Friday, July 7, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming — A tangled web

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence, and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang

It’s both ironic and yet appropriate that this newest incarnation of Spider-Man — let’s call it Spider-Man 3.0 — works best when young Peter Parker is out of costume.

Try as he might, Peter (Tom Holland) can't seem to make things work properly ... either
in his personal life, or as the web-slinging would-be hero, Spider-Man.
As originally conceived by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, way back in 1962, Peter was an angst-ridden high school outcast: a nerd long before that word became a fashionable descriptor. Eternally abused by campus tormentor Flash Thompson, ignored by all the cool kids, Peter took solace from his scientific curiosity and the protective embrace of home life with his beloved Uncle Ben and Aunt May.

British actor Tom Holland — so powerful as the eldest son forced to help his family cope with a tsunami’s aftermath, in 2012’s The Impossible — persuasively nails this all-essential aspect of Peter’s personality. He has a ready smile that falters at the faintest slight, real or imagined; he’s all gangly limbs and unchecked, hyperactive eagerness. Peter frequently doesn’t know how to handle himself, because he doesn’t yet possess a strong sense of what his “self” actually is.

That said, director/co-scripter Jon Watts’ update of Peter gives the lad a firmer social grounding that he possessed in all those early Marvel comic books. He’s a valued member of his school’s academic decathlon squad, where he’s routinely thrust alongside teammates Flash (Tony Revolori), crush-from-a-distance Liz (Laura Harrier) and the aloof, slightly mysterious Michelle (Zendaya, the effervescent star of TV’s engaging K.C. Undercover).

And — oh, yes — Peter is a-bubble with enthusiasm over the secret he cannot share with anyone: his recent trip to Berlin, supposedly as a science intern for Stark Enterprises, but where he actually joined Iron Man and other super-powered associates and went mano a mano against Captain America (recent back-story details supplied via a clever flashback).

Impetuously assuming that he’ll therefore be made a member of the Avengers, Peter is chagrined when days and weeks pass without a word from Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) or his right-hand man, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). I mean, Spidey deflected Captain America’s shield, right? What the heck is Tony waiting for?

Retrieving stolen bicycles and helping little old ladies may establish cred as “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” but it hardly stacks up against saving the world from super-powered bad guys. Peter chafes at being abandoned on the sidelines, and thus makes the mistake that Stark anticipated.

Wholly contrary to the essential divide between civilian and costumed life, Peter begins to employ his alter-ego as a crutch: a means to enhance his social status.

“But I’m nothing without the costume,” he eventually wails, in genuine torment, to Tony.

“If that’s true,” Tony replies, “then you don’t deserve it.”

Mind you, this isn’t the costume that Lee and Ditko envisioned, back in 1962. Quite the opposite: This is a hyper-enhanced, computer-laced battle suit developed by Stark Industries, and this is where Watt’s film goes off the rails.

Because this isn’t Spider-Man; it’s a wall-crawling, web-spinning Iron Man with skin-tight armor. Vulnerability in the costume also is an essential part of Spider-Man’s appeal, and this super-suit demolishes any semblance of weakness. This is Spider-Man, for goodness’ sake; he’s not supposed to be as powerful and/or invulnerable as Thor.

Suspension of disbelief also takes a major hit here. While one can imagine all sorts of nifty-gee-whiz gadgetry built into Iron Man’s bulky suit, cramming identical tech into Spidey’s skin-tight threads does more than raise an eyebrow. And Peter’s ongoing dialog with the suit’s AI — dubbed Karen (and voiced maternally by Jennifer Connelly) — doesn’t work at all, particularly when “she” starts giving him dating tips.

That’s the major problem with this newest interpretation of Spider-Man: It’s a kitchen-sink movie. Watts and five (!) credited co-writers have thrown all sorts of stuff against the wall, in a manner that feels increasingly haphazard. Some of it works; some of it doesn’t. The result is as wildly uneven as Peter’s behavior.

Okay, we get that he’s a teenager, cursed with the lack of impulse control typical of kids his age, and burdened further by an inferiority complex that prompts over-compensation. But his careless disregard for potential civilian casualties, as this adventure ramps into perilous territory, isn’t merely thoughtless; it’s downright criminal, and puts a serious dent in our ability to view him sympathetically.

It was one thing when Spiderman 1.0 (Tobey Maguire, back in 2002) unwittingly allowed his Uncle Ben to die, as established by comic book lore. That horrific crisis drove the iconic message home — “With great power, comes great responsibility” — and put Peter on the path toward conscientious maturity.

One gets the impression that this Peter might level an entire city, without grasping that all-important concept. He needs to be spanked and sent to his room without supper.

Additionally, Holland’s Spider-Man is out-classed by the villain of the piece: Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), the hard-working, blue-collar owner of the salvage company awarded the contract to collect the alien items and weaponry still left in the wreckage of that cataclysmic battle between Iron Man, Captain America, Thor et al and those nasty extraterrestrial invaders (see 2012’s The Avengers).

It’s a lucrative gig, but one that has left Adrian financially stretched ... and therefore looking at bankruptcy, when Stark’s people swoop in — headed by the condescending Anne Marie Hoag (Tyne Daly, in a pointless cameo) — as agents of the government’s new Department of Damage Control (DODC), and take over the entire business.

Introducing Adrian as a disenfranchised American infuriated over being marginalized by uncaring politicians and “rich guys” is ingeniously topical, and Keaton steals the film with his character’s subsequent descent into tightly wound vengeful fury. And he has the means to indulge it: One truck-load of alien contraband goes overlooked by Hoag’s arrogant minions, giving Adrian and his tech colleague the ability to, ah, exploit the stuff.

And, so, Adrian and his crew subsequently provide for their families in the only way that circumstances have allowed: They become mercenaries, hijacking DODC trucks in order to obtain additional exotic alien tech, repurposing such loot into weapons subsequently sold on the black market. Along the way, Keaton gets the best one-liners, and rides herd over his guys with a series of memorable double-takes and dead-eyed stares.

Oh, yes: Adrian also develops a winged super-suit and adopts a nefarious identity as the Vulture. (In fairness — thankfully — this film barely employs that moniker.)

Ground-level, smash-and-grab bank robbers suddenly armed with blue-rayed weapons of mass destruction can’t help attracting the attention of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and we’re off to the races.

So, what works, and what doesn’t?

The film’s most sensational sequence — a true nail-biter, set within and without the Washington Monument — doesn’t even involve the Vulture. Alternatively, the biggest misfire is a furious and truly ludicrous melee that takes place aboard the Staten Island Ferry. I don’t care how much cross-hatched webbing is employed; a vessel thus damaged would sink — quickly — like a stone. And we’re left to imagine how many passengers are injured, maimed or even killed along the way.

It’s therefore odd, in passing, that this film’s Spider-Man never seems to suffer public contempt or ridicule for his property-damaging and citizen-threatening antics. (This re-boot dispenses with cranky Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, and his tedious anti-Spidey crusade.)

Having Peter accidentally reveal his alter ego to best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) makes for a very funny single scene, but Batalon grievously overplays his character’s subsequent fan-boy enthusiasm and careless disregard for the need to keep this secret. Indeed, Ned becomes quite tiresome for a bit. Fortunately, he settles down and becomes an invaluable ally — in his words, “the guy in the chair” — who helps his buddy at key moments.

The AI (Karen) in Spidey’s suit is a one-joke disaster carried to insufferable extremes. On the other hand, the mild romantic tension established by the dual presence of Liz and Michelle is captivating, particularly when the latter uncorks a personal detail that’ll prompt a smile from longtime Marvel Comics readers.

Chris Evans makes a couple of quite amusing cameos as Captain America, and it’s fun to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts pop up for a few brief (but key) seconds. Downey, as always, is a welcome presence as both Tony Stark and Iron Man; his appearances also are short, but well placed.

Marisa Tomei is a warm, sensitive and adorably sexy Aunt May (the latter quality a source of embarrassment for her nephew). Donald Glover also is memorable as a small-time crook who has an unexpectedly candid — and beneficial — chat with Spider-Man.

Michael Giacchino’s vibrant orchestral score is suitably suspenseful and exhilarating, and — again — longtime fans will appreciate how the title theme instrumentally riffs the Paul Francis Webster/Robert Harris anthem from the 1967 cartoon show. (“Is he strong? Listen, bud: He’s got radioactive blood.” And so forth.)

On the other hand, visual effects supervisor Janek Sirrs fumbles a bit with Spidey himself; many of the wall-crawling and web-slinging antics clearly are CGI, and lack the presence or “solidity” that seemed more authentic with Maguire and Andrew Garfield. As well, Spidey’s effort to save the crippled Staten Island Ferry is a poor echo of Maguire’s much more dramatic and emotionally satisfying rescue of a subway train in 2004’s Spider-Man 2.

All of these shortcomings are down to the aforementioned uneven script and an ill-prepared director whose only two previous features — 2014’s Clown, and 2015’s Cop Car — were no more than undistinguished blips on the cinematic radar. (I can’t imagine how Watts drew this assignment.) It’s a shame that Favreau limited his participation to the supporting appearance as Happy Hogan, because — as the director of Iron Man and the recent (somewhat) live-action Jungle Book — he’d obviously have made a much more satisfying dish from these ingredients.

Nice as it is, to see Spidey join the rest of the gang in the Marvel movie franchise, his next solo outing will need more disciplined handling.

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