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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Another year, another big-screen Spider-man reboot. Things are a bit different this time, though.

For all that people love complaining about the plethora of superhero films, this year has been a rather interesting showcase for why we should be glad they aren't going away soon. For a start, despite appearances to the contrary, superhero films are not the only "tentpole", big budget blockbuster being released, it's just that - for this year at least - they seem to be well on their way to being the only good ones (update: as of a screening I saw today, that's no longer the case!). While the Mummy brought us a stale take on a well-established property, Logan gave us the most genuinely mature take on a "Big 2" superhero to date. As King Arthur lived down to its director's worst tendencies, comics' most classic female superhero got a film of her own that not only more than did justice to the character but deservedly became the biggest movie of the year so far. Meanwhile, however much Baywatch failed to raise so much as a - if you'll pardon the apparently unavoidable double (single?) entendre - titter, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 brought plenty of laughs to go with its thrills and surprising drama.

Now, bucking the trend from Pixar's final fall from grace, Cars 3, and the utter pointlessness of the latest sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers, Spider-Man: Homecoming proves that "yet another sequel" doesn't have to be just "yet another sequel". Following on from his scene-stealing appearance in Captain America: Civil War - and, in fact, picking up just before his appearance in Civil War - Spider-Man has entered the Marvel cinematic universe with what is easily his best film since at least Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2.

After the sheer rubbishness of Spider-Man 3, the pointlessness of the Amazing Spider-Man and the messiness of the Amazing Spider-Man 2 (though, for the record, the latter two are still saved by terrific central turns from Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone), Marvel's greatest character gets his own back with a movie that takes the best bits from other MCU films and puts a very welcome, if webby, spin on them.

Foregoing the now almost obnoxiously familiar origin story, Spider-Man: Homecoming dives straight into things. After a short prologue that sets up both the film's villain and its MCU setting, followed by the obligatory Marvel Studios fanfare (though this time backed with an orchestral version of the classic Spider-man theme), the film kicks off with a hilarious video diary of Peter Parker's enlistment by Tony Stark in his Civil War against Captain America with John Favreau's Happy making a welcome return in probably his most significant role since the first Iron Man film. It's funny, irreverent and filled with youthful excitement - and perfectly sets the tone for everything that comes next.

The proceeding two hours are, very simply, a perfect embodiment of everything great about Spider-Man. Admittedly, some of the more familiar aspects of the Webslinger's mythology are conspicuous by their absence - no Mary Jane Watson, no Gwen Stacy, no Spider-sense and, most damningly, no J Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle - and some might quibble at the mishing and mashing of other parts of that same mythology (which also draws heavily from the alt-universe Ultimate Spider-Man comics) but this is the closest we've come yet to that elusive perfect Spider-man film purely because of how well it understands its central character.

Setting the film firmly in high school - and, most importantly, featuring an actor who actually looks like he might be in high school - is a vital step in the right direction as it not only drives home just how young and inexperienced Peter Parker is in comparison to his fellow Marvel superheroes, but brings that Buffy-like spin on the life of your average high school outsider refracted through the allegorical lens of superhero fantasy. Sure, this is a school for gifted youngsters - though not that school for gifted youngsters - so that even Peter's perennial bully, Flash Thompson, is himself the kind of super smart smartass that would be the whipping boy of every blockhead in a "mainstream" high school but that just further cements the idea that even among peers with which he has tons in common, Peter's "specialness" still leaves him as something of an outsider.

Indeed, though Peter is being mentored by the most famous superhero on the planet (well, in the MCU) and has his already incredible powers boosted by super-advanced Stark technology - with which he goes toe to toe with baddies equipped with alien-tech-enhanced weapons - Spider-Man: Homecoming is, first and foremost, a coming of age tale about a unique but still instantly recognizable and perfectly relatable high school kid trying to navigate his way around first love, asserting his independence from parental and/ or authority figures and trying to figure out who he is against his social system.

Co-written by John Francis Daly, who is probably still best known as head Geek, Sam Wier, in Freaks and Geeks - the cult teen comedy-drama that better represents adolescence than any other TV show in history - and even featuring a co-starring role for Daly's former class/castmate, Martin Starr, there's an authenticity to Peter's high school life but one that's shot through with plenty of wit, humour and heart.

This isn't Peter Parker: Homecoming, though, and however brilliantly the adolescent stuff is dealt with, if you're looking for some classic Spider-Man action, you get plenty of that here too. Brilliantly, though, Spider-Man's incredible feats are not employed an overblown, world-ending threat but against a thief with the grudge in the form of Michael Keaton's gloriously threatening Adrian Tooms - or, as he's better known, the Vulture. That Peter is portrayed as a powerful but decidedly wet-behind-the-ears superhero give his particular brand of superheroing a reckless but earnest energy that stands in fun contrast to the precise professionalism of your average Avenger or X-Men and, again, plays beautifully into the fact that this is always, at its core, a movie about a good-hearted but hardly perfect geeky 15-year old kid.  

And speaking of that geeky 15-year old kid, though the film is filled with excellent supporting performances from veterans like Michael Keaton and the criminally underused Marisa Tomei, as well as all of the Peter's immensely enjoyable classmates (Jacob Batalon as Spidey's "man in the chair" Ned), but Tom Holland absolutely carries the film. All due respect to the underrated Andrew Garfield and the not-so-underrated Toby Maguire, this 21-year-old from Kingston Upon Thames, England (of course) is easily the best Spider-Man and Peter Parker to date. It's not just anyone, after all, who can stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Downey, Keaton and Tomei, on the one hand, and totally convince as a nerdy science geek turned quippy action hero on the other - let alone one who is only a few years out of high school.

One really nice detail about Spider-Man himself that really deserves pointing out, however, regardless of whether it's mostly due to Holland or the CGI team, is the way Spider-Man in action really moves like a spider. It's a really nice touch and his actions were so convincing, in fact, that his movements occasionally actually gave me, a non-certified certified arachnophobe - the willies.    

Spider-Man: Homecoming is yet another total winner of a superhero film in what has so far turned to be the genre's greatest year to date but I'm not sure what surprises me most: that six screenwriters could turn out something so coherent or that this is only the second feature film for director Jon Watts, whose only other film is indie-action-flick, Cop Car - a film that I have not, as of yet seen, as South African cinemas are too full of G-grade horror films, local embarrassment, and does-anyone-really-care-at-this-point Bruce Willis action flicks to show an indie movie by a new director. But I digress. Quite a lot at this point.

All I know is that after seeing 500 Days of Summer's Mark Webb struggle with the Spider-Man bits in his Amazing Spider-Man movies (he is now back on much safer grounds, incidentally, with the thoroughly lovely Gifted), seeing a relative novice filmmaker show such a steady hand at both the Peter Parker and Spider-Man bits of the equation is really nothing to be sneezed at. But then, nor is the fact that six films and three reboots in, this may just be (and probably is) the best Spider-Man movie to date.

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