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“This was the year I discovered the excitement of ‘marrying’ words to pictures. I began to get it through my skull that words and pictures were Yin and Yang. I began thinking that words and pictures, married, might possibly produce a progeny more interesting than either parent.”
– Dr. Seuss, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, Volume 68, Number 8, April 1976
*I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming on Tuesday – 28 June 2017 at the AMC Van Ness in San Francisco.
Has it really been five years since last I saw a Spider-Man film on the big screen? Yes, I know The Amazing Spider-Man had a sequel, but after the first was so disappointing, I waited until it aired on television to finally see it. Although the Marvel Cinematic Universe had already proven its profitability and indisputable enjoyment factor, their most famous mascot was stuck in the hands of a company that treated him as nothing more than a corporate commodity.
Fortunately, cooler – nay, more lucrative – heads prevailed and we finally got Spidey’s proper MCU debut with his scene-stealing appearance in Captain America: Civil War. His light-hearted appearance further cemented the Marvel not only knew its own characters better than anyone else, but they also knew what superhero movies are all about. Civil War’s competition for the year was the follow-up to that other disappointing comic flick from a few years back (when a movie with “war” in the title is more fun than one with both “Batman” and “Superman” in its moniker, then you know you’ve done something wrong). The latter “vs.” flick also featured a scene-stealing cameo by a classic superhero: comic books’ first lady herself, Wonder Woman. These appearances were to lay the groundwork for both further adventures in their respective cinematic universes, as well solo films that would do these heroes right.
Wonder Woman’s good-but-not-great film (sorry I never wrote a review for it) broke countless records and finally shook up the boys’ club of costume blockbusters. With Spider-Man: Homecoming, we finally get a film that takes Marvel’s biggest star and does with him what his earlier incarnations failed to do, what DC’s film division refuses to do, and what all of these movies really should do: have fun. Is that such a bad idea?
Eight months after assisting Iron Man in the Avengers’ “Civil War” dispute, Peter Parker is all too eager to prove himself to his new non-mentor. Although Stark sees promise in the kid, he insists that he isn’t yet ready to take on the “heavy-duty” work of the Avengers. As such, he’s stuck being everyone’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
That all changes with appearance of Adrian Toomes, a former contractor-turned-alien-weapons-dealer with a grudge against the Avengers and everyone associated with them. Though Peter is ordered not to go after Toomes (aka “The Vulture”), his instincts tell him that his power comes with a great deal of responsibility. But he still has to finish his homework.
Looking back on this film a few hours removed, I see that there are so many things that could have gone wrong. In fact, the film isn’t perfect: there are a couple of moments that drag (especially after Stark orders Peter to give up the suit) and several character moments (Happy and Stark’s constant dismissal of Peter’s attempts to help) came off as forced. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how there were certain F/X shots – particularly when Spidey ditches the party to jump through the trees – that looked rubbery and recalled the poorly-rendered F/X of Sam Raimi’s first entry; or a bad Playstation 1 game.
The good news? Those moments are few and far between. There were more than a few cheers that broke out during my screening in SF. As has become the MCU’s trademark, this film wants you to revel in the joy of being someone with great powers. There’s a vicarious joy to watching Peter figure out all the bells ‘n whistles installed in the suit (including the JARVIS-esque AI he names “Karen,” voiced by JARVIS/Vision actor Paul Bettany’s wife, Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly). But where this one succeeds ahead of other MCU entries thus far is that it finally gives us a villain besides Loki to be interested in. Keaton’s Adrian Toomes/Vulture is the most down-to-Earth MCU villain yet (although I like what they were suggesting of Baron Mordo at the end of Doctor Strange) and an interesting fictional figure to show up in Trump’s America. Toomes isn’t a moustache-twirler, he’s an Average Joe with a family to feed – when he feels he’s been treated unfairly, he takes steps. In a way, the steps he takes – stealing the Chitauri tech – is the mirror image of Spidey, in terms of the famous “with great power…” line.
In fact, I think my favorite scene of the film might be one that seemed to take shots at Marvel’s rivals at DC. It’s been suggested that they were taking shots at Batman when Daredevil’s fifth episode of the first series, he says he “ha[s] to be the man this city needs,” to which Claire Temple replies “That’s not a reason, that’s an excuse.” Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to have a similar dig The Dark Knight when Spidey tracks down Aaron Davis (aka “The Prowler,” played by Donald Glover) in a parking garage. He decides to get info from Davis using his suit’s new “enhanced interrogation” mode. Said mode alters Spidey’s voice to a ridiculous digital growl meant to scare crooks, but just sounds ridiculous. Sound like anyone we know? I’ll give you a hint: he was twice played by the guy playing Vulture in this film.
What’s better is that, as the film’s subtitle suggests, this is a mash-up of a superhero movie and a high school comedy. I don’t know how, but somehow it pulls off both. Maybe it’s because Peter’s “geekiness” isn’t written by people who only know how to write teens based on what they see on tv and in movies – even Mean Girls had that problem. Sure, it has the structure of all the kids falling into those roles explicitly defined by The Breakfast Club, but the lines are blurred and it makes sense that these kids would run in the same social circles. Even the genre’s usual tropes of misunderstandings and kept secrets make more sense when you add in the element of a crime-fighter with a secret identity.
And then there’s the diversity of the cast. MCU’s track record on this has been equally impressive (casting a Black man, Idris Elba, as the Nordic Hemdall) and cringe-inducing (Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, The Hand in Daredevil, and… just… everything about Iron Fist). Yet the Peter Parker of this film lives in a New York that is (surprise, surprise) populated with quite a few PoC. His crush, Laura Harrier’s Liz Allen, is half-Black; his Pinoy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is clearly a hybrid of Ned Leeds and Ultimate’s Ganke Lee; classmate “Michelle” (Zendaya) is half-Black; and even Parker’s classic rival Flash Thompson is now played by Guatemalan-American actor. When the film was first announced, it was asked why Spider-Man was yet another pasty White boy (and the appearance of Donald Glover as The Prowler includes a subtle nod to future Black/Latino Spidey Miles Morales), but this is one of the MCU’s better responses to such criticisms. Besides, we still have Black Panther on the horizon…
I was surprised to find out that director Jon Watts previous credits were for The Onion News Network. That doesn’t seem like the CV of somebody directing their first superhero flick, but good on him for brining that kind of levity to a film genre that get notoriously bogged down in its own sense of self-importance. When the Marvel logo at the beginning is accompanied by an orchestral rendition of the theme from the classic Spidey animated series, it’s a clear sign as to what’s in story. Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t perfect, but it finally gave us the big-screen Spider-Man we should have gotten decades ago. It’s low on setting up the rest of the MCU (of its two credit scenes, one is a throw-away and the other just hints at this film’s sequel), which helps it stand on its own, whilst still fitting into that universe perfectly.
This is the Spider-Man I’ve always wanted to see. Well… this and Miles Morales.