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Peter Parker’s Day Off

‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ has a just-happy-to-be-here charm that the overwrought previous iterations of the character were lacking. And the best part of the new Marvel movie? Michael Keaton finally gets to play Birdman!

(Sony/Ringer illustration)
(Sony/Ringer illustration)

It’s pretty cute that Peter Parker’s morning commute to high school in Spider-Man: Homecoming is soundtracked by Spoon’s 2007 single "The Underdog." Besides buying Britt Daniel that walk-in humidor he’s always wanted (or all the Chipotle he can eat), this sly bit of soundtrack curation suggests that Homecoming is staking out a more modest corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a little piece of real estate adjacent to the AOR nostalgia of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but less gentrified.

This little hint of marginality — of what Spoon once tunefully identified as "Small Stakes" — is central to the charm of a film that uses the outskirts as an organizing principle. It takes place in Queens, not Manhattan; the villain is a scrap-metal scavenger rather than a planet-destroying alien; its featured group of heroes are academic decathletes instead of Avengers. In a genuinely witty introductory sequence whose conception hopefully inspired the six credited screenwriters to chomp on cigars J. Jonah Jameson–style, we see key events of Captain America: Civil War — specifically the gigantic, Berlin-set superhero intramural battle that roped in everybody from Black Panther to Ant-Man — replayed from the perspective of Peter’s (Tom Holland) iPhone; in a few short, blurry strokes, Spider-Man: Homecoming undermines the spectacle of its predecessor and places its protagonist at the bottom of the pecking order — in contrast to Andrew Garfield’s moody web slinger, this version of Spider-Man is just happy to be there.

In plot terms, Spider-Man: Homecoming is about its namesake’s attempts to prove that he belongs on the same marquee as Iron Man, Captain America, et. al, a narrative conceit that’s cleverly self-reflexive in the context of a reboot pegged to a mostly unknown young actor. Patriots and Hollywood protectionists may grumble at the prospects of yet another gifted Brit swooping in and stealing a superhero role away from good American boys (and the presence in the supporting cast of Donald Glover, who not so long ago took to Twitter to campaign for the part, really does twist the knife), but Holland, who is 21-going-on-15, is ideally cast. Even if the New Yawk accent is obviously a put-on, the actor’s lithe gymnast’s build and exuberant physicality — honed playing Billy Elliot in the West End and revealed to the world via his Gene Kelly–slash–Rihanna vamp on Lip Sync Battle — are the real deal. The ratio of stunts-to-CGI in his performance is something only the production team knows for sure, but he still inhabits Spidey’s essentially buoyant, athletic presence.

The contradiction between Peter Parker’s weightless grace in his blue-and-red uniform and his awkwardness in his undisguised honor-roll persona is well-established-bordering-on-boring, and one of the main objectives for director Jon Watts — who got the assignment after 2015’s trim, efficient chase thriller Cop Car — is to keep things from seeming too familiar.

So there’s no origin story: no radioactive spider and no Uncle Ben. There’s also no Oscorp, no scientific progress going boink, no Daily Bugle, and no MJ (at least not in plain sight). The inescapable familiarity of the high school milieu, meanwhile, is offset by some casually risqué dialogue (congratulations are due not only for sneaking a "fuck, marry, kill" session into a PG-13 movie but placing the participants in the right order) and conspicuously multicultural casting. Both of the girls in Peter’s romantic orbit are played by African American actresses (Laura Harrier and Zendaya, the latter especially funny); his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is Filipino; and even alpha-male bully Flash Thompson — originally portrayed by pre-ab-fabulous Joe Manganiello — is now a (snide, cock-blocking) person of color (played by The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Guatemalan-descended Tony Revolori).

One-liners alluding to political protest and the slave labor behind the Washington Monument bring further subtext bubbling to the surface; when Peter gets held after school for cutting class, he slouches in front of a black-and-white portrait of James Baldwin.

It’s a startling and unexpected juxtaposition, even if the cynic in me suspects it’s merely decorative. The real star cameo of the aforementioned scene is not the author of The Devil Finds Work but Chris Evans as Captain America, who’s glimpsed on a TV screen lecturing the assembled delinquents on the merits of detention (like the smarmy narc that he is). Homecoming’s progressive elements don’t necessarily signify any further than the cool-kid music cues (which also include the Ramones and the English Beat) and fleet Ferris Bueller’s Day Off parody, which has conned excitable critics into taking Kevin Feige’s bait and dubbing the whole thing a John Hughes homage.

But they nevertheless mix interestingly with the backstory of Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, a salvage worker who’s introduced in an eight-years-earlier prologue getting fired from his job picking through the aftermath of the intergalactic battle at the end of The Avengers. Losing this lucrative gig to Tony Stark’s own internal clean-up team turns Toomes into yet another guy with an axe to grind against Iron Man, although his edge — both as written in the script and acted by Keaton — is sharper than most.

He’s a believably ambivalent bad guy, and an improvement on Marvel’s current stable of crappy antagonists. Toomes’s arc from rightly aggrieved working-class stiff to self-styled arms dealer, wholesaling discarded Chitauri technology — and using the best bits to turn himself into the airborne, iron-eagle bad guy Vulture — is compelling precisely because it’s so small-scale. (Since everybody’s going to make the same sarcastic comment about Keaton actually going and playing Birdman after all, I’ll skip it except to say that I think he’s better here than in Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning piece of Steadicam porn.)

The verbal and aerial skirmishes between Spider-Man and Vulture are entertaining enough, but Holland’s true costar is Robert Downey Jr., who lords lackadaisically over the movie like a pharaoh who knows he’s getting his on the back end. At this point, Downey is basically the franchise’s CEO (and roughly as wealthy as Tony Stark) and his above-it-all smugness dovetails nicely with his character’s skepticism about whether the new kid can hack it. Instructing Peter to "stay close to the ground," and grousing about the expense of outfitting him with a tricked-out new suit (whose outlandish properties are showcased in an amusing and cunningly edited mid-film set piece), Tony could be a studio executive reining in an overzealous up-and-coming director.

Because Downey can play this part in his sleep, his master-of-the-universe shtick is thinner than it used to be, and yet the detachment works because it keeps things from getting too mushy, which was finally the problem with Sam Raimi’s trilogy, the hilariously deadpan Saturday Night Fever parody in Part 3 nothwithstanding.

Whatever emotion gets conjured up in the scenes between Holland and Marisa Tomei, who plays a chilled-out and extremely eligible Aunt May, is totally incidental in a movie that’s generally glib and eager to please, closer in tone and execution to the Jump Street series than Marvel’s typically monolithic M.O. or the wannabe mythicism of its across-the-way comic-book-cinema competitors. At one point, Peter deploys his suit’s new "enhanced interrogation mode," which lowers his voice to an electronically modified Dark Knight growl. The joke is on why-so-serious Christopher Nolan and the idea that superhero movies need to be dark to be any good. Spider-Man isn’t dark. Cute is what he aims for.