Director: Jon Watts

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon

Who is Spider-Man?

For someone like me growing up in the 1990s, Spider-Man often existed in the same breath – the third of the old school, orphaned superhero trifecta – as Superman and Batman. But he was the opposite of oldness and adultness: a regular preppie American nerd living out a teenaged, adrenaline-junkie, All-American fantasy. His recklessness wasn’t arrogant or internal or destiny-oriented; it was born out of juvenility and an inherent need to be appreciated.

To be someone.

That’s who Peter Parker is; he is an unremarkable simpleton who shoots webs to transform into a high-functioning hunk of aerial choreography. For these moments, his difficult childhood is a footnote. He wants to use his powers not just to save people, but also to give himself a better, more important life.

Unlike the other two, though, he exists in a more modest universe, a real one, not Gotham or Metropolis but its existing manifestation, New York: the “working-class superhero” of sorts. It didn’t matter if he was a Marvel creation and the other two were DC stooges. This was a simpler time, a time of soliloquys, before the Partition era. Before one had to be mindful about identities and genetic families. Before spatial segregation. Before teams and recruitments and save-the-world assignments. Before the lesser, egoistic bunch of self-important trash-talking mutants assaulted our imaginations. The only “extended universe” back then was Krypton.

Everything is derived. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a typical product of this annoyingly collaborative philosophy. Peter (Tom Holland, in the most Un-Tobey-Maguire avatar) is fifteen, and already exists in the pop-cultural post-Avengers era.

For a kid simply wanting to fly, Spider-Man was the kid who got to fly. His trademark is his independence. He figures out his own way to be torn between a greater calling and regular high-school issues. He makes his own mistakes.

Which is why I find it anguishing to accept the flashy self-awareness of today’s 2.0 heroes. Everything I just waxed nostalgic about is taken for granted; the economy of it all is overlooked by the rules of upgrade. I understand the need to adapt, but this interactional age is now the cinematic equivalent of turning Tennis into a team sport, or identifying the Ryder Cup as the most important Golf tournament ever – it comes with conditions, likes, boundaries and nationalities, and preferences and compromises and sides. Every decision and character trait is designed to “extend” a collective purpose; there are nearly no personal demons and quests.

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Even the solo movies (this is Spider-Man’s second reboot, and sixth individual outing, in my lifetime alone) these days employ this brand of borrowed personality. Everything is derived. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a typical product of this annoyingly collaborative philosophy. Peter (Tom Holland, in the most Un-Tobey-Maguire avatar) is fifteen, and already exists in the pop-cultural post-Avengers era. Schools and gyms have Captain America’s public service announcements, and girls gossip about who the “hottest” Avenger is. Aunt May has a saucy Marisa Tomei makeover, and classrooms are a reaction to today’s America; they have rarely been so ethically diverse before. Best pal Ted is an obese “outsider,” a clumsy video game geek who vaguely embodies the kind of milieu this film aims for.

Peter has tasted blood as somewhat of an intern in Captain America: Civil War, and wants more now; his eager mentor-protégé equation with Tony Stark forms the crux of this solo outing. Peter here is more like the needy Robin from The Lego Batman Movie than the conventional one, and can’t understand why he must partake in ordinary human things like education, proms and academic decathlon teams. He loves his custom-made hi-tech Stark-created spidey suit, and spends quite some time reflecting my feelings about this movie’s existence: all knees and elbows, struggling to decipher the suit’s next-gen robotic technology, wondering whether to embrace this Xbox-evolution or return to 8-bit gaming. I’d diagnose his condition as one with serious daddy issues, but that’s too dark for Marvel’s chatty little palette of millennial crusaders.

As a result, we have something of a self-reverential Kick-Ass tone – a curious mix of parody and legacy, except that Parker is slightly more (if only by power) than an amateur DIY caped vigilante. The big-game staging is quite relevant, though: the villain (Michael Keaton, as The Vulture, or Birdman: The Unexpected Financial Virtue of Ignorance) is sort of an evil low-key Tony Stark, a self-made criminal businessman and a direct result of the destructive Battle of New York sequence.

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He resents Stark’s alliance with the government to clean up the mess (Department of Damage Control, it seems) because it puts his noble Salvage Company in the dumps. He steals some Chitauri weaponry and, bitter and victimized, starts a low-tech Narcos-level smuggling empire while Ironman is too busy “shifting” the Avengers base upstate. Superheroes shift their important junk just like us, too, in a heightened movers-and-packers (automated airplanes, perhaps) way. The whole point it to look busy enough to dismiss Parker as an upstart, and conspicuous enough to dismiss the very notion of a self-sufficient Spiderman.

I used to keep wondering how these slap-happy saviours destroy a new city every film while trying to destroy their enemies, and when, if ever, this will piss someone off other than my cash-counting Gujarati genes. So this plot makes sense. One empathizes with this wronged Vulture chap as much as Sam Raimi’s Green Goblin origins, except that Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn didn’t sound like a politically disillusioned everyman who’d rebelliously vote for Donald Trump. Vulture is that guy.

It deliberately employs the gimmicky aura of a flimsy Spy Game movie that just happens to be part of some grander scheme – a new-age brand well on its way to privatize the primitive concept of superpowers and strength. The superhero equivalent of, say, the next James Bond movie pivoting on a Kingsman template.

For more than one reason, Homecoming doesn’t feel like a large-scale Spiderman movie. Perhaps because Parker is still teething at this point of the journey, in context of the omnipresent MCU. You can’t throw a stone these days without it landing on a cheeky inside-joke Ironman or Thor reference. Perhaps because he’s too darn young to have real existential problems or romantic conflicts. Or perhaps because it just isn’t about a Queens kid and his neighbourhood restlessness anymore. It deliberately employs the gimmicky aura of a flimsy Spy Game movie that just happens to be part of some grander scheme – a new-age brand well on its way to privatize the primitive concept of superpowers and strength. The superhero equivalent of, say, the next James Bond movie pivoting on a Kingsman template.

The action of the set pieces feels a little been-there-done-that, too, whether it’s an incoherent Washington Monument disaster, ridiculous Staten Island Ferry pyrotechnics or a climactic Coney Island beach plane crash. The makers always seem to be thinking ahead instead of engineering an occasional show-stopping spectacle or definitive emotional upheaving.

The one phase I really felt the closest to understanding Peter’s bouncy temperament is when Stark takes away his suit as a punishment. This is the biggest breakup of Peter’s adolescent life; he mourns this loss of status as the death of a relationship, forcing himself to find traditional “distractions” to fill this void. This is the only kind of heart that breaks in mutant chests. This is the only kind of grieving they identify with – of not being in love with themselves anymore. It is quite similar to the kind of grieving I experience, when the mere mention of Kent, Wayne or Parker makes me wary about where they will fight instead of how they should fight. Those were the days.

 

Rating:   star

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