As with Ant-Man’s tentative side-steps into caper cinema, Spider-Man: Homecoming’s temporary rendezvous with high school comedy of the John Hughes school functions less as a breathless escape from the calcified Marvel Cinematic Universe style than as a false, flickering-light reprieve that dies out as soon as it begins. Although Homecoming is the rare film I am willing to admit is actually on the verge of being saved by its acting, the thousand-cuts of the screenplay and technical credentials prove too much for the film’s central pas de deux of hero and villain to handle. Whatever good will the film accrues is wrestled to the ground by the congested and anti-liberating spirit of corporate cinema.
Director Jon Watts directs-down to a badly mismanaged screenplay courtesy of a dumbfounding six writers. As a stylist, he recreates none of the vertiginous elan, cartoon physicality, or tonal mania Sam Raimi once introduced to the first three Spider-Man films. (And yes, that includes the dumb-foundingly under-appreciated, if not exactly good, Spider-Man 3, which at least failed zestfully and with an inspired sense of anarchic, liquid-narrative messiness rather than timidity. Even the much-maligned “dance” interlude feels like an inspired tantrum in a film boasting an adolescent, unstable temperament, which is always superior to the one-size-fits-all tonal-harmony of dozens of safer superhero productions that would never dare alienate their audience with such inspired lunacy).
Anyway, digression aside, Homecoming is, by way of comparison, a sputtering jalopy of corporate-mandated decisions and timid franchise synchrony. It’s minor comic brio and inspired working-class Queens setting don’t exactly offer the differential or the animus of Raimi’s Tex Avery-inflected directing way back in the innocent years of superhero cinema, back when the genre had not found its way and was still free to scribble in the margins rather than follow the instructions to the line. The thrust of Homecoming’s screenplay sees welterweight superhero upstart Peter Parker (Tom Holland) readjusting (badly) to high school life in Queens after his first taste of the big leagues pinch-hitting for Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr, extremely lethargic here and not in the “Iron Man is exhausted with himself” way some viewers are wont to suggest adds depth to the character). A new criminal emerges (but crucially not a super-criminal with delusions of grandeur) in Adrian Toomes (aka Vulture, although not called this during the film), setting his sights on serving the tenants of capitalism by selling the alien-technology debris of previous superhero-villain fights to the highest bidder. The rest is … do I really need to say it?
Trying his damnedest to inject a soul into the film is Holland, who is by a country mile the best cinematic Spider-Man thus far. He’s reverential not only to the character’s heroic and good-natured personality but his starry-eyed, staggered brand of heroics radiating an uneasiness with his costume and his skills, as well as his place in the world. Throwing positive bones to a film that is mostly uninterested in following through with them, he suggests a hero not as a straight-line-of-best-fit but as a stop-and-start zig-zag still unsure of how to manage his life. His rhythms are anything but smooth, and Holland is, above all, willing to engage in self-vandalism, to stumble and tumble and quaver rather than fly. In a better film, he’d be the lynchpin. Here, he’s an admirable bulwark against overt failure.
No less admirable is Michael Keaton, playing Toomes as a down-to-earth regular Joe barely containing reservoirs of rage and feelings of social disillusionment. Embarrassingly besting any other villain thus far featured in the MCU (so, he beats CGI malformation 1, 2, and 3, basically), Keaton’s many-layered persona benefits from a little meta-textual flirtation (with the actor moving from the square-jawed Batman to the egomaniacal Birdman to the murderous Vulture). But he commands attention even without any knowledge of Keaton’s career, and even in spite of being used only sparingly by the film. While Holland is the only creature in the film actually achieving the sense of constant euphoria the film’s ostensibly youthful demeanor is supposedly searching for, Keaton single-handedly instills a sense of consequence into the totally arbitrary screenplay. Holland provides the buoyant lift, and, ironically, the high-flying vulture keeps the film tethered to earth.
Frankly, I suspect Keaton’s lack of familiarity with or reverence for the source material only emancipates him to radiate a Trumpian sensation of disenfranchisement. His character has no aspirations of conquering the world and, abetted by an actually meaningful post-credits scene (perhaps a first), navigates a thoroughly complicated relationship with Spider-Man. Much like Parker, he’s an everyday guy, a middle-class type who owns an underground salvaging company and carries the weight of populist discontent on his shoulders. He is primarily animated by a feeling that Stark and his wealthy pals lack empathy with everyday America, and he acts to earn his proverbial slice of the American apple pie. (He builds his suit not to kill, for instance, but to salvage debris). Again, the screenplay is no help at all, but Keaton negotiates the persona by pursuing the difficult task of encouraging audience-empathy but not sympathy. Keaton sees the character’s point but also sees-through his false bootstrap-individualism and his atomistic rhetoric wherein he posits himself (a reasonably well-off white man) as a totem to the downtrodden and the forgotten. He complicates the character but doesn’t dare absolve him.
Unfortunately, the two star players are sabotaged at every turn, reduced to keeping a drowning film inconstantly afloat rather than breathlessly levitating off the earth. The film’s pre-release reputation as a “John Hughes movie” is both disingenuous – Raimi did the same, better – and deleterious in light of the second-act’s mismanagement of the “high school shenanigans” material anyway. Plus, Watts shoots everything in exactly the same anonymous aesthetic. If the superhero material is supposed to violate Parker’s everyday life and sense of boyish, high-school innocence, nothing about Watts’ directorial choices differentiates the disparate elements or embodies that sense of disturbance. A photocopy of every other Marvel film, the initially amusing eccentricities of Homecoming only serve to draw into stark relief how neutering the whole MCU project actually is. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films continue to suggest the possibility of a genuinely polymorphous franchise with competing and fascinatingly contradictory moods, but Homecoming is not nearly meddlesome enough to seal the deal. The annual pilgrimage to the MCU continues, and minor tremors of difference cannot escape the hermetically-sealed parameters of corporate filmmaking.