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WATCHING THE MOVIES: Spider-Man: Homecoming

It's successful because of Peter Parker.

If the movie theater were a supermarket, this week the shelves would be bare. So we’ll continue with the Marvel movie kick we’ve been on. This week, we’ve got a … unique one to consider.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

Before December’s Into the Spider-Verse, I’d have called this the best Spider-Man film ever made. And before Sam Raimi devotees roast me alive, yes, Spider-Man 2 is a good movie. But its tone is jumpy, its characterization jitters, and Mary Jane is an unlikeable annoyance. Spider-Man: Homecoming avoids these pitfalls by polishing up its treatment of Peter Parker, the centerpiece of any worthwhile Spider-Man story.

The folks at Marvel get why Peter’s unique. He’s a kid, unpopular but brilliant, gifted with incredible powers by a chance spider bite. And Peter loves his new powers. He jokes around in combat, taking a light touch, joyfully reveling in his gifts. It’s inspiring.

But Peter, despite being down on his luck, tries not to use his newfound superhuman abilities for revenge or gain. He has a heart for others, a deep-seated belief that his powers should be used for good. Anything else would be a waste at best and wrong at worst. He’s constantly guided by his tragically murdered Uncle Ben’s famed advice: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

The mark of a good Spider-Man film is how well it balances Peter’s joyful delight at his powers with his careful governance of them. Restrained happiness, somewhere between those poles, is where Peter lives. He fights against two tendencies: becoming so careless or selfish that he forgets to be responsible, and becoming so stone-facedly driven that he loses his joy.

Spider-Man: Homecoming boasts the best live-action Peter Parker put to film, and it’s really not close. Tobey Maguire’s Peter had his moments, but mostly amounted to an awkward doof who frequently lost sight of his responsibilities, and Andrew Garfield’s Peter erred heavily on the jokey side while showing little restraint or integrity.

Tom Holland captures Peter’s essence perfectly, that bewildering balance between gaining incredible power and still feeling like a kid that adolescence brings (because Spider-Man, at its core, is also an analogy about growing up). He’s not so socially inept as to be a whipping boy, or so punky that we need the film to tell us that he’s unpopular (Maguire and Garfield, respectively). And his high school surroundings feel current, real, and timeless, filled with funny and interesting characters in their own right. Michelle, Ned, and the hilariously reinvented “cool kid” Flash stand out.

The story picks up right after Peter’s big moment in Captain America: Civil War. After a few months stopping small-timers with a makeshift suit in NYC, Peter was plucked from obscurity by his idol, flown halfway around the world to take part in a battle whose stakes he didn’t really understand, then plunked back in Queens with a new suit and a vague “we’ll call ya” from ol’ Tony Stark.

So it’s back to the daily grind. And Peter does like his friendly neighborhood role. But he’s seen beyond New York thanks to Tony, and he held his own against Avengers. He knows he could do more if someone would just listen to him. That yearning to be in the world, that self-confidence borne from profound inexperience, that’s an indelible part of adolescence too – again, these filmmakers understand Peter Parker.

This movie doesn’t need to give us the “great power, great responsibility” line again. It’s a masterful example of “show, don’t tell.” Peter unlocks his suit’s full potential before he’s ready, overconfidently shirks his responsibilities, and tries to do everything himself. His impatience is his undoing. And hey, as his “suit lady” Karen tells him, he was 98% successful at holding it together. But everything still falls to pieces.

Peter’s major opponent (besides his own ambitions) is Vulture, a well-realized villain with understandable and even sympathetic motivations. Marvel villains are often rightly maligned, but Michael Keaton’s portrayal here shines. Originally he’s just a downtrodden guy trying to make a living for his family, but when he starts theiving alien tech and reselling it he starts a slide into corruption – and finally desperate insanity when Peter opposes him. He’s Walter White with a wingsuit.

I also appreciate it when a movie’s clever. The pacing in this film’s consistently off-kilter, yes, and I’d fault it for that. But it has the interesting side effect of perfectly stunning the audience at one point. To explain how the film does this, I need to briefly explain story structure.

Most movies have a straightforward eight-act structure. In extremely basic fashion, the acts look like this:

  1. Protagonist is introduced; rules of the world are established.
  2. Conflict introduced; protagonist leaves home to overcome the conflict.
  3. Protagonist gathers resources he will need to succeed.
  4. Protagonist has his first big test; he succeeds but not completely.
  5. Protagonist works on something less consequential, or the story shifts briefly away from his quest to focus on character-building.
  6. Protagonist takes on the conflict and fails to overcome it, culminating in the All Is Lost Moment where he is left defeated.
  7. Protagonist learns his lesson, gathers his strength, and overcomes the conflict.
  8. Protagonist returns home changed.

In Homecoming, Peter’s Act 4 test happens at the Washington Monument, where he uses his newfound powers to avert a disaster. Then the story does something unexpected. The next act, sometimes termed “Fun and Games,” is the ferry ride. As the audience, we expect Peter to do the Spider-Man 2 train-stopping thing and avert disaster. But he can’t, and his All is Lost Moment blindsides us in the very next scene. Tony Stark himself shows up and chastises him for his lack of responsibility – something Tony would know a bit about. Homecoming conflates Act 5 and Act 6 in a daring way that throws us for a loop.

By the end of the story, Peter realizes where his own strength comes from, and chooses humility over importance. His rubble-lifting climactic moment is the single best piece of moviemaking in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s not hyperbole. It defines his character perfectly in so many small, indescribable ways.

The movie’s stop-start pace is consistent and annoying, but everything else is excellent, and a great way to introduce a singular character to the MCU.

RATING: 9/10

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