Homework, Hormones, & Happy Hogan: The balancing act of ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

Jon Watts is just 36, a baby by filmmaker standards. His first two films were Clown, a tiny body horror film that grossed just $2 million, and Cop Car, a very good but sparsely seen Kevin Bacon thriller that didn’t even gross $150K. I’m not sure what would make Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige pin him as the director capable of the very difficult balancing act that is Spider-Man: Homecoming, but that’s why Feige gets paid a lot of money to make these decisions and I get paid no money to react to them.

Homecoming is an experiment in genre. Within its superhero responsibilities -thrusting one of the two or three most iconic characters in American comics into the biggest franchise in American cinema- it also sets out to be a genuine coming-of-age high school film. Call it “Perks of Being a Wall-Climber”. It’s the first time in multiple big-screen iterations of the character that Peter Parker’s conflict is just as important to the film, if not more important, than Spidey’s conflict. Yes, Spider-Man wants to impress Tony Stark, officially become an Avenger, and stop the bad guy. But just as important to the film’s narrative is Peter wanting to impress his crush. Throughout the film Peter is forced to make decisions. Does he follow the van full of alien weapons? Or does he go to his crushes’ party? These decisions drive his character arc. Again, this is a true coming-of-age film, and a very good one. Peter is stuck in limbo between who he’s been and who he wants to be, both as a teenager and a superhero.

A hilarious early sequence shows us some events from Captain America: Civil War from Spidey’s perspective, via cell phone footage. It communicates Peter’s excitement perfectly. When the timeline fast-forwards to the present day, Peter is back in Queens, going to school, and fighting small-time crime after school, all under the watchful eye of Tony Stark’s bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Peter thinks he could be doing a lot more, but neither Stark nor Happy are returning his calls. He’s clearly not ready yet. His skills aren’t polished. He doesn’t even really know to use his fancy suit.

At school, Peter is a bit of a classic geek. He’s on the academic decathlon team. He and his best friend Ned (a hilarious Jacob Batalon) are the types who still get excited over a Death Star LEGO set. His crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), doesn’t seem to know he exists. While these dynamics may seem like clichés at first, they’re explored in real detail. There’s depth to the adolescent conflicts Peter goes through.

That’s a lot to balance in what’s supposed to be a lighthearted summer blockbuster. Thankfully, Watts and his exceptional cast were up to the challenge.

It all starts with Tom Holland, who almost instantly establishes himself as the best Spidey and Peter yet. He actually looks like a high schooler, for one. He also carries an effortless charm that makes his learning curve throughout the film heartwarming rather than annoying. There’s a concerned effort to capture the youthful exuberance of Peter in this film, and Holland proves the perfect muse for such a task. Physically, he has a real pep in his step. Whether in the suit or in typical milennial teenage attire, you can see Peter’s enthusiasm in the way Holland moves. There are even a few scenes that require some real dramatic acting, going as far as bringing the character to tears, and Holland nails it.

As for the villain, something that has plagued even the stronger MCU films, Homecoming succeeds effortlessly. Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes (aka The Vulture), a government-contracted metal salvager turned arms dealer who builds himself a winged suit. He has a real, believable, even relatable conflict. He’s not concerned with world domination. He doesn’t have some weird personal vendetta against the Avengers. He’s just a dude who gets screwed out of work and wants to provide for his family and the family of employees. The film has a few surprises with the character that I won’t spoil but are handled perfectly. There’s a scene where Toomes is in a car with Peter and a simple conversation makes for the most intense moment in the movie. Such is the power of Keaton, an actor of seemingly unlimited talent, capable of both finding the humanity in the character but also being genuinely creepy when the script calls for it. He steals every scene he is in. It’s a truly marvelous performance from one of our finest actors.

Another neat thing about Homecoming that sets it above other Spidey movies is it’s authentic New York flavor. There’s the diversity, for starters. Peter’s high school peers look like you’d expect them to given that Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse urban hubs in America. But the film never goes out of its way to highlight this diversity. It’s just there, natural for all the characters. The film’s biggest action set piece takes place on the Staten Island ferry. Peter even has a favorite bodega. Being a teenager in New York is a huge part of Peter’s identity, and this is ultimately a film about his identity, so capturing that was important.

Homecoming, credited to a whopping six screenwriters and edited by Dan Lebental and Debbie Berman, is structured in a way so the dueling narratives unfold simultaneously. This isn’t a film that begins as a high school story and then becomes standard superhero fare halfway through. Both sides move forward with equal pacing, which really helps Peter’s character arc. Salvatore Totino’s photography is very smart. During major action scenes featuring the Vulture, who’s questionable CGI is the film’s one true weakness, Totino lights them dimly so that the questionable CGI is tougher to notice. And the editing team makes use of rapid cuts. It’s a very clever film, technically speaking. Do I wish some of the VFX work looked better? Sure. But here, unlike the countless films that feature middling VFX work, it doesn’t really get in the way. Watts and his team know this film’s strength is its characters, and that’s what is shown off.

As heavily as Robert Downey Jr. was featured in promotional material (which is understandable), he’s not as a big a part of the film as you’d expect. He pops in here and there to give Peter fatherly advice and criticism, lending trademark Downeyisms to the film, but never overstays his welcome. Happy Hogan is his surrogate in a sense, but even Happy doesn’t overpopulate things. This film is very much a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but its obligations to the larger story never get in the way. If anything, the presence of the Avengers in the world of this film helps Peter as a character.

Everything in Homecoming works. Watts directs most scenes with an improvisational nature, fitting given the often comedic tone and the fact that most of the characters are just teenagers. His influences are clear; John Hughes, most notably. There’s a visual reference to Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  that’s maybe a bit heavy-handed but so charming that you’ll forgive its lack of subtlety.

This is *probably* the best Spider-Man film to date. It’s also one of the best MCU films, and perhaps the strongest blockbuster of a frustrating summer season thus far. A crowd-pleaser that’ll surely be a smash hit and reward repeated viewings, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a triumph in popcorn movie-making. More of this, please.

 

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