("So you've found yourself in detention…"). Stan Lee has a cameo as an irate Queens apartment-dweller named Gary. And in one great Easter egg, Principal Morita is portrayed by Kenneth Choi—who played Jim Morita of the World War II Howling Commandos in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

A couple of "Yeah, but" issues momentarily interfere, with two teens effortlessly hacking Stark Industries software and a planeful of highly sensitive Avengers artifacts just as easily hacked, tracked and attacked. But ultimately, from the opening's orchestral instrumental of the 1960s Spider-Man animated TV-series theme to the nearly metafictional scene after the end credits, Spider-Man: Homecoming hits home.

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