Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Colour me superhero fatigued, mes amis. Or, at the very least, as fed up with the current wave of processed cheese clogging up this genre, particularly the stuff Marvel is pumping out with monotonous regularity and ever-increasing disinterest in complicating or varying their aesthetic. Spider-Man: Homecoming bears a burden in this regard, because it proposes to revive the superhero series that gave serious new impetus to the genre, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002). I always remember the surprising sting of a tear that gathered in my eye when I watched that film, which, for all its playfulness, bundled up the post-9/11 spirit into a coherent bundle, something that has remained a constant subtext in the genre’s popularity since. Raimi also managed to revive the romanticism and high drama that had been left mostly dormant in the form since the early Christopher Reeve Superman films. Spider-Man: Homecoming, produced by a newly united Sony-Columbia and Marvel-Disney corporate orgy, is tepid to the finest reflexes of its well-oiled and utterly unexciting soul. Picking up where he left off with impressive effect in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Tom Holland now wears Spidey’s distinctive costume. The film around him walks Peter Parker back to his roots as a gawky, outcast super-nerd anxious to prove himself worthy of the strange gifts he’s absorbed. Given that Spidey's genesis has been recounted twice in the past fifteen years already, Homecoming at least skips thankfully around replaying that. But what it leaves itself with is more like the middle act of your average origin story series opener, depicting Peter’s struggle to master both his natural gifts and the sophisticated suit gifted to him by Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jnr).
Homecoming opens with a flashback to the immediate aftermath of the climax of 2012’s The Avengers, with salvage contractor Sam Toomes (Michael Keaton) suddenly being stripped of his deal to clean up alien rubbish from New York’s streets by a pushy new government department, represented briefly by Tyne Daly of all people. Infuriated and bankrupted, Toomes decides not to hand back the Chitauri weaponry and tech he’s collected, and instead begins manufacturing black market arms. Eight years later, 15-year-old Peter, left on a high after helping Stark in his fight against rebels in Civil War, happily expects an invite to join the Avengers or at least a call to further action, but instead finds himself attending to petty crime in his locality. Meanwhile he’s busy mooning over Liz (Laura Harrier), a glamour girl in his high school science quiz team, whilst remaining close friends with fellow nerdlinger Ned (Jacob Batalon), who quickly learns his friend’s secret identity and aids him in unlocking his suit’s advanced capacities. Whilst hoping to make a splash appearing as Spider-Man at a party Liz throws, Peter is distracted by Toomes’ henchmen Herman (Bokeem Woodbine) and Jackson (Logan Marshall-Green), showing off their new weapons for a bemused buyer (Donald Glover, apparently cast just to troll him when he might have made a great Spidey): Peter, who’s already had a battle with thieves wielding these weapons, tries to track them to their source, but he’s attacked by Toomes wearing a flying suit with mechanical wings he’s fashioned to stage robberies and safeguard his operation. Peter ventures in well out of his depth, as his efforts to bring Toomes down keep concluding disastrously, including one foray that sees a New York ferry sliced in half by Toomes’ energy weapons, prompting Stark to strip Peter of his suit.
The achievement of Raimi’s series, even the lumpy third entry, was that it added up to a portrait of youth coming to terms with the adult self you see you’re becoming: the seesawing of Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship according to who was in an ascendancy in life was genuinely interesting, and although he left it behind quickly, Raimi took seriously the theme of high school life as a vicious veldt, a perfect training ground to gain the skills required to survive as a superhero. Even Marc Webb’s astonishingly forgettable The Amazing Spider-Man diptych from just a few years ago at least found itself grounded in Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone’s chemistry. By comparison, Homecoming comes across like a check-list of touched bases that barely at any point coincide with real dramatic impetus. Peter weathers mild abuse from school jock Flash (Tony Revolori) but doesn’t have anything to actually fear from him, or from anyone, really. Even Liz is actually secretly crushing on him, setting the scene for a brief romance that seems to have strayed in out of a Disney channel TV movie. It’s apt that Zendaya makes far more impression as sarcastic fly-in-the-ointment Michelle, as she is revealed towards the end as the nominated “MJ” for this take, but not terribly functional for the movie. At least the storyline does manage to spring one good surprise as Peter goes to Liz’s house to take her to the Homecoming dance only to find that Toomes is her father.
It’s also appropriate that Homecoming serves up Peter as an avatar for all the kids now in their teens who have grown up in the past nine years since Iron Man, trying so anxiously to prove himself worthy of the Avengers creed and impress Stark, who finds himself uncomfortably playing father figure to young Peter in turn. He leaves Peter in touch with his aide Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), who stonewalls him most of the time, leaving Peter to eddy alone whilst trying out all the gadgets in his suit and striking up a talkative relationship with the AI unit in the suit he dubs ‘Karen’ (Jennifer Connolly), which means that Homecoming is at its most absorbing and intimate when Peter is alone on screen, having a conversation with an Oscar-winning actress shilling for a pay cheque in a sound booth. Marisa Tomei pops as Peter’s Aunt May for brief, quippy exchanges with her nephew. I like the idea of playing May as the cool aunt, but the execution leaves something to be desired. That Holland makes for a good Spider-Man is hard to argue with, and he offers the character’s goofball humour and cheeky dexterity with assurance whilst always keeping his innate good cheer in focus. The trouble is there’s nothing underneath it. The angst imbued by his Uncle’s murder and the need to keep his identity secret have been dialled down to nothing, leaving just a slightly awkward kid rather than the assailed and marginalised figure he's usually been portrayed as. Perhaps that’s acceptable in a film pitching itself as a youth flick that happens to take place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it leaves the work as a whole feeling utterly without ballast. The stuff that’s supposed to fill in the cracks, Peter’s camaraderie or lack of it with his school chums, never feels real, instead offering snappy wisecracks and laboured episodes of humour. As when Happy and Peter patiently wait in the school toilet for a kid to wash his hands who surprises them in the middle of meeting, only to then immediately depart just after the kid does, there having been no good reason for them to wait at all.
Homecoming wants to be a paean to rude teenage energy, panache, and rebellious spunk, but even with Michelle’s carefully packaged woke-isms, it’s the least rebellious, most blandly assembled piece of officially sanctioned screen filler imaginable. The direction is so anonymous I couldn’t even be bothered looking for whoever was credited in the theatre: luckily the IMDb tells me it’s someone named Jon Watts. When Holland delivers dramatically late in the film in communicating Peter’s desperation and distress when he’s trapped under a pile of rubble, it feels jarring, as it’s the first time an urgent emotion has been offered. Likewise when Keaton gets a show-stopping moment for himself as he reveals he’s rumbled Peter’s secret and threatens him, the effect is surprising, as it seems to have stumbled out a different movie: for a moment Homecoming is alive with a close and personal sense of threat you know won’t be followed by anything to match it because you know this brand too well. It’s no secret that one great weakness of the MCU is its lack of persuasive bad guys who gain the aura of fear that can, frankly, only come from evil acts of genuine consequence, and consequences are the one thing these weak-kneed works cannot contend with. The film drags on for over two hours as much of the middle act is taken over by comedy stemming from Peter learning the ropes with his suit. There’s also a lot of gags that see Peter on his cell phone and everyone says “Cool” a lot, lending proceedings a perturbingly Poochie-esque air in trying to prove this is the totally with-it superhero movie. Somehow it took six credited screenwriters to stitch this thing together.
The action scenes, which are at least nominally the point of these movies, are probably the worst to date in the MCU series, full of poorly lit and jumbled images and a general lack of kinetic excitement. One sequence that does, blessedly, take place in daytime sees Peter save his quiz teammates during a visit to the Washington Monument when a filched alien power cell destroys their elevator and leaves them dangling, but like the later scene on the ferry, it feels like a variation on something already done better. At least the finale, where Peter battles Toomes whilst hanging off the side of one of Stark’s unmanned jets, has a faint glimmer of a new conceptual edge for a Spider-Man action scene. But it still adds up to nought because of the choppy, barely coherent editing, and the absence of any real stake to it all: nobody is in danger and Toomes has little evil stature. And somehow we manage to advance to the exact same image of a winged villain standing amidst fiery wreckage that Wonder Woman (2017) drove into the ground. The actual plot is so threadbare here I don’t even like to call it a plot, as it boils down to Toomes’ efforts to pinch some of the Avengers’ equipment to expand his arsenal for sale. There’s an interesting stab at suggesting some commonality between Peter and Toomes as working class dudes who know the world is stacked against them, which would have meaning if Peter’s social background or identity had been emphasised in any way.
A few of the film’s better gags do land, as when Peter is reduced to jogging through the park after running out of buildings, and two recurring gags, one the school TV station with a po-faced future Peter love interest Betsy Brant (The Nice Guys' Angourie Rice) and some other dude reporting on local events like a stilted, no-budget burlesque on Robocop’s (1986) news feed narration, and school instructional videos where the disgraced Captain America (Chris Evans) is still bleating out square wisdom for the edification of kids who have been left socially shell-shocked by all the wrenches to their civic perspective by the upheavals of recent years – perhaps the film’s one, true moment of understanding the current zeitgeist, but also one that confirms that the chief method Marvel is now relying on to entertain is to manipulate us with our warm feelings for earlier entries. Even the fun end credits, consisting of hand-drawn pictures that might have spilt out a real teen’s folder flitting by to the score of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” would be more charming if this wasn’t the sort of touch a half-dozen indie filmmakers hadn’t already plied in their coming-of-age quirk-fests. The word to describe Spider-Man: Homecoming is mild – it’s mildly funny, mildly amiable, very mildly exciting. It’s a hymn to carving down the square peg to fit the round hole. It works very hard to make sure it does everything right whilst not trying to do anything new. Which means it does nothing right at all. This kind of anodyne, riskless moviemaking is slowly poisoning the well of the large-budget fantastic genres, genres whose popularity owes everything to good filmmakers who, once upon a time, enacted on visions. I may be done with the Marvel franchise and possibly with superhero films in general for the foreseeable future, because when I go to the movies, the last feeling I want when I walk out again is a vague and niggling contempt, both for the filmmakers and for myself in falling for their wares again, even in the name of much-needed light entertainment.