Friday, July 14, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming (VS Spider-Man 2)

Spider-Man: Homecoming easily rivals and in some ways even surpasses Spider-Man 2 as the best Spider-Man movie to date, which in my book automatically puts it in the running for one of the best contemporary superhero movies (a crown shared by The Dark Knight and *maybe* X-Men 2). Put another way, this is the best film representation yet of Spider-Man the character, if not the best Spider-Man movie overall.

Homecoming, like Spider-Man 2, gets a lot right about Spider-Man: one of the central tenets of the character is that being Spider-Man screws up Peter Parker’s life, rather than making it easier. Spider-Man functions best when Peter’s alter ego is more of a burden than a boon, because it’s part of what makes him noble and heroic: he’s excited to be a superhero, but he often has to sacrifice the things he wants in his personal life to meet his goals in his superhero life.* In Homecoming, being Spider-Man draws Peter away from a party, makes him miss his team’s performance in the national decathlon championship, and ruins a date with his crush to the homecoming dance. Yes, he heroically saves the day, but his schoolmates think he’s a flake, and he tests the trust of his beloved aunt May.

*One of the clearest ways in which the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man films fail to understand what’s special about this character is that Peter wins Gwen Stacy’s affection by revealing to her his secret identity. Things never come this easily to the wall crawler. 

The film also captures the humor of the character, which is one of the ways in which it improves on Spider-Man 2. You can see flashes of it in Captain America: Civil War, where Spider-Man has some of the funniest dialogue in the climactic battle between the different Avengers factions, but Homecoming does a much better job than previous Spider-Man films of conveying how funny this character often is in this comics. This includes not only his quips during his fights -- best showcased here when he foils the robbers wearing cheap Avengers masks -- but also Peter's innocent excitement over getting to be a superhero, something the film sells well in the beginning, when we see the amateur, behind-the-scenes film Peter makes during the events of Civil War.

Another aspect of Spider-Man’s humor that Homecoming nails is how unlucky he can be: Spider-Man often makes miscalculations or suffers indignities that undercut his heroism, like when he falls on his face after misjudging how much room he has to swing, or when he has to run through golf course sprinklers when there are no more trees to swing through in the suburbs. More than this though, the film also does a good job of showing how being Spider-Man is not always a majestic or valorous experience. We see many awkward or mundane moments, perhaps best exemplified by Peter clumsily changing into his costume in an alley, or when he lifts up the bottom of his mask to eat a sandwich. Such foibles make him endearingly human.*

* In general, the humanity of the Marvel heroes are one of the reasons I’ve always found them more compelling than DC heroes, who seem more like Greek gods. Spider-Man is exemplary: Spider-Man is inextricable from Peter Parker, who doesn’t suddenly take on a new persona when he suits up. He’s the opposite of Superman or Batman, for whom Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne are merely human-shaped costumes that they use only when they have to pretend they aren’t superheroes. I’ll gladly take heroes who behave like actual people over heroes who only pretend to be people, thank you. 

Spider-Man 2 costume.
Other ways in which Homecoming improves on Spider-Man 2 are more incidental, but satisfy my inner nerd and teenage self. For as great as Spider-Man 2 is, none of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films ever got the costume quite right. The piping that makes up the webbing was three-dimensional instead of two-dimensional, and reflective and silvery instead of black. The colors were also muted, and not the bright, primary colors of the costume in Homecoming, which read much better and really pop off the screen (much like they do in the comics). Likewise, the eyes of Maguire’s costume were always off -- they looked like horns tipped on their side, when they should look more like fairy wings.

The eyes on the costume in the Andrew Garfield films were a step in the right direction, but Homecoming puts them all to shame by allowing them to expand and contract like an eye's pupil, an effect comic book artists have put to great use in expressing Spider-Man’s mental states. Moreover, they also allow the film costume to reflect some of the different ways he’s looked in the comics over the years.

Incorporating Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a great boon here, as it motivates such technologically advanced costuming by having Tony Stark make it, which in turn pays comedic dividends, both when Peter struggles with the different features Tony built into it, and after Tony takes it away, and we see the sloppy costume Peter wore previously, which looks like the kind of thing a high school student might actually slap together.

A less incidental improvement in Homecoming concerns Spider-Man's powers. The Sam Raimi films made his web-shooters into natural projectiles that shoot out of glands in Peter’s wrists, rather than technological devices Peter creates himself (as in the comics). Why make such a change from the comics? There seems to be no purpose other than a one-off gag where web-shooting becomes symbolic for masturbation. Funny as this joke may be (I'm skeptical), making Spider-Man's webbing a natural projectile actually undermines the character because it detracts from Peter's scientific talent, which is one of his central traits. Homecoming corrects this as well, and in doing so bolsters Peter’s ingenuity (if not his business acumen).

Homecoming has more mixed results in its attempts to humanize a classic but somewhat silly Spider-Man villain, the Vulture. In the comics, the Vulture is an old man who wears a flying suit and steals money. In the film, he’s a victim of the shrinking middle class, a small-business owner who is driven out of his market and toward crime by a giant conglomeration, and in a late twist, he’s also revealed to be the father of Peter’s crush, Liz.

On the one hand, it’s a smart play to connect the Vulture to Peter’s personal life, because it makes him more threatening while also allowing him a small measure of redemption. In Homecoming, he deduces that Peter is Spider-Man and threatens to kill his friends and family if Peter continues to interfere with his criminal exploits. In the climax, Spider-Man saves the Vulture when the Vulture’s suit explodes, causing the Vulture to view Peter in a new, sympathetic light. Later, he repays Peter in prison by refusing to divulge Peter’s identity to another criminal bent on revenge. Humanized villains are usually more compelling than evil caricatures, because we can better understand their psychology and motivation. Such is the case with this new Vulture.

On the other hand, the Vulture’s motivation for turning to a life of crime is awfully thin: his anger over the failure of his salvage business leads him to craft weapons out of alien technology leftover from the climax of The Avengers, which he then sells to criminals. The amazing devices he creates leads one to wonder why he doesn’t simply try to make a fortune patenting and marketing them legally (even if he's not supposed to have legal access to the alien technology). It's nice to see the Vulture treated as a small-scale villain because it suits the "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man" portrayed by this film, however, the two-dimensional treatment of the economic plight of the middle class is somewhat disappointing. I supposed it's usually foolish to expect sophisticated cultural critiques in Hollywood summer blockbusters, but at the very least I wanted something more plausible here.

Nevertheless, Homecoming does a good job of adapting strong stories from its source material, another trait it shares with Spider-Man 2. One of the strongest parts of the earlier film is its adaptation of a plot where Peter briefly retires from crime fighting in order to make his life easier (even composing a shot that mimics a panel from the comics).

Homecoming does something similar with another memorable moment from the comics, adapting a scene where Spider-Man frees himself from being trapped underneath tons of machinery dropped on him by a villain. In both the comics and the film, it’s a powerful moment that reaffirms Peter’s will to be a hero, despite some clumsy cinematography meant to capture the symbolism the comics sometimes used, where half of Peter’s face is suddenly covered by his mask. In the comics, it's meant to remind dullards or newcomers that Peter is in fact Spider-Man, but coming so late in the film, here it seems to serve only as unnecessary homage.

So, given everything Homecoming gets right, why do I still prefer Spider-Man 2 as the better movie overall? It has to do with the earlier film's thematic unity. One of the central themes in that film is Spider-Man's concern over keeping his identity a secret, lest harm befall those he loves. However, in the end he resolves conflicts in both his love and crime-fighting lives by doing exactly the opposite: revealing his identity causes Mary Jane to realize that Peter loves her, and causes Doctor Octopus's humanity to resurface from beneath his megalomania, reminding him of who he used to be when he knew Peter in Octopus's previous life.

The film also ends perfectly: in what would be the final shot of most films, Spider-Man swings into the distance toward the setting sun, but before fading to black, Sam Raimi gives us one more shot of Mary Jane looking after him as he swings away, her pride in Peter's heroics giving way to concern over his well-being. Ending the film this way really emphasizes the underlying human relationships that make Spider-Man such a compelling character.

This kind of thematic unity isn't as present in Homecoming, and it ends on a joke rather than a perfect encapsulation of Spider-Man's appeal. Peter's main concern is to earn the respect of Tony Stark and prove his worthiness of being an Avenger, which he does, only to choose to remain a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man at the last minute. Theoretically, this decision is motivated by his realization that he still wants to have a normal teenage life before graduating to adulthood, but the film doesn't explain this change of heart very clearly, or make as much psychological drama out of it as it could have.

Thus while I still prefer Spider-Man 2 overall, I appreciate Homecoming for getting the tone of the character and his world just right, which is typical of most entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s hoping the next one is even better.

Other thoughts:

- Homecoming is humorously self-referential in a way that a lot of these Marvel films are. Here, a sweeping orchestral version of the theme song from the campy 1960s Spider-Man cartoon makes an appearance over the Marvel Studios logo.

- Despite my misgivings about the Vulture’s motivation, Michael Keaton plays him well, and I was especially tickled by how playing the Vulture connects to others roles in his career, specifically, Birdman, where his character is famous for playing a bird-themed hero, and of course Batman, which Birdman was itself obliquely referencing.

- Tom Holland is great, capturing perfectly how young and excitable Peter is by this new world of adventure into which he has been thrust (and is far superior to the mumbled, stuttered performance Andrew Garfield gives in his films). The play of emotions on Holland’s face when Peter realizes that Liz’s dad is the Vulture is perhaps his finest moment.

- Homecoming also does a good job of mining the comedy of Peter accidentally revealing his secret identity to his best friend Ned, who asks all of the kinds of questions a teenager would ask if his best friend was a superhero. Ned’s enthusiasm for Peter’s secret identity is infectious and funny, and one of the film’s strongest ideas.

- One of the nice things about Spider-Man is that his superpowers let his writers get really creative with how they set and stage his fights, and Homecoming doesn’t disappoint. The climax on the exterior of the invisible cargo plane is particularly inspired (if occasionally difficult to follow).

- Michael Mando shows up for a blink-and-you-miss-it role as one of the Vulture’s buyers. Kind of a waste of one of the stars of Better Call Saul and Orphan Black, but he gets more to do in the epilogue.

- Speaking of wasted actors, I would have liked more of Marisa Tomei here.

- Homecoming is also subtle in emphasizing how new Spider-Man is to all of this. I particularly liked his anxiety over how high he crawls up the Washington Monument, which is small potatoes compared to skyscraper webslinging he'll become accustomed to.

- For a funny discussion of some of these and other qualities of various Spider-Man film representations, check out Hal Lublin and Mark Gagliardi’s podcast, “We Got This with Mark and Hal,” which just released an episode devoted to determining the best Spider-Man.

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