Friday, July 7, 2017

On Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spoiler-Heavy Warning

How much realism do you need in a superhero movie? Why do you need any realism in the first place? When it comes to Spider-Man, the superhero who could be you, the superhero with complex psychological motivations, a certain kind of realism matters. He has to live in an actual city we know, and he has to have problems most of us would relate to. The appeal of Peter Parker isn't that different from the appeal of Tony Soprano. Their work life involves doing something you would never be able to do, but their homelife and the family dynamics they have to negotiate are familiar.

So what works in Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017), the newest iteration of Peter Parker, here played by Tom Holland? Well, to slightly rework the metaphor from the previous paragraph, it did indulge something Tony Soprano-like in its villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). Toomes tries to be as non-flashy as possible, though he still enjoys wearing that Vulture costume. He's a businessman who is frustrated by his incompetent employees but treats his good employees fairly. When he kills someone, he either does so accidentally, because that's what happens when you hang around high-tech weaponry you don't know that much about, or because he has to. He has a homelife, with a loving wife and daughter. Toomes is not as interesting as Tony Soprano or Walter White, but I think he's more intriguing and more witty than Vincent D'Onfrio's Kingpin in Daredevil (2015-).  

I dug Parker and Toomes's interactions. During their back-and-forth in the car, when Toomes doubles his role as intimidating but friendly father of your girlfriend and supervillain adversary, it was clear the movie got Spider-Man. It understood how every part of Peter Parker's body and his life is a metaphor for puberty. Keaton is great, with his freaky, could-have-just-as-easily-been-cast-as-the-Joker smile. His face is nicely lined. He's gone bald. He has a paunch. But he's still handsome and funny. He's almost the guy you wish was your girlfriend's dad. I kept on hoping Peter would turn his back on Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and join the dark side. Hell, Toomes's politics aren't all that different from mine. 

What else works? Peter's loving gestures towards small animals. An uncomfortable interaction with a neighborhood deli-owner. There's stuff that they try to make work. The movie gets that the modern-day Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) is more of a verbal than a physical bully, but his put-downs are lame and Peter isn't weird enough to be a target, especially at a magnet school. Zendaya plays MJ -- here named Michelle -- as the self-serious, arrogant, smart girl who reads Of Human Bondage and one-ups her teachers. I know the type. I was that type. But I would have liked her to play it down just a little. The quiz bowl team I was captain of in high school was a hell of a lot more immature than the one here, but then again, mine might have been the exception.

What else did it get right? After the final battle on Coney Island: Parker carries Toomes's limp body which he has just rescued, lays him on the sand, and then promptly collapses right next to him. It reminds me of the moment after the final arrest in Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949). The game is over. One has won. The other has lost and his life has been destroyed. But they are both just too exhausted and they share a brief, unspoken connection.

Andrew Garfield picked up on Parker's narcissism and he understood how to connect his teenage shuffle with the superhero's elegance. I liked him more. But Holland turns Parker into a lovable geek from an '80s teen comedy. I kept thinking of Three O'Clock High (Phil Joanou, 1987).

The movie didn't get to me the way the Lee/Romita run got to me, nor the way the subway sequence in Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004) got to me. I'm older and jaded, and I don't like being pandered to. I don't like the fact that every superhero movie is starting not to look like a supehero movie but supehero movies. (Logan [James Mangold, 2017] was the wonderful exception.) So I am left with looking for everything in a Spider-Man movie that I could get better somewhere else. Still, I love seeing it all put together -- a little bit of Tony Soprano, a little bit of Kurosawa, a little bit of John Hughes, a little bit of Stan Lee -- and seeing most of it work, really well.

Update: This post was a little too cool for school. I'd be lying if I said the movie didn't make me smile from ear to ear more than once.

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