We now have more than enough big superhero movies to put together a list of must-haves. A good Marvel or DC franchise must have mind-blowing special effects, a confident director, careful casting, an excellent stunt team, and very good screenwriters.
It also needs to be witty and self-deprecating.
The latter qualities might be key. Anyone can blow up stuff and save humanity when he — or, these days, she — has magical super powers. Making an audience laugh and think is less easy. Witness the dreadful recent Batman and Superman films and the overrated Wonder Woman, which is a cultural phenomenon but, as an action flick, cannot compete with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man films.
So where does the sixth Spidey movie fit in? Spider-Man: Homecoming marks the second reboot of a lumbering franchise. Do we really need another lonely teenager in red tights, after the brooding Tobey Maguire and the disappointing Andrew Garfield in the same role? Before I saw the movie with a group of excited fans right before it opened nationwide (today), many lovers of the Marvel comic worried it might be the death of a beloved action hero. Franchise fatigue could kill Spidey sooner than any supervillain might.
But the 21-year-old English actor Tom Holland proves to be a very good Peter Parker. With a face so common he can blend into any high-school hallway, his Peter is a perfect antihero. Even when he dons the super suit to save the day, Spidey stays a little clueless and clumsy even when rescuing a group of fellow classmates trapped inside the Washington Monument.
For this film, Sony wisely decided to team up with Marvel. Perhaps the studio knew it was all or nothing after the new Spidey made his spectacularly funny debut in Captain America: Civil War, a film that proved how important good writing and casting are. Seeing Chris Evans and Downey Jr. battle it out was a thrill I won’t soon forget. In his supporting role, Spider-Man was a nervous wreck in that film. We could see he had skills, but his insecurities overshadowed them.
In the stand-alone movie directed by indy filmmaker Jon Watts, Spidey is a protégé of Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, meaning we are blessed to see Downey Jr. pop up throughout the story. A bit bored and overeager, Spidey is an intern for Stark, who mostly ignores him. As interns do, Spider-Man does some good but mostly messes up the limited scope of work assigned to him. This superhero is neither super nor a hero — not when the film begins anyway.
Naturally, Spider-Man also gets to have his own villain named The Vulture. This is where casting director Sarah Finn deserves all credit. After expertly casting Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy she managed to get Michael Keaton as the bad guy. One of the best actors of his generation, now 65, gets to growl, joke, fight, mock, and don a pair of wings — again, after Birdman. His sublime, biting darkness reminded me of an aging Hugh Jackman in the X-men film Logan. As Jackman did in Logan, Keaton makes this movie as special for adults as it will be for the kids who dream of flying between skyscrapers like Spidey.
With six billed screenwriters the screenplay is fast and a bit convoluted, as superhero films tend to be. But it is leaner than most in the genre, and the jokes work. Even the extended cameo by creator Stan Lee, still chipper at 94, serves a purpose. Nerdy Ned, played by a young actor named Jacob Batalon, deserves special mention. He is the perfect sidekick. As Peter Parker’s close friend he is the only one who’s in on the big secret that he is Spider-Man. Thankfully Batalon will be back in the 2019 sequel, just like Holland and Keaton.
The latest Spidey is just a teenager with something to prove. In other words, he is relatable. While still insecure, he is now a strangely lovable kid without parents but with an aunt who, played by Marisa Tomei, is lovable in a different way. This is no feminist manifesto. The women in Homecoming are love interests, relatives, girls to be saved — how traditional. But if we judge superhero blockbusters as entertainment based on that list of must-haves, then this Spider-Man will deserve to surpass Wonder Woman at the box office.