By Nathan Evans
I know it'll seem sad to the non-nerdy set, but seeing Sam Raimi’s original ‘Spider-Man’ film was one of the defining moments of my teenage life. As an awkward (understatement), socially inept (understatement), overweight (accurate) nerd, I looked up to the character of Peter Parker. Sure he was on the opposite end of the spectrum to me physically, but he was no better with the ladies than I was, and spent the majority of his time isolated from his peers in the few moments he wasn’t getting punked by them. Then of course comes the part I couldn’t identify with, the great power, great responsibility bit; that part I revered: the ultimate power fantasy tempered by the ultimate moral lesson. As I sat in the theater with my brother at a 10am showing, I could feel goosebumps on my arms as the first strings of Danny Elfman’s now classic score sparked up over the speakers. It was a novel feeling finally seeing a character that meant the world to me brought to life on the big screen (comic book films were few and far between back then); a feeling that was only matched by Raimi’s superior sequel ‘Spider-Man 2’.
I go out of my way to explain all of that because I think those experiences set a bar that’s impossible for any subsequent Spider-Man film to match. I’m not letting the films we’ve received since then off the hook: ‘Spider-Man 3’, ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, and ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ are awful for many reasons that have nothing to do with that, but the latest release (the first to be a part of the excellent ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’), Jon Watts’ ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ does almost everything right, yet I never felt the euphoria the first two Raimi films gave me.
Mercifully, ‘Homecoming’ isn’t an origin story. It picks up after the events of ‘Captain America: Civil War’, where this version of the character was introduced. Decked out with a high tech suit supplied by Iron Man himself, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Peter Parker (Tom Holland this time around) spends his afternoons shirking his scholastic responsibilities in favor of swing time as Spider-Man. With the hopes of becoming a true blue Avenger, Peter does what he can in his neighborhood of Queens, New York; eventually coming across a band of thieves utilizing high tech alien weaponry salvaged from the rubble of the various super hero battles that have occurred over the course of the MCU’s timeline.
Against Tony’s wishes, Peter takes it upon himself to stop the outlaws, but finds himself out of his depth when he goes up against the group’s leader, The Vulture, portrayed by former ‘Batman’ actor Michael Keaton. Armed with his own high tech flight suit, complete with a vicious set of razor sharp wings, The Vulture goes out of his way to put an end to the kid that’s interfering with his business. Couple that minor issue with the Peter’s personal troubles: an unrequited love for the most popular girl at school, Liz (Laura Harrier), an academic rival out for blood, Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), and a scruffy stalker that insists on providing her own commentary for his life, Michelle (Zendaya), and Peter has his work cut out for him.
Holland has his work cut out for him as well. He’s the third actor to portray Spider-Man in the relatively short span of fifteen years. Spider-Man has always been one of the more popular Marvel characters, but after five previous films, nearly everyone on the planet is intimately familiar with the character, so Holland has to walk the same tight rope the film itself walks: doing something new while still remaining true to the source material. While he lacks the depth of soul Tobey Maguire was able to convey in Raimi’s original films, he gets the technical aspects right, and is endearing where the last actor to don Spidey’s webs, Andrew Garfield, was abrasive. He has the requisite charm of a leading man, yet is successfully able to explore Peter’s emotional vulnerabilities. This version of Spider-Man is a kid, and despite his age, Holland and the film pull that off quite nicely.
The real standout of the film, though, is Keaton. As with many Marvel films, Keaton’s villainous role is narratively dubious, but through sheer force of will the veteran actor is able to elevate it. While I don’t buy some of his decisions and motivations at the end of the movie, he’s able to legitimize every other aspect of the character: a surprising fondness for his loved ones and cohorts, a savage streak for his enemies, and the initial, abrupt turn to the dark side that opens the film. Anyone with knowledge of the source material will see that the film completely overhauls the character, but I personally didn’t mind as it served to make a historically one note villain interesting.
That willingness to stray from the source material is both ‘Homecoming’s’ greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Since it’s following five previous films ‘Homecoming’ goes out of its way to be different. Watt’s and Marvel do this by mashing different versions of Spider-Man together; incorporating aspects from the original comic book Spidey, the ‘Ultimate’ comic book version of Spider-Man, and, most notably, the Miles Morales’ version of Spider-Man. As a result we do get something justifiably different, which is refreshing and works for the film, but is also alienating to a long time fan like me. This isn’t the character I fell in love with all those years ago— this is something different.
I understand why the filmmakers wanted to make the change, but I feel if they were set on abandoning the classic version of Spider-Man (my preference), the brave decision would’ve been to ditch this amalgam version of Peter Parker altogether and truly bring something unique to the screen: Miles Morales himself. If the semi-recent internet backlash to the rumors of Zendaya’s casting in the film is anything to go by, it would’ve been a decision met with controversy, but it also would’ve served the film. It would’ve been a welcome, progressive move to focus a major blockbuster surrounding an established character like this around a half black, half hispanic lead. Instead we get a version of something we’ve seen before that lacks some of the characters most important, defining attributes. With that stated, I’m here to judge the film I got, not the one I would’ve made. Though I clearly took umbrage with some of the changes made to the characters, I think most of them work for the purposes of this film.
One of the film’s other great strengths is its small, local scope; none of the usual universe ending plot lines here. Since the film really focuses on Peter’s personal life for much of its runtime, we really get to understand his relationships. His bond with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) provides the film with much of its comedic relief, and though we don’t get a lot of it, Peter’s relationship with his doting Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is sweet. The scenes between Holland and Tomei also ably hint at the tragedy at the heart of Spider-Man’s origin without ever outright stating it or retreading over well worn ground. One of the film’s only true, objective shortcomings is its underwhelming climax. The final confrontation between Spider-Man and The Vulture goes out with a whimper in place of the bang the film really needed.
‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ isn’t my favorite Spider-Man film, but it is a damn good one. Following the mistreatment of the property at the hands of Sony, Marvel Studios made the best film they could, and the result, as usual, is competent and fun. There are a ton of easter eggs placed in the film for nerds like me, and a bevy of surprises including a third act plot twist that provides the film with some of its most tense scenes. While it didn’t quite repeat the trick of Raimi’s original film for me, I’m positive it must’ve for some other misfit fifteen year old out there; and that’s the highest compliment I can pay it.
RATING: 4.25 OUT OF 5
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