Hollywood can’t get enough of the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. 15 years after Sam Raimi’s version of the character helped to revitalised the superhero genre, and five years after Mark Webb’s attempt reminded us how boring and samey the superhero genre had become, the relatively untested Jon Watts is here to steer an odd and somewhat unexpected amalgamation, of a Sony owned franchise with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the whiff of green is generally enough to make studios and rights holders play ball, or so it seems. Captain America: Civil War provided the opportunity for an effective and entertaining backdoor origin to the MCU’s take on the character, but now it’s time for Tom Holland to step up and show that the web-crawler has a future within film. Is Spider-Man: Homecoming the revitalization of the franchise the Amazing version could never get to be, or more evidence that the genre is too reliant on the same staples?
Two months after first meeting Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) continues his role of Spider-Man, only dealing with stolen bikes and lost old lady’s instead of superpowered battles. Frustrated by inaction, and an infatuation to schoolfriend Liz (Laura Harrier), Peter aims to prove himself by taking on the “Vulture” (Michael Keaton), a wingsuit wearing dealer of weapons crossed with alien technology.
Homecoming is probably the best MCU film of the last few years, at least since Ant-Man. And it’s undoubtedly the best Spider-man film in over a decade, if that means anything. While it follows the formula that the MCU has long since established, it does so with successes in every department of its production, and it makes the most of two ballsy but quite correct decisions.
The first, and arguably most important, is the forgoing of the Peter Parker origin story. This was a baffling error in regards the Amazing version, thinking that audiences really needed to see the spider bite and Uncle Ben dying all over again, and Homecoming very wisely decides to go the Incredible Hulk route, of trusting that whoever is viewing the film can fill in the blanks. The only time Peter’s origin gets brought up here is when the character basically dismisses it as unimportant. I’m usually a big fan of origin stories, but not when they have been well-trod: here, having Peter be Spidey right from the off frees up a great deal of time.
And from there we bounce off into a very enjoyable, funny and relatable tale of a young kid trying to make good of the extraordinary circumstances he has found himself in. Holland being a more appropriate age for the character than either Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield helps immensely, as you can actually buy him as a teenager, and a gangly, awkward one at that. Holland’s own performance is great, from action to accent. The usual MCU quips and sarcasm, that fit so oddly into other properties, fit perfectly here, and you can get behind Peter Parker, a fundamentally decent person, whose one key flaw may be that he is simply too eager to impress, to the point of personal recklessness, something that rings alarmingly true for a 15-year-old (there’s something almost revelatory about seeing a version of Parker who doesn’t care about school).
Peter is a breath of fresh air for the MCU in many ways, as its last few protagonists – some of the Guardians, Dr Strange, Cap in Civil War – have all been various shades of asshole (nodded to here in Cap’s case, as Peter’s high school gym teacher muses he might be a war criminal now), whereas Peter Parker doesn’t have enough tough-guy in him to even handle an interrogation right, one would-be informant telling him “You need to get better at this part of the job” when his Batman-esque gravelly voice fails to intimidate. He’s so unceasingly down-to-Earth and nice and pleasant, that it almost becomes over-bearing. Almost.
But more important is his general attitude: here is a Peter Parker who actually wants to be Spider-Man, who isn’t putting on the tights because of an overbearing moral debt owed to a dead Uncle (not a sign of “With great power…” here). Tony Stark, with “RDJ” appearing in maybe five minutes of the film total, provides a sort of strange father-figure role in place of Ben, that openly calls back into Tony’s own paternal problems, and there is something endearing and cute in the way Parker tries to live up to Stark’s expectations, and something depressingly dreadful about what happens when he fails to. In one key scene, it’s almost like the writers are calling the MCU quip-fest out, as Stark curtly tells Peter to “zip it, the adult is talking” when he gives out one glib response too many. But the point is that the relationship is so well defined as to easily manage changes in tone and circumstance.
Stark’s pressure and Peter’s own ambitions also drive the films key theme, namely the ability of the little guy to take his punches and get back up again. Peter fails, underperforms, goes too far, time and again, but he keeps trying, a perseverance that makes the character appear noble in a way that even Tobey Maguire wasn’t really able to accomplish without an American flag fluttering in the background (also parodied here, to an extent). At its most serious, with Peter at his lowest point, Homecoming takes a remarkable turn, reminding you fully that underneath it all Peter is just a kid, putting his life on the line for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.
Homecoming’s second big call is what it does with a large stretch of that time provided by the absence of an origin story, namely giving a spotlight to its villain, Michael Keaton’s Vulture. The first two scenes of the film revolve around him, with Peter only interjecting after. The MCU has had a consistent villain issue, and by giving Vulture the time and the chance to stand on his own, stamping his presence and authority on the film right from the off, we suddenly get the best Marvel antagonist since Loki. It helps that Keaton is his usual mesmerizing self, fully enjoying this resurgence in his career (and not drawing too many comparisons to Birdman, thankfully). It’s almost strange to think that Keaton was the heart of the superhero genre’s jumpstart nearly 30 years ago now. The character in general is great: a genuinely wronged guy who decides to take advantage of the underhanded opportunities that are presented to him. He’s a villain wrapped up in the consequences of the Avengers’ actions earlier in the MCU, and that adds a delicious twist to Tony Stark’s involvement in proceedings here, with his surrogate son fighting something the surrogate father inadvertently created.
It could easily have been so, but no quest for revenge here, no mindless psychopathy or thirst for power: just a slightly unhinged guy who would do anything for his family – up to and including murder, mayhem and robbery. It’s a villain that’s just interesting, and in the MCU that has become an increasing rarity. Only on one occasion does the Vulture fall foul of the MCU’s comedy requirement, and that’s more than made-up for by an enthralling third-act sequence involving him, Peter and one other character in a car, after one of the most clever and surprising twists that the MCU has ever managed.
The rest of the cast is also uniformly excellent, with a huge number of supporting players who all get a little time to shine. Key among them would be Jacob Batalan as Peter’s high-school friend Ned, endearingly charming, Laura Harrier as love interest Liz, distant in most respects, but she grows into the affair, and Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, not up to all that much really, but still providing the right kind of spark (the MCU’s best recurring joke may revolve around her attractiveness). Aside from them, a multitude of young and older actors prop up the screen, and establish themselves for later movies. Zendaya as one of Peter’s cynical academic decathlon friends, Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson (and every bit as brilliant as he was in The Grand Budapest Hotel), Martin Starr as the decathlon coach (he gets the darkest joke) and Jennifer Connolly as the voice of a somewhat too forward suit AI. The diversity of the cast is also to be noted, though it’s also important to note that the three top-billed are all white. Jon Favreau has his most screen time as “Happy” Hogan since Iron Man 3, and at one point suitably reminds people that the MCU isn’t even ten years old.
Looking at the list of screenwriters that Homecoming has – six names in total – it could easily have turned out as a “by committee” mess, but somehow it turned out all right. There’s an intelligence to a lot of what Homecoming does, little nods and lantern hanging that other MCU films have singularly failed to do. A completely throwaway line early on has Peter notice a Stark plane that flies without a pilot, that becomes pivotal later, as does a throwaway joke about Happy Hogan getting a promotion. Three minor Spidey villains show up in various roles (one, played by Donald Glover, provides a nice postscript to the previous “movement” to get him cast as Miles Morales), but where other films in the MCU would treat them as bait for fanboys with nothing to actually do – see Sylvester Stallone in Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2 – Homecoming treats them as parts of the story. They don’t need big names to play them, but here they are, giving otherwise unexceptional hoodlums the chance to shine, and to set themselves up as something bigger for what comes next. Something potentially quite sinister.
Watts is a relatively untested director, especially at this level, but he does a good job here, without being truly great. No sweeping shots of Spidey swooping around New York skyscrapers, instead Watts limits himself to more down-to-Earth and practical effects, for the most part. This Peter Parker is spending more time on the top of apartment blocks and trucks than the Empire State. When the time comes for action, things can get a little bit too frenetic, especially in the finale, as the back-and-forth becomes hard to follow with the multitude of quick cuts and sudden flashes in darkness, but it isn’t really an action-heavy affair anyway. There are still some sequences to really admire, like Peter’s patrolling montage early on, a chase with a van through a suburban neighbourhood and a death-defying effort to stop a ferry from sinking, that calls to mind the train sequence in Spider-Man 2.
The music too is refreshingly notable for an MCU offering. That’s been a consistent Achilles heel for this general franchise, but in Homecoming Michael Giacchino actually manages to make your ears perk up, for a main theme that can switch between heroic booming and xylophonic quaintness, and a Vulture theme that stands apart, just as the character himself does.
I’ve been slowly turning on the MCU for a while now, if I’m being honest. While still acknowledging their successes and general entertainment value, it has been a while since one of the films really grabbed me in the way the earlier offerings did, or in the way that Wonder Woman did recently from a different avenue. But Homecoming did grab me. It reminded me that it’s possible to write a bright, fun superhero movie without it being overloaded with ill-placed comedy, that superheroes can still be unequivocally pleasant to watch, and that villain characters do not have to be cardboard cut-outs. It also reminded me that superheroes don’t have to get thrown around cities or have a revenge plot to be heroes. This is a well-written, well-acted, well-scored and well-directed flick, one that leaves me with more optimism for the MCU’s future than I have leaving the theatre of one of its films for a long time. Strongly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Releasing).