There’s a great pre-credits scene in Spiderman: Homecoming which sets up the villain for the movie, and Michael Keaton’s put-upon contractor is so wonderfully fed up that I turned to John and said “I want this to be the whole movie."
Which would have been great, probably, but it turns out that the movie we got is probably the best Marvel movie so far that wasn’t Deadpool. Astonishingly, despite having six writers, it’s that rare thing, a well written movie. The characters are funny and make sense, and the plot, for once, doesn’t involve destroying the whole world. That wonderful downbeat opening sets the tone of the rest of the movie; there’s a whole world full of superheroes, and they’re just a huge pain in the ass for everyone else.
I’ve talked before about how the endless raising of the stakes for the Marvel universe just makes the movies more and more boring, because the stunts and the need for all the characters leaves so little room for people. Spiderman leans right into that. They skip the origin story, because by this stage, who in audience isn’t going to know where Spiderman comes from? If that’s something you don’t have some vague sense of, you’re watching some other movie. Why waste time on it? They skip the end of the world story. They can’t quite get past the need for a big stunt in the middle, but even that stunt feels like they’re going through the motions. Of course you can’t cut a ferry in half and then not have it sink immediately. But at least it’s just the one ferry, and it’s not floating over an entire city threatening to crush it or destroy the whole world. For the rest of the time, Spiderman is dealing with small problems, and rather wonderfully he’s getting it wrong a lot of the time and struggling with the rest of it.
And don’t even get me started on his personal life, which makes his efforts at being a superhero look pretty sorted. Tom Holland’s as connvincing as a teenager as anyone can be at 20, but one of the things he sells best is that you can be smart and intermittently charming and have no clue in the wide earthly world that people like you. He does teenage obliviousness so well that I was nearly as shocked as he was when he was able to ask someone out and get a tentative yes despite being the star of the movie.
Well, kind of the star. Robert Downey Jr is there, effortlessly using up all the oxygen in the room whenever he shows up, and when that’s not happening, Michael Keaton’s Vulture is putting in the hours, just another working stiff who’s turned to the dark side to pay his mortgage in a world that doesn’t care about working stiffs or even notice what they’re up to. Every time the action shifts back to his black market warehouse I remembered that I wanted a whole movie about low-rent villains scraping a living off salvaged leftovers from the apocalyptic battles which the Avengers inflict on everything they ever see.
It’s a movie which works by being resolutely small scale, and making the small scale work. There are no bit players. There’s a scene where a kid walks through a bathroom wordlessly disrupting what’s supposed to be a heart to heart between two named characters, but damnit that actor’s face tells the whole story of how weird it is to be just trying to do your business in the bathroom with that kind of nonsense going on. There’s another wordless moment where a black character doesn’t want a tour of the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves. “Oh I don’t think so…” her hapless teacher begins, and the camera cuts to a black security guard making a silent gesture that says all of “Oh yes it was” and a whole lot more. And there’s all the jokes at the expense of the big movies; “Captain America - oh, he’s probably a war criminal now.” The director and the writers saw the power of tiny things, and the way that they make big things far clearer than wide angle shots of the big things ever could. If only this idea could catch on.