The second Spider-Man reboot out this week takes a very unconventional approach in adapting the beloved comic book character to the screen. And that’s a good thing. Where the movie falls short is all the awkward references to rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, shoehorned in for the dumb kiddies and Marvel fanbros who care about that kind of stuff.
Spider-Man: Middle School Dance features the youngest Peter Parker we have yet seen on the silver screen. Though Parker’s only 11 years old, I must emphasize that this is not yet another Spider-Man origin story. When the movie begins, he already has his Spidey powers. No time is wasted explaining how he got them.
As indicated by the title, the movie is about Peter Parker (Jared Gilman) attending his first Middle School Dance. The entire film unfolds in real time using one long take documenting the entire dance event. We see Peter arrive, feeling nervous because he has no date. He couldn’t get up the courage to ask Gwen Stacy OR Mary Jane Watson, and he spends much of the first act skulking in the corner with the other nerds without the moves to make it on the dance floor.
That skulking continues until Peter learns that his tween rival Quentin Blake (Finn Wolfhard) has some nasty tricks up his sleeve. Blake is a drama nerd, making him the natural enemy of Peter, a science geek. And it turns out, Blake is actually the super villain Mysterio. And he intends to shut down the dance and kill everyone in attendance.
Veteran filmmaker Wes Anderson makes excellent use of the intimacy of the middle school gymnasium setting. Though Mysterio has no super powers, he is an expert designer of special effects devices and stage illusions, and Anderson gives his machinations a theatricality that really imbues the whole movie with a playful yet enigmatic spirit.
One aspect of the movie that didn’t work at all was the series of phone calls Spider-man receives from the rest of the Avengers. These moments are sprinkled throughout the movie, interrupting the action for Spider-Man to hear from Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Captain America (Chris Evans), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and even Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Each time, they basically ask Spider-Man all the same stuff: if he’s ready to be picked up yet, if he’s having a good time, does he need anything, etc.
The “Avenger phone call” moments are so hamfisted, awkward, and cringeworthy that they almost ruined the entire movie for me. Wes Anderson was reportedly so incensed about having to include these franchise building bits in his vision that he left the set while they were being filmed. Good for him.
TL;DR – Warm, whimsical, and poignant, the immaculately framed and beautifully designed Spider-Man: Middle School Dance takes an idiosyncratic approach to the beloved character under the stylish guidance of writer/director Wes Anderson.
What the rest of the critics are saying:
“So far it’s the best Spider-Man reboot I’ve seen this week.” – Siyaka Camacho, New York Daily News
“Better than Baby Spider-Man but not quite as joyful and fun as Spider-Man: Homecoming.” – Darla Blaugrana, Newsweek
“The phone calls featuring the other Avengers really stuck out like so many sore thumbs.” – Book Denison, Associated Press
“The best sequences recall Wes Anderson’s early masterpiece, Rushmore.” – Nathaneal However, Guernica Magazine
“The younger the webslinger gets, the more I’m attracted to him. Maybe that’s just me. Sorry.” – Rex Reed, Lenny Letter
“I’m confused about what order I’m supposed to watch all these new Spider-Man movies.” – Pete Hammond, Deadline
“It’s too bad Jason Schwartzman aged out of playing Mysterio. He would’ve been bloody perfect. :(” – Francis Kennard Colbeck, BBC
“Wes Anderson uses the massive dumptruck of Marvel money will give anyone who is willing to make yet another reboot of Spider-Man to essentially rework Rushmore on a grander scale using the immaculate style he perfected recently with Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom.” – Kitila Mkumbo, The Verge
“Spider-Man is back again baby, and he keeps getting better every single time he reboots!!” – Eric D. Snider, EricDSnider.com
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