Dan at the Movies: Spider-man Homecoming

Maybe you haven’t seen Spider-Man: Homecoming yet, and want to know what you’d be in for. Or maybe you have seen it, but haven’t been in a fight about your opinion yet. Nathan.

(No, not cousin Nathan, the uppity one– he knows who he is.)

Either way, I’m here for you.

Overall? It’s fine. It’s good. Definitely enjoyable. It doesn’t quite live up to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Mans at their finest, but is a marked improvement from the train-wreck Amazing Spider-Mans. As far as Marvel Studios films go, it’s not quite on par with Guardians of the Galaxy or Winter Solider, not bland and stupid like anything Thor-related… it’s about equal with Dr. Strange or Ant-Man. Fun, enjoyable, but I’m not in a rush to rewatch it like I was with Avengers or Wonder Woman. And kind of still am with Wonder Woman.

Anyone not seen Wonder Woman yet? Should we go do that? Real quick? No, you’re right, let’s finish this first…

I’m really not trying to damn this thing with faint praise, but the overall take is “Fine, fun, good, not Amazing or Spectacular or Web of or other adjectives associated with Spider-Man.” Now… I do have some complaints. But if I just make this review a laundry list of small grievances and nitpicks, it might seem like I’m calling it bad. And I’m not.

So here’s what we’re gonna do. For each nitpick, I’m going to also name something they did well, and we’ll see which I run out of first.

Good: The Boys

Okay. Props where props are due. Tom Holland nails it. He sells both the inherent teenage awkwardness and iconic battle-wit of Spider-Man. He also gets a new twist on the character to play. Tobey Maguire got the origin and the typical comic struggle between the difficulties of young adult life and the fact that Spider-Manning is both a complication to and a release from it. Andrew Garfield slouched his way through two films that were more concerned with setting up sequels and spinoffs that never were than telling a coherent story, but somehow still got the most charming romance.

Holland’s Peter Parker is the best for showing what a joy Spider-Manning is to Peter, while still giving us the first Spider-Man whose eyes are bigger than his stomach. Maguire and Garfield’s Spider-Men fought super-villains because they were the only ones who could (and often because said villains developed a mad-on for Peter and/or Spider-Man). Peter goes after Adrian Toomes and his crew because two months ago he was fighting side-by-side with Iron Man and the Avengers (against other Avengers, but still), and now he’s back to dealing with bike thieves and other low-level crime, and while being Spider-Man is still the best part of his life, he’s getting bored and frustrated. Peter wants to prove to Tony Stark that he’s ready for Avengers missions on the regular.

(Not mentioned: you’d think Tony would be eager for help, since I’m pretty sure there are only three non-fugitive Avengers at the moment and one of them needs technological help to walk, but whatever.)

Peter’s best friend, Ned, is also pretty perfect. He’s the nerdy, over-eager best friend who gets way too into being best pals with Spider-Man. He plays confident (well, him and the AI in the suit Tony made him), and gets a few hero moments of his own. Physically and in terms of characterization, Ned brings to mind Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales’ best pal Ganke rather than anyone in Peter Parker’s supporting cast, but since they’re understandably taking a break from the Osbornes in the wake of Amazing Spider-Man 2, why not create a new best friend?

(Other than if you don’t introduce Harry and Norman Osborne right away, then the Green Goblin story loses impact if you decide to do it later, and need to retcon in this “old friend” and his father we haven’t seen before, but maybe two movies is enough for the Green Goblin. Comics need to go back to the classics way more often than movies, because they have so many more stories to fill.)

No no no. Don’t get sidetracked on how three Green Goblin stories in 20 years is too many for movie audiences but not nearly enough for comics. Stay on target.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen… 60% of Tony Stark’s screen time, something like that? But that’s okay. There is precisely enough Tony Stark in this movie. Enough that it never gets old or tired, or threatens to overshadow the actual lead of the movie.

Bad: Still not great with women, are we?

Zendaya does well as Peter’s sarcastic associate Michelle, so good at being wherever Peter is that one could almost assume she’s Peter’s own surly Tyler Durden. I do have one qualm about her character but I’ll come back to it because it’s not germane to “Marvel doesn’t write women well,” since she’s written as well as most of the men.

Marisa Tomei does well with Aunt May, for all that she’s given to do. May’s entire role basically breaks down to two things: worrying about Peter, and having any male character in her radius comment on how hot she is. Which is fairly reductive, for one, but also kind of weird?

Sure, every time they reboot Spider-Man they knock a decade off Aunt May’s age. Rosemary Harris was about 74 when she first played the role, Sally Field was 65, and Marisa Tomei is, in fairness, looking good at 52. But the characters don’t know any of that. They don’t know that Aunt May has historically looked more like Peter’s great-grandmother. People age better now than they did in the 60s. A high school student should have an aunt who looks more like Marisa Tomei than Judi Dench. She’s still more attractive than average, but… can we just all agree that it’s weird and a little bit creepy everyone needs to comment on it?

And then there’s Liz.

Liz is Peter’s love interest. And having said that, I have damn near summed up her entire character. She has little agency, no real development, she basically only exists to be an object of desire for Peter, and to give him a chance at her affections when he’s done nothing to be worth it and everything to let her down, but we’ll come back to that.

So, yeah, Marvel isn’t getting better at writing women in a hurry. Here’s hoping they figure it out before Captain Marvel.

Good: Michael Keaton

When people call Spider-Man 2 one of the all-time great superhero movies (and they do), Doctor Octopus is usually one of the main reasons why. But then Sam Raimi’s trilogy came out before 2008, the year that marked both the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the end of villain-driven superhero movies. Not a coincidence.

Before Iron Man, villains were as important a part of the movie as heroes. In fact, villains got top billing in two pre-Nolan Batman movies. Sam Raimi’s two better Spider-Man movies were as much about Norman Osborne and Otto Octavious as Peter Parker. In fact, the Raimi trilogy only ended on a sour note because Sony forced him to shoehorn Venom into what could have been a good (if unnecessarily retconny) Sandman story. And sure, Joel Schumacher went for quantity over quality with his bad-to-worse Batman movies, but quality was out of his reach from day one. The point is, truly great superhero villains seemed to peak with Joker in the Dark Knight.

Because, you see, Marvel changed the game. Starting with Iron Man, villains became almost an afterthought in their movies. Marvel villains are mostly two-dimensional personifications of the hero’s flaws. Iron Man fights arms dealers, Thor fights characters from Norse myths, and Captain America fights evil supersoldiers and/or manifestations of America’s failure to live up to its own ideals.

As a result, the bar for a good Marvel villain is staggeringly low. But there are a few questions to ask.

1) Is the actor good? Most of the time they are, since actors like being in giant hits, so Marvel ain’t starved for choice. There are exceptions. Ant-Man’s Yellowjacket had basically nothing to work with and Thor: the Dark World’s Christopher Eccleston/Malekith was so buried in makeup and voice modulation he never had a chance.

2) Do the villain’s actions and motivations make any sort of sense? Like I said… the bar is low. Winter Soldier and the first Thor do well at this. The endless series of evil arms dealers out to kill Tony Stark/Hank Pym and sell weapons make less sense, since nothing was stopping them from legitimately selling weapons. Ultron went from zero to “kill all humans” in an eyeblink. And, of course, Malekith’s plot from Thor: the Dark World is just word salad.

3) Is the villain a credible threat without resorting to Infinitely Respawning Henchmen? This is the least important, but it’s a definite nice-to-have. Loki in Avengers needed endless Chitauri to be dangerous (otherwise he couldn’t even hold his own against Tony Stark) and nobody expected Robert Redford to actually go toe-to-toe with Captain America. But then Avengers was about getting the band together and Winter Soldier was about an ideological fight, not a physical one. Well, an ideological fight with punching and explosions.

So… how does Michael Keaton do as Adrian Toomes, known to comics fans but never once referred to in the movie as the Vulture? Pretty damn good.

1) Is the actor good? Yes. The post-Birdman Michael Keaton Renaissance continues.

2) Do his actions and motivations make any sort of sense? Absolutely. Adrian Toomes is one of the better written Marvel villains. His origin is understandable, his motives relatable.

3) Is the villain a credible threat? Oh yeah. The Vulture swooping in is typically where everything goes wrong for Spider-Man. Fighting Toomes himself is much harder than fighting his chief henchman, The Shocker, a Spider-Man villain who could never carry a movie so may as well be a Giant Mook.

So, in short, and without going into spoilery details, Vulture might be one of Marvel’s very best villains.

Bad: We get it. Spider-Manning requires sacrifice.

So remember how Liv as romantic interest meant ignoring heaps of flaws from Peter? That’s because he bails on her constantly.

I get it. Being Spider-Man means doing the important thing instead of the fun thing. This is a classic trope, needing to ditch friends and loved ones to go stop a villain and save the city. But you can overdo it. You can overdo it so easily. Look at the second season of Arrow. It’s greatest flaw (well, definitely top two, depending on your views on Thea Queen) is that every time Oliver needs to have a business meeting or important personal conversation, Digg or Felicity will invariably interrupt with Arrow business. By the late-season moment when Oliver just needs a few goddamn minutes to convince Thea to sign a form to keep them from losing their house and nightclub, and Felicity immediately interrupts him, I was literally screaming at the screen. That is how played out that plot point was.

That was spread over six months. Peter bails on Liz to fight Vulture’s crew no less than four times in two hours. That’s too many. It’s too many trips to that well in one movie.

And it further weakens her character. Peter wants to take her to homecoming, and should that even have been an option after, at that point, he’s bailed on her threes times and come through for her zero times?

And furthermore… the homecoming dance, which lends its name to the subtitle (yeah, yeah, it’s called Homecoming because it’s Spider-Man joining the MCU fold, not because of the dance) has zero impact. It feels so inconsequential given that since Peter has never turned up for any of his non-Spider-Man obligations even once, we know there’s no chance Liz is having a fun Homecoming. Maybe if even one time he had chosen Liz or any high school melodrama/activity over being Spider-Man, even once, the choice of “dance or stop Vulture” would have had stakes, but instead it’s a foregone conclusion the second Aunt May drops him off at her house. When it’s a critical choice, the audience should not be thinking “Again with this.”

Here’s hoping they strike a better balance in 2019’s Spider-Man: Winter Formal.

Good: Peter and his suit

Peter’s experimentation with his Stark-designed suit’s full capabilities is fun, and mocks a few super-hero tropes. His swift and firm rejection of the suit’s more lethal capabilities is a nice break from the kill-happy Avengers, and… sadly… most recent Batman. And his experimentation with “enhanced interrogation mode” is a pretty fun mockery of the “spooky voices” employed by Green Arrow and Batman.

Bad: Michelle is who now?

This one’s a spoiler, but it’s spoiling something stupid. Make your choices and either read on or meet me at the speed round.

Michelle is the sardonic non-friend following Peter through his non-heroic escapades. Sure she treats him with disdain, but she must like him a little, given her dedication to being wherever he is, if only to mock his pain. Michelle’s a reliably fun character and Zendaya plays her well. But then at the end… look, I mentioned the spoiler thing… she says “My friends call me MJ.”

Dun dun DUUUUNNNN! Michelle is actually MJ, aka Peter Parker’s classic love interest, Michelle Jane Watson!

No. Wait. That’s not right.

It’s Mary. Mary Jane. That is what “MJ” stands for, and everyone knows that, because a) only characters in the comics actually call her “MJ,” not real people, and b) we’ve already had three massively successful (financially, anyway) movies refer to her as “Mary Jane.” Not Michelle Jane. That… that isn’t a thing. Nobody thinks that’s a thing.

So like “Laurel” Lance and “Curtis” Holt on Arrow, I’m forced to ask… why? What does changing her name actually accomplish? Were they worried that if Peter had a classmate named “Mary,” we’d know where that was going and not get invested in Peter and Liz? A fair concern. Once Lois Lane turned up on Smallville, it was hard to get too invested in Clark’s turbulent relationship with Lana Lang for the next… Jesus, four years? They kept Clark and Lana going for four years after introducing Lois? Man. That show had no plan. No plan at all.

Sorry. Got distracted.

But if that’s the case, even the Amazing Spider-Man movies managed to find a solution, and it was don’t have Mary Jane in the movie. Because unlike the hollow shell that is Liz, Gwen Stacy is the real deal. In comic continuity, Peter only ended up with Mary Jane because Gwen died, so there’s no sense in diminishing the one thing about the Amazing movies that worked by telegraphing where it’s going more than they already did. Sure it meant cutting Mary Jane out of the second movie, but Amazing Spider-Man was nothing if not willing to cut huge swaths of the movie out even if it left massive plot holes in their place.

Option two, don’t say her name until the end. Entirely doable. There were several other characters of note whose names were never spoken aloud, you could’ve gotten away with not saying “Mary” until the very end.

Or… and I have no evidence for this but it seems plausible… did they name their “MJ” Michelle so that Mary Jane Watson wasn’t black? Because if that’s the case, you fucking cowards. Have a black Mary Jane or don’t.

That might not be the reason. Again, I have nothing I can cite that says it is. But whatever the reason, it’s stupid. It’s just plain stupid. “Michelle Jane” isn’t a thing I can picture no reason to make it one.

I mean I look forward to seeing where they take her in Spider-Man: Spring Fling, but nothing’s going to make me consider this less stupid.

The Aforementioned Speed Round

Okay, let’s speed this up,

Good: The montage of Peter’s street-level attempted heroics was really fun.

Bad: Saying that the movie takes place eight years after Avengers, which came out only five years ago, makes figuring out the Marvel movie timeline really hard. But that’s a whole other blog’s worth of material.

Good: Peter’s suit-based arc works really well. Is he doing this for the glory of being an Avenger, or because it needs doing? (Sure the answer is obvious but it’s about the journey.)

Bad: The trailers gave away too much. There’s not a lot of suspense in the ferry fight.

Good: Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, uncle to Miles Morales. We might never see Miles on the big screen, but it’s nice they opened that door. Also Donald was fun in the role.

Bad: …Uh…

Good: Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr had some fun one-liners as Peter’s teachers.

Bad: I think I ran out. I think I’ve run out of complaints. Let me think… no, Ned, Vulture, Bokeem Woodbine as the Shocker, the ethnic diversity of Peter’s high school, Happy Hogan, the unexpected denouement cameo, the Captain America videos for high schools, all of that worked like gangbusters. Even the fact that high school crap like being popular and getting a date to the dance feel kind of inconsequential when you’re a couple of decades removed from high school isn’t really a flaw, because they are inconsequential compared to keeping giant sci-fi weapons off the street, that’s the point, that’s why he keeps bailing on things to Spider-Man at people.

So, yeah, there you have it. It’s not Earth-shaking, it never moved me the way Wonder Woman did, but it’s fun and decently paced and even when you’re really willing to pick nits the good outweighs the bad. It’s probably worth your time, and is almost certainly better than most of last summer’s tentpoles.

But go ahead and skip 3D and IMAX. I did, and I don’t think I missed anything.

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