Monday, July 10, 2017

Home is Where the Heart Is

Three years ago, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 demonstrated what can go wrong when an individual film gets too tangled up in the movie franchise its trying to be a part of. Now, Spider-Man: Homecoming has come along to showcase how being part of a mega-franchise can be great.

So much of what works best about this new Spider-Man movie comes directly from how it is positioned in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. The main villain, Vulture, derives directly (and logically) from the events of an earlier film. The young hero's main motivation is simply to prove himself so that he can be an Avenger (funny; given how much Marvel has wished to have him around for the last decade). Cameos of other MCU characters sprinkled throughout the film add to the experience, rather than wrest focus away from it being Spider-Man's tale.

There is a bit of Ant-Man at play here. An unlikely hero clashes with a mentor while learning the full scope of his abilities. The hero fights a villain that's essentially of the mentor's making. But this movie steers mostly clear of being another MCU plot recycle for one major reason: it makes a big difference that this Peter Parker really is just a kid.

Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield are both solid actors (and the latter an Oscar nominee), but it sure feels like Tom Holland makes for the best Spider-Man. This movie doesn't give him as many opportunities to show us the angst-ridden teenager (as it mercifully skips the well-trodden origin story), but we get plenty of the young sense of wonder, the irreverence for almost everything (but adults in particular), and the boundless energy. It easily makes this the most fun Spider-Man movie to watch -- and that fun extends to how other MCU characters are used when they show up here.

The film also does far better with other characters than the average Marvel film. Peter's friend Ned is a great sidekick, and doesn't rely on being cast with a recognizable actor to hold presence on screen. Other students and teachers at Peter's school make it onto the radar in carefully crafted (if often brief) moments).

The Vulture, Adrian Toomes, turns out to be the most effective villain the MCU has given us in years. He has an understandable point of view and motivation. He has nuance and emotion. And of course, it doesn't hurt that he's played by Michael Keaton, who really grounds the comic book antics in a sense of realism. (Most of the time, anyway; he also cuts loose and has fun with it in the right moments, particularly in a truly chilling confrontation with the hero that's probably the most effective ever featured in a Marvel film -- and, most minor of spoilers, it's not their climactic fight.)

There are one or two minor stumbles along the way, but nothing big enough to drag down the whole. I do wish Aunt May had been given a bit more to do; this incarnation, played by Marisa Tomei, is younger and more relaxed, and clearly supposed to be "the cool aunt," but she comes off as a rather lazy and uncaring guardian because of how little she's around here. The CG of Spidey isn't always great (and never really managed to sell me on why it couldn't just be a guy in a suit all the time). Also -- and this IS a spoilery detail you'll probably want to skip if you haven't seen the movie -- I think the decision to give Spider-Man a talking suit robbed the movie of its distinct identity a bit, pushing it into Iron Man territory too far for my tastes.

Still, this is the best Spider-Man movie in years. The best period, I think, outside of Spider-Man 2. (Though it has been a while since I've seen that.) I give it an A-.

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