Directed by Jon Watts
By Noel Vera
After Zack Snyder’s ideas for an angsty Man of Steel and dreary-dark Knight one might understand the need of audiences for a change of pace: the lighter (if suicidally wrongheaded) Suicide Squad, Tim Miller’s (dramatically weightless) Deadpool, and James Gunn’s pair of (mostly amusing) Guardians come to mind.
Now we have the latest Marvel Studios effort (in collaboration with Columbia, with special permission and distribution by Sony) complete with Tom Holland as squeaky voiced Peter Parker and Marisa Tomei as uncomfortably hot Aunt May. No solemn “With great power comes great responsibility,” no Uncle Ben (or Cliff Robertson to play him), and (far as I can see) no discernible personality distinct from what the corporate powers-that-be decree fit for this strictly-for-teens variation on the classic comic-book hero.
The movie’s biggest problems in my book come from Jon Watts’ declaration (in interviews and publicity pieces) that he modeled his movie after 1980s teen comedies — y’know “The John Hughes sort of tone.” Granted it’s an improvement over Bruce mistaking Clark’s mother for his own but couldn’t Watts have chosen a more interesting flavor? Amy Heckerling say or Michael Lehmann or even Bob Clark (Maybe not Clark — but isn’t John Landis still around?)? Granted Peter’s problems must be the kind teens can identify with — do they have to be so relentlessly PG? If Holland must flash his bottom in some rowdy senior-high shenanigan I say let him flash his bottom — less squeamish modesty please!
It’s not all bad. There is something fairly refreshing about a freshly hatched trainee superhero who doesn’t quite know what he’s doing (though if you think this brilliant new premise is making its debut appearance you obviously haven’t seen Kinka Usher’s Mystery Men, Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, or James Gunn’s Super); veteran comic director Watts knows how to time punch lines, verbal or physical, with confidence. Holland is a fairly engaging actor — from his performance here you would never have guessed he wasn’t 15 or even American — but Michael Keaton as salvager-turned-weapons-dealer Adrian Toomes steps up and pockets the picture with the casual grace of a professional. Keaton brings a cartload of associations to the movie — his winged alien-powered exoskeleton recalls his costume for Inarritu’s Birdman and his crazy-funny intensity recalls the eponymous ghoul in Beetlejuice. When (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the movie!) he’s revealed to be Liz’s father — Liz (Laura Harrier) being Peter’s love interest — the hapless youth finds himself trapped in the prom date from hell: the object of his desire is daughter to his mortal enemy as both teenager and superhero. Wholly Applicable Metaphor for Adolescence, Batman!
Unfortunately it’s precious little seasoning to alleviate the general benignity. For all of Parker’s desire to connect with members of the fairer sex, it’s telling that his most successful intimacy is with Karen, the AI provided by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr. uncharacteristically trying to be parental and all) to manage Parker’s hi-tech costume. Is Karen meant to be a joke? Is she meant to be funny (As in Spike Jonze’s Her funny?)? Yes I suppose for maybe five minutes; for more durable entertainment you probably need the unpredictability or ability to transcend programming of a genuine flesh-and-blood female — or at least a genuinely self-conscious AI.
At about this point (skip the rest of this article if you plan to see the movie!) the John Hughes-style love story flies out the window (Drops through a trapdoor?) replaced by a confusingly shot and edited Marvel-style CGI battle raging on the side of a plane (keep thinking that if they at least made the plane completely invisible — where a casual observer might glimpse a pair of superpowered combatants pounding each other in mid-air, sideways — then maybe we might have something). Marvel’s chronic case of Expandiditis has fully taken over, locked the picture on autopilot, brought it in for an uninspired standard-issue landing.
Somewhere along the way Watts steals his best scene from Sam Raimi’s own best scene, the runaway transit train in Spider-Man 2, only instead of a massive hurtling piece of metal it’s a briskly chugging ferryboat. Both times Parker is taxed to the limits of his strength and powers and ingenuity, both times Parker is pushed to the brink of collapse. In the former case the boy is rescued by none other than Tony Stark, who descends deus ex machina from the sky to fix everything and as punishment take away Parker’s hi-tech suit; in the latter Parker has no one to rely on but the common folk of New York City, who step up from their state of relative helplessness to cradle his lifeless body gently in their arms.
That’s the bell. Your homework, due this time next week: a thousand word essay on why Raimi’s film is so much more superior than Watts’ and what the latter should have done to fix his problems. Class dismissed!
MTRCB Rating: PG