SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (Watts, 2017): Push-Pull Filmmaking

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best and the worst of the Marvel Cinematic Universe rolled into one. We see–or rather hear–this in the first two minutes.

A charming title sequence teases us with the lively sounds of a full orchestral rendition of “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Does Whatever a Spider Can…” But the moment one begins to hum the melody (as you are right now, dear reader) it’s yanked away, tucked back into Marvel’s “nostalgia box” (you know, that box they crack open whenever they need to remind us of how adept they are at the wink-wink reference, made only for those “in the know”). The score reverts to Michael Giacchino’s standard, colorless march, numbing the mind and the soul.

Later, there are hints of musical substance, however, giving one a sense of hope. With the appearance of Vulture, the Michael Keaton character, Giacchino introduces a simple, but very effective, six-note leitmotif in minor key–bumbum/bumbumbum/bum. It accompanies Keaton’s shifts in vocal tone and devilish glances, often captured in tight closeup by DoP Salvatore Totino.

But it is precisely this push and pull with one’s attention–moments of stimulating titillation followed by often rather long periods of polished, occasionally witty, but ultimately rather commonplace and soulless filmmaking–that makes MCU movies frustrating in 2017.

More push and pull. If Marvel has long been beset by a last act problem, some of its offerings now seem to struggle with the first and second acts, too. Like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017), the first hour or so of Spider-Man spins its wheels. Intrigue is replaced with “fan service,” with stuff diehard fans’ll just love.

First, the film treats us to “parallel” storytelling, to plot developments, previously unknown or underdeveloped, that take place simultaneous to events we had encountered in two previous movies, The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) and Captain America: Civil War (Russo and Russo, 2016). Spider-Man attempts to adds layers to what we’d already seen and learned, and this makes the movie, in part, a sidequel. (Marvel aficionados won’t like the comparison, but in doing so, the filmmakers have allowed themselves to draw on a strategy employed by the much maligned, and in my view underrated, Batman V. Superman (Snyder, 2016).)

Unfortunately, this elaborative parallelism accomplishes little. Sure, it gives Vulture a hint of a back story. That he was “present” for the events of Avengers is chronicled, visualized. But not much of this aspect of narrative is fleshed out or made to feel all that significant. Nine years into the MCU, this kind of thing feels like pure convention, rather than effective character- or world-building. Marvel’s doing it, but so what?

A second kind of fan service: we discover in the first hour that the special suit Tony Stark made for Spider-Man is… just like the Ironman suit. This Spider-Man is a tweenager Tony Stark. We’re meant to read a kinship into this, and some more parallels. He wields gadgets galore, and even with some mildly funny montage sequences of our hero struggling to master his new outfit, it all feels kinda rehashed. Fans are likely to point out that there’s precedent for this in the comics. (Fine, fine.)

Fig. 1. Spidey scaling the Washington Monument.

The first hour of the film hobbles along then, punctuated, it must be said, by some fine action set pieces, staged and shot and edited–and plotted (as in, inserted into the plot)–to generate some legitimate tension. I think here of the one at the Washington Monument, whose play with the sensation of vertigo certainly grabbed me, and the one on the Staten Island Ferry, where I felt perhaps for the first time since the original Superman movies (1978-1987) that the hero was really sacrificing his body to save people. (It’s not that other superhero movies haven’t tried. It might be that Tom Holland and Christopher Reeves project the right mixture of superhuman strength and childlike vulnerability.)

Nevertheless, the first hour is a bit of a slog. “Fan service,” which the now patented Marvel Barrage of Witticisms® is supposed to make palatable.

Then, suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the movie finds itself. The turning point: Tony Stark takes away the suit. We find ourselves in a scenario that seems guaranteed to work in any context, for any superhero. (If it’s not guaranteed, at least it has a solid track-record–it’s in Superman II (Lester, 1980), Thor (Branagh, 2011), Ironman 3 (Black, 2013), and more recently, Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017), which I discuss here and here.) The hero is stripped of his or her powers, or must contain them, and learns of the foibles of humanity.

This is where Spider-Man‘s much praised high school drama kicks into gear, and we start to feel some chemistry, such as it is, between Peter Parker and Liz.

It’s also where the central dilemma emerges–again, far too long into this 134-minute film. Parker discovers that Liz’s father, Adrian Toomes, is the Vulture, and must deal with the implications.

Fig. 2. Keaton as Adrian Toomes/the Vulture.

It’s quite the twist, and it feeds into the best scene in the movie–a really good one by any measure. Toomes takes Peter and Liz to the Homecoming dance. Along the way, he puts two-and-two together. This quiet, harmless looking teenager “Pedro” Parker is the very same web-slinger who’s been meddling in his scheme.

Marvel rarely has scenes as good as this. The performances are stellar, especially Keaton’s. He uses his voice, curls his lip, and winces eyes. Holland deserves a nod, too, for accomplishing what Chris Pratt obviously could not in Guardians Vol. 2 and giving a snarky nerd of a character a serious turn. Holland’s face goes straight, but he allows pain to be read in his eyes. All of these choices are reinforced by camerawork (the delightfully tight closeups of Keaton, for instance, bring out his leathery skin and crazed gaze), editing (look carefully at the timing of the tight Keaton reaction shots), and of course, Giacchino’s dark, six-note Vulture leitmotif. These elements work together to make lemonade out of lemons, as it were, and turn this Vulture figure, a second-rate villain on paper, into a believable threat. (Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley discuss the scene here.)

In fact, it’s as a result of having “sold” us on the intrigue and the villain’s credibility in the third and fourth acts that, by the end, the film makes us feel like we’ve been truly won over to Spider-Man’s side. Not since Superman outwitted General Zod and his minions in the climax of Superman II have I felt so drawn into a superhero’s “big comeback.” You feel yourself yearning for a swell of music that unambiguously marks the “turning of the tide.” Homecoming does just that. When Spider-Man is crushed by the Vulture under a pile rubble, he desperately squeals for help. At his lowest moment, he recalls Iron Man’s words of inspiration–he must become something, someone without the suit. On cue, he gathers all his strength, lifts himself up, and tosses off the rubble. The movie grabs you.

A film that for so long held the mind, to some extent, with “cool” word-play and intermedial and intertextual reference suddenly becomes “hot” with elemental elation.

Spider-Man, then, is something of a push-pull film. One moment, it pulls you in. The next, it pushes you away. It’s the latest in Marvel’s effort to discover the right balance between the “push” of self-conscious storytelling and fan pleasure with the “pull” of genuine intrigue and fully felt characters that appeal to some basic emotions.