On Spider-Man (and superheroes) coming full circle, the ticking clock of the Marvel template, and the Ron Howardization of studio brands
Spider-Man: Homecoming Columbia Pictures
Director: Jon Watts
Screenplay: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Starring: Tom Holland, Laura Harrier, Michael Keaton, Jacob Batalon, Zendaya, Tony Revolori, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Bokeem Woodbine, Donald Glover, Martin Starr and Robert Downey Jr.
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 13 minutes / 2.35:1
July 7, 2017
(out of four)
How's it gonna end. And how soon.
This is my dispirited thought (plea?) having now seen Spider-Man: Homecoming, the latest volume in Marvel's ever-expanding library of superhero content. What was already clear has never been clearer: I've seen this movie before. I've seen all of these same pre-vis action scenes and these same exact special effects and these same exact explosions and these same fights and these same leaps through the air and it. is. so. boring. I figure there has to be a breaking point. Tell me there's a breaking point. Tell me everyone else will soon grow as bored of this as I have.
I don't mean superhero movies, mind you. I mean this superhero movie. This one that keeps getting made. I wonder how much more of the same the general moviegoing populus can take. I worry about the answer. Perhaps my reaction is more severe in this case because, in a way, it's brought us full-circle; the expectation-shattering success of 2002's Spider-Man more or less started this whole thing, legitimizing as a go-to business model an expensive genre that studios had hitherto pursued only very carefully. If it were to come face to face with Homecoming - see its legacy, see what culture it spawned - Spider-Man would see only a pale, flattened version of itself. The disappointing offspring that happens to bear a striking resemblance to its cinematic forefather. Does anything better exemplify this Penrose Staircase of a franchise strategy we're stuck with than the fact that we're now on our third separate Spider-Man franchise in the span of a single generation? Neither of the last two reboots have even bothered with the slightest grace period in between; the rightsholders just put one foot in front of the other and wound up right back where they started. Should we start keeping our eye on up-and-coming child actors, the way Division I basketball programs occasionally offer verbal scholarships to middle-schoolers? Should Pierce Gagnon - Sonny-Jim to his friends - already be preparing to don the Spidey costume a few years from now?
Three times, and each time it's been whittled down to something more streamlined, more pre-packaged. Homecoming is less an act of creation and more an act of memorization and regurgitation. Is the goal with each incarnation to hire a director with less and less distinct personality than the last one? At this rate, they might as well just get it over with and hire Brett Ratner or Chris Columbus. Fifteen years ago, the big Spider-Man movie was made by a bonafide eccentric. Sam Raimi's sensibilities bled all the way through the corporate product - and in all three movies, too. Give me the weird misfires of his Spider-Man 3 over the bland successes of Homecoming any day of the week. Hell, this movie almost - I say almost - made me miss Marc Webb. As much of a clumsy, colossal mess as his two-movie run was, you can still kinda see something peeking through. Homecoming, directed by Cop Car's Jon Watts, is "better" than either of Webb's efforts, but also less interesting, less worth talking about. The Amazing Spider-Man 2's disastrous mishmash of competing tones and intentions was at least a characteristic in its own right. This movie has no such characteristic. It's just there, like a placeholder, with only the talents of its cast keeping it from dissolving before our very eyes.
The film, the result of a partnership Marvel brokered with Sony in order to ingest the character into its Avengers universe, feels like it was all ready to go ahead of time. A printed coloring book just waiting to be colored in. No wonder they were so eager to get their hands on the character; they must have had this whole thing sketched out years ago. The final product isn't simply another Marvel movie; Spider-Man: Homecoming is Marvel's platonic ideal. It is a distillation of everything Marvel is, nothing less and certainly nothing more. They've been perfecting this movie for years, and now they've plugged their most famous character into it. The television-chic visual aesthetic, the frothy, quippy characters, the terribly written villain, the banal aerial action finale, the terrific cast - it's all here in its most concise, its most finely tuned, its most templated.
The question (for me, at least) is whether Marvel is at some sort of tipping point - whether the studio believes, or realizes, that they should change and open things up - or whether they'll just keep circling that staircase. The signals are mixed enough that my optimism seems to ebb and flow between installments. Just two months ago I basked in the delightfully personal charms of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and expressed optimism that the studio's recent hires - Coogler, Waititi, Boden/Fleck - were signs of a new aesthetic and authorial flexibility. And now Homecoming comes along to snap me out of it. Similar discouragement came from viewings of Doctor Strange and Ant-Man and Thor - vanilla interpretations of inherently idiosyncratic material.
Watts makes a decent enough early impression - at least enough to convince one that the movie is going to be doing its own thing - opening Spidey's story via Peter Parker's own over-excited vlog that covers his initial recruitment by Tony Stark and the airport setpiece from Captain America: Civil War. Putting the story in the title character's own hands - capturing his youthful enthusiasm, his equally youthful carelessness, his frantic state of mind - is a nice touch. And in the film's introduction of its antagonist, Watts sprinkles in a bit of referential Scorsese flair, cutting to a money counter in center of the villains' hideout as the Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" blares on the soundtrack, the Casino shoutout at least suggesting a willingness to go outside the Marvel box. But what personality we get in these opening scenes is about all there is; it's as if it wants to forge an identity separate from its MCU counterparts but is quickly swallowed up by its own machinery. Though there are good scenes peppered throughout the movie, they play out with the rote inevitability of a Law and Order episode.
This movie comes along not long after the surprise firing of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller from the director's chair of the upcoming Han Solo film - another Disney property - for what are reported to be major clashes of both artistic vision and personality between them and their studio bosses. Whether or not their dismissal is ultimately for the best is anybody's guess at this point, but the situation at least feels like another blow to individual voices in big studio properties. Their previous films - 21 and 22 Jump Street, The LEGO Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs - have been nothing if not the result of their own voice. That they were replaced by Ron Howard - patron saint of the voiceless - feels like a particularly taunting reproach. Howard seems like exactly the type of director who would be perfect for a Marvel movie - a professional and sturdy craftsman, with none of those pesky authorial ambitions getting in the way - which is a worrisome sign for anyone hoping to see franchises take a more auteur-driven approach. (That he's responsible for at least four of the most execrable studio films of the 21st Century, while still somehow remaining an anonymous presence on them, is a remarkable feat. They didn't even get the distinguished stamp of his own kind of awful; he was merely the steward of their awfulness.)
But we're not here to talk about angels, demons, codes, dilemmas or grinches, except inasmuch as their dull failures bespeak the unflinchingly benign directorial tastes of studio franchise decision-makers. Still, Watts' inability to enliven his Spider-Man movie beyond the expectations set by his many predecessors is his own failing, making this yet another example of a blockbuster movie that has everything going for it - the budget, the time and, especially, the cast - but none of the nerve to really go places. For all the miscasting we see in major films, that's rarely an issue with Marvel. From lead roles to bit parts, virtually everyone they bring in seems to feel right at home; their casting choices are occasionally surprising, occasionally counterintuitive, occasionally on-the-nose, and they almost always pay off. The kinds of surprises they got out of, among others, Dave Bautista, Ben Kingsley, Benedict Wong and Robert Downey Jr. (who at the time of his casting had no blockbuster clout) suggest they're doing something right. More than anything else, these movies are built on, and get most of their joy from, the personalities of the characters and the actors playing them; those charms are often enough to mitigate other frustrations. A bunch of good actors having fun with their interpretations of silly characters is not an altogether bad thing, even if there are no stakes (or visuals) to speak of.
Spider-Man: Homecoming certainly has all that. Tom Holland already made a strong impression in his Civil War debut, and he proves here he can carry a movie. He's surrounded by a supporting cast that make their roles feel lived-in - Jacob Batalan as Peter Parker's best friend Ned, Laura Harrier as his senior-class crush Liz, Marisa Tomei (whose hotness is, thankfully, regularly acknowledged throughout the film) as Aunt May, Tony Revolori as the bullyish Flash, Peter's perpetual (but physically harmless) tormentor. But to me, the clear standout is Zendaya, who occupies her own corner of the film, complete with its own droll, awkward energy - a corner that always behaves like it knows something we don't. As Michelle - who's always the smartest person in the room and seems to follow Peter around wherever he goes, all while hiding in plain sight - she's comfortably on her own wavelength, and has no interest in sharing it with anyone or anything else. That the character is going to have an increasingly prominent role in future entries is obvious, but for this movie, she is a unique and anachronistic delight.
All this goodwill usually comes crashing down when it comes to Marvel's villains - not because the actors are poorly chosen but because the villains are almost uniformly poorly written and flimsily conceived. Spider-Man's new nemesis is no exception. He has a simple origin story: He was a small business owner who got screwed out of a major job and then decided to break bad. That's it. That's his arc. From blue-collar guy to supervillain in one stroke of bad luck. Now an amateur birdman in the weapons and alien technology trafficking business, he's got his sights set on a big score that centers around none other than Stark Industries. There is one nifty detail about Vulture - which I won't spoil and which leads to the film's best scene. But everything else that's memorable about him stems entirely from Michael Keaton's performance. I'm beyond thrilled that Keaton is back in the position to land major roles like this, and I'm happy he did such a good job with it; I only wish the script had done his abilities justice.
As for Peter and his alter ego, if there is one area that has substantively changed in fifteen years, it's this: Spider-Man's primary goal during the movie is to become one of the Avengers. Sense of duty replaced by career ambition. With great power comes great … brand synergy? Uncle Ben would be proud. In a world in which all-powerful crimefighters are commonplace, I suppose you can hardly blame Peter. But it also makes one long for the days when weirdos were the ones making superhero movies, and superheroes themselves were still special.