Sunday, July 16, 2017

Welcome Home Spider-Man! (minimal spoilers)

As Marvel began to build up its cinematic universe, they began to outdo the quality of rival film studios who had owned the rights to key Marvel characters, like Spider-Man, and the X-Men. As time went on, and the buildup for Civil War (a story arch I still contend they did too soon) began, many asked how Civil War could be faithfully replicated without Spider-Man. Against all odds, Sony’s failing Spider-Man franchise reached a breaking point which allowed for an historic deal to be made, of epic proportions. For now, at least, the two studios would share Spider-Man. While the details of this deal are still somewhat convoluted, and the long term longevity of this deal remains unclear, the first fruits of this deal manifested in a brilliant 20-minute guest appearance of Spider-Man that made Civil War, already a good movie, that much better. Tom Holland might be the third iteration of Peter Parker on the Silver Screen in less than ten years, but even in that moment he had in Civil War, it was clear he was the best one so far. For the first time since Spider-Man 2’s ending credits, I was optimistic for the future of the franchise.

Cut to today, and I could not be happier. Spider-Man Homecoming is a much-needed return to form. Playing out more like Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man series, the story does modernize Peter a bit, but refrains from making him the cell phone checking, hashtag spouting, Facebook posting type of hero we see infesting the pages of modern Marvel Comics, Peter Parker is just a dork. A super genius, brilliant, socially awkward dork who doesn’t even fit in with his fellow nerds.  Just as he should be. Toby McGuire was sheepish and shy, quiet and introverted. Andrew Garfield was just another one of the bros. Tom Holland is a science nerd and a fan boy dork, exactly like I was in High School, I won’t lie. This made me so happy, because it’s always been this aspect of Peter Parker that previous film makers have struggled with, and yet finally we seem to have an actor and a director who fully understand who Peter Parker is.

They also understand the conflict he has had to deal with in the past. In the comics, his deep convictions that with great power comes great responsibility leads him to act, but he has also had ambitions to be more than what he is. Like all kids, and frankly adults, he believes he can do more than he is doing, and he is looking for a chance to prove himself. The film spends a lot of time with Peter Parker trying to prove to Tony Stark that he is ready to be a full-fledged Avenger, but Tony, while he doesn’t say so outright, knows that he’s not quite there yet, and so he keeps the boy at arm’s length, only putting in a few appearances over the course of the film.

Over the course of the film, Peter discovers an underground weapons manufacturing and sales operation, which is putting high-tech, alien technology on the streets, much of it salvaged from the remains of the Avenger’s misadventures. Peter tries to alert Tony Stark, begging for help, but feels he is not listened to, so against the direct orders of Iron Man, Peter takes matters into his own hands.
Over the course of the story, Peter finds himself withdrawing further and further from the people who matter most to him and is nearly killed several times. The last time, however, it finally clicks for him that this isn’t a game, that real lives are in danger, and in that moment Peter is finally able to set aside his ambitions to do the right thing.

While Tony Stark sort of inserts himself into a surrogate father role (even joking about it at one point), Stark ends up being vindicated in the end as Peter comes to realize he isn’t ready for the big time, nor does he want to be, he just wants to be the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and better balance his responsibilities as Peter Parker as well, and that’s okay.

This is a coming of age Teen comedy with superhero elements, and it works extremely well. Once again Marvel shows us that Super-Hero movies need not be a genre unto itself, but can be as diverse as any other genre. We have seen Marvel branch out into Spy-thrillers, comedy, and westerns (though credit Fox for that one), and each time they branch out they breathe new life into a genre that many complain is growing stale.

I really loved this movie and its Conservative message that you should listen to your parents (or mentors joking about being a sort-of-father figure) because, although they may use harsh words, they are only thinking about your best interest because they care about you. But the movie is not without its problems.

The secondary and tertiary characters were largely uninteresting. Now there are some exceptions to this, of course. I loved “Man in the chair,” Ned. I never knew Peter Parker needed a man in the chair until they gave him Ned, and I hope that Ned not only stays with us for years to come but will be the start of a sort of “team-spider” operation, especially since many of Peter Parker’s friends eventually go on, in the comics, to become other heroes and villains… Including Ned Leeds.  Aunt May, while a surprisingly small role, was brilliant, and her scene at the very end gave me some of the hardest belly laughs I have had in quite some time… only to be one upped by a clever Captain America cameo at the very, very, very end. Michael Keaton was also great as the Vulture. A sympathetic, but no-nonsense, blue collar entrepreneur who got screwed by the collusion of Stark Industries with Uncle Sam. Naturally, he blames Stark, not Uncle Sam… I don’t know why people do that, but it is very true to life, not unlike how people are blaming Health Insurance companies, right now, for the mess Obamacare made… But even as sympathetic as the Vulture is, he isn’t as fun as Willem DaFoe’s Green Goblin, or as sympathetic as Alfred Molina’s Doc Oc. Part of it is that Vulture is kind of a jerk, he’s relatable, but not necessarily likable. Still, I look forward to seeing more of him, as he breaks the long standing tradition of Spider-Man villains dying at the end.

But beyond the stand outs, characters like Liz Allen Tombs, Flash Thompson, and so on, just didn’t really compel me to care much for them, especially Zendaya’s Michelle Jones. Michelle will be a controversial character because Marvel and Sony used her as an SJW character who makes cringe worthy political commentaries that are wholly unnecessary. I think the fear was that with as conservative every other aspect of the film is, dealing with family, patience, and especially respect for your elders, that they needed a Left of Center character to help the film feel balanced. I disagree. Michelle, to me, had a couple of funny moments, and I am glad to see Zendaya is a much better actress than her Disney roots have shown previously, this character is bound to be divisive among the fans.

Other problems I see are the changes made to Flash Thompson. Flash has always been a foot ball jock school bully. He had been a physical threat to Peter Parker before they eventually became friends. Making Flash another one of the nerds, who happens to be a douche, is bound to frustrate longtime fans, but even more so, the fact that Flash, like almost everyone else rounding out the cast, was just an uninteresting character in general.

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy may have featured a less interesting Peter Parker, but wasn’t afraid to round out the cast with more than a few quirky and interesting characters, from the Bruce Campbell cameos (bring those back please), to the amazing JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, and all the crazy and silly journalists that worked at the Daily Bugle. Disney, Sony and Marvel should look to bringing these guys back, and since we know that Oscorp and the Goblin are inevitable,  they ought to do the audience a massive service by bringing back Willem DaFoe… but this time not in a Power Ranger’s costume. I hope they build slowly toward The Green Goblin, but no one can top the brilliant way Willem DaFoe performed it.

Lastly, on the subject of Peter Parker’s love life. Gwen Stacy died ages ago. Seriously, my dad was a kid when it happened, it’s not necessary to keep digging her up, especially after the death of Gwen was dealt with in the last Andrew Garfield film. Peter Parker and Mary Jane were happily married the entire time I was growing up reading comics. The One More Day story arch, separating the two of them, is one of the most hated stories in all of Marvel Comics. Fans love PP + MJ. We are not wanting Mary Jane replaced with Michelle Jones. While I am perfectly content to Spider-Man building towards Mary Jane, I’d rather we get her back sooner, rather than later. I’m eager to see Spider-Man fully back on track.

Marvel and its partners should, not only prepare to work together for the long haul, not just on this film, but any Spider-related spin offs, but they should also fully embrace the elements of Spider-Man in the past that worked, and they shouldn’t be afraid to borrow, heavily, from the first two Raimi films. Spider-Man Homecoming is a massive step in the right direction, but I’m sure I’m not alone in a desire to see everything we loved about Spider-Man, that recent films and comics have taken away, fully restored… Including Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.

‘Nuff Said.

4 out of 5 Stars 

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