A really fantastic tent-pole blockbuster – and I’m talking about films here, not that special feeling a man gets when he first wakes up in the morning – is a wonderful thing.
Well, they both are, but let’s stay with film.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is great – funny, moving, exciting and fresh. Any movie that hits those dots is a win, but think about the extra stuff this one had to do – and succeeds in doing: it had to slot in with the Marvel Cinematic Universe – it had to perform a deft, not-quite-reboot manoeuvre – it had to introduce a cast of brand new characters, slot them in with established ones, respect beloved comic book story arcs, find something for Stan Lee to do, and on and on; it was a big order.
But like all the finest Big Family Entertainment Movies of the Modern Era, it does all that and much more. It’s steeped in popular culture, dropping in a John Hughes-quality High School scenario – and making sure that we know that they know we know they’re doing that. It makes spectacular use of a perfectly-cast Michael Keaton; loveable/psychopath/Birdman/Batman/Beetlejuice… he is all of these in one naturalistic, working man – immaculate. It goes beyond the the Marvel challenge and basically stirs in a proper sequel to the standalone Iron Man films, more so then either of the Avengers films or Captain America: Civil War. And talking of ‘Cap’, it finds something new and hilarious – yet totally in keeping – for him to do.
And all this whilst keeping it small – explicitly keeping Peter Parker close to the ground, close to home, still in school; finding lovely, meaningful new depth in the fun old phrase ‘friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man’.
This is the big trick of these films; impress everyone with your comprehensive, pre-emptive response to the task, like you’ve thought of every little thing the internet might ever say about the project – then package it up in a cohesive, accessible story that you don’t have to think about any of that stuff to enjoy.
I say ‘these films’; for me, the first time I spotted this trick – the weight of a thousand expectations in one uncomplicated blast of family fun – was with Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens – but now I think of it, Avengers Assemble was probably the template; new characters and old, sins of failed previous films atoned for, multiple story lines, laughs, smarts, jeopardy and adventure successfully juggled.
The sad thing is, it’s all about making it look easy – so then the audience think it was easy. I can’t bear the ‘it was too much like the original trilogy’ response to The Force Awakens. Yes, it was very like the original trilogy – in a knowing, considered, sophisticated way. It was supposed to be – you didn’t sus JJ Abrams out by spotting that. And if that’s not what you wanted – what the hell film DID you want?
But let’s call it the Spider-man trick, because Homecoming is such a fine example of the form – and because, like Spidey himself, it’s about performing superhuman feats of strength and wit, and looking light as a feather while you do. And when you don’t? Well, then it’s not Spider-Man anymore.
It’s Batman vs Superman.