“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.

______________________

[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.

 

Point/counterpoint – Ann Arbor’s Rebecca Biber offers guest critique of The Grand Budapest Hotel

Roy Sexton and Rebecca Biber

Roy Sexton and Rebecca Biber – Photo by Dawn Marie Kaczmar

So, I did not like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I mean I didn’t like it a lot. However, never let it be said that we here at Reel Roy Reviews aren’t equal opportunity reviewers.

My dear friend, the talented pianist, musical director, and instructor Rebecca Biber shared the following (beautifully composed) counterpoint today on Facebook, and I asked if I could pay it forward here. She graciously obliged. Her take actually makes me want to revisit this film … almost. 🙂

Bookbound April 26 Event

Bookbound April 26 Event

And, if you’d like a chance to meet the supremely talented Ms. Biber in person, Megan and Peter Blackshear of Bookbound, in Ann Arbor (1729 Plymouth Road), have generously agreed to host a Reel Roy Reviews book-signing/Q&A on Saturday, April 26 at 3 pm.

Rebecca will accompany me as I sing a few of my favorite movie themes and show tunes. She actually selected the numbers from our nearly decade-long musical partnership, so, if you like ditties from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you are in luck!

(And be sure to check out this thoughtful response by my gifted mom – author Susie Duncan Sexton – to my review of Disneynature’s Bears.)

_________________________________

Here’s Rebecca’s delightful take on The Grand Budapest Hotel – enjoy!

[Image Source: ComingSoon.net]

[Image Source: ComingSoon.net]

In a made-up land resembling Germany or Austria (with Alps) on the eve of WWII, a charming, perfect hotelier played by Ralph Fiennes struggles to maintain his composure, help his friends, and avoid bad guys. His tale is narrated by his protege, Zero the Lobby Boy, now grown up into F. Murray Abraham. But this is merely the nugget at the heart of the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Abraham is speaking with a writer played by Jude Law, whom we have earlier seen in his aged incarnation, telling the viewer that if you are a writer, there is no need to make up stories: they will come to you. Earlier than that, we have seen a young woman placing a tribute of hotel keys at the base of a statue honoring her favorite writer, and holding a book that contains, we think, the story Jude Law has retold from F. Murray.


This movie is a typical Wes Anderson confection in some ways, with fanciful lettering, folk-tale inspired landscapes, and gorgeous color schemes throughout, not to mention the usual rapid-fire dialogue and the panoply of famous faces. While it can be entertaining to play Name That Actor, it is distracting as well – just as we are settling into the story for its own sake, what’s-his-name pops up and we’re back at the level of being mere viewers. Characters are pretty much as they first appear, with clear goodies and baddies. Edward Norton gets to play a Nazi (again, previously having played the neo-version in American History X) and Adrien Brody gets to…weirdly…also play a Nazi. Tilda Swinton is unrecognizable, Bob Balaban pops up like a fairy tale imp, and Harvey Keitel has jailhouse tattoos resembling middle school doodles. Young actress Saoirse Ronan is perfect as the young Zero’s girlfriend and pastry chef. But the standout, and one to watch, is Tony Revolori, who plays the Lobby Boy not merely as a supporting character with some great lines (which he does have) but as a complicated, unexpectedly fearless and wise young man. He has an unblinking gaze straight at the camera that compels both laughter and serious attention.


Unlike Moonrise Kingdom, which had all of the Wes Anderson cute and very little of the sad, Budapest has some moments of real darkness. And they always come unexpectedly. This movie is probably not safe for devoted animal lovers or the very squeamish. There are several bloody fights and, for those with Holocaust survivors in the family, the train scenes were a bit too close to real history despite Anderson’s attempts to fictionalize the material.
With all that goes on in the film, I haven’t even mentioned the stolen art, murder mystery and contested will (with legal executor played by an uncomfortable looking Jeff Goldblum). There is much to enjoy, and I came away glad I had watched this quirky adventure/love story with true friendship at its core. It is a visual feast with some nice musical touches (nothing overblown) and, if the story doesn’t make perfect sense outside of its own world, well, it does such an excellent job of conjuring that world that I was delighted to spend a couple of hours among its inhabitants.

_________________________________

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. 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; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound, Common Language, and Memory Lane also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.