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July 27, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming: What an Upset!

Okay, I know what I’m going to say next will sound like a massive insult, but it’s not.  I mean it with the highest amount of praise one man can offer.  I sincerely hope that no one reading this takes it the wrong way.  So, you know, don’t.

Now then.  What did I think of Spider-Man: Homecoming (assuming that anyone cares)?  It’s simple.  This movie is silly, goofy, cheesy, and barely a cut above a Saturday morning cartoon.

And to reiterate?  That’s a good thing.

…No, wait, I mean -- oh, forget it.  It’s a reference to Marvel vs. Capcom 3.  It always is.

So here’s the setup.  Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker has long since returned to his life in Queens.  He’s an ace student on the school’s academic decathlon team, which makes him about as popular and socially adjusted as you’d expect.  But having gotten a fresh taste of the hero life (and near-death from multiple angles) Peter hasn’t hung up his suit for good.  He’s on patrol as soon as the last bell rings, swinging through the streets and stopping small-time crooks as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  Part of it is because he has a duty to his fellow men…buuuuuuuuuuuut part of it is also because he wants to prove to Tony Stark and crew that he’s ready and waiting to become a full-time Avenger.

But the world’s still picking up the pieces from previous Marvel movies -- and it puts Spidey’s turf at risk.  Having been screwed out of a major deal, the salvager Adrian Toomes pushes his crew towards taking the remnants of the superheroes’ battles and using it to build high-tech gear.  The end result?  Toomes’ gang builds a flying exo-suit that lets him become The Vulture, and his band of souped-up troublemakers aims to both sell their weapons for big profits and steal more parts for future endeavors.  Also, Shocker is there for some reason.  In any case, as the only street-level hero on tap, it’s up to Spider-Man to save the day.  Well, preferably save the day.  He’s got a lot of work to do.

Since we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll just take this time to point out something obvious, and something that’ll become immediately apparent as soon as Peter starts showing up onscreen.  Marvel Studios -- and Sony Pictures, by extension -- really, really, really, really, REALLY want you to like Spider-Man.  I don’t know if he’s the best big-screen portrayal of the character (since I haven’t seen Andrew Garfield’s take), but I’m inclined to believe that the studio heads dialed up the moe factor by 8.  They want to make you say “I want to protect that smile.”

Does it work?  Well, your mileage may vary.  It depends on how savvy (or cynical) you are.  It is a Marvel movie, after all, which means that the branding alone can (justifiably) inspire some narrow-eyed looks.  The focus, as always, is on the hero and making him as likeable as possible.  Jokes abound.  Feels are injected as needed.  Also, I forgot to mention this when I talked about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but Homecoming continues the proud tradition of the title hero taking off his shirt to reveal a Herculean physique.  It’s a little something for the ladies -- and some gents -- ostensibly, but he’s only 15 in this movie.  That makes things a little awkward, I think.  Also, if this really is a tradition, then it’s going to get weird once we get to Captain Marvel.  Will we have parity and damn the consequences?  Time will tell.

In any case, there’s a very hard push for Spidey to be seen as the underdog.  He’s a loser, but he’s still so lovable!  He’s always down on his luck, but he’ll always try his best!  Nothing ever goes his way, but at least he tried!  Nobody ever gives him any respect (except for some guy who cheers and begs for Spider-Man to do a flip), but you can always count on him!  And so on, and so forth.  It leads me to make two assertions: that first of all, this is peak Spider-Man.  Barring a few missing elements from the mythos like J. Jonah Jameson/the Daily Bugle, the Osborns/Oscorp, and the like (though MJ does kinda-sorta show up in some capacity, even if you won’t know it till the end), this is basically everything you’d expect out of the character.

That leads me to my second assertion: this movie is basically a cartoon.  If you’ve seen any animated version of Spider-Man over the years -- or any cartoon over the years, period -- then you know all of the main beats in this movie.  It’s the same…well, not the same problem as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but certainly the same aspect.  You know what this movie will entail pretty early on in terms of the plot.  Peter Parker has to balance his life as a nerd and a superhero!  But wait -- oh no, he has the big academic decathlon coming up!  And he’s got a crush on a cute girl!  Oh, but he has to look cool at the big party even though he’s a total nerd!  And the homecoming dance is right around the corner, whoa ho!  Hijinks ensue!  Whatever will he do?

Surprise, surprise: he ends up choosing to be Spider-Man.  Again.  And again.  And again.

That sounds like it’s all to the movie’s detriment, and I can understand why people would see it that way.  But in terms of the movie’s feel -- the quality that keeps it from being another generic product to throw on the pile -- it manages to stand out.  There’s a very plucky sense to everything, from the main character and beyond.  Whereas Civil War and Doctor Strange tried to skew closer to the dramatic side of things (albeit via different routes and for different reasons), Homecoming follows Guardians’ example and goes to Silly County.  But if I had to highlight the divide, then I’d say that Guardians’ humor skews toward an older audience, while Homecoming skews toward a younger audience.  Maybe not perfectly, but given that the latter has a massive focus on high school shenanigans, it’s a bit more relatable and recognizable to most mere Earthlings.

So if the mission statement (besides “make lots of money”) was to make Peter Parker/Spider-Man as lovable as possible, then they couldn’t have chosen a better affect for this movie.  Much of that is owed to the humor, to the point where it feels less like a big-budget action blockbuster and more like a comedy.  Or a cartoon, if you prefer; honestly, there’s a part of me that hopes someday, the MCU will give its grand schemes and weighty, overarching plot a rest so we can get a pure comedy, one that doesn’t have to get bogged down by adrenaline-pumping action scenes or tugs at the heartstrings by overweight gorillas.  Maybe if Marvel Studios gets really desperate or runs out of heroes to mine, we’ll get Squirrel Girl on the big screen so she can do the trick.

But I’m getting off-track.  As always, the key to all of this is the main character -- and if not for this iteration of Peter/Spidey, then Homecoming would have been poorer for it.  How much of the praise can be laid at the feet of Tom Holland, and how much of it belongs to the crew toiling behind the scenes?  Hard to say.  Either way, the two of them working in tandem create a hero that’s overflowing with charisma -- someone who’s at once badass and adorable at the same time.  How many moms or older ladies out there out there are begging to take this Marvel hero home with them and tuck him in at night after a kiss to the forehead?  The count is, I imagine, not insignificant.

So here’s the thing about Homecoming’s hero.  You look at Iron Man, and you see a guy with issues/flaws, but he masks them as best he can with enough sarcasm to stop a bullet.  You look at Doctor Strange, and you see a guy with even greater issues/flaws, but he masks them as best he can with enough sarcasm to stop a bullet.  You look at Star-Lord, and you see a guy with issues/flaws, but he masks them as best he can with enough sarcasm to stop a bullet.  Those three aren’t copy-paste clones of one another, but it’s still easy to see the similarities.  Comparatively, Spidey follows the same vein as Captain America, only with a sugar-soaked twist.

This spider’s no wallflower.  He’s bursting with energy at nearly all times, especially when he’s out being a hero.  To him, it doesn’t even matter if he faceplants in mid-swing or can’t find out who the owner of a stolen bike might be.  He may not often get his due respect or the chance to flex his super-muscles, but that doesn’t stop him from doing what he does with gusto.  His hype is nothing short of infectious.  There are so many wonders and marvels (ha) to him that it’s safe to say his amazement at seeing the Winter Soldier’s metal arm was no fluke.  That’s the guy we’re dealing with here.  He’s so earnest and honest that it wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear him go “Golly gee willikers, Mr. Stark!”

Of course, the issue here is that no matter how much he wants to be a hero -- and an Avenger, by extension -- Peter’s a walking liability.  Even if we ignore the fact that his bad luck causes everything around him to nearly fall to pieces, his inexperience and hastiness is what really makes things go belly-up in a lot of cases.  His favorite corner store gets scorched by a laser blast during one of his first fights.  His bumble against the Vulture and his goons’ superweapons leads to a ferry getting sliced in half.  And thank God there wasn’t anyone on the Avengers’ cargo plane; it ends up as a burning pile of wreckage by the time ol’ Petey’s done with it.  Maybe Tony Stark invited Peter to be an Avenger at movie’s end for a reason -- not because Spidey saved the day, but because the other heroes could keep a VERY close eye on him before he caused lethal collateral damage.

In hindsight, they probably should have had Peter address that misfortune and damage -- because boy there’s a lot of it.  Yeah he’s inexperienced and can only learn while on the job (like how to handle interrogations), but you’d think that the fact that he almost got a few hundred people killed on that ferry -- and would have gotten them killed if not for Iron Man’s assist -- would make him stop and reflect.  It’s not as if he’s unaware of the responsibility and consequences, I’d say; it’s just that he puts more focus on being a hero and getting his moment than actually dwelling on his mistakes.  He’s a very in-the-moment, “this is fine, I can fix this” sort of person.  Fair enough.  The problem is that not everyone out there -- like the people in the audience -- shares that bright outlook.

Maybe that’s something they’ll use to develop Peter in the future, especially if it means making him deal with the loss of a loved one.  But for now?  I get what the film crew had in mind here.  I’m not 100% okay with them glossing over some of the heavier aspects of Spidey’s character, but relative to the movie he’s in, it’s understandable.  Spidey’s gung-ho, for good or ill, full of energy and itching to leap into the fray so he can do what he thinks is right.  For a movie that skews VERY hard in comedy’s favor -- with Spider-Man, with his supporting cast, with myriad events and lines -- you want to keep the focus on being as light and breezy as possible. 

And while superhero movies have shown their willingness to explore the consequences of specific actions -- Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice come to mind -- it’s not a requirement in every single instance.  Least of all this live-action cartoon.  With that in mind, there are some little details sprinkled in that help build toward a cinematic universe.  Having Captain America show up in video PSAs is a touch that shows how superheroes have been integrated into society, and the Sokovia Accords are mentioned during a class lecture.  Although apparently?  I need to double-check the chronology, but if we assume that the events of The Avengers happened in 2012 (same year as its release) and Homecoming is slated 8 years later, then it starts in 2020 and every progressive Phase 3 film will take place after that.  Do I have that right?  I’m not complaining, I’m just surprised.

Also, what was the end result of the Sokovia Accords?  Were they passed or not?  I feel like that’s important detail you shouldn’t gloss over, seeing as how it literally tore the Avengers in half.

But again, it’s a defensible choice.  Is it the right one?  That answer will depend on the person.  For me, though, what’s here is still more than good enough.  Homecoming pulls away from the epic bombast of other blockbusters (and indeed, other Marvel movies) for a smaller, simpler, more personal tale.  At its core, it’s a story about the little guys.  Sometimes it’s about the big things that happen to them, or the big things they’re forced to shoulder because of what the big guys have done, but it’s overall a light and breezy tale to help the audience build bonds with these fictional characters. 

It’s not just Peter, either.  There’s his best bud and eventual “guy in the chair” Ned; there’s the asocial hanger-on Michelle; there’s the ever-pleasant sweetheart Liz; there’s the wholly-revamped bully Flash; Aunt May, Happy, and even Vulture/Toomes get their time to shine.  Even if they don’t get all of the screen time, they get enough of it.  Well, except for May, ostensibly; I would’ve liked to see more of her, and supposedly some of her scenes got cut out.  Guess they had to make more time to joke about how hot she is or whatever.

You know who the real standout in this movie is?  Well, besides Happy, whose exasperation over the spider-kid that won’t stop calling him is palpable?  Believe it or not, it’s actually Vulture.  The villain.  Yeah.  Ladies and gentlemen, today is a glorious day: we’ve been blessed with a villain in a Marvel movie who is not only good, but isn’t killed off in his movie of origin.  That means that they can use him again -- and they chose a pretty good guy to keep around.  What an upset.  Guess we’re up to three now.

Thematically speaking, Vulture’s an interesting choice.  One of the key thrusts of the movie is that Peter wants to become more than a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man; he wants to step into the spotlight and become a full-fledged Avenger.  He wants to be in the public eye (sans the reveal of his true identity).  In contrast, Toomes wants to stay out of the spotlight.  He wants to go about his unlawful business, partly as a way to stick it to the big guys that screwed him in the first place -- compared to Peter, who idolizes and wants to become one of those big guys. 

Whereas Peter -- despite his intelligence -- is impulsive and works on the fly, Toomes is calculating and plans a good five moves in advance.  Not only does he manage to sniff out Peter’s identity in a matter of minutes, but he also manages to get around his Spider-Sense by dropping an entire roof on him and burying him in rubble.  Granted he was pretty lucky that they both didn’t get buried, but hey.  As long as everything went according to keikaku, I doubt he’s complaining.

To be fair, it takes a while before all the pieces come together.  The focus is more on Peter and assorted goofball moments, so Toomes is on the sidelines alongside the rest of his crew for a decent-sized chunk of the movie.  But that’s all flipped on its head with one simple-yet-stunning reveal a ways into the film.  See, it turns out that Toomes isn’t just motivated by money or spite.  If not for his shady deals and thefts, he wouldn’t be able to support his family.  A noble goal, though I doubt a lot of people would agree that the end justifies the means.  But who is this mysterious family that would drive a man to crime?  At the outset, it just seems like the family is a placeholder -- a motivation in name only.

If it stayed that way, then the character and the movie would’ve been poorer for it.  Then the reveal comes in: Peter heads to Liz’s house as her date to the homecoming dance, only to have Toomes open the front door -- because he’s Liz’s dad.  And then Peter “FML” Parker not only has to spend time getting grilled by the man who tried to kill him on multiple occasions, but also has to ride with him in a car because he’s the chaperone…only to have his identity outed in minutes, which leads to Toomes brandishing a gun as soon as Liz is out of the car.

And I just sat there in the theater thinking, “This is perfect.  I never knew how much I wanted this.”  Alternatively:

Vulture is cut from a different cloth than other Marvel villains.  Setting aside the fact that he’ll live to fight another day (tough luck, Ego, Kaecilius, Malekith, Iron Monger, Mandarin, Abomination, Red Skull, Whiplash, Ronan the Accuser, Crossbones, that big robot guy from the first Thor movie, and an incalculable number of interchangeable mooks)?  Vulture actually has class.  He genuinely cares about his family, has no qualms with Peter outside the suit, and looks out for his cronies as long as they don’t turn their backs on him.  Crucially, he shows a sense of honor by keeping Peter’s identity a secret even though he could have spilled it to Scorpion.  Hopefully that won’t come back to bite him later on.  Who knows?  Maybe next time he’ll be an ally instead of an enemy.

It’s Vulture that elevates the movie, but Spider-Man himself is the one that puts it well over the line (least of all because he almost never whines about his bad luck or shoddy situation).  Depending on how you look at him, there’s more to him than just the famous wall-crawler.  Underneath that energetic earnestness is something manic about him -- an outright desperate desire to become something more.  It’s almost sad when you think about it; when Stark calls him out on his recklessness and takes away the suit, Peter freaks out over the possibility of not being Spider-Man anymore (or at least a Spider-Man bolstered by Stark technology, and one doomed to languish in the nooks of Queens). 

How much does Peter need to be a hero, especially one on that massive scale?  Why does he end up being so devastated by his loss of “the internship”?  Does he break down in tears because he could have gotten so many people killed, or because he can’t pal around with Black Widow and War Machine?  There’s no point in debating whether or not he cares about “the little guy”, given how he drops his joking antics when his sandwich guy and his decathlon buddies (and Flash) might be in danger.  So does he see the Avengers as a way to protect people-- to fulfill his great responsibility -- on a worldwide level?  Or is it all part of an escapist fantasy made real, and his ticket to escape a life full of mundanity and minor, middling successes despite his academic gifts? 

I guess we’ll find out in the next movie.  And…yeah, I’m okay with that.

Part of Stark’s tutelage of Spidey involves him confronting him on a simple truth: “if he’s nothing without the suit, he doesn’t deserve to wear it.”  Given that, does Peter think he’s worthless?  Does he feel unfulfilled with his life?  Or could past regrets involving a certain uncle make him want to start anew, or seek out the next level of heroism as a means for atonement?  There are a lot of places that future film crews and MCU execs could take Spider-Man.  We’ve gotten a taste of it here -- the escape from the rubble scene is a harrowing one, but also an insightful one -- but there’s still more that can be done with this character, his story, and the affect around him.

So on one hand, you could say that this movie didn’t do enough to set it apart from the crowd.  You could, but I wouldn’t.  Like the Guardians movies before it, the key to Homecoming’s success is the execution more than the design -- as simple as a sandwich, but it’s a hell of a sandwich regardless.  The humor is on point.  The charisma is irresistible.  The action beats continue to impress.  The feels are real.  It’s a small, simple, straightforward movie that knows exactly what it wants to do -- be goofy and fun, above all else -- and it excels at that.  It’s pretty much that simple.

And that’s why I’m going to put it right around HERE on my SmartChart™: 

And that’ll do it for now.  See you next time, Spider-Man.  And next time, do more flips.  People seem to like it when you do that.

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