Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

2017 #94
Jon Watts | 133 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Spider-Man: Homecoming

This review contains spoilers for, like, everything.

When Marvel Studios began their grand experiment in revolutionising the Hollywood blockbuster landscape with Iron Man, I began my review with an hysterically funny (and totally under-appreciated) riff on the famous cheesy Spider-Man theme song, which was once buried at the end of the credits of a Spider-Man film as a joke. Nine years later, not only is Spider-Man joining the MCU, he’s doing so with the support of Iron Man — both in the film and in its marketing — and that cheesy song has been rendered in epic orchestral style to open the film. My, how times change.

This is the second big-screen reboot for the Spider-Man franchise, but Sony and new production partner Marvel Studios aren’t keen for us to dwell on that (because the last reboot being such an unpopular move is the reason this one’s happened). So, following this latest incarnation’s soft introduction in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, here we pick up where that left off. 15-year-old Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is now hanging out back in New York, dealing with normal high school things like homework, parties, and casual bullying, and being just a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man by stopping bicycle thieves and giving old ladies directions. He waits for a call from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) about their next big mission — a call that never comes. But when Spider-Man attempts to stop a bank robbery where the crooks are armed with suspiciously advanced tech, Peter finds himself on the trail of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvage worker who uses bits and pieces recovered from Avengers battles to build dangerous weapons that he sells to criminals.

He's some kind of... Bird... man...

MCU films are renowned for having a “villain problem” — their films’ antagonists are often little more than human MacGuffins; someone for the hero to punch in the third act after they’ve undergone their own journey. Recent films have sought to rectify that (Zemo in Civil War being perhaps the best example), and Homecoming continues the trend. It hasn’t gone full-on pre-Nolan Batman — this is still very much Spidey’s movie, most concerned with our hero’s psychology and his personal arc — but Toomes (aka the Vulture) is a more well-rounded character than most Marvel movie enemies. Indeed, he’s a pretty relatable figure he lost his livelihood due to government backroom deals forcing him out, since when he’s just tried to provide for the family he loves. In another version of this story, he’d be the hero.

Although he’s not afforded an abundance of screen time, this is where having an actor of Keaton’s calibre pays off, as he effortlessly sells both Toomes’ everyman humanity and his threatening villainous side. He gets an interesting final beat, too: locked up in prison, he refuses to give up Spider-Man’s identity to a fellow inmate. I’ve read some interpret this as being because he wants to kill Peter himself, but I don’t think that fits with the rest of his arc. I saw it as he’d been reformed by Peter saving his life and was doing him a favour. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d spared his life, after all. It could go either way I guess, but there are so many good Spidey villains who haven’t made it to the screen yet that I hope they don’t intend to waste a chunk of Homecoming 2 on reheating the Vulture.

It's mentor be

As everyone well knows by now (thanks to it being repeated ad infinitum in the previous Spidey movies), the catchphrase of the Spider-Man franchise is “with great power comes great responsibility”. However, it’s not said once in this film. Instead, it’s threaded through the very core of the film’s story and character arcs. It’s the lesson everyone comes to learn. It’s what Stark is trying to teach Peter by giving him a fancy suit with a lot of its special features disabled, and by discouraging him from biting off more than he can chew. When Peter gets himself in too deep, as he does repeatedly, it always comes close to costing innocent lives. It’s a lesson Stark learns too, though: he’s trying to be a mentor, a father figure, and do a better job of it than his own father did, but he still doesn’t set the right example for Peter — until, of course, he does.

That’s very much a subplot, though. Iron Man isn’t in the film as much as the trailers made some fear — this isn’t The Spider-Man and Iron Man Movie; indeed, that shot I’ve used for this post’s banner image isn’t even in the finished film. While Stark’s place as a mentor figure makes him important to our hero, this story is still all about Peter. Tom Holland is excellent, immensely likeable as both the socially awkward Peter Park and the wisecracking, overambitious Spider-Man. You want to hang out with him more, he’s such a nice guy. It’s also clear he’s got the acting chops to carry off some of the more emotional dilemmas and realisations that hit Peter. As I said, he goes through the arc of realising his powers come with responsibilities — to himself, his family, his friends, and the people he’s trying to protect — and Holland navigates that while making it look effortless.

Every superhero's gotta brood sometimes

It naturally brings Peter to a place that, when he’s finally offered one of the things he’s most wanted — membership of the Avengers — he turns it down because he’s not quite ready. That scene, with the modest hero and the gag about the journalists actually being there, is… kinda obvious, even if it’s a strong character moment. But it’s quite interesting on an extra textual level: as it stands, it’s a good setup for future Spidey solo movies, but we’re not getting another one of those until after the big two-part Avengers extravaganza is over and done. Kevin Feige has talked about this being a five-movie character arc for Spidey, implying he has a major role to play in those two Avengers flicks, even though he’s just turned down joining that team full time. Really, it’s nice they haven’t just used this film’s ending to set up / trail their next one, which has been another common MCU problem. Maybe the honchos at Marvel Studios are learning some lessons about power and responsibility too…

Further feeding into the focus on our hero, the movie spends a lot of time on Peter’s school life. All the “typical high school experience” stuff brings a different flavour to the Marvel universe; and, indeed, to Spider-Man movies, which have only passingly used it in previous incarnations. Although it’s ultimately used a bit repetitiously (Peter tries to attend something high-school-y; has to run off to be Spider-Man instead), what there is of it works nicely. Peter’s best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), drops neatly into the comedic sidekick role and is a very likeable presence. There’s a neat reconfiguring of Flash (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) from his usual depiction as a stock football jock into a kind of nerd-bully.

Class of 2017

There’s an attempt to add some depth to the object of Peter’s affections, Liz (Laura Harrier), in the third act, but she’s mainly called on to be beautiful, then sweet, then scared, then sweet again, so… Meanwhile, there’s the much-discussed casting of Zendaya (are we meant to know who she is? I don’t) as a character who isn’t Mary Jane Watson, honest, but who does like to be called MJ. She’s mainly there to be sarky, and is presumably in place to be used next time. The same might be said of Angourie Rice, who demonstrated her considerable talent in The Nice Guys but is here wasted as A.N. Other Schoolmate. Her character name is familiar from the comics, so hopefully they have future plans for her too.

Reading this review so far, you might be forgiven for thinking Homecoming was some kind of character drama. Not so, of course — there are plenty of the requisite blockbuster action scenes. I’ve seen criticism of them for being typically characterless Marvel fare, lacking in either distinctiveness or palpable stakes. While that’s not necessarily untrue of a couple of sequences, I think the Washington Monument sequence at least is mightily effective. I’m certainly looking forward to re-experiencing some of its dizzying heights in 3D when the Blu-ray comes out. The one I did find disappointing was the climax on the outside of the ‘invisible’ plane (“invisible” in the same way Die Another Day’s car was invisible, but executed a bit more realistically, so Homecoming isn’t getting the same degree of flak for it). Taking place in the night sky, aboard a vessel whose lighted surface is constantly flickering and changing, and with the requisite action-scene fast cutting, it was both too dark and too busy, the effect being just a blur of illuminations. I dunno, maybe that works better in 3D too…

Monumental action

And if we’re talking criticisms, I have to have a quick rant about how the trailers gave away the whole movie. Maybe I should be used to that by now — it seems to be happening a lot — but it’s still irritating. So, okay, Homecoming’s didn’t include everything — one pretty big twist was saved for the final film — but most (perhaps all?) of the best gags were included, and so many big scenes were featured that, at times, watching the full movie felt like working through a checklist of bits we’d seen. The most egregious was when it came to Peter failing at the ferry, then Tony taking his suit away, then Peter proving himself by rescuing the plane suit-less as the climax — that whole sequence of events easily deduced from the trailers. Yes, this is a fault of the marketing more than the film itself (or possibly of my brain having deconstructed the trailer and reconstructed it into a film), but it would be nice if the trailer editors could keep some stuff a bit more secret. It’s not as if there was a shortage of visually impressive action moments to hint at them without using significant chunks. And “Spider-Man tries to stop Vulture while Iron Man both mentors and ignores him” would’ve been fine for the plot. (Though, how much do you need to sell the story of a superhero blockbuster? Would “this famous character does cool things with superpowers” actually be adequate?) I’d like to say I’m going to start avoiding trailers in future, but I have no willpower; I just can’t resist.

Finally, a quick word on the post-credits scene. As I left the cinema after it, the usher commented, “isn’t that the worst credits scene ever?” Well, I can see his point — it’s frustrating to have waited around just for that. At the same time, that’s kind of its point. And its point is bang on: it perfectly described how all of these credits scenes feel to the viewer; or, at least, how they feel to me. They’re pretty much never worth it, are they? And if filmmakers think it actually makes people read the credits… well, I dunno about you, but I turn my phone on and update Letterboxd and check Twitter until the scene turns up.

Spider-American

Ultimately, Spider-Man’s first full-blown outing in the MCU is… an MCU movie. Oh, sure, they’ve made inroads to fixing things like their weak villains, but the general tone — the lightness, the humour, the hero-focus, the style of the action — is all MCU stock-in-trade. Fortunately, they’re good at what they do, and that means this is a very good blockbuster movie. It’s entertainment value is consistent and high. For me, it lacks the kind of iconicity that mark out Sam Raimi’s first two Spideys as foremost examples of superhero movies — although it’s not as wedded into the ever-developing MCU storyline as some of their other movies, it’s still Marvel Cinematic Universe Episode XVI, to an extent. But, eh, when it gets so much right, what does that matter?

4 out of 5

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Spider-Man 2 (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #86

A man will face his destiny.
A hero will be revealed.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 127 minutes | 135 minutes (2.1 extended cut)
BBFC: PG (cut, 2004) | 12A (2004) | PG (uncut, 2009)
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 25th June 2004 (Lithuania)
US Release: 30th June 2004
UK Release: 16th July 2004
First Seen: cinema, July 2004

Stars
Tobey Maguire (Pleasantville, The Great Gatsby)
Kirsten Dunst (Interview with the Vampire, Melancholia)
James Franco (City by the Sea, 127 Hours)
Alfred Molina (Frida, An Education)

Director
Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Drag Me to Hell)

Screenwriter
Alvin Sargent (Gambit, Ordinary People)

Story by
Alfred Gough (Lethal Weapon 4, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor)
Miles Millar (Shanghai Noon, Herbie Fully Loaded)
Michael Chabon (John Carter)

Based on
Spider-Man, a comic book superhero created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; in particular the story Spider-Man No More! by Stan Lee and John Romita, Sr.

The Story
Peter Parker battles problems in his personal life while his superhero alter ego Spider-Man battles the machinations of evil scientist Dr Otto Octavius.

Our Hero
Spider-Man! Spider-Man does whatever a spider can — spins a web any size, catches thieves just like flies. Is he strong? Listen bud, he’s got genetically-modified blood. Wealth and fame he’s ignored, action is his reward… though he’s having doubts about if it’s worth it. With great power comes great responsibility, and neither sit well with a kid who wants a normal life.

Our Villain
Doc Ock! Guy named Otto Octavius winds up with eight limbs, four mechanical arms welded right onto his body — what are the odds?

Best Supporting Character
Before he won an Oscar for Whiplash, or posted photos of his insanely ripped body on social media, J.K. Simmons brought himself to everyone’s attention as the hilariously irascible editor of The Daily Bugle newspaper, J. Jonah Jameson. He was so good, they haven’t even bothered to recast the character for any of the three live-action Spidey films that have come since the first reboot.

Memorable Quote
“So here I am, standing in your doorway. I have always been standing in your doorway.” — Mary Jane

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“With great power comes great responsibility.” — Uncle Ben may be dead, but they manage to have him say it in this one too.

Memorable Scene
The elevated train fight between Spidey and Doc Ock. It was the first major sequence filmed, before the screenplay was completed, but Raimi had dreamt it up personally. It was shot in Chicago because New York no longer has an elevated railway, but Raimi was seeking to create an idealised version of the city.

Technical Wizardry
The sound effects for Doc Ock’s tentacles were created using motorcycle chains and piano wires, while the sound of him ripping open the bank vault was a hubcap scraping along the floor. The designers consciously didn’t include the noise of servomotors, to enhance the idea that the tentacles have become a part of Ock’s body.

Truly Special Effect
Doc Ock’s tentacles were built practically. Each one was 13ft long, made up of 76 pieces, fully articulated, and controlled by four people. Obviously some of their appearances are CGI, especially when Ock’s using them to move around, but every scene was first filmed using the real props to see if CGI was truly necessary

Making of
Tobey Maguire injured his back before filming began, to the extent that Jake Gyllenhaal (at the time only really known for Donnie Darko) was tapped to replace him, and even began preparing for the shoot. Ultimately Maguire recovered enough to participate (obviously). A couple of years later Gyllenhaal was one of the final contenders for Batman in Batman Begins, but didn’t get to do that either. I’m sure Marvel will find a superhero for him eventually — they do for most people.

Previously on…
Ignoring the many and various animated series and failed attempts to bring Spidey to the screen, there was the first Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man, which was the first film to gross over $100 million on its opening weekend. Also, MTV animated series Spider-Man: The New Animated Series is technically set after Spider-Man and therefore before Spider-Man 2, but I don’t think anyone remembers it…

Next time…
Spider-Man 3 concluded the trilogy with a whimper thanks to behind-the-scenes clashes, which also scuppered plans for Spider-Man 4. The series was rebooted with the unpopular The Amazing Spider-Man, which was followed by the even-more-unpopular The Amazing Spider-Man 2, leading to the character being rebooted again and integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The latest version debuted in Captain America: Civil War before starring in a solo movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming, next summer.

Awards
1 Oscar (Visual Effects)
2 Oscar nominations (Sound Mixing, Sound Editing)
2 BAFTA nominations (Sound, Visual Effects)
5 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Tobey Maguire), Director, Writer, Special Effects)
3 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Alfred Molina), Music, DVD Special Edition Release)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form
1 World Stunt Award (Best Overall Stunt by a Stunt Man (Peter Parker falling into clothes lines))
2 World Stunt Awards nominations (Best Work with a Vehicle, Best Speciality Stunt (Doc Ock waking up))

What the Critics Said Then
“a sequel that not only outstrips its predecessor but has a perversity and quick-wittedness that hardly seem to belong in a comic-book movie. […] It’s unusual and gratifying to find a multimillion dollar movie that’s been put together with some thoughtfulness, that doesn’t neglect subtlety in between delivering the smash-bang-wallop. […] It’s the interest in human fallibility that sets this movie apart. The superhero who bridles at his own responsibility may not sound an especially gripping prospect, but his dilemma is explored with a conviction that, within the fantasy genre, feels almost groundbreaking.” — Anthony Quinn, The Independent

Score: 93%

What the Critics Say Now
On placing the film in his top ten for BBC Culture’s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century: “First of all, the 21st century is the century of superheroes. To approach the history of this era without acknowledging that is to miss the story. Many of my peers opted to make The Dark Knight the film that represented superheroes for them, but while I like that movie it’s a crime film in superhero drag. Spider-Man 2 is an unabashedly comic book superhero movie, a film that is pulsing with the vibrant four color life of the best comic book panels and that is soaked in the sudsy soap opera of the best comic book word balloons. It’s a movie that is a perfect fusion between filmmaker and material, and it is, without a doubt, the best example of superhero filmmaking ever attempted.” — Devin Faraci, Birth. Movies. Death.

What the Public Say
“The most interesting relationship that gets explored in Spider-Man 2, however, is with Spider-Man himself. In the first Spider-Man, Peter basically became Spider-Man the instant he decided to live his life by Uncle Ben’s last few words and donned on the Spidey suit, and that was that. Here, Peter Parker basically breaks up with Spider-Man and with Uncle Ben, as he says he is “Spider-Man, no more,” and has to start over and re-bond with the hero inside of him. [The] movie makes use of this psychological relationship to refine its definition of a hero as established in the first film. It isn’t just about responsibility. It argues that the hero is inherently sacrificial. They give up even their dreams to salvage yours. This definition is much more mature and sophisticated […] It goes to show that a big budget doesn’t have to translate into senselessness. Spider-Man 2 is the intellectual experience I was looking for in a Spider-Man film with all the action that I always imagined was possible.” — Kevin Tae, Taestful Reviews

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before Spider-Man 3 came out they released an extended cut of the first sequel on DVD, dubbed Spider-Man 2.1 (remember when they briefly called extended cuts things like that?) At the time I concluded “it’s still a 5-star film because it doesn’t ruin the original — but it’s not at all essential”, though I later added a postscript to note that “I probably should have rated this lower. It may still be a good film, but the fact is the original cut’s better — even if just for the superior version of The Lift Scene. I rather doubt I’ll ever watch it again.”

Verdict

In a simpler time before every superhero movie was connected to every other superhero movie, filmmakers were free to only have to tell one story and develop the ongoing life of their lead characters (rather than juggle everyone else’s lead characters for cameos, too). Spider-Man 2 is a pinnacle of this. It takes the seeds sown by the first movie and nurtures them into more interesting and complex emotional dilemmas, without losing sight of the fact it’s a movie based on a comic book about a man who swings around the city in a red-and-blue onesie fighting crime. Nonetheless, it’s as memorable for Peter and MJ’s up-and-down relationship as it is for the stunning action sequences, which become icing on the cake rather than the raison d’être.

#87 is… no kid’s game.

The Suspenseful Monthly Update for May 2016

The number of films I watched this May dipped well below the monthly average for 2016, but was that still enough to get to #100 this month?

I know, the suspense must be killing you. Read on…


#89 The Hateful Eight (2015)
#90 The Raid 2 (2014), aka The Raid 2: Berandal
#91 Calvary (2014)
#92 Captain America: Civil War (2016)
#93 Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014)
#94 Ted 2 (Extended Edition) (2015)
#95 Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
#96 Hamlet (1964), aka Гамлет
#97 Just Friends (2005)
#98 X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
#99 The Assassin (2015), aka Cìkè Niè Yǐnniáng
#100 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
#101 Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969), aka Du bei dao wang

.


  • This month’s WDYMYHS pick coincides with #100, so it seemed only natural to pick the most acclaimed film I’d never seen (at least according to IMDb users), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.


Last year I reached #100 by the earliest date I’ve ever done it, July 27th. It finally beat a personal record that had stood since 2007. At the time, I wrote that 2015 had “been rather good by my standards, so it’s [a record] I don’t foresee breaking again. I mean, if I had five consecutive best-ever months (i.e. better than I’ve ever done, x5) then I could squeeze it in by the end of May.” Hahaha, what a ridiculous notion that would be!

That was before October 2015’s ludicrous 31-film tally, so in the end I didn’t need five “better than I’ve ever done” months, just four really good ones and one fairly average one to reach #100 on May 28th.

“Fairly average” there is a relative term: May 2016’s total of 13 films may rank =17th out of the last 24 months, but it’s above the all-time average for every month (the nearest is October’s 12.63), so it ain’t bad really. And although it breaks the 20-films-per-month run I’d been having in 2016, it does maintain my 10-per-month streak for the 24th month — i.e. two straight years.

Looking ahead, May may be a better indicator of what’s to come for the rest of the year — as I keep mentioning in these monthly posts, I’ve been intending to watch fewer film this year (to make room for other stuff), and I only pushed to #100 so quickly after I ‘accidentally’ had a really good couple of months at the start. My goal is to maintain that 10-per-month minimum, which now sees 2016 looking at #171+ (up from last month’s 160-ish). If the rest of the year does look like May (i.e. about 13 films a month), I’d end up around #192. If I ‘slip’ back into watching a lot of films, the average for the year so far (20.2) places me in the 240s.



It’s 100 Favourites’ G-spot! Experience ghosts, gladiators, and gangsters, in a month that’s all about films beginning with the letter G.



The 12th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
I was quite down on its predecessor for all sorts of reasons, but my unquestioned favourite film this month is The Raid 2. I won’t be surprised if it turns up again on my year-end top ten, too.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
I’ll talk about what in hell led me to watch it when I get round to reviewing it, but, while I actually wound up not minding Just Friends (for what it is, anyway), it’s definitely the lowest-quality movie I watched this month.

Winner of Marvel’s Civil War
Tom Holland, aka Spider-Man.

Loser of Marvel’s Civil War
Zack Snyder and his plans for DC’s movie universe.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Was it massively popular new-release Captain America: Civil War? No, that came third. Was it one of the widely-acknowledged greatest movies of all time, The Godfather? No, that came second. This month’s most popular post was a 21-year-old James Bond movie, GoldenEye.


2016 starts looking towards its place on the all-time ranking of 100 Films years: with 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012 already passed, sights are set on beating 2013’s 110, and maybe 2010’s 122…

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

2016 #92
Anthony & Joe Russo | 147 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English, German, Russian, Xhosa & Romanian | 12A / PG-13

This review contains spoilers.
(because, at this point, I’m not sure there’d be much point writing about it otherwise)

We’re now on to the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while you don’t need to have seen all 12 preceding movies to follow the events of Civil War, you do need at least four — and, to get everything, a further four or five beyond that. (Don’t worry about the four TV series — it’s increasingly clear that they’re only notionally connected to the movies.) So the Marvel model for a “shared universe” is not discrete stories that take place in the same world, but a series of ever-more-connected narratives. It’s working for them, though, as the continually stellar box office totals prove.

Ostensibly the third Captain America movie, Civil War is as much a sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron as it is to The Winter Soldier: it throws us straight in to action with the new Avengers line-up established at the end of Ultron, as they battle what turns out to be a villain from Winter Soldier. As I said, ever-more-connected. This particular mission goes disastrously wrong, bringing to a head plans that the governments of the world had been cooking up for a while: the Sokovia Accords, a way to control the Avengers and give them some accountability. Team leader Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) isn’t keen — he’s worried political interests will conflict with the Avengers’ ability to do good. Bankroller Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is on board, however — spooked by having created Ultron, and after being confronted by the mother of an American lad who died in Sokovia (because the Sokovian deaths didn’t matter enough, I guess), he thinks the Avengers need reining in. The burgeoning conflict is clarified when Rogers’ childhood friend Bucky Barnes, aka Soviet agent the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), emerges from hiding to attack the signing of the Accords — Rogers wants to save him; Stark needs to bring him in, dead or alive. As most of the other heroes we’ve met in the preceding 12 movies (not to mention a couple of new ones) pick sides, battle lines are drawn for an almighty clash.

As complicated as the plot sounds once you start trying to succinctly summarise it, Civil War is easy to follow as it unfurls. In fact, it’s to its credit that it can’t be readily summarised in any more detail than “Cap and Iron Man disagree; fight” without really getting into it. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have followed up the political thriller of Winter Soldier with another global thriller storyline, again bringing different genre textures to the superheroics that are nonetheless present and correct. The film’s style mixes in just the right amount of realism — no one’s pretending this isn’t a comic book movie, with some elements of comic book logic and a casual acceptance of people having world-changing powers; but if such people did exist, this is the kind of way they would be handled by the authorities.

So while Civil War does work as a popcorn-guzzling action spectacular, the themes it raises — primarily of how we oversee and control those who claim to protect us — are relevant to real life, if you want them to be. The film attempts to make it a genuine debate by placing Cap and Stark as the figureheads of each side. Sure, that’s borrowed from the original comic book storyline that inspired the film, but it works perfectly for the movies: Iron Man is the basis around which the whole MCU was originally built, while Captain America is almost its break out star, emerging from the mess of The First Avenger to become one of the shining lights of every film he’s starred in since, at least two of which commonly compete for the crown of the MCU’s best movie. So who better to place at the heart of the conflict? Who better to present viewers with a genuine choice?

Well, maybe. But the debate is partially stalled by the fact this is a Captain America movie rather than an Avengers one. Yeah, you can side with Tony Stark & co, but you know Cap’s going to come out to the good, one way or another. As it pans out, it’s not a total victory (Team Cap are all now fugitives, presumably until Infinity War), but, morally, Cap wins, and even Tony knows it. Would it have been better to frame the political/thematic issues in an Avengers movie, to make it a genuine contest? Maybe. It’s almost hard to imagine it divorced of this context now, and a lot of that context is Cap-based. The rest of the cast of The Avengers may be hanging around, but the narrative drive comes back to Steve and Bucky, a throughline that belongs to the Captain America trilogy. You can’t doubt that this is a Captain America film — tonally, it fits better with The Winter Soldier than Age of Ultron — even as it is, really, also an Avengers one.

If we’re talking about hero-vs-hero conflicts and movies that give you something to think about, it’s only fair that we drag this year’s other big silver screen superhero battle into the fray. There’s little doubt that Civil War is a more readily entertaining film than Batman v Superman, and clearly a more popular one, but it left me with less to think about. That’s not to say there isn’t thematic weight here — I’ve just spent a couple of paragraphs referring to its attempts to engage with such debates, after all — but I felt like the film kinda covers what there is to say. Maybe Batman v Superman leaves its issues more open; or maybe they’re less well conveyed; or maybe we struggle to read them into it because they’re not actually there. Whatever the truth, I came out of Zack Snyder’s movie with lots going on in my mind and wrote 2,500 words about it that contained half or less of my thoughts. I came out of Civil War thinking, “well that was fun.”

On that visceral level, there are a couple of stunning action sequences. The car/foot chase between Cap, Bucky and Black Panther is fantastic, casually throwing in cool moments like the way Bucky steals a motorbike. The climactic two-on-one fight is also a sight, throwing in strong choreography and seamless effects work to create a battle that has a real ebb and flow, a back and forth over who has the upper hand. And the centrepiece of it all, of course, is the two teams facing off at the airport. For fans of superheroes, this is pretty much the ultimate expression of the genre yet brought to live-action moviemaking. For my money, the antics of Ant-Man — and Giant-Man — are by and large (pun very much intended) the best bit of it, but maybe I’m just a little biased. Certainly, that everyone’s favourite webslinger is in the mix is the icing on the cake, and Tom Holland seems to have quickly nailed Spidey. Personally, I still find it a bit odd him turning up, especially in such a minor role. There’s still a slight sense that the MCU is made up of second/third-string heroes, who needed that shared universe to kickstart their big-screen life. Spidey most certainly does not need that… or didn’t before Sony effed it up with the last two movies, anyway. Maybe he does now.

And while I’m talking about Spider-Man, let’s talk about those post-credits scenes. Peter Parker is the star of the second one, and it’s Marvel Studio’s usual kind of tease, though perhaps less teasing than normal — “hey, remember that kid who was Spider-Man? He’s Spider-Man!” Thanks, guys. Before that, though, the mid-credits scene is a mid-credits scene for the sake of a mid-credits scene. By establishing where Bucky ends up, it’s surely an essential part of the overall narrative. Okay, it has the requisite teaser properties, hinting at where we might find Team Cap come the start of Avengers 3; and it teases Black Panther too, but only very, very mildly — like the Spidey scene, it’s basically saying, “hey, remember that foreign prince who was Black Panther? He lives in a foreign country… where he’s Black Panther!” Other than that, it’s kinda important to answer the question of “hey, what happened to Bucky?” next time Cap turns up. So why isn’t the scene just in the film? Well, it is in the film — just after a few of the credits — so what does it matter, right?

As I was saying — there’s plenty more action in the movie. Sadly, much of it falls foul of the dreaded ShakyCam. Watching Civil War just days after The Raid 2 made that especially frustrating. With all the time and effort they put into training actors these days, plus all the effects technology they have at their disposal to paint out wires or replace faces (something they’ve been able to do unnoticeably since Jurassic Park, for pity’s sake!), you’d think a $250 million movie could manage better. (If you’re wondering what they did spend $250 million on, it was stuff like, “eh, we may as well just use CGI for the close-ups, too”.)

One thing the film definitely gets right, in my view, is its villain. So central is the Cap/Iron Man conflict that it seemed any villain would be an afterthought, at best; and it doesn’t help that the MCU is renowned for having weak antagonists. Indeed, for most of the movie Zemo seems like the expected nonentity; a villain for the sake of a villain, who’s being seeded earlier in the film just so he doesn’t come completely out of nowhere at the climax. But then, when his whole story and plan is revealed, it turns out that all along he may have been one of the most interesting villains the MCU has yet offered. His motivation is simple but effective; his methodology cunning and almost successful — even after the heroes know what he was trying to get them to do, they do it anyway! His final scene with Black Panther may be the best part of the entire movie. Nice work, Daniel Brühl.

In the end, Civil War leaves plenty open for future Marvel movies. Well, of course it does — half the time MCU movies are feature-length trailers for the next MCU movie. Where Civil War is really clever, however, is that it does that stage-setting while also feeling conclusory. As the third part in the Captain America trilogy, it actually makes a pretty satisfying end to that narrative. As the third part in the “trilogy in five parts” that is The Avengers trilogy, well, it’s clearly not the end, but it’s a fairly discrete segment.

It may well also be the best MCU movie so far, too. There aren’t many 13th films that can say that.

4 out of 5

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

2014 #81
Marc Webb | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Amazing Spider-Man 2Despite the fact that the first film of Sony’s Spider-Man reboot was a wannabe-hipster over-angsty teen-romance take on the webslinger, which needlessly re-told his origin story and posted unexceptional box office takings, it seems there was some degree of consensus that it wasn’t too bad. I don’t agree. Two years later, this sequel seems to have met with a largely negative response, accused of crimes like navel-gazing and franchise-building. Again, I don’t agree — I think this is the best Spidey movie since the previous Spider-Man 2.

Dialling down the rom-com elements to their appropriate subplot level, ASM2 sees Spidey (Andrew Garfield) having to deal with an electricity-powered supervillain (Jamie Foxx) trying to destroy the city, and the return of his childhood friend Harry Osbourne (Chronicle’s Dane DeHaan), who inherits OsCorp when his father passes away. If you’ve seen Spider-Man 3 (the last one, not the one that’ll be out in a few years… maybe), you’ll know where that’s going…

Fortunately for us, ASM2 has some new twists on the old formulas. Harry’s transformation may be inevitable, but it’s played with different emphasis and motivations. Plus DeHaan is a much more unusual and engaging actor than James Franco, his version of Harry notably different from the previous “pretty young rich kid”. The storyline afforded to Foxx’s Electro is in-keeping with previous Spider-baddies — a fundamentally good person who ends up misguided — but his cool powers keep things visually engaging. Their first big face off in Times Square felt like one of the best effects-driven action sequences I’ve seen for a while, in fact.

Best friends?Then we have the much-maligned backstory about just what Peter Parker’s parents did all those years ago, before they abandoned him with Uncle Ben and Aunt May. There are pros and cons to this: it’s all new, which at least makes it interesting and unpredictable because it has no forebear in comics or films; but it’s also a pretty stock set of circumstances. Worse still, it robs Spidey of a major defining trait: Peter Parker is bitten by a spider by accident — it could’ve been anyone. In this version, it could only have been him. Boo. Sony clearly want an arc plot they can run across a trilogy (or more), so presumably this thread will rumble on… though whisperings that they’re considering some kind of soft-reboot may see it cut short. I wouldn’t complain.

It’s a moderately minor part of the film though, I thought. So too the setting up of some league of supervillains — presumably the Sinister Six, as that’s the first planned spin-off movie. I still think people over-emphasise how much time Iron Man 2 puts into setting up The Avengers at the expense of being its own film; ASM2 does it even less, so I think the complaints are even less warranted. Honestly, there’s so much else going on, why hone in on the one thing you wish it hadn’t done?

That other stuff includes an increased dose of fun and humour — darkness abounds, to be sure, and in everyone’s storylines too; and Webb still dodges the bright-and-breezy tone of Raimi’s movies (which is a shame, because there’s a good argument that that’s where Spidey belongs) — Electrifyingbut it’s more textured, at least. Then there’s Electro, who (as mentioned) may have a familiar story, but is nonetheless perfectly pitched by Foxx. His powers lead to some excellent sequences, including but not limited to the aforementioned Times Square duel. He also contributes to the music, in a way, as Electro’s whispered/sung thoughts ‘bleed out’ into the score. It’s creepy, especially as it’s so subtle in the mix — I wondered what the hell was going on at first. I thought it was a fantastic score all round, in fact, bringing in a modern music element that fits the notion of Spidey as a young character perfectly.

While I don’t advocate a like-for-like repeat of all that in future Spidey films — innovate, don’t replicate (is that a saying? That should be a saying) — I hope there are people at Sony who are aware that things in ASM2 do work, and work very well. As they rush headlong to fix the film’s perceived failings in future instalments, purely so that they can make a success out of their desired Avengers-style multi-franchise franchise, I hope they don’t wind up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Or washing the spider down the drain. Or some other similar but more apt metaphor.

While ASM2 isn’t perfect, I don’t really see what all the negative reviews were on about — I properly enjoyed it. Is it the best Spider-Man film? No. Spider 'splosionIt lacks the confidence, heart and flair that mark out Spider-Man 2, and the bold originality and clarity of purpose that define Raimi’s first Spider-Man. Equally, it doesn’t suffer from the compromised creativity of the forced Spider-Man 3, nor the fumbled plotting and try-hard hipsterism of Webb’s first Spidey effort. It’s a distinct improvement, but beyond that, it’s an entertaining Spider-Man movie in its own right.

4 out of 5

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is on Sky Movies from New Year’s Day 2015.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Superhero Movie (2008)

2008 #52
Craig Mazin | 85 mins | in-flight | 12A / PG-13

Superhero MovieYears ago, I saw Scary Movie. I don’t really know what I thought of it anymore, but I never expected I’d find myself watching another entry in the critically-derided …Movie series. But then I found myself on a plane, half asleep and with a choice of films I’d mostly rather watch on a decent-sized screen, and decided that maybe Superhero Movie wouldn’t be so bad after all…

As anyone who saw a trailer will have guessed, Superhero Movie is mainly a spoof of Spider-Man… a film that is now six years old. Unfortunately, this means that most of the best jokes have already been done in numerous other sketch-length spoofs, amongst them one at the MTV Movie Awards and one during Comic Relief 2005. The latter even did the green costume thing, though the hero was ‘Spider-Plant Man’ rather than the (less funny) Dragonfly employed here. Superhero Movie takes all this sketchery to the next level, however, crafting its story simply by reworking the first Spider-Man film almost scene by scene, inserting jokes (and, more often, ‘jokes’) where it can — which is about once per scene.

There are also asides that spoof X-Men, Fantastic Four and Batman, but they barely warrant a mention. They’re certainly not any funnier. In fact, the climax is the only wholly original plot point — or, at least, plot point not directly lifted from Spider-Man, as it may well come from some other comic source. This incessant copying makes the film feel like an over-extended sketch, and so it becomes clear that something like Mystery Men, with its genuinely original plot, makes for a much better superhero comedy movie.

As for the gags themselves, they’re childish, lewd, offensive (“isn’t Stephen Hawking funny!”), too specific to American culture, too topical (they’ll be dated within six months), already dated (“isn’t the Windows paperclip annoying!”), too obvious… It’s very much a movie made for now, not for posterity. Actually, to be fair, it’s very much a movie made for six years ago. In this respect I suppose it’s just like the rest of the …Movie series, which I’ve always felt looked like cheap TV specials owing to their specificity and, well, rubbishness. Still, believe it or not, some bits are actually amusing. Or amusing enough while they’re on. Perhaps I was just laughing out of desperation. I certainly can’t remember any of the jokes now.

Intriguingly (a word I use loosely here), there are a bunch of deleted scenes and gags during the end credits — not bloopers, but genuine deleted bits. It’s a mystery as to why these aren’t either in the film itself or relegated to DVD extras — it’s not like running time is an issue, and clearly pacing isn’t. In fact, some of the deletions are much funnier than gags that were left in. They’re probably the only reason to keep watching Superhero Movie to the end, though they’re not reason enough to start it in the first place.

2 out of 5

Superhero Movie featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2008, which can be read in full here.