REVIEW: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’, where the villain finally measures up

 Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes in  Spider-Man: Homecoming , directed by Jon Watts.

Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes in Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts.

Sometimes I hesitate when the time comes to write a review on a new Marvel film. A little voice tells me that there’s little point joining the droves of critics who publish their takes in the days leading up to the release. After all, Marvel is one of those filmmaking juggernauts, whose whole business model is based on going to see the new entry purely because it’s a Marvel joint, and not because some writer validated the decision.

This feeling is also partly fed by the fact that Marvel films are rarely, if ever, truly bad. Mediocre, sure, but not offensive. Faced with the prospect of a slate of movies that can be a lot of fun (the Guardians films) or just fine (the rest of them), it’s hard to summon the will to chart out exactly why. But that would do a disservice to the few notable ones, the films in the canon that show that Marvel still has the ability to try new things. Happily, Spider-Man: Homecoming is one of those films, a release that succeeds despite the messy production situation or the critiques of its marketing strategy.

If you spent any time in the pop culture world over the weekend, you probably heard that Homecoming has one huge thing going for it: a formidable, carefully chosen villain. And it’s important to point that out as soon as possible, not only because Marvel films tend to fall apart in this exact area, but because Adrian Toomes (a.k.a. The Vulture, played by Michael Keaton) is crucial to why the movie feels so cohesive. Toomes has a relatable objective, a code of honour, and his relationship with Spider-Man makes you forget at times that we’re watching yet another fragment of a perpetually sprawling, incomplete story.

 Jacob Batalon as Ned and Tom Holland as Peter Parker.

Jacob Batalon as Ned and Tom Holland as Peter Parker.

Reinforcing this is how the movie opens with Toomes’ story. He leads a crew of salvagers hired to cart away and sell the debris and technology scattered by the Battle of New York depicted in the first Avengers film. But in swoops a wealthy organization set up by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to take away Toomes’ gig. It drives him to use the bits and pieces he already collected to create a criminal enterprise, fashioning weapons out of the alien technology and staging heists of more raw materials. It’s an entirely believable, grassroots consequence of the massive battle that we only previously saw from the perspective of the heroes. And the best part is that Toomes’ ambitions never exceed his desire to simply earn a good living (albeit through crime).

Doesn’t really sound like a job for the Avengers, right? Stark says as much when he’s first informed about Toomes’ operation. Which makes it all the more interesting when Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is prohibited from chasing down Toomes as his first post-Civil War mission. Stark wants to keep Peter Parker safe, and he thinks that Peter isn’t even ready for a job that’s beneath the Avengers. Peter’s told to stick to neighbourhood thugs, cats stuck in trees - that sort of thing.

So of course Homecoming becomes a story of how Peter ignores this rule and uses his conflict with Toomes to show the Avengers that he’s ready for prime time. Meanwhile, Peter’s doing the classic Spider-Man balancing act of keeping his life as a high schooler in check, and much of the film’s emotional conflict centers on that. Will Peter abandon his academic decathalon teammates to surveil Toomes? Will he ditch his crush Liz (Laura Harrier) at the titular dance to do some webslinging? Of course - arguably, Spider-Man is at his best as a character when these are the things he worries about. He isn’t the kind of guy who we believe will try to root out a cabal of Nazis hiding within the government.

What we have with the central hero-villain relationship is a well-matched pairing, something we get far too little these days. Think back to Avengers: Age of Ultron. There’s a line in there to the effect of, “Ultron’s inside the Internet!!”. If that were really the case, how the hell did the Avengers finally defeat him, other than through a plot contrivance? Surely a copy of Ultron would lay low inside a WiFi toaster somewhere?

 Zendaya as the mysterious Michelle.

Zendaya as the mysterious Michelle.

Even Peter’s way of using his powers is humanized. I didn’t expect him to have quite so many pratfalls while going from Point A to Point B - he seems to spend just as much time in the film smashing into surfaces or klutzing into objects as he does effortlessly flipping through the air. It’s a consistent visual reminder that Stark’s multiple admonishments of Peter aren’t baseless; Peter is just a guy learning to use his powers. When we first meet him, he really isn’t ready for a role on the team. It’s rare for a major tentpole film to stick to its guns in this way, especially when it comes to character development. It will be fascinating to find out how this approach came to pass, particularly considering the strange production relationship between Sony and Marvel.

On a nitty-gritty level, the cast assembled around Holland and Keaton all do fine work holding up the film, with the exception of Hannibal Buress as Peter’s gym teacher, from whom I wanted more material. The action scenes were also capably put together, though the final fight between Vulture and Spidey got a little too Transformers for my taste.

As different as Homecoming feels from its compatriots in the universe, it’s still difficult to see it as a totally separate entity. What I want from Marvel are movies with distinct beginnings and ends, instead of an exhausting cycle of “and then this happened”. Homecoming gets closer to this than almost anything else in the series, but it can’t quite stick the landing.

Spider-Man: Homecoming gets three stars out of four.

 
 

Stray thoughts:

  • The direction they’ve taken for Michelle (Zendaya) is probably one of the more inventive things Marvel has done with a classic character.

  • It was odd how Spidey was able to hang out in that Damage Control warehouse for so long without even a single guard seeing him on camera and investigating.

  • It would be hilarious if the real reason the Avengers relocated upstate is because Marvel doesn’t want to pay extra to shoot in Manhattan.