SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING * *
Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr. Screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers and Jon Watts. Directed by Jon Watts.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is an exercise in diminishment. Even the title is a cheeky corporate-branding double entendre, referring not just to the homecoming dance at Peter Parker’s Queens Magnet School For Extremely Photogenic Nerds, but also the triumph of boardroom negotiations that allowed for Marvel’s signature character to at last take a belated bow in his parent company’s sprawling cinematic universe. This second Spider-Man reboot of the past five years is primarily concerned with inserting the webslinger into the never-ending Avengers saga and establishing his lowly station in the big-screen superhero franchise pecking order.
It’s sadly fitting that Sam Raimi’s grand, floridly emotional 2002 Spider-Man kicked off the modern superhero era, and now fifteen years later we find the character headlining a film that feels like a footnote to itself. For those blessedly out of the loop, Tom Holland’s friendly neighborhood crime-fighter made his scene-stealing Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in last summer’s Captain America: Civil War, bringing a brief shot of lightness and pizazz to an otherwise dolorous exercise.
Young Peter Parker has been retro-fitted as a protégé to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, gifted by his benefactor with a high-tech super-duper Spidey suit, which he uses to topple petty criminals afterschool while his distractingly hot Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) thinks he’s at an internship. Peter is mocked and called “Penis Parker” by his classmates, and his only friend Ned (the very funny Jacob Balaton) is a fat computer nerd sidekick straight out of the 1980s teenage comedy playbook.
There’s a not-bad idea here of making a traditional teen flick that just so happens to star Spider-Man, and you can see elements of it in Peter trying to juggle his superhero duties with school responsibilities like Academic Decathlon and finding a date for the big dance. (One of the six credited screenwriters even found a kinda brilliant way to conflate supervillain terror with fear of your prom date’s dad.) But everything unique and interesting about the picture is eventually bulldozed by the tired franchise formula, with predictable beats and cluttered action sequences that make Spider-Man: Homecoming feel like one of the smallest and most inconsequential Marvel films yet.
Perhaps sensing that audiences would not put up with watching Uncle Ben get murdered for a third time, the MCU crew has dropped that unpleasant business altogether, only once vaguely alluding to “everything Aunt May has been through lately.” Problem is, without Peter learning that with great power comes great responsibility, there’s precious little emotional ballast to the movie. Nothing really feels at stake here, and the non-starter of a romance between Peter and classmate Liz (Laura Harrier) would feel anemic even without the ghost of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst’s iconic upside-down kiss hovering over this whole affair.
Michael Keaton’s snarling baddie is kinda scary, but such a small potatoes threat that at one point Iron Man decides to just call the FBI on him instead of intervening directly. Civil War teased an opportunity for a potentially juicy relationship between Peter Parker and Tony Stark, with the latter trying on surrogate dad duties shortly after learning about his own father’s murder. Alas, Downey only appears to have been on set for maybe three days. (The movie doesn’t even have the decency to give us another scene of him hitting on Marisa Tomei!) That most of Stark’s key story points are communicated through a bodyguard played by Jon Favreau only intensifies the second-tier aura of these proceedings.
Anonymously directed by Jon Watts, the movie’s poorly-choreographed action sequences harken back to Spidey scenes we’ve seen before without bringing anything new to the table. Compare this film’s weak tea Staten Island Ferry rescue to the still-astonishing subway sequence in Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. There’s no exhilaration and a puny sense of scale. (The cinematography is also as murky and dulled as Wonder Woman’s. What’s with superhero movies this summer looking like ass?) Homecoming lacks even a single shot of our hero swinging between Manhattan skyscrapers – sticking mainly to one block that was obviously shot in Atlanta but they keep claiming it’s Queens.
The only thing in the movie that looks like New York –and this is not a small deal– is that Spider-Man: Homecoming has the most ethnically diverse cast of extras and supporting characters I have seen outside of a Jonathan Demme picture. So often these big Hollywood blockbusters leave their default casting mode set to white, it has been enormously gratifying lately to see the people onscreen in Star Wars and now Spider-Man actually reflecting the audiences that are going to see them.
Because this is an MCU movie, Homecoming is full of plants and setups for upcoming installments, including a post-credits scene that Captain America himself makes fun of you for staying to watch. (It’s not this movie’s only homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but it is the most obnoxious.) Former almost-Spidey Donald Glover turns up as the uncle to a character your geek friends will explain to you later, while Angourie Rice and pop starlet Zendaya have amusing bit parts playing Peter Parker’s future girlfriends.
Zendaya in particular has such crackerjack deadpan timing, the revelation of her character’s real name at the end had me suddenly looking forward to the next movie almost as much as Tom Holland’s appearance in Civil War had me looking forward to this one. See, this is how they get us.