AT THE MOVIES

“Spider-Man”, Better than the Rest, But Not Quite Amazing

By Noah Gittell

The problem with superhero movies these days — besides the fact that there are so darn many of them — can be summarized with a quotation from one of their most famous villains: why so serious? Almost by definition, a comic book is for children, but the recent iterations take on weightier topics. They have dense battle scenes that often evoke serious warfare, as in “Man of Steel” or “The Avengers.” Earlier this summer, “Wonder Woman” tried to answer the question of whether mankind was inherently good or evil. This heady content is at direct odds with the original aim of the superhero, which was to give kids a laugh and a good role model. These days, most superhero movies forget that.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” does not. It’s a comic book movie made for actual kids, or at least teenagers. It contains relatable problems, such as how to ask that girl you like to the dance or whether you should feel bad for bailing on your friend at your first party. Andrew Garfield was 31 when he starred in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the last time we saw the heroic web-slinger. Tom Holland, who takes over the role here and for the foreseeable future, is a manageable 20 years old. He plays the 15-year-old Parker with a winning mix of naiveté and arrogance, and while he’s not quite believable as a normal American teenager, he can at least pass as someone pretending to be — which is what Parker actually is.

The best scenes in “Homecoming” are those in which Parker is just trying to figure it out. His friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) discovers his secret early on, and the two young actors develop a good comedic rapport, as Ned hits Peter with a barrage of questions about his superhero activities. There is also his crush on the beautiful Liz (Laura Harrier), and his friendship-and-maybe-more with the tomboy Michelle (Zendaya). Director Jon Watts wisely populates Parker’s high school with a rogue’s gallery of talented young actors whose faces you might recognize, from Abraham Attah (“Beasts of No Nation”) to Tony Revolori (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”). Each has a strong personality, giving the film a richness of character often missing in other Marvel films.

Perhaps that’s why it is so disappointing when that old familiar feeling kicks in. “Homecoming” is jam-packed with action sequences, and while each one has its own unique character within the context of the film, we have seen them all before in other Marvel movies. A low-stakes chase scene in which Spider-Man gets slung around the street while on the tail of a few gun-runners in a van? Seen it. A cluttered, CGI-laden climax in the sky which Spider-Man battles his chief villain (a serviceable Michael Keaton, playing yet another guy in a bird costume)? Seen it, so many times.

Only one scene really stands out. In the nation’s capital with his Academic Decathlon team, Parker climbs the Washington monument to save his fellow students from a faulty elevator. It’s an ingenious set-up. With no other buildings around to grab onto, there are real stakes, and Holland indicates genuine fear as Spider-Man embarks on his most risky and personal rescue.

But mostly, “Homecoming” feels like the tired old sequel that we always hope these movies will not be. In the end, they are just product. Each is a chapter in a story going nowhere, except into our wallets, as we continue to lay out our hard-earned cash in the hopes that they will ever recapture the spirit of Christopher Reeve’s “Superman,” or the underrated “Batman Returns,” or even “Iron Man,” which kicked this whole thing off in 2008 before we had ever heard the phrase “cinematic universe.” For every moment of wit or surprise in “Homecoming,” (and there are a few, including a nifty third-act twist), there are a good twenty minutes of crushing boredom and soul-sucking unoriginality. It’s just enough to keep you coming back, just barely. With Marvel recently announcing that Spider-Man will make five more appearances in the next four years, I guess that’s enough.

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue