“Are you an Avenger?” “…Yeah … basically.” Spider-Man: Homecoming

[Image source: Wikipedia]

“Spider-Man,  Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size. Catches thieves, just like flies. Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man.” …So opened the ridiculously ear-wormy theme song to the classic animated Spider-Man TV show from 1967.

And in the past two decades, indeed, here came all the Spider-Men, an army of cinematic treatments and a revolving door cast that rivaled only the Batman and James Bond franchises for the head-spinning number of changes over the years.

Tobey Maguire helped usher in this modern age of comic book blockbuster as Peter Parker in Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy in the early 2000s. While we finally had Marvel movies worthy in scope of that storied company’s impressive legacy, I always found Maguire’s take a bit insipid, whiny and cloying. Yet, Rosemary Harris as Aunt May, Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben, James Franco as Harry Osborn, JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, and Alfred Molina (!) as Doctor Octopus? Sheer perfection.

 

Then, Andrew Garfield swung into the scene as Peter with Emma Stone in tow as Gwen Stacy in Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man pair of films. I thought we’d found our perfect duo, as this real-life/onscreen couple brought a shambling, bumbling, shoe-gazing charm that got us closer to Peter’s time-tested place as the “never can win” anti-Archie Andrews of teen comicdom. The only problem was Garfield and Stone looked like 30-year-olds playing 16 again. We did get another great Aunt May and Uncle Ben in Sally Field and Martin Sheen respectively – I’m sensing a theme here. Maybe those are the roles to play!

Yowza, though, the latest incarnation Spider-Man: Homecoming – directed with gleeful anarchic surety by Jon Watts – gets it just right!  The film stars a Peter Parker for the ages – British actor Tom Holland (Billy Elliot the Musical) – in a pitch perfect blend of winsome geekiness, outer New York boroughs cockiness, and sparkling Broadway dancer agility. This movie is an utter gem.

(What is happening Hollywood? Are you finally hitting your stride with these superhero flicks? Between this latest installment and June’s Wonder Woman, comic book movies have truly found their groove, embracing character and humor and fully leveraging the allegorical nature of these icons to celebrate our common humanity and to explore the dire need for compassion and heart in this little world of ours. And both Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming feel like movies about, dare I say it, real people! I’ll take it.)

For years, the Spider-Man franchise was under sole license to Sony Pictures (in a deal struck in the late 90s before Marvel Studios as we know it now existed). The magic minds at Disney’s Marvel (chiefly president and creative visionary Kevin Feige) couldn’t get their hands on the web-slinger for their “shared universe” of movies that began with the crackerjack first Iron Man film. Oh, how times change. With the ongoing runaway success of Marvel Studios (and the relative box office disappointment of Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spider-Man series), the suits got to talking, a deal was struck, and Spidey made his first showstopping appearance in Captain America: Civil War. Holland’s brief screen time in that flick all but assured us fanboys that Hollywood finally was getting Ol’ Webhead completely right.

And they sure did. Spider-Man: Homecoming sets the bulk of its action in and around Peter’s unashamedly nerdy high school (Midtown School of Science and Technology) and his shaggy band of friends whose brains are their super power and for whom discovery and analysis and LEGOs and adventure and academic decathlons are waaaay cooler than football games and proms.

The film wisely eschews yet another retelling of Peter’s transformation origin story, and just dives right into the action with a quick recap (no pun intended) of Spider-Man’s involvement in the superhero tensions of Civil War, told of course from a starstruck Millennial’s POV as captured in shaky, grainy video snippets on Peter’s cell phone.

As sunny sweet as Peter’s world is, this is still a planet in pain, suffering the everyday strife of  uncertainty that a costumed crusader battle won’t erupt overhead (nearly as worrisome as what a real-life president may Tweet at any given moment). And just as in our society, there are those who see opportunity in other’s distress.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes (“The Vulture”) whose failure as a legit contractor turns around when he starts stealing and repurposing debris from these superhero battles on the black market. His animosity (and covetousness) toward the one-percenters of the world is evident when he sneers at Robert Downey, Jr.’s visage on a TV screen, “A$$holes who made this mess [Stark’s Avengers] get paid to clean it up [Stark Enterprises’ subsidiary Damage Control].” No one does sad-sack country club-wannabe bitter middle-aged male contempt like Keaton, and this former Batman/Birdman (meta casting if there ever was any) is brilliant in this role.  Oh, and, by the way, Keaton sports big scary robot wings … but this is a Marvel movie after all.

Inevitably, Spider-Man and the Vulture cross paths (and again … and again), with a number of dizzying aerial battles for the action junkies in the crowd. However, what makes their tension work is that both characters are outsiders, scrambling to prove their respective worth to a society that sees them as invisible. (Not to mention a final act twist that I did not see coming and that raises the stakes – and connection – between these two characters exponentially.)

Peter spends most of the film trying to reclaim Tony Stark’s attention, pretending to his fellow students that he has an “internship” with the famed entrepreneur when in reality he spends every night waiting by the phone in the hopes of getting “the call” to join Stark’s Avengers squad permanently. When his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalan, an utter joy as Peter’s hyperventilating wingman) discovers Peter’s secret identity, he breathlessly inquires, “Are you an AVENGER?” Peter looks aside, with sadness in his eyes and embarrassment in his heart, replying, “Yeah … basically …” The film is rife with punchy/poignant character moments like that.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

So, when The Vulture and Spidey clash, it is from a narrative-driven conflict of needs and philosophies. Keaton’s Vulture keeps his criminal enterprise going to “stick it to the man,” to fund the lavish lifestyle to which he’s now become accustomed, and, thereby, to remind the world he is a force to be reckoned with – not to be tossed aside like the refuse he salvages.

Spider-Man, on the other hand, is certain that by stopping these schemes in their tracks, he will finally get the adulation and validation he desperately craves from Tony Stark and the mainstream superhero community. Each fight between The Vulture and Spider-Man is truly a fight for their lives.

That dramatic tension between Keaton and Holland powers the film but never overwhelms it. Admittedly, most of their fight sequences could have been trimmed by three-to-five minutes each, and the film would have been all the stronger for the cuts.

Ultimately, however, the heart and soul of the film is Peter Parker and his love of family and friends.

Marisa Tomei is dynamite as Aunt May (there we go again), never a victim but always cautious that New York isn’t the limitless playground Peter perceives it to be. Her crack comic timing wrapped in a gauze of May’s world-weary worry is the film’s most essential special effect.  Anyone who still thinks her Oscar for My Counsin Vinny was in error can go take a long leap off a short pier.

Disney Channel alum Zendaya is a revelation as Peter’s acerbic pal Michelle, who sees through the gangly immaturity of her fellow academic decathletes to the potential greatness they offer. Michelle has never met a social cause she didn’t embrace. Her teacher/coach says to her, when she refuses to enter the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves, “Protesting is patriotic.” Damn straight.

And we get great character turns by Tyne Daly as a tough bureaucrat with a decent heart, Donald Glover as a tough hoodlum with an even kinder heart, and Tony Revolori (Grand Budapest Hotel) as a not-so-tough bully with pretty much no heart at all. Revolori, in particular, is fun casting as Parker’s legendary rival Flash Thompson, typically depicted as a Nordic bruiser of a football player. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, he is portrayed by an actor of Guatemalan descent and serves as Parker’s chief competition on the academic decathlon team. Nice.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is, ultimately, a love letter to the American “melting pot.” All shapes and sizes – and ethnicities and races and ages and genders – of humanity are proudly on display, relentlessly pursuing their dreams and proudly challenging the status quo. That is what makes America great. And always has.

Oh, and this is a movie that makes a point to show Spider-Man going back to rescue a cat from a blazing convenience store. And to have Chris Evans channeling his adorably goofy comic side as a Captain America who makes earnest public service announcements against bullying in public schools. That’s my kind of America.

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

If Ernest Borgnine had been dropped in a vat of angry electric eels: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Between the ubiquitous marketing onslaught, the gaggle of colorful villains, the four-quadrant prestige casting, and the manically overeager trailers, I walked into summer 2014’s kick-off blockbuster The Amazing Spider-Man 2 dreading an overstuffed, overbaked, underdeveloped camp-fest like Batman & Robin or X-Men Origins: Wolverine or … The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Just kidding on that last reference, though I really did hate that movie.)

Color me surprised (sort of).

I adored the 2012 reboot starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. I thought director Marc Webb hit all the right notes of scruffy young angst, of familial love and resentment, and of just making ends meet and getting through a day … let alone having your life extra-complicated after having been bitten by a radioactive spider. The Sam Raimi films with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, while zippy and fun, just never really felt that grounded to me.

Blessedly, those relatable elements remain, though they are buried under a mountain of back-story and subplots. Garfield is winsome and charming as Peter Parker/Spider-Man – imagine if Anthony Perkins grew up a Millennial hipster and played a haunted spandex-ed superhero who hid his pain under glib one-liners and silly puns. And Stone as girlfriend Gwen Stacy is the perfect foil, more than holding her own amongst car crashes and emo dates alike. I will admit to finding their snappy teen repartee a bit cloying at times, but generally they remain the heart and soul of this series.

Sally Field also returns as Peter’s Aunt May, bringing free-floating yet fiercely protective anxiety and determined iron will to the role. She has one scene (as Field seems to in every movie in which she appears) that brought me to tears while I cheered her on – a quiet scene where she asserts once and for all that while she may not be Peter’s mother, she raised him and is the only family that counts.

Other cast members include Jamie Foxx as nebbish-turned-power-mad-demigod Max Dillon/Electro, Dane DeHaan as Parker’s childhood-pal-turned-chief nemesis Harry Osborn/Green Goblin, and a criminally underutilized Paul Giamatti (though if he’d been used properly, the movie would have been four hours long, instead of two and a half) as a scenery-chewing (literally) Russian-mobster-turned-mechanical Rhino.

Thematically, the film turns on a central concept of “being seen.” Gwen Stacy wants to know she has true value in Peter’s life. Aunt May wants Peter to know the sacrifices she has made to protect him at much cost to her own happiness. Osborn wants to redeem himself in the eyes of an industrialist father (Chris Cooper) who shipped him off to boarding schools like he was disposing of a pest.

And most overtly, Max/Electro wants the world to acknowledge his presence and his contributions in the moment, not to steal his ideas, and to simply remember his name. Some may find Jamie Foxx’s performance hammy (it is just shy of Jim Carrey’s Riddler in Batman Forever); I found it compelling. To me, Foxx walks a fine line between comic book silliness and heartfelt poignancy, giving us a Marty-style loser … that is if Ernest Borgnine had been dropped in a vat of angry electric eels and garnered lightning powers as a result.

I enjoyed this film a lot, but it is way too long and tries to accomplish too much. Yes, comic book fanboys, like yours truly, love to see all manner of minutiae from fifty years of four-color canon honored (and reinvented) on the big screen. But, we also like to see compelling movies well-made that tell a story efficiently, effectively, and seemingly effortlessly.

Unfortunately, I could feel the gears grinding together a few too many times in Amazing Spider-Man 2 as Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci labored to stitch together countless disparate threads. I also could feel the Sony studio heads rubbing their hands together with money-grubbing glee as they planned out the multitude of spin-offs and sequels that this flick might generate.

Regardless, the movie is an exceptionally entertaining enterprise, and that is chiefly due to a crackerjack cast that imbues the material with generous spirit, empathetic soul, sparkling wit, and loving heart.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Deja vu all over again: Lincoln

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Whether or not Steven Spielberg intended his latest film Lincoln to serve as a finely crafted allegory for our contentiously political times, it very much is one. The movie succeeds on multiple levels, not only allegorical but also as instructively engaging historical psychodrama and crackerjack cinematic entertainment.

Daniel Day-Lewis as the titular American president is warm yet flinty and infinitely watchable in yet another amazingly chameleonic performance in his long and storied career. He manages to evade the trap of most historical biopics – he is neither overly reverential nor artistically self-indulgent. And he is most assuredly not some wax figure in Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.”

Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln is a fully realized, at times lovable, always affecting flesh-and-blood creation. I challenge anyone to read about Lincoln after watching this movie and NOT hear Day-Lewis’ voice in your head or visualize the mischievous, twinkly fire in his eyes.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Civil War (no shock there) and focuses on the political machinations required to have the 13th Amendment pass the House of Representatives, where it has been stuck for the better part of a year. Lincoln realizes that, if the Civil War ends before the Amendment’s passage, he might not ever amend the Constitution to prevent slavery forevermore.

Needless to say, Beltway (was it called the “Beltway” in those days?) backstabbing and hijinks ensue, and anyone who has lived in America in the past twelve years will reflect  “the more things change…the more they stay the same.” Neither Spielberg nor screenwriter Tony Kushner proselytize (though there is speechifyin’-a-plenty) but the ugliness of watching entitled white dudes debating the finer points of social issues for which they have no real skin in the game is like deja vu all over again.

The supporting cast is a who’s who of America’s finest players, from always delightful David Strathairn to a gonzo-fun James Spader who seems to be channeling Robert Downey, Jr., at his most drug-addled. Lee Pace of ABC’s short-lived Pushing Daisies is fun as a posturing, preening Congressman opposed to the Amendment, and Jackie Earle Haley continues his run of great late-career performances as the peace-seeking Confederate Veep, literally left cooling his heals on a riverboat as Lincoln pushes the Amendment through.

Sally Field as Mary Todd-Lincoln is adequate, and I’m not sure if her part was a bit underwritten or if I have just seen her return to the same actorly well a few too many times. Kushner seems to be channeling a postmodern perspective on the Lincolns’ marriage/family through every bit of Field’s dialogue, and she does yeoman’s work making it sound natural but at times it still seems stilted.

The film also suffers from about four endings too many. We know what happens to Lincoln in the weeks and months following the Amendment’s passage, and, trying to cram all of that detail into what is more-or-less an extended diorama-like montage at the film’s conclusion detracts. And, of course, Spielberg can’t help but include his trademark fairy tale mythologizing here and there – it is ok, but the film is so strong otherwise that I could have done without those vintage touches.

But the best moments of the film come at the hands of two old pros who don’t share a minute of screen time: Tommy Lee Jones as Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Both bring gravitas and pixie dust to their roles, more than holding their own with Day-Lewis. Their characters leap from the pages of history books and very quickly feel like people you have known personally for years. Absolutely remarkable work here.

The Amazing Spider-Man is…well…pretty darn amazing.

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[Image source: Wikipedia]

The Amazing Spider-Man is…well…pretty darn amazing. The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield excels as both Peter Parker and his arachnid alter ego, and, of course, Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy is her typical warm and sunny and whip-smart self. I am not a Tobey Maguire fan though I liked the original Spidey films just fine at the time…but I guess I didn’t know what I was missing. Garfield brings layers of poignancy, sadness, and joy to the role that Maguire didn’t have any hopes of approaching.

And Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt Mae give grounded, deeply affecting supporting performances – it’s no surprise that Uncle Ben dies, but I was actually moved to tears for the first time ever in viewing that event unfold. It’s one of the few superhero films that I found myself wishing for less superhero-ing and more civilian interaction. The other players are fine – Denis Leary is solid as Gwen’s police chief father. Rhys Ifans approaches the villain role (Curt Connors/The Lizard) with the same thoughtfulness that the always wonderful Alfred Molina brought to Dr. Octopus in the second film.

This adaptation of the origin story touches lightly on the conflict of human desire to manipulate nature for seemingly noble aspirations and the Pandora’s Box that can be unleashed – not as well as last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but thematically similar. A fine film that at times seemed a bit overlong and, yes, devolved as they all do into the silly “save-the-world-from-some-cataclysm” final act. Nonetheless it is worth seeing in the theatre, both if you liked the original films or, even more so, if you didn’t.