The limits of (super) heroism

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming

From its opening, Spider-Man: Home-coming announces that it places emphasis on youth. Its first shot is a crayon drawing of The Avengers. The shot is almost aspirational and the admiration for these larger than life heroes is distinct. The first scene in the present, after a brief prologue involving events emanating from 2012’s The Avengers, is similarly euphoric and full of admiration. We are looking at a homemade video of a gleeful teenager reacting to the wonder of the superhero world he is being thrust into. This teenager is Peter Parker, and he has been recently recruited by Tony Spark to join the Avengers, at least on a probationary level.

The honeymoon is soon over and Peter returns to his real life. We already know the story. He’s a teenager, a bit of a nerd. He goes to high-school, where he’s not quite an outcast but not popular and he lives with his single, widowed Aunt May. He does all this while dealing with the new reality of being a superhero—a life that is not quite super or heroic.

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Comparing iterations is a losing game, but any Spider-Man entry invites comparison to Sam Raimi’s first trilogy both because of proximity (it was less than two decades ago that the first entry premiered) and for the way the Spider-Man story cannot really deviate from familiar precepts. Peter Parker’s struggle will always be marked by his growth from boy to man, by his isolation from the world he lives in, and by his difficulty in knowing just how to be a good superhero. It’s very likely that the awareness of this sameness is what makes the six credited screenwriters opt to begin the story just a bit later than we are used to. This is no origin tale. We do not see him getting the requisite spider bite. Neither do we see Uncle Ben’s death and the way it affects his relationship with his Aunt May. This leaves the film to live in the now and there is so much happening that it still needs in excess of two hours to tell its story.

But the extended running time gives Tom Holland, the latest Peter Parker, a chance to showcase the gamut of his abilities – he’s the high school klutz, he’s the unsophisticated wannabe spy, he’s the needy boy trying to impress his mentor, Iron Man. Holland is too good looking to be a classical Peter Parker. He’s too limber with his body, too charming, too sincere but he’s also such a good actor that the issues in the casting are rendered extraneous. Holland gives, quite possibly, my favourite performance in a comic film of this decade (including Logan and Wonder Woman). He is marvellous distilling the four disparate aspects of the film, which at times seem to be too wholly disparate to coalesce. There is the traditional high school comedy, the family drama with an underutilised Marisa Tomei, the mentor/ingénue film with Iron Man, and the traditional superhero versus villain story. I’ve been invested in Holland’s career since he gave a rousing performance in 2012’s The Impossible. If I were only writing about Holland’s performance, this piece would be a rapturous entry.

Holland’s excellent performance is matched by a great one from Michael Keaton, the film’s villain. Keaton distils the crisis of the working class in America into a compelling villain even if his plan still strains credulity. It’s a committed performance and their eventual scene together and its climax is impressive. So, that’s two very good things that Spider-Man: Homecoming has going for it – an excellent performance from Tom Holland, whose career I remain excited to follow, and Keaton’s villain. But these two things are not enough because Homecoming is so many films in one. There are still two individual story arcs to be completed after that climax. It’s endemic of the film this is – a kind of a loose, shaggy dog movie rather than a carefully ordered one. And one which ends up sitting limply rather than landing with aplomb.

Caught between the unrelenting humour of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the all encroaching-darkness of the DC films, I admit an ambivalence on choosing either. Both have aspects I like and do not. Homecoming embraces both the best and the worst of the Marvel films. It’s perhaps the most aggressively funny of the lot, using its high-school setting to mine for a kind of John Hughes-like humour that comes easy with the territory. It should be simple, and yet these aspects come off as too forced to land seamlessly. The idea of Peter Parker’s hubris destroying his ability to be a true hero is well examined but the script and direction are committed to an onslaught of humorous set-pieces that play for easy laughs as they happen but don’t really propel the story forward. The very last shot of the film is the set up for a cathartic outbreak of laughter from the audience – and the audience I watched it with was eating it up – but faced between a choice of cathartic revelation and jarring joke/punchline set up, Homecoming seems to too often–and too easily–resort to the former.

Homecoming does have other positives. Its irreverent, loose form seems suited to its protagonist–an overzealous teenage boy–more than many previous Marvel entries, which sometimes emerge as being overtly humorous for their own sake with little real interest. There is also the film’s willingness to showcase a world that has space for characters who are not just white. The young cast is earnest but their posture emerges as too forced to fit with the film’s easiness. Aside from Holland, Tony Revolori as a fresh take on the teen “bully” is impressive and I’m curious to see if the film world finds more for him to do.

Somewhere inside Homecoming, there is an even better movie. A tighter more effective one. It seems churlish to really indict this one when it wears its heart, its assets (and its foibles) so eagerly on its sleeve. But there are so many things it teases that it cannot and will not make good on. Marvel films, for all their ostensible litheness, always emerge as especially indebted to the product that they make. And so, when the villain makes a note of the elitism of Peter’s hero–Iron Man/Tony Stark–and the world he lives in, there can be no real reassessment of the limits of playing god, of wanting to be more than human. For Peter to accept his argument would be to betray the excitement of the relationship to The Avengers that this film depends on. And so the villain is quickly ejected from the narrative for us to make space for the happy ending where Peter can finally be accepted by Stark. It’s an ending that plays falsely amid the hokey last ten minutes of the film.

Homecoming sits comfortably alongside other middle-tier Marvel films. It’s okay, sometimes good and Holland is excellent. Teenagers will be happy to see themselves represented on screen, but next to the philosophical depths of Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, even the best parts of Homecoming feel just adequate. This is endemic of films which are more faithful to their cinematic universes than their individual selves.

Have a comment? Write to Andrew at almasydk@ gmail.com

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