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Spider-Man: Homecoming

(2017) *** Pg-13
133 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Jon Watts. Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Marisa Tomei, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Tony Revolori.

/content/films/5066/1.jpgWe're deep enough into the age of comic-book movies that Spider-Man: Homecoming in some ways feels like a throwback. Conspicuously kid-friendly, the first Spider-Man movie to be produced by Marvel Studios—as a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—not only doesn't shy from being goofy (see Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy...), but it cheerfully embraces the cartoony. A tip-off: the opening titles kick off the fun with a fully orchestrated version of the theme song from the 1967 cartoon series. Sam Raimi expertly walked the line between cartoony and weighty when he gave Spidey his big-budget big-screen debut in 2002. By comparison, Spider-Man's MCU debut has something of a teflon quality to it: despite all the webbing, it doesn't stick quite as well as one might hope. Still, director Jon Watts' first shot at Spidey lands close enough to the summer-movie sweet spot that the quibbles feel a bit churlish.

Tom Holland's Peter Parker, first seen in Captain America: Civil War, remains beholden to billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), with whom the fifteen-year-old is serving an "internship." The opening scenes playfully recap Spidey's Civil War coming-out party, with the high-school sophomore escorted into action by Stark's right-hand man "Happy" Hogan (Jon Favreau). Crisis averted, Peter finds himself held at arm's length, not a good place to be for someone of his bouncing-of-the-walls, chomping-at-the-bit energy. Back at the Midtown School of Science & Technology, Parker waits and mopes, eager for his coach to put him back in the game. As Stark suspected, Parker's manic enthusiasm easily translates into clumsy and accidentally destructive heroics, but keeping the "training wheels" latched onto Spider-Man is no easy task, even for Iron Man.

The rubber meets the road when the economically needy salvage crew of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) gets screwed by the government (represented by Tyne Daly), prompting Toomes to begin stealing Chitauri technology left over from the alien invasion in The Avengers. To keep his family and his workers afloat, Toomes turns his business into an arms trade, his secret weapon being a flying suit. (This soaring, chrome-domed villain derives from the comic books, where "The Vulture" debuted in 1963.) Toomes keeps running afoul of Parker, a conflict that comes to a head on the night of the Homecoming Dance.

Homecoming gets plenty right. Keaton makes a great Vulture, and the character's conception here as the working-class villain to Peter's "working-class hero" proves dramatically effective, especially as goosed by a certain third-act reveal. The characterization of Spider-Man as a snarky teen in science-nerd T-shirts—as unmistakably a kid—also feels fresh. Twenty at the time of filming, Holland looks and sounds considerably more like a teenager than Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield (both asssumed the role in their late twenties). Director Jon Watts makes a credible leap into blockbuster filmmaking following his breakthrough indies Clown and Cop Car. Though there's plenty of action excitement throughout, three well-staged major set pieces—each within or adjacent to a recognizable American landmark—effectively crank up tension.

The film's first act struggles a bit to nail down its tone and pacing, a probable result of at least six screenwriters leaving their prints on the script. Another arguable problem with Spider-Man: Homecoming, if a guaranteed box-office smash can be said to have one, is that everyone is Iron Man. The crazy amount of technology Stark affords to Parker, a kid from Queens, functions like a plot crutch for much of the film's first two acts—although it sets up a third-act reversal. Then there's the Vulture, with his high-tech flying suit. And, of course, the tricked-out Iron Man suit flies into action on occasion. The story doesn't afford much emotional depth, but it does score points by noting Parker's sacrifices and having Stark teach him the lesson "If you're nothing without the suit, then you shouldn't have it."

Marvel's sticking with white-boy Spidey for now, but it's not an empty gesture that Homecoming balances the mostly white topline (Holland, Keaton, Favreau, Downey Jr, and Marisa Tomei as Aunt May) with a diverse below-the-line ensemble that gets significant screen time: Jacob Batalon as "man in the chair" Ned, Laura Harrier as love interest Liz, Zendaya as hilariously deadpan smart-girl Michelle, and Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson, usually depicted as an Aryan jock. The appearance of Donald Glover—who infamously, cheekily lobbied in public to play Spider-Man—also implies we'll live to see a non-white Spidey on the big screen (Glover plays the uncle of Black Hispanic alternate Spidey Miles Morales). Until then, Spider-Man: Homecoming can't shake off superhero formula or its corporate sheen, but it works nicely within those parameters as an action-packed, beat-the-heat distraction. 

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