Thursday, 6 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Given the well-worn Hollywood maxim "If at first you more or less succeed, reboot and reboot again", it was only a matter of time before the barely-settled cobwebs were dusted off the Spider-Man property and ol' webhead was re-resurrected for Generation MCU. You know the drill by now: teenage boy (played, if possible, by someone whose teenage years are some distance behind them) with the proportional strength of a spider swings through New York, fighting technologically enhanced criminals while wearing a skintight onesie and struggling to get off with hot girls. You are familiar with this concept because since 1962 it has been laid out in comics, TV shows and - in the last fifteen years alone - five blockbuster films of alarmingly disparate calibre.

What's crucial to the success of Movie Spidey v3.1 is that, unlike its Andrew Garfield-shaped predecessor, it knows that you know this. Spider-Man: Homecoming features no radioactive spider-bite, no discovery of wall-crawling abilities and no cruel twists of fate leading to the deaths of platitude-spouting uncles. Peter Parker's superheroic origin is tossed off with delightfully casual indifference in the briefest of exchanges between him and awestruck best pal Ned, during which Peter's response to Ned's enquiry about the radioactive spider is simply "The spider's dead, Ned". And along with it, Spidey's cinematic past. Time to move on.
Not entirely sure about the new costume though tbh

Unshackled from all that baggage, everyone involved in Homecoming is free to do their own thing, trusting us not to sweat the details. It's enormously liberating to watch as a Spider-fan, and even when the film hooks up with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - as inevitably it must - it does so in the smartest of ways, allowing it to function effectively as a standalone piece but enhanced by the sardonic charm of Robert Downey Jr's wonderfully-executed surrogate uncle, Tony Stark.

The plot of Homecoming is flimsy and hardly worth mentioning, except that Peter's nemesis this time is Adrian Toomes (aka Vulture), reimagined from the comics' grouchy, slaphead OAP in the shape of Michael Keaton: part Batman, part Birdman. The script glosses over his transformation from salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar contractor to mad flying bastard, but it's in keeping with the best Spidey villains: ordinary Joes who find themselves pushed that little bit too far by bureaucracy or let down by an uncaring world. Keaton is so much fun to watch that it's a shame he wasn't allowed to explore his beef with society further, and once he dons the Vulture mask he disappears completely into anonymous pixels.

Fortunately we're left with Tom Holland, who might just be the actor to have finally nailed Peter Parker's youth, intelligence, awkwardness and unbridled glee at being able to swing through Manhattan's concrete canyons on ropes of wrist-jizz. Holland is delightful, occasionally reminiscent of a young Michael J Fox, and holds the screen remarkably despite all the necessary noisy fireworks that characterise the modern superhero movie. He revels, too, in Spidey's New York stand-up patter, of which Andrew Garfield made a fair fist and which all but eluded Tobey Maguire, and his scenes with the grown-ups (Stark, Toomes, Aunt May) portray Peter's teenage naivety as skilfully as those with his schoolmates demonstrate his growing confidence (unless the schoolmate happens to be intimidatingly sexy and intelligent).
And Ned is *very* sexy and intelligent

Where Homecoming really lands, though, is in its writing and direction. The script makes the most of its umbilical connection to the MCU, allowing Toomes to develop improbably advanced tech with minimal exposition, while simultaneously exploring the hitherto underinvestigated practicalities of being Spider-Man, such as how he might get from A to B without any convenient skyscrapers to swing from (the answer is hilariously prosaic). And it never forgets that we need to be as invested in Peter Parker's problems as we are in Spider-Man's - a situation which allows for the amusing motif of Peter repeatedly running away from terrifying encounters with girls to the much safer ground of battling murderous super-villains.

Enormous liberties are taken with the characterisations of the comics' stalwarts that might give fanboys the fear, but they feel like necessary updates for a progressive, multicultural, seen-it-all 21st century audience. Basically if the casting of Marisa Tomei as Aunt May upset you, you're going to need to forget everything you know about Flash Thompson, Betty Brant and even Mary Jane Watson. Jon Watts, meanwhile (literally, who?), directs with welcome clarity and satisfying reverence: one scene recreates a famous panel from issue 33 of The Amazing Spider-Man that brought all kinds of nostalgic feels to my usually stone cold heart.

It's a pity that Watts' CG Spidey seems to have taken a step back in quality from the relative success of Marc Webb's films towards the videogame awkwardness of Sam Raimi's first entry, and it also grates that yet another superhero film climax has to involve a one-on-one punch-up in the dark, but where these issues just exacerbate the problems of, say, the current DC films, here they survive as niggles in what is largely an enormously successful entry in the genre, hugely boosted by the fact that it's bags of fun and often riotously funny. Spider-Man is back, even if it felt like he never went away, and he's rediscovered his bite.

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