Peter Parker is a geek. He’s a bit lame too; a BIG fan of the Avengers and a bit of a doofus. A whizz in class, Peter’s hopeless with girls, kind of unreliable and a tad goofy. To his favour, he just happens also to be ripped, hyperactively acrobatic, armed with spiderweb wrist shooters and, in the hands of a youthful and effervescent Tom Holland, boy is he endearing.
After over a decade a resident in his own cinematic bubble, Spider-Man has officially landed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with his own blockbuster (‘Homecoming’ – get the gag?). Holland is the third actor to take on the popular character since the turn of the century, picking up the mantel from Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, and he stacks up well. Whereas Maguire was gifted at least two terrific romps in the role, under the direction of Sam Rami, Garfield’s work with Marc Webb managed only minor hits in a more so-so adaption of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’.
Naturally, rebooting a twice run franchise for a third time runs the risk of over-familiarity breeding contempt so what’s surprising about this latest outing, directed by Jon Watts, is just how fresh the whole endeavour feels. It helps of course that Spider-Man: Homecoming avoids the pitfalls of rehashing the now very well known origins story, as covered by both Rami and Webb. Also useful is that Holland’s is a Spider-Man already familiar to Marvel’s dedicated fanbase via is brief – but delightful – appearance in Captain America: Civil War.
It’s through that previous cameo that Watts’ new telling of the Peter Parker story picks up, after a pit stop prologue establishing Michael Keaton’s position in the film: a salvage company owner knocked out of business by the creation of a U.S. Department of Damage Control from the federal government and Tony Stark. It’s their job to clear up the Avengers’ mess but this task used to be Keaton’s. It’s this, and a cheesy ‘’the world’s changed’ line, that sends him rogue.
Eight years later and a neat and sweet ‘video diary’ sequence sees Peter – literally – show his version of events from Civil War. Think: toddler in a sweetie shop. ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!’
At just fifteen, Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) decides that Peter is too young and inexperienced to become a full time Avenger. Instead, the wannabe is despatched back to high school for mathematics, decathlons and part time local crime fighting. It’s an asset of Homecoming that it’s a film that really pushes to put the ‘neighbourhood’ back into your ‘friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man’. This may not be an origins story but it’s certainly a story with its roots in the character’s origin. The result is an approach which not only feels instantly different to previous Spider-Man films but also to other Marvel and DC super-offerings, continuing the former’s recent drive for more genre diversification in its efforts. If Ant-Man was a crime caper and Doctor Strange a sci-fantasy feature, Homecoming is every bit the high school, Dead Poets meets Clueless, offering.
Discontented with his sidelined lot, Peter yearns to prove himself (‘I feel like I could be doing more’) and strives for ever more ambitious hero moments. Perhaps a fault of the film and character alike is a sense that they’re trying just a little too hard in this regard. Homecoming opens loose and fun but then does take some time to really get going. Too long is spent in the lead up to the film’s turning point, with comedic efforts in the communally written script feeling rather forced. Bar, that is, a handful of deliriously funny cameos made by another of the premiere Avenging team.
There is, however, a clever moment midway through the film in which time is taken to remind us just how young Holland’s Peter is supposed to be. It is here that the tone feels fresh and really flies. Stripped of his high-tech Spidey-suit, Holland is never more likeable than when trying to save the day in his hoodie and balaclava. Bringing Peter down to reality (or rather, the closest thing to reality in the MCU) exposes his vulnerabilities. At the end of the day, Spider-Man is a boy in a suit with a can-do attitude – that we can invest in.
Likewise, slightly meta that it is to see Keaton move from Birdman to the Vulture, he’s good value here as Spider-Man’s strongest foe since Alfred Molina sprouted eight legs in Spider-Man 2. Strength in character, that is, more so than world crushing Top Trumps ranking. Moving away from the formula of bland and sporadically aggressive baddies so common in Marvel films, Keaton’s Toomes and crew are a gang for whom criminality is just a day job and necessity to support their families. ‘He has a criminal record and an address here in Queens’ as Peter’s friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) puts it. Watch for a terrific use of lighting late in the film that brings out a brilliantly suburban malevolence in the character.
No, Spider-Man: Homecoming, it feels clichéd to say, does not reinvent the wheel. What it does do however is prove that, with fresh hands and perspectives, sixteen films into the MCU the current wheel is still worth taking for spin.