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Front Page - Friday, July 14, 2017

Critic's Corner: Spider-Man sticks landing in latest

Here we are with another new Spider-Man. This one arrives in the wake of the three “Spider-Man” films starring Tobey Maguire and directed by Sam Raimi (a series that fizzled after the disappointing third film) and the two “Amazing Spider-Man” films starring Andrew Garfield and directed by Marc Webb (a series that fizzled after the disappointing second film).

This one, titled “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” stars Tom Holland and is directed by Jon Watts, who had two small films under his belt before tackling the new iteration of Stan Lee’s web slinger. The title references the return of Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Disney, which owns Marvel, struck a deal with Sony, which holds the film rights to Spider-Man, to feature the character in Marvel’s movies.

Just like the “Amazing Spider-Man” films ignored the events of the Raimi-Maguire collaborations, “Homecoming” tosses out the events of both previous series and reboots the storyline. Thankfully, it spares us the backstory of Peter Parker, who became Spider-Man after being bitten by a radioactive spider.

The only mention of how Parker became Spider-Man comes during a brief scene in which someone who’s learned of Parker’s alter ego asks if he could be bitten, too. “The spider’s dead,” Parker replies. In other words, let’s assume everyone knows the origin story and move on.

As I watched “Homecoming,” though, I couldn’t help but think about what else is missing.

It doesn’t have the emotional gravity or dramatic tension of the Peter Parker-Mary Jane-Harry Osborn love triangle from the Raimi movies. It doesn’t have the villainous intrigue of the Green Goblin, who was featured in both previous series. And it doesn’t even show Parker with a camera or getting a stern grilling from J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher of the Daily Bugle.

But the creators of “Homecoming” didn’t want to be bogged down by these Spider-Man trappings. Instead, they dared to make a film that stands on its own. To that end, “Homecoming” has its own romance, villain and story – and it’s likely a better movie because of these things.

“Homecoming” follows Parker during his sophomore year in high school to offer a different kind of origin story for Spider-Man. Instead of covering the infamous bite, “Homecoming” shows the already radioactively empowered Parker struggling with the challenges all teenagers face: figuring out who he is and where he fits in.

But instead of trying to integrate socially with his peers, Parker attempts to become an Avenger – to join the ranks of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk – only his ambitions exceed his skills and his ability to make good decisions.

Parker also doesn’t listen well. The movie opens with Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, admonishing Parker to be “a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” while he finishes high school and does the things all normal teenagers do.

But then Parker stumbles upon an illegal weapons operation by a baddie known as Vulture, and instead of calling in the big guns, he seizes the opportunity to prove his value to the Avengers.

Of course, Parker makes a mess of things. And, yes, there are consequences. In one of the film’s best scenes, Stark returns to NYC following a particularly bad dust up and hits Parker with some tough love.

When Stark asks Parker to hand over the special Spider-Man suit he made for him, Parker says, “I’m nothing without this suit” (which is typical of how teenagers define themselves using external factors). Stark replies, “If you’re nothing without this suit, then you don’t deserve it.”

Watching Parker begin to mature and define himself is the most gratifying aspect of “Homecoming.” But there’s more to the film than his thoughtfully considered coming of age story.

The acting is especially good. DC Comics alum Michael “I’m Batman” Keaton does a great job of bringing Vulture to life and Holland is spot on as Parker. He really did strike me as a kid who’s trying to find his way.

Also, Parker is surrounded by terrifically written secondary characters. His best friend, Ned, who provides not just emotional but tactical support, is a gem. There’s also Peter’s acerbic classmate Melissa, who provides some humorously antagonistic comedy relief. Then there’s the radiant Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, who has the best last word (or should I say half-word) in Marvel movie history.

If there’s one thing “Homecoming” should have carried over from the previous iterations of Spider-Man, it’s Raimi’s eye for stylistic action. “Homecoming” director Jon Watts nailed the emotional aspects of the story, but when it came to the action, his efforts were merely workman-like.

There are several big action scenes in the film, and while they do generate excitement, the visuals are sometimes muddled and choppy, making it hard to see what’s going on. This is especially true of the movie’s climactic battle, which is a mess.

But by that point, “Homecoming” had built up enough good will that I forgave its shortcomings.

More than anything else, “Homecoming” is a fun, adventurous film filled with humor and heart. It also deftly reclaims the Spider-Man legacy for Marvel and points toward even greater thrills to come.

Unlike the other Spider-Mans, this one’s gonna stick.

3 stars out of 4