REVIEW: Spider-Man: Homecoming

5 07 2017

The “Spider-Man” series, in both its prior cinematic incarnations this millennium, have dealt with the consequences of giving extraordinary power to ordinary men. The web-slinger’s modern persona is the product of an individualistic Bush-era America where heroes were lone actors grappling with authority and treading near the line of vigilantism. He’s a symbol of the power of the one, overcoming self-made obstacles, vanquishing doubts and conquering evil menace.

But by the time that the lifeless 2014 iteration of the character, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” arrived in theaters, actor Andrew Garfield even acknowledged the hollowness of this interpretation. “The danger of these superhero films is that they maybe propagate a lie that what’s going to change the world is one man, or one woman, just being the beacon of light,” he told The Daily Beast. “That’s not the way that it’s ever happened and it’s not going to be the way that it ever happens — I think it’s going to take every single person doing their small, massive bit to create a world, to create a society and a culture, that if we can imagine it we can do it.”

While Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is far from the cooperative hero of “The Avengers,” he’s a step in the correct, more honest direction. Holland actually looks like the high school-aged kid that Spider-Man is; Garfield, by contrast, was 31 when his Peter Parker accepted a high school diploma. And from that starting point, director Jon Watts and a stable of six writers craft a superhero narrative around a lesson that resonates for adolescences both radioactive and regular. (We need not discuss the ending point, yet another reminder of the endemic inability for comic book adaptations to wrap up in anything other than a mind-numbing CGI pyrotechnics demo.)

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Without going full “Deadpool,” superhero movies have struggled to lighten up post-Nolan “Batman” franchise. Here, Watts finds a sustainable disposition to move the genre forward. His Spidey is immature, not irreverent or irresponsible – and that’s largely a function of his age. Peter Parker is first and foremost a fifteen-year-old boy who’s up against a force equally as tough as any wielded by a villain: his own hormones, raging in the ruthless peer culture. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is the best stealth high school movie hidden inside a major franchise since “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

When rewatching the original Sam Raimi “Spider-Man” film from 2002, I became aware of just how much projection of myself there was onto Tobey Maguire. He was, like me, a bookish dork. Peter’s acquisition of a superhuman strength that allowed him to vault above his low social status carried a certain element of wish fulfillment.

Holland’s take on the character, however, captures a much wider swath of teenage experience. He nimbly embodies the tension between the competing forces of inflated self-confidence and crippling self-doubt. One great touch he brings to Peter Parker is a sense of clumsiness, ever-present but never overwhelming. (It certainly helps that Holland, one of the original Billy Elliott boys on the West End, possesses an understanding of his body’s motion like few others his age.)

This tension also plays out in the super dimensions of “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” where Peter has all the zeal to join the Avengers gang – he literally vlogs it in true YouTuber style – but none of the willpower to train. He wants the results without doing any of the work, which is where Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) emerges as a smug father figure to both clean up Peter’s messes and encourage him to earn his suit. In other words, Peter must learn that he cannot do it alone. Just his innate abilities are not sufficient. He must ask for help and rely on others to teach him. B+

 

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