Sometimes you just want to fast-forward to the good parts. Sometimes you want to immediately scroll down and read the grade rather than the actual review. Sometimes you just want to run before you can walk, and this ultimately translates into instant gratification culture. This, in some ways, is how “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Marvel’s new movie in collaboration with Sony, operates. It wants to cut to the chase, rejecting the origin story, skimming past the story of how the villain broke bad. ‘Homecoming’ doesn’t want to deal. Let him fight Avengers and let him relive that battle through his cell phone and let’s get on with it. For better or worse, that is “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and to its credit, leap-frogging over the soul and substance of the characters surprisingly works, or at least often feels entertaining. However, it also makes for a shallow experience, even by the puddle-deep standards of superhero movies.
Nevertheless, teens just wanna have fun. In this iteration of “Spider-Man,” Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is already the hero. In fact, he’s hanging out with Happy Hogan, Tony Stark’s right-hand man (Jon Favreau) who is dealing with the aftermath of “Captain America: Civil War,” while he waits for more face time with Iron Man himself (Robert Downey Jr.). Parker is your regular ol’ teenage nerd. He’s on the debate team, is in love with a girl above his weight class (Laura Harrier) and must play by the curfew rules like any other high schooler, only he reports to his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) — whatever’s happened to his parents or Uncle Ben in this version of the story is left unspoken.
Parker could just be your friendly neighborhood superhero fighting low-level crime in Queens, New York, but having had a taste of ‘Avengers’ fisticuffs, the excited kid desperately wants to know what his next mission is. The problem is Parker must wait by the phone, but he’s desperate to prove himself and graduate before making the grade. All would be well, and there wouldn’t be much of a movie if Peter Parker would just listen. But as teenagers are wont to do, the kid can’t help but get into trouble. Trouble leads to a killer (Michael Keaton as the Vulture) and the reluctant mentor (Stark), both of whom want to spank the impulsive and over-eager Parker. Now, the high school dynamics of the movie are interesting and charming to watch. The plot, however? Not so much.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe relies on a tested formula that varies ever so slightly from story to story, just enough to leave the impression that you’ve witnessed something “refreshing” and “new.” The equation is Marvel + some kind of flavorful genre X factor = Movie. Marvel + “Inception” & Psychedelia = “Doctor Strange”; Marvel + Space Opera + Irreverence = “Guardians Of The Galaxy”; Marvel +Paranoid Spy Thriller = “Captain America: Winter Soldier,”, etc. etc. And this methodology, for the most part, works. So, the template for “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is something like Marvel + John Hughes Teen Comedy + Avengers Connectivity Commercial = new Spidey movie. And as much as it wants to capture the nostalgic frisson of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Breakfast Club,” the new Spidey movie is too obligated to the Marvel Universe to truly pull it off.
It’s not clear if Marvel doesn’t fully trust in Tom Holland, are concerned that he isn’t a household name yet or worry that Spider-Man fatigue may still exist, but every other scene in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” includes either Iron Man, Tony Stark or Happy Hogan, offering the promise of perhaps another glimpse at either Stark or his suit. The veteran Marvel superhero is the literal and figurative babysitter of the movie, holding Spider-Man’s hand to make sure he doesn’t stumble before the finish line (whether in the marketing or otherwise). Even if Robert Downey Jr. only appears in about three scenes (and is “seen” and heard about two other times in the Iron Man suit), his presence is always felt. “Spider-Man: Training Wheels” still owes everything to Tony. With Marvel’s great power comes the great responsibility of doing right by Spider-Man, especially given the lackluster Marc Webb-directed ‘Amazing’ series. So, to ensure their investment and everything that’s riding on this first Sony/Marvel collabo, they obviously bring out the big Downey Jr. gun.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” doesn’t seem to mind, because first and foremost on its mind is having a good time, but there are many suspension-of-disbelief-testing plot holes everywhere. From a villain that goes from average blue collar Joe to super tech baddie creating super “Iron Man”-like mech suits to a high schooler computer whiz who can hack into Stark technology, even from the high school library, much of the plot doesn’t pass the basic movie logic smell test. Glossing over most reasoning, we’re supposed to just assume Parker is wicked smart and made web shooters and all kinds of tech on his own because hey, he’s skilled in chemistry class. ‘Homecoming’ is perhaps one of the worst Marvel movies when it comes to plausibility. It doesn’t want to do the homework in making you believe — it assumes you do and wants to skip past freshman year.
Curiously, you’re going to hear a lot about how pure and faithful “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is to the comics and to the quippy, irreverent tone of this classic character, and some of that will be completely accurate. But nearly antithetical to the spirit of the character is the upgraded Tony Stark tech. With all his 3.0 gadgets, Spider-Man is kind of a junior Iron Man, complete with an Artificial Intelligence robot that walks him through all the doohickeys in his armor and the best ways to beat the bad guys. Last time I checked that doesn’t remotely capture the essence of the Marvel hero and, more importantly, it doesn’t feel right.
Before you think the web shoots blanks, there are some A+ elements to the movie and they’re largely within the cast. Tom Holland makes for a terrific and convincing teenage Peter Parker. Inorganically shoehorned into the movie or not, Robert Downey Jr. is still ceaselessly charismatic and Marisa Tomei is the aunt every teenage boy’s best friend ever wanted. Then there are the supporting players, which make up perhaps the most refreshingly diverse cast of any mainstream movie in recent memory — lots of black, brown and Asian actors including Zendaya, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori and a scene-stealing best friend played by Jacob Batalon. Michael Keaton as the Vulture is certainly one of Marvel’s better villains: a working-class guy screwed over by the system who wants to take back the piece of the American pie that’s been stolen from him by the 1%. As a character with a real, relatable motivation, he’s great. However, as a villain in a flying bad guy suit — let’s forgo that we don’t buy how this guy created it without Tony Stark money or brains — he’s as generic as they come.
The fact that there are six separate writers credited on the film (including two in-house Marvel stooges) shows, especially in all the forced connectivity. There are also dozens of references to the New York incident of “Avengers,” Stark Tower, other MCU heroes and more — it’s all a bit strained. Equally forced is the movie’s sense of humor. It’s dying to be funny, but the jokes only land ¼ of the time, which is too bad, because they’re damn amusing when they stick the landing.
As patchy as the movie is, there’s a lot of little elements that work, even if the direction by Jon Watts feels anonymous and generically Marvel. The action set pieces, while self-serious, are top-notch and, every once and a while, its strong teen dynamics dial up some sublime ‘80s nostalgia thanks to the key placement of music (sequences with The Ramones and The English Beat knock it out of the park). “Spider-Man: Homecoming” can be extremely diverting, but only in fits and starts.
Ultimately pleasurable if very disposable, ‘Homecoming’ offers strong teen dynamics and, for once, serves up high-school sized stakes instead of placing the planet in peril. Cleverly, given the character’s tagline, responsibility is the running theme. Tony Stark, who’s never really thought any of this through, doesn’t want to be liable for Peter Parker, and Parker must weigh his accountability to his friends and teachers next to his desire to avenge. Even the antagonist must answer to his family, too. It’s all about meriting your value, and Tony Stark even spells it out: if you’re nothing without your superhero suit, you don’t deserve to wear it. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” might not flunk out of school, but earning its worth in future installments might mean sticking around for some serious after school tutoring. [C+/B-]