Tuesday, 25 July 2017

REVIEW: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Marvel and Sony have made friends again, and the fruit of their joint labours is the latest Spider-Man, the sixth of the modern era. (How you count it overall is matter of debate.) Fans sighed a deep cynical sigh when the Spidey cinematic series was rebooted for the second time in about five years, following the Amazing Spider-Man franchise, which was cut short after it failed to pull the crowds as expected. Young Tom Holland became the second Englishman to play Peter "radiaoctive spider-bite" Parker in last year's Captain America: Civil War, which introduced this newest take on a character who first appeared in 1962 and has been swinging across screens for almost as long. Impressively, director Jon Watts and his writing team have managed to create a film that feels both modern and very traditional.

Taking Peter Parker back to high school is the best thing they could have made. Although he didn't spend all that long at school in the comics, there's something right about setting his inaugural adventures during his formative years as a wee fifteen-year-old. Watts has made a very canny choice in his approach, deliberately giving the film the feel of classic John Hughes movies. The language is bluer but the humour less so, but overall there's a definite feeling of The Breakfast Club, with a little hint of Ferris Bueler's Day Off (and some very deliberate references to that last one). On the other hand, the kids deal with very modern problems, no one is ever more than an inch away from their phone, and everything is on YouTube. It's a film for teens that also appeals to anyone who remembers being a teen.

Tom Holland is absolutely spot-on as this younger version of Parker. This is a Parker film more than a Spider-Man one, and it's clear that Watts has more interest in the kid's personal life than his superheroics, but that's to the film's benefit, not it's detriment. We've had plenty of superhero battles lately; it's on its characters that a film like this succeeds or fails. Holland is perhaps the greatest screen Spider-Man we've ever had. He was a big success in Civil War, but it's here that he proves he can hold a feature, indeed a franchise. He gives Parker an easygoing but slightly nervy charm, and easily convinces as a brilliant but uncertain American teenager, in spite of being a 21-year-old Englishman. (Amusingly, Holland attended the Bronx Science High for a short time in preparation of the role, and no one believed he was playing Spider-Man.) He's signed up six films, including three Spider-Man films, so we have two Spideys and two team-ups to look forward to.

Peter Parker is nothing without his supporting cast, though. Spider-Man's story has always been a soap opera, full of love triangles, close friendships, rivalries and complex relationships. Homecoming makes this into one of its greatest strengths. Parker has to balance his "Stark internship" (i.e. his trainee Avenger status), his relationship with his aunt, his friendships and difficulties at school, potential romances, and a ruthless villain who, in classic Spider-Man style, is linked to his life in unexpected ways. It's a tangled web, indeed.

Thankfully, the other players in the film are uniformly excellent. The loudest shout-out has to go to Jacob Batalon as Ned, Parker's best friend and uber-nerdy computer geek, who stumbles upon Parker's secret and spends much of the film squeeing at his role in a superhero narrative. I'd happily watch a Ned spin-off, where he amiably goes about his business thwarting villains with tech smarts and sudden bursts of courage. On the other side, there's Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson, who is both Parker's quiz team rival and the popular dickhead of the school. If this sounds an unlikely combination, it is, but it works because of the way this version of Flash is presented. Unlike the traditional football jock, the school bully concept has been updated to the overconfident but maladjusted rich kid, who's always going to get what he wants and doesn't give a shit about anyone else.

This updating and, in some cases, complete rewriting of characters works very well. A case in point being Homecoming's MJ, no longer Mary Jane but Michelle Jones, played by Zendaya. Why she's the main female credit on the film I don't know; apparently she's a big thing in the States. However famous she is, she does a brilliant job of making the sulky outsider MJ into one of the best things of the film. Completely unlike the MJ we know from the comics, rather a new character who is positioned to take her place in the narrative. This MJ has the vibe of Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club (she even goes to detention voluntarily). Some people have, predictably, kicked off about the changes to characters, especially the race changes for the, originally all-white, set-up, but this is a more accurate reflection of how a school in America looks today. And we know that there's a whole Spider-Verse of different versions of Parker and his associates, so there's room for wildly different interpretations of classic characters.

What I don't understand is why she is credited and publicised so much higher than Laura Harrier, who portrays Liz, who is somehow top of both the brainy and popular cliques and Parker's love interest for the movie. Harrier gives a very sweet, likeable performance but isn't a pushover (one thing Spider-Man has long been good at is strong-minded female characters). Again, Liz is a variation on an established comics character, tweaked for this new telling, and forms a vital part of the new ensemble - far more vital than MJ does.

Another fine example of this: Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture. Michael Keaton is exceptional in the role, giving a very real performance as the most three-dimensional villain we've ever seen in a Marvel movie. It's a common complaint that the villains in the MCU are paper-thin, with the notable exception of Loki. Ego was a huge improvement in the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but really, neither Loki nor Ego are particularly complex, although they are better characterised than most. Toomes, however, is an ordinary man pushed to extraordinary actions by a events beyond his control. He is a man desperately trying to take back control, for his own sake, and his family's. Both the script and Keaton's performance sell this perfectly, giving us a villain who has a genuine moral code that happens to be at odds with the majority's, a character with actual personality instead of a list of traits. And he is as unlike the life-force sucking Vulture of the comics as he could be.

Toomes is driven to his extreme, extra-legal career by Stark Industries' appropriation of all alien and unfeasible technology that lies around the MCU following the various climactic battles. It's a logical extension of these battles that a salvage industry would develop to take advantage of the repercussions, and equally feasible that the powers that be would try to take this source of profit for themselves. That said powers are wholly or partially responsible for the destruction in the first place is all the more effective. It's a better and more subtle examination of the nature of the 1%, corporate greed and collateral damage than Batman vs. Superman could ever hope to manage. It's also notable that both Keaton's Vulture and his Batman could believably exist in this world (different publishers not withstanding), and would be diametrically opposed to one another. Birdman, of course, is the evolutionary midpoint between the two.

The opposite party to Toomes in Homecoming, then, is Iron Man. Some worried that this was going to be an Iron Man film in all but name, but it's Parker's film through and through. What Stark provides is a mentor figure and provider of hardware, and he's surprisingly mature in both counts. There's finally a sense that Stark has actually learnt from his past mistakes and is trying to make sure others don't make the same, but it's never at the expense of Parker's development. "If you're nothing without the suit, you don't deserve it," becomes this film's version of "With great power comes great responsibility," and it's just as vital to Parker's understanding of his role as hero. And while Stark is the opposite of Toomes and they are pit against each other, they never meet, with their battle for control occurring entirely through the proxy of young Parker.

The only point that the film falls down is the actual battles between Spider-Man and the Vulture. While the action is, for the most part, very impressive, as we've come to expect from Marvel, but the climactic final confrontation is so overly busy that it's almost impossible to tell what's going on. There are flashes on interesting visual effects, but they're rather lost in the maelstrom. There's a sense that the huge battle is only there because of convention, whereas the main dramatic beats have already been dealt with. Still, this is a pretty small complaint for a film that gets so much right.

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