Published Jul 06, 2017Superhero movie franchises embody a Dalai Lama-esque position within the cinematic world — rebirths are an inevitable part of the process. Over time, audiences are reintroduced to the same heroes and worlds with slight variations of tone, casting, or merely because the glorified farmhands who run studios can't help milking their cash cows into exhaustion.
In the last 15 years of Spider-Man adaptations, we've had a cheesy Tobey Maguire trilogy remembered mainly for that iconic upside-down kiss, followed by two unnecessary Andrew Garfield vehicles that rehashed the hero's entire origin story. Hundreds of storylines within the comic books lie neglected while we watch and re-watch the same formative incidents; can't we just let poor murdered Uncle Ben rest in peace and move on?
You bet we can. Spider-Man: Homecoming introduces a Peter Parker who has figured out the web-shooting thing and Ben is long since buried — which means less exposition and navel-gazing and more time for well-paced storytelling. Despite a little-known director with only low-budget indies to his name (Jon Watts, who must be pinching himself) and a lead who suffers slightly from Bland White Boy Syndrome (The Impossible's Tom Holland, who I honestly couldn't pick out of a lineup of Ansel Elgorts, Miles Tellers and whoever else made the shortlist to play young Han Solo), Homecoming is highly entertaining and an invigorating new start for the franchise.
The plot of Homecoming finds Peter chilling in Queens, eating takeout with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), building Star Wars figurines with his nerd pal Ned (the adorable Jacob Batalon) and making increasingly desperate phone calls to Tony Stark, begging to be admitted to The Avengers after his run-in with the famous crew in 2016's Captain American: Civil War. Stark refuses, insisting that Peter's not ready to spar on their level and should stick to busting pickpockets.
It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that Peter doesn't heed this advice, and before long he's fully caught up in a web of dangerous exploits that involve brawling on the wing of an invisible airplane and destroying the Washington Monument during a school trip. These scenes are thrilling — if a bit heavy on the CGI — but it's Martin Starr and Hannibal Buress playing Peter's world-weary teachers that steal the show and provide a balance to Peter's gee-whiz attitude. I want a movie set entirely in their staff room, please.
The film's six screenwriters borrow generously from other Marvel hits (even Spidey sassily reclining in front of the skyline on the poster is very Deadpool) but director Watts also infuses the film with a respect for adolescent earnestness that's straight out of John Hughes, a feeling that's enhanced by the comparative youth of the new cast compared to previous iterations. Watts includes a direct homage to the late Hughes by sneaking in a clip of Ferris Bueller's Day Off as Peter sprints through suburban backyards in pursuit of bad guys; it's a great intertextual sight gag, and we also get to see just how integral bridges and skyscrapers are to Spider-Man's shtick.
Homecoming features an interesting villain in The Vulture, Michael Keaton's construction-boss-turned-arms dealer. The Vulture (Keaton's ornithological acting choices are on point) has a simple aspiration — to provide for his family. Sure, he does it by donning badass wings and illegally scavenging the alien weaponry left over from Civil War in order to sells arms to the highest bidder, but in this economic climate, everybody's got a side hustle. Keaton's sharkish grin oozes menace as he slowly circles Peter, and for once we're given a villain who doesn't descend into cartoonishness or vamping. It's refreshing.
Homecoming easily passes the bar of what makes a memorable, entertaining superhero film, but it sadly flunks the Bechdel Test. Zendaya nails a vibe of sullen absurdity in the vein of Aubrey Plaza as Peter's classmate Michelle but has nothing to do, and the two other female characters (yes, two) mostly just gaze at Peter with feminine concern.
This fresh start to the Spider-Man franchise was a gamble, but a fun, well-executed one that delivers a solid foundation for the next instalment. The Marvel machine will inevitably keep cranking out the reinventions, but perhaps some other deserving supporting characters in the Avengers circle — Black Widow, anyone? — should get a shot at the driver's seat next time.