Friday, December 8, 2017

"Guardians of the Galaxy 2" and "Spider-man: Homecoming"

Some quick thoughts on this summer's Marvel features.  Minor spoilers ahead.

I had a mixed reaction to the first "Guardians of the Galaxy," since I viewed it as an excellent children's film that was weirdly inappropriate for children.  I've changed my stance, after watching the sequel.  The "Guardians" movies contain plenty of content that kids would get a kick out of, but they're aimed square at adults, and function best as nostalgic, slightly subversive grown-up fun.  So while the sequel has curbed Star Lord's dirty mouth, there's way too much death and brutality involved here to recommend this to anyone under the age of ten or so.

Family matters are the major concern of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2."  Star Lord (Chris Pratt) reconnects with his long-lost alien father Ego (Kurt Russell), while Gamora (Zoe Saldana) continues to fend off her murderous foster sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).  Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is dealing with a severe bout of self-doubt, and winds up unlikely allies with space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker).  Drax (Dave Bautista) continues to make inappropriate comments and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) remains adorable.  Pretty much everything that people liked about the first film is back for another round - the '70s soundtrack, the dazzling action set-pieces, and the slightly off-color humor.  Some of it matches up to the prior film, and some of it doesn't.  However, the sense of spontaneity and freshness is gone, and none of the characters manage to summon the same amount of charm as they churn through a by-the-numbers plot.
The one big exception, however, is Yondu, who emerges as the MVP of the film.  His subplot turns out to be the most successfully executed, and gives "Guardians 2" something that the original didn't: heart.  While the other characters' stories all try to tug at the heartstrings, Yondu's is the only one that really connects.  Most of the other Guardians felt shoved into personal arcs that I just wasn't interested in seeing play out, and you can tell that the creators had trouble finding things for everyone to do.  Still, the good parts worked well enough for me to think well of the entire film, even if most of it was pretty mediocre.  I like this one marginally more than the original, but it's not one I'm likely to revisit soon.   

"Spider-man: Homecoming," on the other hand, is my favorite Marvel movie since "The Avengers," and my favorite "Spider-man" movie period.  I wasn't expecting this at all, with the character having gone through so much onscreen and offscreen mishandling over the past few years, and director Jon Watts being a relative newcomer.  Yet somehow, the integration of Spider-man into the Marvel universe has gone seamlessly, and he's been properly set up for future movies that I'm actually looking forward to.   

I think the key decision the creators made was to really scale back Spider-man's super-heroics and go back to basics.  This is the Marvel movie to take the kids to, because it offers something that none of the prior Marvel movies do: a hero who is a kid.  Played by a squeaky, ebullient Tom Holland, this version of Peter Parker is a fifteen year-old high school sophomore who is only just barely starting out on his career as a web-slinger (though Uncle Ben is thankfully never mentioned) and eager to join the Avengers.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who gave Peter a high-tech Spidey suit in "Captain America: Civil War," functions as an often absent mentor, who bails him out of trouble, delivers lectures about risky behavior, and is frequently annoyed by his teenage antics.  

I like that "Homecoming" jettisons so much of what we've come to expect from a cinematic Spider-man movie.  He stays in Brooklyn instead of swinging around Manhattan.  J. Jonah Jameson and the Osbournes are nowhere in sight, but Peter's best friend Ned (Joseph Batalon) is a great new addition.  Love interest Liz (Laura Harrier) is entirely original, but there are plenty of references to other Spider-man universe characters, including reworked versions of bully Flash (Tony Revolori) and gal-pal Michelle (Zendaya).  "Homecoming" also boasts one of the best Marvel villains in the Vulture (Michael Keaton), a small scale, blue-collar weapons dealer who is just the right amount of threat for this film's greenhorn Spidey.

Best of all, the movie is fun.  It's got such a great energy and lightheartedness to it, and I love that Peter Parker really gets to enjoy being Spider-man in a way that his predecessors didn't.  With smaller stakes and plenty of gags and humor, "Spider-man: Homecoming" is a fantastic romp.  And it's exactly what the franchise needed to get back in its feet.    


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