Spider-Man: Homecoming — Marvel Minimalism

★★★

It should go without saying that superhero films as of late don’t subscribe to the idea that “less is more”. One only needs to look to Wonder Woman’s overblown, CGI-laden finale, or Logan’s bloated and indulgent two and a half hour runtime for evidence. This tendency toward excess is mostly a commercial consideration; studios want to ensure that the fans get their money’s worth; so the basic planning of each film becomes a question of how much spectacle they can throw up on screen, how many “easter eggs” they can cram in, how many infantries of disposable villains the visual effects team can conjure up, how long the runtime can be, etc. It’s always a matter of quantity over quality. Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming smartly bucks this trend, offering a satisfying and modestly scaled alternative that succeeds on its own limited terms. It’s one of Marvel’s most purely entertaining films to date.

The film takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War, in which Tom Holland made his debut appearance as the famed webslinger — a performance which many fans regarded as the best on-screen incarnation of Spider-Man, period. In Homecoming, Holland delivers on the promise that he showed there, imbuing the title character with a nerdy enthusiasm and playful sense of humor that feels ripped straight from the comics. The main story follows him as he attempts to balance a normal high school life with his larger responsibility to keep the city safe as Spider-Man, with Tony Stark taking on the surrogate father role that was traditionally filled by Uncle Ben in previous installments. Friction develops between Parker and Stark as Peter’s overeagerness to put his powers into action endangers him multiple times, and Stark repeatedly has to show up to save the day. While it’s nice to see Robert Downey Jr., who’s always effortlessly charismatic in the role of Iron Man, the film leans too heavily on both Stark’s presence and Avengers related-tie ins to remind us that they’re all interconnected and in the same cinematic universe, and at times the film can feel unfocused in regard to Parker’s personal story.

But when Homecoming is focused squarely on Parker, it really comes to life. With a title like Homecoming the majority of the film is unsurprisingly, set in high school, a milieu that immediately calls to mind and invites comparisons to the films of John Hughes, and for an even more recent point of comparison, the criminally underrated Sky High. It’s refreshing to see a superhero film where there’s no end of the world scenario or legions of extraterrestrials invading the planet, and where, in the tradition of great coming of age movies, the stakes boil down to a question as simple as “Will he get the girl?”, in Peter’s case, a senior classmate named Liz. The interactions between Parker and the supporting characters throughout the course of his day at school are charming and witty, and do a fine job of fleshing out Peter’s interior life as a high schooler. These are supporting roles that might register as bland, stock sidekicks in the hands of lesser actors, but they’re given depth and distinctive personality by Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, and Zendaya. Marisa Tomei is also effective as an exceptionally young, but endearing Aunt May.

Homecoming’s villain comes in the form of Michael Keaton’s disgruntled, blue-collar Vulture, who illegally sells extraterrestrial weapons on the streets as a means of making a living, and as a personal act of revenge against Tony Stark and THE TOP ONE PUH-CENT for reasons that I won’t spoil here (think a rogue Bernie Sanders in a bird suit). Keaton turns in his best performance since Birdman here, playing another bird man, but this time with an unsettling mix of world-weariness and hostility, as opposed to existential despair. On a superficial story level, Homecoming is the most fun MCU film in quite some time, but it still suffers from a lot of the usual Marvel problems — namely, the flat, borderline televisual cinematography, the baggy runtime, and the mediocre action. There’s a set piece near the end of the film that is so dimly lit that makes it hard to engage with the scene at all, in a crucial moment when the stakes are supposed to be at their highest.

Homecoming’s detractors have accused the film of feeling too much like inconsequential filler before the much-anticipated Infinity Wars, in which all Marvel’s heroes and villains will collide in a super-extravaganza, but I would argue that the shift to a smaller scale is more of an asset than a flaw, and it’s the exact change of pace that Marvel needed after the sprawling and unwieldy messes that were Guardians Vol. 2 and Doctor Strange. Homecoming is a compact and breezy lark that pulls off its modest ambitions, contains a handful of good performances, and is perhaps as close to minimalism as Marvel will ever come — which, for a studio guilty of overdoing it time and time again, can’t help but feel like a step in the right direction.