They say a compelling story comes not from plot but from character. But Marvel Studios confounds this truism. As they demonstrate in the passable “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which I finally got around to seeing in August, the producers fully grasp the title character, probably better than any previous creative regime who have handled him. In Tom Holland they’ve cast the best of the actors to ever play Spider-Man, one who is a perfect fit with the motivations they’ve written, and one who delivers each line with total, infectious alacrity. And yet, this keen understanding of character fails to inspire a particularly compelling story. Instead what you get is a mostly forgettable joy ride of a plot—the highest tension the film ever achieves happens during a conversation in a car ride, while all of the other action set pieces wilt away almost as you watch them. In fact “Homecoming” is more transactional than it is narrative; the movie moves along from cinematic universe obligation to cinematic universe obligation, tirelessly invoking its tiresome franchise debts. The saddest thing is that there’s virtually no point in complaining about this, as this movie could never have existed outside of the confines of the corporate strategy PowerPoint deck that brought it to life. And its ninety-two percent Rotten Tomatoes rating shows that Marvel’s decade-long campaign to lower our standards as moviegoers has succeeded. They won, we lost.
On the bright side, I did get to see seventeen other films in August, many of which were wonderful. Of particular note was the special theatrical screening of “Three Days of the Condor” at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Brooklyn. It was followed by an enormously entertaining Q&A with novelist James Grady, whose book was the basis for the movie. That’s a pretty good example of how a great understanding of character can power a legitimately great movie.