When I reviewed The Amazing Spider-Man — Sony’s 2012 insta-reboot that ditched the franchise continuity that director Sam Raimi had started just ten years earlier — I compared it to a kid hitting reset on a video game just because he’d lost a “life.”
Even with the less-than-stellar reception accorded 2007’s Spider-Man 3, there was nothing so broken that a solid sequel couldn’t have fixed without necessitating a baby-with-the-bathwater approach. Nonetheless that’s exactly what we got, with the studio quickly pulling the trigger on a “Here we go again!” reboot, and director Marc Webb & star Andrew Garfield handed the unenviable task of making audiences think they hadn’t seen this exact story not that long ago. Still, as I said at the time, “the Spider-Man myth is more powerful than any of its individual tellings, and with Andrew Garfield behind the mask, it’ll likely continue to spin for several years yet.”
Well, it’s five years removed from those words, and while Garfield is nowhere to be seen for the latest entry, the myth does indeed keep spinning, so….half credit? Indeed, the fact that it is just five years after the last reboot and we’re already onto the next one (with one sequel in-between) is I guess what passes for efficiency in Hollywood. When you think about it, not very many franchises would get this many at-bats after this many mixed results, but then not many brands command the kind of global loyalty Spider-Man does. As such, it’s understandable that Sony would much rather have kept swinging away than risk letting their all-important IP revert to its owners at Disney.
This brings us to the webhead’s new escapade, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Representing a first-of-its-kind arrangement for superhero offerings, the film is a co-production with Disney’s Marvel Studios, which saw Sony’s flailing in the wake of The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s lackluster box office take three years ago as an opportunity to bring him into their hugely popular cinematic universe (indeed, it tells you how strong of a hand Marvel had that they were doing just fine even without the single most lucrative superhero on Earth as part of their lineup). I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of the deal, but I’m glad it happened. This is the sixth Spidey flick in fifteen years, but it feels as fresh and revelatory as the first one in ’02.
We were of course already introduced to Spider-Man 3.0 in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, where actor Tom Holland gave us the most boyish Peter Parker we’ve yet seen (and Marisa Tomei gave us the hottest Aunt May we’ve yet seen, natch). Holland’s awkward-funny interactions with MCU poster boy Robert Downey Jr. set the template for what to expect from Spidey’s newest (best?) incarnation. As directed by Cop Car‘s Jon Watts, Homecoming (the title itself offering a nice bit of double meaning) picks up shortly after the events of that film, with Parker trying to live the life of a typical high school sophomore while also finding time for his wall-crawling alter ego (while testing the swanky long johns Stark designed for him).
With the five previous Spider-Man flicks, reboot or no, having cycled through them at a pretty fast clip, the bench for high value villains has started to get a bit thin, which brings us to this go-round’s designated baddie, Adrian Toomes (Micheal Keaton). A working stiff who finds his livelihood cut short thanks to Tony Stark’s interference, Toomes uses the pieces of otherworldly technology left over in the wake of that big alien invasion five years ago to outfit himself with a high-tech flying rig and become the Vulture. And while his high-tech heists are too low profile to be of interest to the Avengers, they’re exactly the kind of ground-level crimes to catch the attention of a certain friendly neighborhood webslinger.
In many ways, this is a pretty standard-issue stuff when it comes to this character, weaving together Peter Parker’s superhero stress (minus the need to retell his origin yet again, thank goodness), the usual high school angst, and the designated baddie’s Big Evil Plan. But I don’t say that as a debit. What I just described sums up his singular, multi-generational popularity, which has withstood any number of reinterpretations over the years, whether via comics or cartoons or movies. As such, it stands to reason that the script (a stitched-together Frankenstein monster of a thing credited to no less than eight writers) doesn’t stray too far from what’s already worked. The appeal, then is three-fold: Holland. Keaton. Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Between his work in Civil War and here, I think Tom Holland was put on this Earth specifically to play the perfect Peter Parker, he’s that good. Without diminishing the work of his predecessors (Garfield in particular really gets a bum rap), Holland exhibits a comfort level with the trademark banter and one-liners while wearing the spandex suit, and a nebbishy wholesomeness while playing Peter that makes it impossible not to root for the guy (“This is awesome!” he says repeatedly, with exactly the kind of youthful enthusiasm you’d expect from a fifteen-year-old who’s become a superhero). He also has great chemistry with his buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon) and love interest Liz (Laura Harrier) that makes the high school stuff just as fun to watch.
On the black hat side of things, Keaton really makes a meal out of what could easily have been one-note (see: Jamie Foxx’s Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2), with the once-and-former Batman proving that you really do either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Lastly, there’s the unmistakable centrality of Homecoming being part of the universe Marvel Studios has been building for nearly ten years now. Tony Stark’s presence (which is never distracting, though I do wonder if Downey being in it was a stipulation for the deal even happening), as well as all the other subtle and not-so-subtle MCU references, drive home how the biggest asset setting this Spidey apart from all the rest is that this one is “real.”
While Watts’ inexperience with big budget spectacles becomes apparent during some of the action sequences (a mid-air fight scene near the climax is nearly impossible to follow), he has a firm grasp of the character, and gives Peter an arc that’s gratifying and feels earned. He’s also constructed a New York milieu that feels like a perfect approximation of the one from the comics. To be honest, I’m kind of an easy mark when it comes to Spider-Man movies. Even as their quality has varied wildly (with 2004’s Spider-Man 2 an unquestionable high-water mark), I haven’t outright hated any of them. That said, this feels like the one I’ve been waiting for even if I didn’t know it. Welcome home, Spidey. Hope you’ll stick around for awhile. B+
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