Friday, July 07, 2017

'Spider-Man: Homecoming' Review: An Icon Redone Right


Rating: **
Starring: Tom Holland, Robert Downey Jr, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier
Director: Jon Watts
Screenplay: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers
Story By: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Source Material: Spider-Man comic book series by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Music by: Michael Giacchino
Cinematographer: Salvatore Totino
Editor: Dan Lebental & Debbie Berman
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Science Fiction
Rated: PG (Canada)/PG-13 (US) - Violence, Language May Offend
Release Date: July 7, 2017
Run Time: 133 minutes

Marvel Studios has developed a solid and structured formula for success with their super hero epics: kick-off with a fast paced action sequence, follow with funny character development scenes, build-up a villain with a diabolical plan that creates stakes, have the hero start to doubt their effectiveness, and then cap it off with a massive special effects battle spectacle. Even though almost every one of their movies hits all of those beats, they have so confidently refined the formula that they can dip into different genres to at least create a feeling of freshness and unique storytelling. We get a rather diverse collection of movies like a comedic heist picture in Ant-Man, an irreverent space opera in Guardians of the Galaxy, a LSD like trippy fantasy adventure in Doctor Strange, and a 1970s stylized political thriller in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. So, Sony Pictures made the right move when they decided to hand over the storytelling to Marvel Studios when launching the Spider-Man franchise for a third time in 15 years.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is still a reboot and a big special-effects laden action extravaganza, but for large stretches it also feels like a classic John Hughes-ish style high school dramedy. It also smartly recognizes that most of the audience have seen the Spider-Man origin story twice and trusts all of us know how Peter Parker got his powers, so we arrive with him already fully formed as Spider-Man. Or as fully formed, as a puberty stricken 15 year old male can possibly be.

Director Jon Watts along with screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley are far more interested in a character-driven exploration into the daily challenges of insecure and awkward teenagers but still serve up big visual action sequences like battling a villain with a sonic blasting fist or Spider-Man rescuing his classmates from a plummeting elevator.

Creating a realistic and authentic high school picture needs believable teenage leads, and Tom Holland is a wonder as Peter Parker. He feels like a natural and average teenager that has a hard time talking to his crush Liz (Laura Harrier), struggles to stand up to his bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), geeking out over the prospect of building a LEGO Death Star with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and through it all giving the vibe of a young teenager uncomfortably trying to find his place in the world. His place is obviously as a super hero protecting Queens New York, where in his Spider-Man suit he exudes confidence and has a sharp wit and biting one-liners while taking down bank robbers and thieves. This is where he finds his purpose and gets to feel like he is contributing to the world.

Watts differentiates this from so many other super hero flicks, because Parker doesn't just suddenly figure out how to properly use his powers and crime-fighting technology. Plus he is still an immature and gawky 15 year old boy, so he is prone to making mistakes. Much like the initial intent of the comic book series conceived by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the suit is an allegory for puberty and the struggle of trying to shift ones way into adulthood. We get stuff like the very funny homage to Ferris Bueller's Day Off (more John Hughes' inspiration) where a still getting used to his suit Spider-Man smashes and falls through several backyards making a major mess while trying to chase some criminals. You get almost heroic moments like when Spider-Man uses his webs to pull back together a lasered in half ferry that is full of innocent people, but not only did some of his decisions create that problem but he doesn't quite have the skill to save them on his own. This is what is so refreshing about this movie, Parker has good intentions, but like every teenager, he makes a lot of foolish choices and mistakes that often cause as much trouble as the villains.

This leads to a great father figure in Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) who has a mentoring and at times antagonistic relationship with Parker. Holland and Downey have an incredible chemistry with each other where you believe they have a respect and affection for each other but also sense the growing frustration between each other. Much like what really exists between almost every teenager and their parent. Parker desperately wants to join the Avengers, but Stark feels he isn't ready and should be content just as a "friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man." Parker is frustrated because he has the skills and abilities to be a hero, but Stark feels he lacks the experience and maturity. This relationship also leads to a fun running gag where Starks has his assistant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) oversee Parker and leads to Parker constantly calling and texting an exceedingly exasperated and agitated Hogan to try to convince him he is ready to join the big team.

Spider-Man: Homecoming shines because it is a movie that is grounded with relatable characters and has a script jammed with humour that unfold naturally. You have comedic performers with sharp, dry-wit like Martin Starr and Hannibal Buress used fantastically as teachers who seem to just be going through the motions to survive their job. Captain America (Chris Evans) has the perfect comedic cameo as the celebrity in several PSA's played throughout the school, while students debate if he is a war criminal now after the events of Civil War. Zendaya is terrific as the snarky Michelle who uses his sly remarks to mask her true feelings and has a fun relationship with Parker. All of Parker's interactions with his fellow students feel authentic, but he has an endearing friendship with Ned that brings the heart of the movie, as the two geek out over Parker's super powers and Ned dreams of ways he can be the sidekick. Marisa Tomei may be the youngest Aunt May yet, but she brings a maturity and wisdom to her role, and even though she is underused, she excels in her few scenes with Holland.

This intimate and character-driven approach leads to Marvel's best villain since Loki in Michael Keaton's intimidating Adrian Toomes who has the alter ego of Vulture (when he is in his robotic flying suit). It is so effective not only because Keaton is haunting while also giving the emotional layers that make him at times vulnerable, but he also isn't the generic villain that that is trying to destroy the world. He has real motives as he and his guys were laid off several years ago by Starks Industries on a job where they were retrieving and dismantling the alien technology left behind from the war in the original Avengers movie. Toomes is now out of a job but also has several men who no longer have a means to support their families either. This makes Toomes a relatable figure as it is easy to understand why he resorts to stealing some of the alien technology and turning it into high-tech weapons that he sells on the black market. His intentions of providing for his crew and his own family is noble, even if his act of unleashing city destroying weapons are disastrous. He also is less than impressed with Spider-Man trying to stop him, so he has the added crime of attempting murder.

So yes, we still get the loud and flashy chaotic finale, but the road there is bouncy, charming, and energetic because we care about these characters and the majority of the movie is more about delighting and making us laugh. For those that come for the big action, Watts adds personality and significant visual wonder to his battles with Vulture and Shocker (a terrific Bokeem Woodbine who bring personality to a one note character) and adds significant stakes to events like Spider-Man crawling up a tower or saving a storekeeper from his burning shop. This seems like the right time to mention that if you see this is in 3D, you will get a crisp and gorgeous experience that lets you soak up Salvatore Totino's great cinematography, but it doesn't really add anything to a movie that would look just as amazing in 2D (though sadly, so many movies looks worse in 3D, so this is still a positive).

Spider-Man: Homecoming follows the new and bold strategy implemented by other 2017 comic book movies Logan, Wonder Woman, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 where it actually focuses on creating an entertaining story rather than expanding its cinematic universe or opening up doors for spin-offs. This may be partly due to the fact Marvel Studios produced this picture but Sony Picture is still distributing it. We get a significant role for Iron Man, reference to past events in the Marvel Universe, but no blatant setting up for next summer's Avengers: Infinity War. Unlike the not-very-good The Amazing Spider-Man 2, there are no obvious attempts to set-up Sony's own Spider-verse franchise. Instead, we have two stingers where one is done for pure comedy and another, is more specifically setting things up for a Spider-Man sequel (even then, it also works well as wrapping up the story). This almost gives me hope that studios are finally figuring out the best way to build audiences is focusing on delivering a really good movie.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is that really good movie that has its own unique personality and creates characters you really care about and hope to see again. Stars have been made and my heart has been won over, and it is a strong enough start that maybe we don't even need to reboot this franchise for at least another decade.

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