Starring: Tom Holland, Micheal Keaton, Robert Downey Jr
Director: Jon Watts
Running Time: 133 mins
Synopsis: 2 months have passed since 15yr old superhero Spider-Man fought in the Civil War. Back in Queens and back in school Peter Parker (Holland) finds himself yearning to become a full time Avenger. Fighting off petty crime in his local neighbourhood whilst balancing being a high school kid is tough enough but when a new hi-tech baddie named the Vulture (Keaton) enters the scene, Peter sees this as a way to prove himself to Tony Stark (Downey Jr).
There was an almost collective tingle of the Spidey-senses amongst the geek community, yours truly included of course, when it was announced that thanks to an unprecedented deal Sony would bring Spider-Man into the MCU. (The broad strokes of said deal means that Sony finance and take home all the profits whilst Marvel have creative power whilst taking a chunk of the merchandising moolah). After a couple of overstuffed critically maligned, but still financially successful, outings featuring Andrew Garfield and a supposed ‘new’ origin story, it seemed like Sony had, in their haste to build a larger universe, lost what was strong about this character. Under the stewardship of Marvel we felt at ease that these savvy folk would finally nail it. However there was still trepidation, would we have to sit through another painful origin story, would there be too many set-ups for future instalments and would this Spider-Man be once again a brooding moody fellow?
Fears were most certainly allayed with his introduction in last years Civil War. Wise-cracking, energetic and most importantly fun, this new Spidey was a breath of fresh air. On top of that he was an already established superhero, no mention of Uncle Ben or a “great power comes great responsibility” platitude in sight. Apart from Batman the Spider guy has one of the most well known superhero origin story’s, of course we would not need to see it all played out again. Leaping into that films more darker sombre affair, Tom Holland’s youthful exuberance was palpable. Fortunately in moving across to his own solo outing that sense of charm and fun is kept wonderfully alive.
It is felt almost instantly in the use of Micheal Giacchino’s breezy and bright reworking of the classic Spider-Man TV theme over the Marvel logo (his score maintains this pep throughout). It is quite clear that the tone being reached for here is light. 2 months have passed since his adventures with the Avengers, seen here in a playful home video montage Peter makes during his time in Berlin, and he finds himself desperately trying to make contact with Tony Stark. Stark though is very much aloof, sending instead his tireless lackey Happy to deal with the kid (a sardonic return for Jon Favreau), although dealing with him tends to mean ignoring him as much as possible. Frustrated at all the supposed ‘amazing’ adventures he should be on, Peter instead has to make do with school troubles and the petty crime prevention he takes on after the bell rings. Director Jon Watts (Cop Car) has the most fun with the school angle, drilling down into the tribulations a 15 yr old would face with a sly wit and colourful energy.
You couldn’t move for the constant referencing to John Hughes in most of the pre-release marketing and that laidback laconic coolness is very prevalent here. These kids are a diverse bunch but most importantly all of them feel real, and each gets a distinctive personality to play with. Standouts include Tony Revolori (Grand Budapest Hotel) as the arrogant bully Flash Thompson (but thankfully he is far from your cookie cutter cheesy bully) to Laura Harrier’s potential love interest Liz, a character who is allowed to be spiky and intellectual rather than the token flighty love object. Zendaya gets a terrific role as Peter’s friend Michelle, quick with a withering putdown but subtly hinting at an inner loneliness that disarms you. King amongst the kid roles though belongs to Jacob Batalon as Ned. Peter’s best buddy, who in a clever early twist finds out about Peter’s nighttime activities and proceeds to lovably nerd out as events escalate. As with all the kids at the heart of this there is a warm affection shown to each other, a tricky dynamic to pull off without the need to dumb down or play things ironically for the largely adult audience. It is a testament to the writing (especially when you consider there are a credited 6 writers involved) that I would’ve happily just watched a film about their high school shenanigans.
Of course though this is a Spider-Man film and your film is only going to truly work if the Man in Spider-Man is up to the task. No offence to Messrs Garfield and Maguire, whom both did sterling jobs, but Tom Holland is utterly perfect here. In returning to the source material and pitching young Marvel have tapped into what makes this character such an enduring presence all these years. Unlike the demi-gods and billionaires who dominate this universe, Peter is just a kid, a kid blessed with amazing powers, so of course why wouldn’t you have some fun with it. Holland plays this joy to the hilt, constantly throwing up a silly one-liner or flitting about the neighbourhood with a giddy abandon at just how ‘cool’ his powers are. Although there are times his pubescent high pitch gets dangerously close to irritable. He sells the heavier stuff too, but never overplays it or layers on unnecessary brooding. Uncle Ben may not be mentioned but his loss is felt quietly with Peter’s unnerving lust for escaping into his powers evidently a way to cope with his pain. The avoidance of the Uncle issue allows this iteration of Aunt May to veer down unexpected paths, namely the frequent reference to how “hot” she is which is fortunately never too crass. Marisa Tomei is solid if a little underused, but at least she doesn’t have to give surprisingly perceptive and on the nose speeches like her previous incarnations.
It certainly helps that Holland trained as a dancer prior to his big screen break, with his adept physique and graceful movements helping to sell the idea that he is more than a match for the criminals he faces. Ah yes, the villains. Of course a hero is only as good as the bad guy who faces him, and at least here Holland gets a doozy of an actor in Micheal Keaton to bounce off of. Keaton plays Adrian Toomes, introduced in the films opening scenes (in a not entirely successful way the film opens with him and not Spidey) as he clears up the mess left by The Avengers during their massive New York battle with the Chitauri. Thrown off the contract by the Tony Stark backed Damage Control, he seethes with resentment that the ones responsible for all this carnage are going to profit out of all this whilst he loses his job. Figuring out that the technology these alien creatures left behind could be worth a pretty penny, Toomes forms a team with his old work crew to steal from Damage Control and sell the merchandise on. It’s an intriguing, nicely grounded concept to build a villain from, the idea of a man just trying to keep afloat and support his family is a tangible one and Keaton sells it well. Disappointingly though it isn’t quite delved into enough, making his turn into a vengeful murderer feel dramatically unearned. In some respects the lack of depth is because we are kept at a distance from a home life that he constantly mentions as being his driving force, this is done primarily to set up a third act twist.
Said twist, while surprising and effective, with the ties between him and Peter becoming more potent because of it, and yet it cannot help but feel like narrative manipulation. Foregoing deeper exploration of Toomes’s earlier motivations in favour of an audience shock. The reveal does give Keaton ample opportunity to ramp up the menace, notably in two scenes between them which beautifully compliment each other. One is dialogue driven and quietly threatening, the other bombastic but no less thrilling. Having a villain such as this also factors into the grounded (well as grounded as you can get with a flying man in a vulture suit) nature of things, the biggest set-pieces kept remarkably intimate. There is no city-levelling destructo-porn here. If the action scenes can sometimes be a little speedily edited (a sign maybe of Jon Watts’s relative inexperience in the genre) they are for the most part compellingly staged and keenly paced. Highlight being a mid-film rescue rife with tension, humour and clear stakes. If the CGI Spidey is sometimes noticeable at least we can respect that Watts has chosen to keep this Spider-Man largely on the ground. Floating shots and vertigo-inducing drops are not to be found, the action refreshingly centred predominately in Queens, which is wholly skyscraper free.
Being part of the MCU, while cause for joy, also has its cravats. Namely the connective tissue that runs through them, which as Iron Man 2 or Avengers 2 have shown can be suffocating in their need to set up the future, especially with the inclusion of Tony Stark. Cynically it can be argued that he was a part of this simply to drum up enthusiasm for what is the third version of Spider-Man in the last decade or so, and there is certainly some truth in that, but predominately his appearance in this is judiciously utilised. Featuring in about 4/5 scenes but his presence drives a lot of what motivates Peter, and the father figure he takes on also adds to the subtle hints at the loss of Uncle Ben. Other easter eggs regarding the larger universe are brief and remarkably the film resists too many overt nods to upcoming events. Homecoming once again reminds us that Marvel have got this extended universe storytelling down to a fine art, solo adventures comfortable in having their own voice and genre whilst effectively managing to coalesce them altogether for the big team-up pictures.
Homecoming also represents another key Marvel mantra, employing young directors with only a few films to their name and letting them place their own stamp on proceedings. Jon Watts is no exception, capably delivering the big set-pieces but clearly most comfortable in the character interplay. He doesn’t entirely escape all flaws though, villain weaknesses notwithstanding, there are some editing anomalies not just in the action but in other moments too. It also feels just slightly too long, with the mid-section perhaps needing a few moments tightened up. Plus in the overall rankings of Spider-Man films (because of course we must rank things nowadays) it comes just short of Raimi’s first two operatic and confident chapters. Homecoming is still a terrifically entertaining blockbuster. Rich with laughs, packed with believable characters and a tone that is perfectly judged. Oh and Holland is by far the best version of Spider-Man we’ve yet seen, let’s hope that this time there is a longer gap before another rebooted iteration swings in.
(Also do stick around for an end credits scene that wickedly throws shade at us Marvel nerds!)
Verdict: Spider-Man: Homecoming favours its characters over action bombast and is all the better for it. A wryly observant high-school comedy masquerading as a superhero blockbuster, with a phenomenally endearing Tom Holland at the centre.