Popcorn with a Bite

It’s hard to think of the character Venom without Spider-Man. The webslinger was the first human host of the liquid alien symbiote when he was introduced in 1984, though Spidey soon peeled himself away from Venom. After that breakup, Venom bonded with reporter Eddie Brock and became a big bad for Spider-Man. That included an appearance in Sam Raimi’s horrible Spider-Man 3, with the forgettable Topher Grace as Brock. In the comics, Venom has bonded with quite a few other characters and has even shown up in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Brock, though, was the primary host, so it’s fitting the character would appear in the new movie, Venom. The best news was that Tom Hardy would play the character(s).

Rather than keep the character in Spider-Man’s New York City, the movie version of Venom moves the setting to San Francisco. Hardy’s Brock is a shuffling, schleppy investigative reporter, though he’s managed to attract lawyer Anne Weyling (Michelle Williams) as his girlfriend. Weyling works for the Life Foundation, which has invested in private space exploration as an answer the growing tenuousness of life on earth. The head of the foundation, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), believes the key to human survival in space is a blending of humans with aliens. One of their vehicles crash lands in Malaysia while returning to Earth with samples of alien lifeforms.

Brock’s assigned a puff piece profile of Drake by his editor, but instead he reads confidential information from Anne’s work and uses it to ambush Drake. The stunt costs both Brock and Anne their jobs, leading Anne to walk away from Brock. Six months later, Anne’s put her life back together and found a new relationship with a doctor. Brock, on the other hand, is living in a dive and hustling what work he can find to keep going. Then a researcher (Jenny Slate) comes to Brock with information about deadly human research undertaken by the Foundation. She gets Brock into the building, where he can find evidence to expose what they’re doing. Instead he becomes the evidence when he’s accidentally introduced to Venom.

Venom’s about as anti a hero as possible, with a preference of chowing down on people when he’s feeling puckish. However, he needs the compatible Brock to survive Earth’s hostile environment. Brock’s pretty far from a hero as himself, but he understands good and evil so he tries to exercise some restraint on Venom. The symbiote relationship goes both ways, since Brock needs Venom to survive the Foundation’s security team that’s gunning for him. Much of the action of Venom takes place at night, a fitting time for this murky, dark story.

A portion of the movie is devoted to Brock’s absurd behavior brought on by Venom, culminating in a scene with Anne and her doctor at a fancy restaurant. It’s familiar territory that date back to Renfrew in the original novel of “Dracula.” For the best comedic version in movies, think of the possessed versions of Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters. Here the trope is kind of tired, and thankfully the script abandons it fairly quickly. Where the movie comes alive is the action scenes where Venom shows his powers. Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) ratchets up the intensity with tight, fast action that strikes in surprising ways. He also makes good use of the San Francisco setting, especially in a sequence with Brock fleeing on a motorcycle while pursued by several SUVs.

Both Hardy and Williams are almost too good for the movie, since they can communicate depth even in a shallow piece like Venom. They’re a full-course steak dinner caught in a popcorn flick. Likewise, Ahmed, who was outstanding in Nightcrawler and Rogue One, is tamped down to fit the stereotype of an evil genius. They raise the quality of the film even though their roles are pretty much by the numbers.

Overall, the film does work. It’s a bag of popcorn seasoned with some unexpected spices, so it tickles your taste buds in unexpected ways. It could have been much worse – Topher Grace, anyone? – and while it doesn’t rise to the level of recent Marvel fare like Black Panther, Spider-Man: Homecoming, or Thor: Ragnarok, it’s a decent second tier entertainment.

There are two long tags in the credits – one midway through, the other at the end – that are full scenes for upcoming films. One sets up the sequel to Venom – you knew there had to be one – and even introduces the big bad for that film. The other is for the new animated feature out later this year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

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Good Things In Small Packages

When Ant-Man came out in 2015, it was a wonderful surprise. The character had had a small role (you could say) in the comics during the Silver Age of Marvel. Some wondered how it could stand up against Ironman, Thor, and the other iconic characters of the Marvel Movie Universe. And then there was the firing of writer/director Edgar Wright over “creative disagreements” when the movie was in production. But when the finished product hit the theaters, it was well-received with its perfectly balanced mixture of comedy and action. Paul Rudd’s turn in Captain America: Civil War was short but sweet – and very, very tall for a while. All worked out well for Edgar Wright, too, since he instead made Baby Driver, a hit with both audiences and critics.

The sequel for Ant-Man was already teased at the end of the first film. Fans have waited anxiously to see Evangeline Lilly put on the Wasp suit and become the first female character in the title of a Marvel film. Then Avengers: Infinity War came out in April and completely upset the Marvel Universe. Both Hawkeye and Ant-Man were no-shows in that film, having taken deals with the government following their arrests after the events in Civil War. The question was, what affect would Infinity War have on Ant-Man and the Wasp?

The answer is almost none, since the plot of Ant-Man/Wasp takes place before Thanos’s minions show up in New York City. Scott Lang (Rudd) is within days of finishing his home confinement sentence, wearing an ankle bracelet to keep him inside. He’s consulting with his three compadres from the first film – Michael Pena, T.I. Harris, and David Dastmalchian – for the private security firm they’ve set up, but his focus is to complete his time so he can be more involved with his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).

Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Lilly), have been on the run since they refused to abide by the Sokovia Accord, meant to control superheroes. Their focus has turned to the Quantum Realm in the hope of freeing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hank’s wife and Hope’s mom – if she’s still alive. Their experiments bring them in contact with tech black-marketer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) to get equipment needed for their experiments. When Hope meets with Sonny, he reveals he knows both her and Hank’s identities and wants to exploit their knowledge. However, a third party interrupts their meeting and steals the tech Hank needs. The white-clad, masked thief can phase in and out of the world, allowing her to walk through walls and giving her the name Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen). In need of help, Hank and Hope reach out to Scott.

Between Ghost, Sonny, and the Feds, Ant-Man/Wasp is much more action-driven than the first movie, with twists and turns throughout. Also playing a part is Lawrence Fishburne as Bill Foster, a former partner and friend of Hank Pym’s. The film also has more fun with shrinking objects, including cars and even buildings (that have a handy luggage trolley build in).

The screenplay credits feature five people broken up into two teams: Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, who did the screenplay for Spider-Man: Homecoming as well as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, matched with Paul Rudd and his two collaborators, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari. There’s still plenty of comedy and comedic action, though they’ve increase the adrenalin factor so it runs closer to a regular Marvel movie. Peyton Reed is back as the director, and he maintains the fun factor of the film.

Evangeline Lilly does get to kick some major butt in the film, which pays off her potential from the first film. Also, as I mentioned in my review for Incredibles 2, the recent Marvel movies (along with DC’s Wonder Woman) have leveled the playing field between men and women in the movie genre. Lilly’s Wasp is, if anything, more powerful than Rudd’s Ant-Man. The filmmakers also switched genders for Ghost, who has always been a male character in the comics. Hannah John-Kamen has been on SyFy channel’s series “Killjoys” since 2015, and has appeared in “Game of Thrones.” This year has been good for her as she played the security agent for the bad guys in Spielberg’s Ready Player One as well as this role. While it’s a villainous role, John-Kamen also makes you feel pathos for the character.

We do know that Rudd, Lilly, and others show up in next year’s Avengers movie. (Marvel did a 10th Anniversary “class photo” last October where they got together everyone in the Marvel Universe. Click here to see a short behind-the-scenes piece on the event.) The first of two credit tags – the one after the main credits – sets up that moment.  Next May can’t come soon enough.

A Lot More -Er

2016’s original Deadpool was a wonderful surprise – an R-rated movie from the Marvel canon that still made almost $800 million worldwide. On top of that, it was a critical hit. The success of Deadpool was sweet revenge for star and producer Ryan Reynolds. He’d always loved the character, but when he got the chance to play him in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the movie turn the character into a bland, generic bad guy. (Really? The “Merc with a Mouth” with his mouth sealed shut? No one saw a problem with this?) However, there’s nothing that Hollywood likes more than a reboot, and Reynolds, assisted by first-time director Tim Miller, made a film that was faithful to the source material, including Deadpool’s 4th wall shattering dialogue. The film was essentially a Warner Brother’s cartoon with a stratospheric body count, but it also confirmed that an R rating wasn’t the kiss of box office death for a Marvel-sourced film, which was confirmed with last year’s Logan.

For almost a year and a half there have been teasers about the next film, so the anticipation built. What would Deadpool 2 be like? The answer turns out to be a lot more of everything in the first movie: funnier, cruder, wilder. If meta-ier was a word, the dictionary illustration would be a still from this film.

The directing duties for Deadpool 2 were handled by David Leitch, the former stuntman who gave a shot of adrenalin to the revenge flick with John Wick, then did the same for the Cold War spy film with Atomic Blonde. Here the action is just as well choreographed, though skewed to the side of black comedy. The central set piece of the film is in effect the live action version of a Roadrunner cartoon, though with lots of coyotes getting taken out along the way.

Reynolds’ Wade Wilson/Deadpool is not in a good place as the movie begins. An extended flashback shows what brings him to the point of despondency where he tries to blow himself into little pieces. Considering he can’t die, that doesn’t go as planned. Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) brings him to the Xavier School to recover. Once Wade’s somewhat fit again, Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) bring him along on an emergency call. Russell Collins (Julian Dennison), a young mutant at an orphanage that doubles as a mutant reeducation center, has a meltdown and tries to kill the headmaster. Wade’s help turns a bad situation worse, and Collins kills one of the attendants. Both Collins and Wade are taken into custody by the authorities, who fit them with collars that suppress their powers and ship them to a super-max prison for mutants. But as they are settling in, a half-human/half-machine mercenary from the future named Cable (Josh Brolin) appears, looking to kill Collins.

Brolin is having a stupendous summer, with Deadpool 2 on track to beat the first movie at the box office, plus his performance as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War which is currently in fourth place on the all-time box office list and will likely move up to 3, or possibly 2, before it’s done. His stoic visage is a beautiful counterfoil for Deadpool. While she doesn’t appear until midway through the film, Zazie Beetz, as the super-humanly lucky Domino, comes close to completely stealing the film.

If you enjoyed the original Deadpool, you’ll probably really like this new iteration. If you didn’t, you really won’t like this film’s extra-large helping of everything we got the first time around. I’m of the former category myself. But while the first movie expanded the possibilities for the superhero genre as a whole, Deadpool 2 shows the limitations of this series. This isn’t a character that will grow – his deep thoughts are usually cut off when he shoots someone. While the wider Marvel Universe has grown as its stories have deepened in resonance, Deadpool is a niche within that Universe. Reynolds and his collaborators have polished every surface until it shines, but if another film is made it will be more – probably a lot more – of the same. While it breaks the 4th wall, Deadpool 2 doesn’t break any of its boundaries.

To Infinity – And Beyond!

And so, after 18 movies over the course of 10 years, we come to the end of the current Marvel Universe. It’s all been leading up to Avengers: Infinity War, with teaser appearances by big bad Thanos (Josh Brolin) salted through several of the previous movies. There was a certain amount of peril inherent in this strategy. What if Thanos didn’t measure up on the big screen? What if the climax proved anticlimactic?

The good news is Infinity War truly adds an exclamation point to the previous films. While a Marvel film is a hugely collaborative endeavor with plenty of oversight from producer and Marvel president Kevin Feige, along with Marvel’s owner, the Walt Disney Company, they do balance involvement with allowing their directors and screenwriters to breathe. Infinity War benefits from having Anthony and Joe Russo in the director’s chair – well, chairs. The brothers had worked on TV shows like “Arrested Development,” “Happy Endings,” and “Community,” along with films like Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me, and Dupree, before helming one of the best Marvel movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and following it up with the equally exciting Captain America: Civil War. They’ve shown an ability to tap into emotional truth and convey complex plots while still making an exciting and engrossing film.

Infinity War boasts the full roster of Marvel movie superheroes with two exceptions – Antman and Hawkeye. The massive cast could have created a headache for anyone trying to follow the story. However, Marvel veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote all three Captain America movies, as well as created “Agent Carter” for TV) subdivide the cast and the action. The story shifts between several locations – some familiar, some new – with a contingent of the cast in each locale. Think of a large, succulent steak dinner sliced up into bite-size pieces, and you’ll get the idea.

I won’t go into any specifics of the plot, since there’s too great a chance for spoilers – that is, if you happen to be one of the few people who haven’t seen the movie yet. It blew up the records for opening weekend gross for both domestic and international box office. It has been mentioned in the past, though, that Infinity War represented the end of the series of movies over the past decade, meaning that no character had their future assured. Markus and McFeely underscore that in the very first scene.

There had been some criticism of Josh Brolin’s Thanos, based on his brief appearances in the other films. Some thought the embodiment was cartoonish (you could say). However, those concerns are squashed in the opening scene of Infinity War. What’s unexpected, though, is the fine performance Brolin gives, even beneath the CGI embodiment. While he’s an obsessed madman on a galactic scale, there are moments of aching sadness and signs of humanity – hopelessly twisted, but humanity all the same – deep within him.

The main characters are well-established now, but there are standouts in the movie. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man started the whole Marvel Universe, but he had his best turn as the character in Captain America: Civil War. The screenwriters build on that experience as he is faced with a devastating loss. Tom Holland is one of the newest members of the Universe, yet his Spiderman is a pivotal part of the story. Thor: Ragnarok was a huge success for Chris Hemsworth a few months ago, and that movie sets up a large part of the arc of Infinity War’s story as he goes through the classic heroic plot of recreating himself to face a greater threat than he’s ever faced before.

The trailer I’ve attached does feature one scene that doesn’t appear in the movie. That’s often a negative for films – think Twister – though in this case it was important to keep a plot point hidden. (When you see the movie, you’ll understand,) While you have to be aware to catch it, Markus and McFeely have also answered what happened to the Red Skull after the climax of Captain America: The First Avenger.

Marvel has turned tags at the end of their movies into an art form, and they usually feature two these days, though Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was greedy and included six. Some are just fun, such as the last tag of Spider-man: Homecoming, but others build toward the next film or films. Infinity War has only one tag at the very end of the credits, but it’s a doozey, and leads directly to two films next year: Captain Marvel, with Brie Larson as the titular hero, and the still-untitled Avengers 4.

The only problem is, now we must wait a year.

A Role Model for Much of the World

After years of establishing a formula, the superhero genre is flexing its muscles. Arguably, The Dark Knight, with its plot twists and its twisted villains – especially Heath Ledger’s Joker – moved the genre to a higher level. For the Marvel Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier took a clear-cut hero and threw him into a world filled with shades of gray. Its sequel, Captain America: Civil War – the best Avengers movie so far – hit an even darker tone. On the other side of the scale, Thor: Raganok managed to find a completely fresh voice by looking at the genre with a decidedly cockeyed view. While the DC films following Nolan’s trilogy have been mostly pedestrian, last spring’s Wonder Woman was transcendent, and a healing tonic after the misogyny of both the genre and the previous year’s presidential campaign. Now, Marvel has rocked the genre again with Black Panther, fittingly released during Black History Month.

T’Challa, the king of Wakanda and protector of his people in his guise as Black Panther, was the first Black superhero, appearing with The Fantastic Four in 1966. Two years later he had his own comic book series. From the outset the character was different from others in the Marvel Universe. Rather than accidentally gaining his powers (from gamma radiation or a radio-active spider bite, for example), his power was inherited along with his kingship. Where most superheroes are lone wolfs, Black Panther is firmly planted in a community. His first appearance on screen, in Civil War, was captivating. Where most superheroes blaze hot, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther was a cool blue flame. He spoke softly, but when action was required he sprang into action like, well, like a black panther. But he was, essentially, on his own, except when aligned with Iron Man and others. Now with the stand-alone Black Panther, we see him in his element. The screenplay by director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and Jon Robert Cole focuses not just on the hero but on the community that surrounds him, and empowers him.

The movie opens with the story of Wakanda and the Black Panther, related by a father to his son. Five tribes battled over land where a meteorite had deposited vibranium. A warrior ingested a heart-shaped plant that had mutated by exposure to the vibranium. He gained great power, but rather than wiping out the other tribes, he used his strength to unite four of them. One tribe went their own way, but they were allowed to exist peacefully in the land. Powered by the vibranium, the Wakandans developed marvelous technology far beyond the rest of the world. But they hid their advancement from outsiders as European colonizers fought wars against the natives while slavery tore apart the fabric of Africa. Wakanda was an island in a troubled sea. The country became a paradise, guarded from outsiders by an elaborate ruse as well as a far flung network of spies embedded in nations around the world.

Following the death of his father in Civil War, T’Challa is to be formally installed as king, but first he undertakes a mission with Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s his all-female imperial guard. They retrieve one of Wakanda’s spies, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), from her mission against modern-day slavers. They return to Wakanda where T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), wait for them. Shuri is like James Bond’s Q played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After the installation – and an unexpected challenge by the leader of the separatist tribe, M’Baku (Winston Duke) – T’Challa learns that a longtime enemy of Wakanda has surfaced. Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) had stolen a supply of vibranium from Wakanda years earlier and killed several Wakandas while making his escape. Now he’s surfaced after stealing an antiquity that was made from the metal, and is about to sell it in South Korea. T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia head there to capture Klaue and recover the vibranium, but they’re unaware Klaue is working with an American mercenary. Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a former US Special Forces warrior, but he also has a special connection both to Wakanda and to T’Challa.

You don’t usually get a superhero story that’s about responsibility, both personal and socially, but that’s what Black Panther revolves around. It also posits what might have happened if Africa had been spared the twin scourges of colonialism and the slave trade. Since Wakanda avoided both, the narrative of slavery or prejudice and injustice that underlies so much of the presentation of blacks on screen, is not the central focus. Think of the recent black stories in the cinema: 12 Years A Slave, The Help, Hidden Figures, Selma, or Chadwick Boseman’s first star turn as Jackie Robinson in 42. Instead of dwelling there, Black Panther asks what is require from the Wakandans who have been so favored. Is it enough to maintain their hidden world, or have they a responsibility to act to help those who’ve been oppressed?

An outstanding aspect of Black Panther is the number of strong female characters in the mix. Gurira is a bad ass of the first order, matched by the dozen warriors she leads. Nyong’o is James Bond cool while Wright is a delight, a wisecracking genius who can hold her own in a battle. Bassett is regal in her role, but you also see the steel spine within her.

The men fare just as well, with Boseman building on his embodiment of the character from Civil War. As with the 007 movies, the quality of the villain often controls the quality of the film, and Jordan’s Killmonger is one of the best ever. His backstory and performance moves Black Panther close to a Shakespearean level; think Henry V on the outside, Richard III inside. A delightful surprise is Duke, a six-foot-six mountain of a man who plays a much more grounded and multi-dimensional character than usually portrayed in the comics. In addition, you have Forest Whittaker, Sterling K. Brown, Martin Freeman, and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), each in important roles. The movie is overflowing with talent, and it uses that talent effectively.

Black Panther has already broken box office records for February and had the fifth biggest opening weekend in movie history. The wonderful aspect of this, though, is the success is more than deserved. The movie not only tells a great story – it gives a large swath of the world a role model for whom to root.

Gotter-Damn-That’s-Fun

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is a series of events and battles that lead to the destruction of most of the gods. But different from Apocalyptic stories, it leads to rebirth for the Earth. After natural disasters wipe out all humans but two (Lif & Lifthrasir), the land submerges beneath the sea only to reemerge renewed and refreshed. The two humans repopulate the world, living with the help of the surviving gods. In Judeo-Christian terms, it’s closer to the story of Noah than Revelations. Ragnarok has been translated to English as “The Twilight of the Gods,” and as “Gotterdammerung” in German, where it served as the basis for the last of Wagner’s operas in the Ring series. In the Marvel Universe, though, Ragnarok means the regeneration of the Thor franchise.

The original Thor in 2011 was fun, with director Kenneth Branagh contrasting the operatic heights of Asgard with fish-out-of-water humor when Thor is banished to Earth. But Thor’s later appearances in the two Avengers movies as well as Thor: The Dark World (2013) were more standard smash-‘em-up superhero fare. Overall, Thor was a bit of a prig with all the “only he who is worthy can wield the hammer” stuff and his impossibly sculpted muscles. Star Chris Hemsworth was getting so bored with the franchise he was ready to bail out.

Enter writer/director Taika Waititi. The part-Maori New Zealander has a wonderfully cockeyed sense of humor that’s been displayed in his projects like What We Do In the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and he brings that sensibility to Thor: Ragnarok. While three screenwriters got credit for the Ragnarok script, including Dark World screenwriter Christopher L. Yost, Waititi encouraged his cast to improvise – something that usually does not happen in the Marvel Universe. The story also gives Thor a fresh dose of humanity.

After the events of Age of Ultron, Thor battles Surtur, a huge demon beast who plans to destroy Asgard. He defeats Surtur and returns to Asgard, where Thor discovers Loki is now celebrated after his supposed death during the Dark World battles. He finds Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and many Asgardians watching a stage re-enactment of Loki’s death. (The cast of the actors is fun, with Chris’s brother Luke Hemsworth playing the actor Thor, Sam Neill [Jurassic Park] as the actor Odin, and the actor playing Loki is an uncredited Matt Damon.) The tag at the end of Dark World revealed Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was alive and disguised as Odin, and Thor finds a particularly Thor-ish way to make the trickster reveal himself.

Loki takes Thor to where he dumped Odin – a retirement home in New York City – only to find the home has been demolished. But with the help of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, in an extension of the tag at the end of Doctor Strange) they find Odin sitting on a bluff in Norway overlooking the ocean, awaiting his imminent passing. Odin warns Thor that his death will release Thor’s first-born sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death. Hela had been at Odin’s side as he conquered worlds, but couldn’t accept peace, so she was banished by the Valkyries. When Odin slips away, Hela appears. She destroys Thor’s hammer, then catches a ride on the rainbow bridge to Asgard, tossing Thor and Loki into space on the way. Thor wakes on a junk-strewn planet where he’s captured by a mysterious woman warrior (Tessa Thompson) and pressed into gladiatorial combat by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). His first bout is against the Hulk, who landed on the planet after he flew off at the end of Ultron.

The plot of Ragnarok is fairly thin and straightforward. What makes it soar is the humor and characterizations, especially with some smaller roles. You have an almost unrecognizable Karl Urban (Bones in the rebooted Star Trek and the remorseless killer in The Bourne Supremacy) as Skurge, an opportunist who’s taken over running the rainbow bridge from Heimdall (Idris Elba). There’s also the blue rock warrior Korg, with a truly unexpected voice provided by director Waititi.

This movie gives the most screen-time yet to Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, and it makes you wish for a full Hulk movie, even after the two misfires with Eric Bana and Edward Norton. (Seeing Thor try to play the Black Widow role to calm the Hulk is almost too bizarre to believe.) But the one who steals the movie whenever she’s onscreen is Blanchett as the first female big bad villain in the Marvel Universe. She gives Thor and the Asgardians hell, even as she looks divine doing it.

You usually don’t go to a superhero movie to laugh out loud (with the exception of Ant-Man), but this movie will garner that reaction several times. Yet it still works perfectly as a Marvel film. Hemsworth’s Thor is rejuvenated by his trials, while the actor himself is reinvigorated by this take on the character. While the story may look at the “Twilight of the Gods,” this film is a delightful romp in the mid-day sun.

The Third Time Is The Charm

Rebooting a series with a reworked cast can cause problems, especially when it’s the third time. Most movie lovers try to forget when George Clooney pulled on the black cowl of Batman (and the infamous nipple breastplate) after Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer hung up their capes. Batman and Robin was not a high point in the history of cinema, or in Clooney’s career, either. Thankfully he did Out of Sight the next year and never looked back. With the Spider-man franchise, Tobey Maguire was good in the first two films and then completely self-immolated in the third, while Andrew Garfield was okay in the first but couldn’t save the mess of a sequel. Sony Pictures had changed the name to the Amazing Spider-man, but neither of those films lived up to that promise. I might have skipped Spider-man: Homecoming if not for the introduction of the reboot in Captain America: Civil War. Tom Holland was delightful in the role, and having Marisa Tomei as a non-geriatric Aunt May was a bold and welcome change. (Imagine Robert Downey Jr. hitting on Rosemary Harris. Have you clawed your eyes out yet?)

Marvel sold the rights to the character to Sony, as they had the X-Men to Fox. In the short term, it was a financial help to the company as it transitioned from print comic books into the media powerhouse it’s become. But it meant they couldn’t control a product that they knew intimately. Now Sony (under its Columbia brand) has wisely returned the webslinger to Marvel in a co-production deal, and it has paid off handsomely with a $100 Million plus opening weekend, an 8.1 out of 10 rating on IMDb (the best of any film in the series), and a rejuvenated character that outshines all five previous movies.

Homecoming is literally true. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield spent their time swinging around Manhattan, since it has all those lovely skyscrapers. Spider-man: Homecoming returns the character to Queens, Peter Parker’s home in the comics. He’s back to being your friendly, neighborhood Spider-man. The “bit by a radio-active (or genetically modified) spider” backstory is dispensed with in a couple of sentences. The production team also put him in a realistic high school, populated with characters that look like they belong there. With Tom Holland you have an actor who is only a couple of years separated from those High School days himself, much closer than either Maguire or Garfield were when they did the role. Finally, the film takes a classic Spider-man villain – The Vulture – and generates a compelling backstory for him.

The story begins in the rubble left by the Avengers fight against the alien invasion of Manhattan. A salvage company run by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) wins a contract to collect the alien technology that litters the scene following the battle. However, they’re soon shut down by the government after they decide to do the collection themselves in partnership with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). Toomes decides to keep the tech they’ve already recovered and, with the help of the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus), turn it into black-market weapons. One thing created is a set of self-propelled set of wings that allows Toomes to fly, turning him into the Vulture.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the events of Captain America: Civil War. We see Peter Parker (Holland) recruited by Stark and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and transported to Germany for the airport battle, but our viewpoint is Peter’s video diary filmed on his phone. Following the battle, Peter returns home ready to do great things, but he’s ignored by Stark and Happy. He does his own small-scale heroics – and posts videos on the internet – but mostly he’s stuck in High School purgatory. He’s obsessed with the beautiful senior Liz (Lauren Harrier); he’s tormented by Flash (Tony Revolori), a nerd like Peter but one whose father’s bank account is large enough to make him cool; and he hangs with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) while the sardonic Michelle (Zendaya) watches unimpressed. Things change when Peter runs across a robbery team (wearing Avengers masks) using the alien tech provided by Toomes. When Happy ignores Peter’s request for help, Peter decides to track down who’s providing the tech on his own.

Normally the more writers on a project, the worse it turns out, since they have a tendency to muddle the focus. Three writing teams contributed to the screenplay, though the primary team that also has story credit is Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. Their milieu has been comedy, with the Horrible Bosses movies being their biggest hits, and they bring a cockeyed viewpoint to the story that serves it well. Daley is mostly been known as an actor, starting with “Freaks and Geeks” and spending almost a decade on “Bones” as psychiatrist Lance Sweets, but with more scripts like this that will change. One delightful bit is having the school use corny PSAs recorded by Captain America in the gym class and detention. “I know that technically he’s classified as a terrorist now,” the bored gym teacher says, “but the administration says show these, so I’ll show them.” Beyond the humor, though, the screenwriters know you need a powerful villain, and the action needs to keep flowing. They deliver on both.

Director Jon Watts also has a resumé heavy on comedy, including directing the Onion News Network. But then as his first feature film he made Cop Car, a mean little thriller starring Kevin Bacon. The set pieces on the Staten Island Ferry and at the Washington Monument are thrilling, but they’re also woven into the whole fabric of the film.

It’s a particular delight to watch Keaton. Ever since Night Shift, he’s been inventive and interesting on screen, even in lesser roles. After a long season out of the spotlight, he’s now come roaring back. With Vulture, he matches the effectiveness of Jack Nicholson’s Joker without the over-the-top schtick.

Homecoming’s almost two-and-a-quarter-hour running time flies by. This is a movie you could easily watch several times and be entertained at every viewing. The first time, though, make sure you stay until for the final tag after the credits. It is arguably the funniest one ever for a Marvel movie.