Disjointed Screenplay Dominates "Spider-Man: Homecoming"

Six screenwriters. Six. It reads like the punchline to a tired Hollywood in-joke, but that’s exactly what it took to cobble together the script for Sony’s sixth Spider-Man movie. Three different teams of writers – Christopher Ford and Jon Watts (the latter of whom pulled double duty as director), Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (who most recently blessed us with 2015’s gaseous “Vacation” reboot), and Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (best known as television comedy writers) – all hoisted their ideas for the webslinger circa 2017 into a blender. What’s corkscrewed out has been christened “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It is relatively light and fun and many things that a Spider-Man film must be.

It is also a mess.

Thanks to a deal cut by a studio struggling to maintain Spidey’s cinematic relevance, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is the first of the webhead’s six movies to involve Marvel Studios. Accordingly it both unspools within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and comes with the stink of filmmaking-by-committee.

Tom Holland, whose Peter Parker was introduced in last year’s similarly discombobulated “Captain America: Civil War,” is the pic’s star – in theory. In reality, he’s forced to cede the screen to Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Stark’s assistant Happy Hogan (actor and filmmaker Jon Favreau) at intervals so reliable they nearly keep time. Every time Stark and Hogan appear the picture grinds to a halt, a patronizing reminder that the Spider-Man exploits we’ve paid to watch are small and insignificant compared the real problems faced by the real Avengers.

In lieu of another big screen origin story for Spidey, the movie begs a small, episodic bent that it undermines at every turn with the aforementioned cameos, so concerned with universe building and branding that Tony Stark’s pleas for Parker to just be a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” come off as disingenuous at best. At worst, they’re a dead giveaway of Marvel’s fitful meddling, a trend that’s begun to rear its head in films not driven by a singular creative voice. Writer-director James Gunn’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy” films have been wonderful, auteur-based triumphs. Not so much when Marvel opts to play screenwriter musical chairs.

“Homecoming” does a few things right; topping the list is giving Michael Keaton room to play. The “Batman” and “Birdman” star makes the most of his villainous turn as Adrian Toomes aka Vulture, a shrewd entrepreneur who scavenges from the crash-landed alien tech in 2012’s “The Avengers” and turns it into a highly profitable arms trafficking business. He’s an ideal foil for Peter Parker’s wide-eyed teenager, mirroring Spidey’s ascension from nobody to personage, but for entirely different reasons. Keaton is the pic’s connective tissue and the reason “Homecoming” isn’t a total loss. A twist involving his character lays bare the story’s hopeless reliance on coincidence, but it gives the movie its best scene – not an action scene, but a tension-filled colloquy between Adrian and Peter.

Outside of Holland and Keaton, the rest of the cast is almost entirely frittered away. Newcomer Jacob Batalon nearly steals the film as Peter’s nerdy best friend Ned, only kept from his theft by the script’s apathy towards him. He’s good for a handful of solid laughs but pushed to the sidelines whenever his affability poses a threat to the serious business that is the MCU.

A thorough but incomplete list of some very capable actors who toil on the same sidelines: Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei (Peter’s Aunt May), Logan Marshall-Green (The Shocker #1), Bokeem Woodbine (The Shocker #2), Donald Glover (Aaron Davis, a client of Toomes), Tony Revolori (Flash Thompson), Martin Starr (high school teacher Mr. Harrington), and Michael Chernus (Phineas Mason, Toomes’ right-hand man). All of the above function exclusively as narrative apparatus, backboards for jokes, or alley oop passes for future films. They’re less characters than cardboard stand-ups; not allowed to exist on the terms a real person might, only as Scotch tape for a half dozen screenwriters.

Thank God Holland is likable. Without the the aw-shucks-ness of Tobey Maguire (Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man) or the acting chops of Andrew Garfield (Marc Webb’s), the real-life teenager – a first for a Spider-Man film – is left to carry a movie that doesn’t care a lick for most of its supporting players. He might sound like he wandered off the set of a “Newsies” remake, but he gets the essentials of the character right: incorruptibility, awkwardness, wit, and heart.

If only the rest of the film were as true.

Director Jon Watts (“Cop Car”) has been given the unenviable task of making sense of not just the work of an orchestra of writers, himself included, but the inevitable maelstrom of studio notes, unavoidably amplified by the pressures of his first big budget film. He’s survived it without putting any kind of personal stamp on the finished product, delivering a middling high school action-comedy with dull setpieces; a lesser “Superbad” with superhero cameos.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is, to its core, what Marvel must avoid to keep its Cinematic Universe healthy into the next decade and beyond: it’s forgettable.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: July 7, 2017
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony), Marvel Studios
Director: Jon Watts
Screenwriters: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Bokeem Woodbine, Marisa Tomei, Logan Marshall-Green, Martin Starr, Michael Chernus, Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments)