**** out of ****
(for sci-fi action violence, some language, and brief suggestive comments)
Released: July 7, 2017
Runtime: 143 minutes
Director: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey, Jr., Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Laura Harrier, Zendaya, Bokeem Woodbine, Tony Revolori, Donald Glover
Avenging the notion that a second reboot of anything is unnecessary, or that it displays a bankruptcy of ideas and is merely greed-driven, Spider-Man: Homecoming swings into the MCU as the best Marvel movie ever made.
It’s an exuberant thrill machine that will continue to reap rewards on future inevitable viewings and, more importantly, reveal itself as more than just an entertainment. On every level, this is a perfect blockbuster construct, elevating pop cinema to an art form. Wonder Woman just broke a glass ceiling, but this third pass at Spider-Man has set a new genre standard.
As superhero movies go it’s only topped by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (and arguably Tim Burton’s original Batman, too), and yet it succeeds by being everything that Nolan’s dark and gritty crime drama isn’t. Together, the two are the yin and yang of comicbook movie masterpieces. We never got to see James Cameron’s passion-project take on the webcrawler, but I’d be hard-pressed to believe it could’ve been any better than this.
Or, more accurately, any truer. Dispensing of the angst, shyness, and insecurities that we’ve seen layered into previous screen adaptations, this Spider-Man simply loves being Spider-Man.
Sure, a good deal of the character’s long-running mythology is absent – he’s a videographer here, not a photographer, there’s no Uncle Ben death, no J. Jonah Jameson or newspaper gig, no “with great power…” sloganieering, and no belabored origin story rehash to speak of (thank God) – but those things aren’t required when you have the kind of enthusiastic teenage Peter Parker that has charmed webheads in comics for decades. We’ve never truly been given that Spider-Man before – until now.
It’s as if the filmmakers’ credo was, simply, “What would I have done if I were Spider-Man when I was a teenager?” Every bit of Peter Parker’s personality and how he embraces his gift (and Tony Stark’s generosity) emerges from that overwhelming sense of how absolutely cool this all is. He even wants to embrace the responsibility, not be conflicted about it. His best friend Ned share’s the same youthful “Mind Blown” glee over Peter’s alter ego, even as they both still remain serious Lego nerds.
It’d be too time-consuming to checklist everything that works here, except to say that everything does. The cast, the tone, the action, the humor – my gosh, the laughs in this movie! The comedy here is clever, witty, and character-based, not goofy or shticky; well, except for Spidey’s snappy one-liners, but then that’s always been his brand so it’s welcome and it works. And it’s not just in the dialogue, it’s in the action too. For this Spidey, having new superpowers doesn’t instantly make him the world’s greatest urban swinging trapeze artist.
The story even feels remarkably fresh, but that’s what you get with an ensemble so perfectly cast. They can take familiar beats and own them, making them not only new but specific. Credit directorial choices, too, like making the Cool Entitled Rich Kid Bully who pesters Peter an Indian American (Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori), not another white jock. Most importantly, you always get the vibe that these characters do what they do because of who they are, not because the plot needs them to.
It’s easy to geek out over this deep actors bench and how they’re used, starting with Tom Holland in the lead. He turns angst into passion, shyness into awkward zeal, and motivates his immaturity with nobility rather than selfishness (but it’s still immature). He’s perfect. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man isn’t only granted solid supporting screen time; he gives us fresh new depths and shades for Stark that, this far into the MCU, seemed impossible to discover.
And Jon Favreau makes for the perfect choice to play Stark’s confidante Happy Hogan who’s tasked to keep tabs on Parker. Who better than the director of the first Iron Man (which began the MCU) to be the guy who makes sure Parker stays honest, responsible, and doesn’t mess things up?
Every one of the mostly-new teen cast is superb (there’s a whole other high school movie going on in parallel to this one), with Jacob Batalon’s Peter bestie Ned the highlight, as are Donald Glover and Fargo: Season 2’s Bokeem Woodbine in shadier roles . Marisa Tomei brings her charismatic acting chops to a hottie Aunt May (and the movie doesn’t pretend she’s otherwise) while Michael Keaton’s Vulture overcomes “the villain problem” common to the genre, creating someone who’s a sinister loose cannon yet complicated and calculating.
Vulture may be the bad guy but his grievances are valid, and they resonate in our populist times of increasing wealth and class inequality. He’s a legitimate threat, not just a maniacal foil. Keaton now stands alone with the distinction of having given one of the best superhero and supervillain performances in the canon of comicbook movies. Honestly, after Ledger’s and Nicholson’s Jokers, who’s better?
Along with being a transcendent third-gen restart, Spider-Man: Homecoming bucks other conventional wisdom, too, notably that it boasts what must be the best script ever written by six credited screenwriters (usually a sign of rank mediocrity). This story is so brilliantly constructed, right down to each beat, that it never allows the plot (or Marvel Universe building) to bog down the characters, relationships, or pure vicarious thrill of experiencing what they’re experiencing. It even kickstarts the film’s third act with a turn that is absolutely impossible to see coming (no, it’s not a “twist”, so don’t be looking for one), and it ratchets up the stakes, both dramatic and emotional, in a gasp-inducing instant.
As far as the Universe building goes, it’s all done on the periphery but with purpose, not shoehorned in. I don’t recall one moment that ever felt like an exposition dump. Like any story well told, this one takes its requisite MCU business and actually uses it to inform Peter Parker’s arc.
Making movies by committee should never result in something this good (let’s not forget it must also receive the blessing of Marvel guru Kevin Feige’s MCU papal authority). This soars with a singular vision and voice, and that can only be the result of a talented director working at peak level powers. Other tentpole IPs with less cooks in the kitchen have been the demise of more experienced filmmakers in the past, and even the present (we’re looking at you, Young Han Solo).
Jon Watts crafts his first big-budget blockbuster with the bravado and precision of an assured veteran. This is a legit self-contained movie, not just a brand builder. Watts’ ability to not only balance but seamlessly blend so many spinning plates (action, relationships, conflict, comedy, deftly dropping occasional Marvel Easter Eggs) makes him the new Golden Child of the MCU, as does his keen abilities as an action maestro.
There aren’t just more Marvel movies in Jon Watts’ future; every producer and studio in Hollywood will be throwing their scripts at this guy, particularly since his previous indie effort Cop Car was just as assured, despite it being the polar opposite of this. In its early era Coen Brothers stripped-down style, it showcased his range and ability to create palpable cinema that’s rooted in insightful, taut storytelling, not a carte blanche budget. Jon Watts is just getting started.
His set pieces here are as good as you’ll see in modern moviemaking, formally crafted and clearly staged (the Washington Monument sequence feels like an instant classic), including a climactic showdown that, while special effects driven, is not another example of CGI overkill. It’s telling how tense the action can be when driven by character, as it is here between a spartan Spider-Man and ascendant Vulture, rather than the fate of the world.
And if that’s not praiseworthy enough, Watts pulls off an even rarer feat: crafting a moment late where this superhero feels truly vulnerable, and mortal, in a situation that seems could only be remedied by a cheap “Avengers ex Machina” cop out. It’s not, thankfully, and instead what we get is a defining moment for Spider-Man, and for Peter Parker.
It gave me chills then and it still does now just thinking about it, boosted by a Michael Giacchino music cue that, after all this time, becomes the first “theme” for a Marvel character, a genuine attempt at a recognizable iconic anthem, not just “heroic noise made my instruments”. Talk about long overdue.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is a jolt to the MCU, the genre, to Hollywood in general and, well, to the mass appeal movies of the 21st Century. It has everything. Even the Captain America cameos are inspired. It sneaks in a great nod to Ferris Bueller, too (look for it), and caps it all with the best post-credits tag that’s ever been (it’s worth the wait).
By movie’s end, Peter Parker may still have some growing up to do, but the movie he comes in arrives to us fully formed.
This is your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and he is absolutely amazing.