Review: Spider-Man Homecoming

I’m just going to come right out and say that Spider-Man Homecoming is absolutely not the movie that I thought it would be. In may ways, it is a complete inversion of what has become the MCU formula. The anti-blockbuster, if you will. And not only does this daring and unexpected new direction pay off in spades, but the end result is something that could be considered Oscar-worthy.

Like… legitimately Oscar-worthy. Not “IGN Reviews GTA 4” Oscar-worthy.

Though you wouldn’t know it from the title, Spider-Man Homecoming is really all about Michael Keaton as the Vulture. Instead of an origin story, we’re treated to the opposite; the movie takes place years after the Vulture has hung up his wings, as he tries define himself by something other than his past deeds, good or ill. Though purists may take issue with the change-up in his power set (he wields the power of telekinesis instead of a flying suit), it is used to sparing effect that only serves to highlight the dissonance between the man he was and the man he longs to be. It is a nuanced, layered performance that is among the best that Keaton has ever turned in.

The links to the larger MCU are there, but used sparingly. The Avengers are mentioned only in passing. Despite his extensive screen-time in the trailers, Iron Man is largely relegated to a blink-and-you-miss it appearance in a climatic four-way fight between him, Spider-Man, Bumblebee, and a high school drum team. Spider-Man may as well not be in the movie at all. It slashes the connection to the overarching continuity to the bare minimum, but still manages to establish itself in the same universe as the growing stable of blockbuster hits under Marvel Studios’ belt.

Indeed, the strongest connections to the rest of the unified fiction are presented more or less without comment. Edward Norton returns to the MCU after a nine year absence, and there’s not one mention of his struggle with his literal inner demons in bringing his monstrous Hulk alter ego to heel. Emma Stone reprises her role from¬†The Amazing Spider-Man 2, despite the seeming death of her character in that film, emphasizing that though this is yet another reboot of the Spider-Man cinematic franchise, it still maintains some elements of previous incarnations. Her relationship with Spider-Man isn’t ever even brought up over the course of the movie, focusing instead on her troubled relationship with the Vulture (who is her father. Again, a tinkering with the source material that might ruffle feathers.) and flirtatious encounters with Norton.

The cinematography is an immense achievement, consisting of a series of impossibly long tracking shots (literally impossible, there is some chicanery to stitch things together and portray the passage of time) that follow various characters’ points of view at varying intervals. Oh, to be certain there’s a big CGI-filled action set piece, but it says something about this film that it the events are entirely within the mind of the main character and not an existential threat to the city or world. As Keaton’s mental health deteriorates, so too does the line between not just his reality and his mind, but between the audience and the movie, playing with the notions of diegesis as the near-constant percussive soundtrack shifts from something that only the audience is aware of to the literal drumming of a musician on screen. The movie exists in a surreal dream state that leaves the audience questioning their interpretation of events right up until the closing shot that seems to confirm the impossible.

Spider-Man Homecoming is more than ambitious, it’s audacious. Some might balk at how the marketing doesn’t accurately represent what he movie is selling, but they are missing out on what is easily the most thoughtful and sophisticated entry yet seen in the super-hero movie genre. I can only hope that this is representative of a Marvel Studios more readily embracing risk and being less formulaic in their offerings.

Verdict: It’s Spider-Man. It’s amazing. But it’s not The Amazing Spider-Man.