I’ve been trying to think more and more about my ratings system for my last couple movie reviews. There’s a couple reasons for this. First of all, as my friend Mike pointed out, ratings systems aren’t really that useful. They’re kind of stupid really. They don’t convey any real information. And really with me (or any other movie critic ever) they’re not actually all that consistent. I try to be. People like numbers and if I’m going to do them I want them to be useful. But honestly, I’m just not going to go back over every review I’ve ever written every time I make a new one to make sure that a 3.25 star movie is really better than the one I gave 3.0 to and worse than the movie I gave 3.5 to. It’s just sort of something that I do with my gut.
But I was also thinking about something I said last month when I was discussing what my ratings numbers mean. Specifically, I was thinking about my definition of a 3 star movie: “Thumbs up! This is a good movie. If you’re into the genre this movie is in but don’t see them all, then see this one.” as opposed to movies in the 4 star range which I can recommend to everyone and movies in the 2 star range where I feel like if you’re a fan of the genre, you can still skip them.
Spider-man: Homecoming was a clinic in how to make a three star popcorn movie. One of the biggest problems with tentpole blockbuster movies, particularly from franchises, is that they often become movies by committee. Lots of producers pushing ideas on the story in order to move the franchise along, often at the sacrifice of the writer and director’s vision. Make sure you link into the ongoing continuity of the past films so that everyone feels like they have to watch all of them. Try to set up future sequels. Address the concerns of fans on the internet that have been complaining about geek things. Try to distract those same geeks from noticing new things to complain about by filling their insatiable need for easter eggs. Make sure that you toss in some new characters and costumes for existing characters because goddammit we need to sell some fucking toys. Tell a story if you have time. This had some of that. In fact it had a lot of that. It had SO MUCH of this. In fact, two of the official movie posters — both of which have had no shortage of people making fun of them on the internet — are good examples of what this movie is. Basically there is just a lot of stuff slapped onto the screen.
But if this film proved anything, it’s that you can have all of that and still make a perfectly acceptable, and in fact enjoyable popcorn movie. It’s hard to call it a “good” movie, but it sure as hell was entertaining.
One of the things that made it work was that the plot WASN’T too complex. It was simple and clear. A nice three act structure without too many twists and turns. Even when there were nods to previous and future movies they were brief and didn’t call too much attention to themselves. One of my problems with other superhero shared universe movies is that often subplots are built in films and demand a lot of screen time for no payoff at all. This means that if you don’t already know the source material and haven’t seen the other films you have no idea what’s going on. How many fans saw Batman v. Superman and still don’t know what the fuck a “parademon” is and why that scene was there (or why they should care)? If you’re not a comic fan and you saw that movie you probably don’t even know what scene I am referring to anymore. Because it was confusing and made no sense in the context of an already confusing movie. This film avoids that. There are nods to the events of Avengers, Captain America and Iron-Man movies, but they are nods. Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark is excellent in this film because you get enough of him feel like a supporting character who you are aware has his own life going on beyond this movie (and we see hints of progression in his subplots from other films) but without really detracting from the protagonist character. Unlike Captain America: Civil War (which I liked a lot), Stark does not steal this movie. It’s about Peter.
And that’s the second thing this does very well. The story isn’t only simple… it’s small. They worked really hard to make this a movie about Peter Parker, a high school student who happens to be Spider-man. The film also sets itself apart from previous films (the Maguire and Garfield movies) by making him into a very different Spider-man — frankly, a crappy Spider-man. This isn’t a movie about saving the world. it’s a movie about learning to be a hero. I’m not going to give any spoilers here, but this works. It feels like a film about growing up… it has a a Breakfast Club, American Pie, or Superbad vibe to it. Only with powers. Peter spends a LOT of time out of costume in this movie and his normal everyday teenager problems (school, girls, family) feel as big if not bigger than dealing with super villains
This simplicity and smallness means the movie won’t lend itself as much to repeat viewings. It will start to feel old and obvious. It just doesn’t have the weight and pathos to it that say Maguire’s (first two) Spider-man movies had. It doesn’t feel monumental. But that’s sort of ok. It’s a good status quo movie.
That said, what you get is very well done. The actors are mostly pretty good at what they’re asked to work with. For the principles actors, Tom Holland (Peter/Spider-man), Downey (Tony/Iron-man), Michael Keaton (Adrian Toomes/Vulture), Jacob Batalon (Ned Leeds) and Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), this works out pretty well, For other actors, specifically Marisa Tormei, Zendaya, Laura Harrier and Tony Revolori, this kind of falls apart a little bit. Zendaya and Revolori in particular feel more like set dressing than characters. The movie doesn’t really NEED them but they do help liven the world. And this would be fine, except there are SO many of of them. When you pack that many characters into a film, it starts to become clear that some of them just don’t need to be there at all.
The same thing happens with the continuity and easter eggs. Some of them were used very well to build the story of the film. Others were just there to complete the shared universe building. For the most part this was fine. Unlike many movies like this, it didn’t get in the way. Characters had names that were meaningful from the comics (Mac Gargan, Herman Schultz, Aaron Davis) but they weren’t so pervasive that if you didn’t know who these people were it interrupted your understanding of the film (again, not the same as BvS). But there were so many of them that if you DO get the references you might find yourself growing past the point of “ok, there’s another one.” Similarly, there are a lot of passive references to other movies (8 years ago, during the the Avengers movie…. 2 months ago during Captain America: Civil War…). Again these are done organically and non-obtrusively. The bigger problem here is that they lay into them enough that if you do pay attention to these things, they don’t really match up and you start to realize the continuity is wrong. There are a few ways in which it doesn’t match up. There are also plot holes in this movie in and of itself that don’t make a ton of sense if you think about them for two minutes but are just contrivances in order to make the story keep moving along.
But none of these problems are egregious. They don’t stick out and smack you over the head enough to make you stop enjoying the movie. It won’t be winning any awards. It won’t be revolutionizing superhero film making. But it doesn’t have to. It has very much hit into the “here is the genre of the superhero film and this is one of them” (in fact, there are some points where the movie directly lampshades this and calls attention to the tropes it is following). And as an entry in that genre it is enjoyable. If we’re going to move to a point where we are making regular serialized shared universe films, then this is what you want. Not every episode of even the greatest television show is going to be amazing and not every episode of a movie franchise has to be. But for 15 bucks of entertainment for a night, the least they can do is send you home happy.
And they did.
★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5 stars)