Despite flashes of fun, ‘Spider-Man’ reboot weaves a tangled web

spider-man

 

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

I don’t envy those people tasked with adapting a comic book superhero into a movie, especially for its umpteenth incarnation, but neither do I feel the need to defer to them. They often have to take plotlines from existing books and shoehorn them into a cinematic format, at once satisfying the fanboys and making hugely expensive movies accessible to wide audiences. Remember the controversy in casting Ben Affleck as Batman? Or Michael Keaton as Batman? How about the blowback of Heath Ledger as The Joker? You can’t please everyone, and trying to do so muddies the waters.

But just look at the credits for the new Spider-Man movie, subtitled Homecoming. (Awful title.) Six different writers are credited with the screenplay (two of them get an additional “screen story” credit). Having that many acknowledged writers on one film is virtually unheard of (and probably doesn’t count a slate of uncredited script doctors and rewrites), and let’s face it, size matters … and in this case, less is definitely more. So many voices compete and shout-down each other, even if unintentionally; consistent tone is almost impossible. Franchise films already have too many masters; now they are overstocked with servants, as well.

I don’t know if there’s any superhero movie I have wanted to like more than Spider-Man: Homecoming, and one that I begrudgingly concluded I cannot recommend. It tries so hard, with its puppy-dog eyes and goofy grin, that you want to take it from the pound and give it a good home. But this dog needs a lot more potty training.

The winsome desire to please is exemplified in the performance of Tom Holland, the 21-year-old British (of course) naïf who plays 15-year-old Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. We were introduced to Holland’s take on this character — which, since 2002, has been played at least five previous times by two other actors — in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. His was barely more than a cameo, introduced midway through to assist in a battle, then discarded as soon as possible so as not to overstay his welcome (or spend too much time in a Disney production while his series is released by Sony). In that film, we could sense his impetuousness, his dewy-eyed enthusiasm, his essential teenager-ness. We now endure well more than two hours of that shtick, and I’ll tell you, it works better in smaller quantities.

Mercifully, we don’t get an origin story, aside from Peter’s morbidly obese side-nerd recounting that he was stung by a radioactive spider. But that shorthand only makes sense if we have an idea about what powers Spider-Man already has, and that’s where Homecoming goes off the rails. From what’s onscreen, there’s no indication he has “spidey-sense.” His physical strength allows him to be thrown into concrete walls and hold a massive ferry together without sweating through his Spandex, but a quick bump on the noggin renders him unconscious for hours. (The head-trauma trope to disable a hero temporarily irritates me in every instance, because a blow sufficient to cause a blackout has probably resulted in brain damage and cognitive impairment. You should not be following the bad guy, but rushing to the emergency room for a CT scan.) And when we learn that his costume is, itself, a piece of technology designed by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), with its own virtual concierge selecting web styles and GoogleMapping his pursuit of the criminals… well, what do we need Peter Parker for anyway, except adenoidal quips and bad decision-making?

That teenaged angst, of course, has always been central to the character’s appeal among Spider-Minions. Should he take the algebra test or stop Sandman from killing the mayor? Will he stand up M.J. or prevent Doc Ock from ravaging Midtown Manhattan? Peter Parker is a sad-sack; Spider-Man is a savior; they just happen to occupy the same body. Personally, that loser-hood irks me more than it makes me identify with his plight. It may be consistent with the awkward teen years, but it just makes me want to smack some sense into him. You can both get the girl and capture the Green Goblin, you just need to plan better.

The film’s verisimilitude is actually its saving grace … at first. Homecoming is the most tactile of superhero films — not in the ways of the glisteningly wet nighttime streets of Gotham, or the ear-splitting realism of a skyscraper imploding, but in its pimply, ragged unimpressiveness.  Peter seems like he should be on Ritalin; his wannabe girlfriend Liz is pretty enough, but not glamorous or even charismatic; Spider-Man’s nemesis, The Vulture (Michael Keaton, returning to superherodom), has the craggy, aged appearance of a bitter New Yorker who spent too much time in the sun. That contrasts to Tony Stark’s shiny, perfect, well-heeled worldliness; Spider-Man isn’t an Avenger, he’s a kid from Queens. I can dig that.

At least I try to. The film simply goes astray too many times. For every great touch (like Keaton’s performance, especially when he works out that Spidey is Peter) there’s a boondoggle to follow at its heels. What a tangled web has director Joe Watts (he’s also one of the six screenwriters) woven. At times this feels more teen sex romp than Marvel Cinematic Universe entry. (There are tons of references in particular to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and the “homecoming” of the title refers to an actual high school homecoming dance.) But what are we to take away from this chaos? Is Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Stark’s body man, Peter’s devoted minder or a casually incompetent lacky who makes things worse? Is Peter a genius whiz kid or hopeless flake? Character and plot are often sacrificed for a quick gag or inane gimmick; some of the action set-pieces are so overproduced and visually cluttered, you don’t feel swept up so much as you do exasperated.

I saw Homecoming with a friend who’s as devoted a Marvel-head as anybody I’ve met, with a marshmallow heart when it comes to Spidey. I could tell he was disappointed to the point of ambivalence, yet he refused to outright bad-mouth the film. I get why: You want to root for Holland’s Spider-Man because he’s gotten to the nitty-gritty of the character’s appeal. It’s just too bad he’s allowed to founder in such a shambles.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 7, 2017.