The new Spider-Man’s solo Marvel debut is a near-perfect mash-up of superhero movie and teen comedy.
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is Spider-Man. In the months since he tangled with Captain America and other superheroes on an airstrip in Germany (in Captain America: Civil War) he’s been balancing the hero life with his real identity as a high-schooler who loves science, has a crush on the most popular girl in school (Laura Harrier), and lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). His attempts at a social life are often interrupted by his need to rush into danger, and his increasing attraction towards the latter spells trouble.
The learning curve on the new suit courtesy of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is high, and while the Avenger tells him to tone down his antics the teen steps them up instead when he catches wind of a gang selling illegal weapons built from alien technology. He’s interrupted though by the group’s boss, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who enforces his criminal antics with the aid of his own super-powered suit giving him flight and extra strength. Peter’s efforts move him beyond nabbing purse snatchers, and the resulting carnage grows alongside the danger. Again and again it’s his actions that put innocent people in jeopardy, and he seems destined to cross a line he can’t uncross.
There’s no single element in Spider-Man: Homecoming deserving of special accolade because the film’s success — and it is a glorious, cheer-worthy, laugh-filled success — is the result of multiple pieces coming together in near perfection. Director Jon Watts (Cop Car, Clown), six (!) screenwriters, a tremendously charismatic cast, and hundreds of crew members have delivered a superhero movie that understands the importance of absolute fun.
Holland leads the charge as he nails the youthful exuberance and enthusiasm of a kid gifted with extraordinary abilities and a desire to do good with them. His glee at exploring the suit’s powers is infectious, and an early recap of his Civil War appearance via his self-shot video blog (including scenes during the big battle) shows a wide-eyed excitement we can’t help but share. His best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), the only one who knows his secret, is an equally excitable partner in “crime” in his desire to be Spider-Man’s wing-man. Brief appearances by Martin Starr, Donald Glover, and others bring more laughs, but it’s Zendaya as their classmate Michelle who steals her every scene with both wit and a delightfully endearing attitude.
Keaton is strong too with a villain who we’re hard-pressed to label as such. His origin is captured succinctly in the opening scene as the head of a scrap metal company who gets screwed out of a big city contract by the newly formed Department of Damage Control — the brilliantly-named Stark Industries offshoot tasked with cleaning up the Avengers’ messes. Toomes is railing against the upper class and working to support his family and the families of his employees, and when Spider-Man challenges him on the illegality of selling weapons Toomes reminds him that Stark built his fortune on the very same thing. It’s a smart thread in a script woven similarly throughout.
Watts’ light touch with the younger characters, a strength that was evident in his previous film, pairs well with these effortlessly charismatic and bright performers. The big action set-pieces thrill, but the film’s most exciting moments are the less dangerous ones popping with color, light, and personality as the characters interact with each other. It’s an injection of pure, non-stop fun into what has become a formulaic sub-genre, and the innocence serves to enhance the more serious scenes.
There’s a wit to the film too in both the sass of the characters, the cameo appearance of another superhero, and the awareness that we’re watching a comic book hero in a teen comedy world. One sequence sees Spider-Man following some baddies out of the city and into the suburbs, and the realization that he has no high-rises to swing and travel between is delivered perfectly. He’s forced to run through backyards a la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and it’s a beautifully self-referential beat acknowledging that while one foot is with comic books the other is with John Hughes, Easy A, and The Edge of Seventeen.
The film’s joyous energy and smile-inducing charm only leave room for two areas deserving of criticism. First up is the Vulture. As already mentioned, Keaton’s performance is good to great, but problems arise when he’s in the suit. Namely, Watts seems unable or uncomfortable with capturing the Vulture in action all that well. Scenes are a mix of dimly lit (a common trick used to hide CG flaws) or worse as he’s cramped into the frame with tight shots and rapid-fire editing. Too often we know what’s going on more through intuition than through what we’re actually seeing.
Second, there’s just too much Tony Stark/Iron Man. There are two key scenes where his presence feels necessary, but he shows up four times throughout the film. We get it… Spider-Man’s a part-time Marvel member now, but the film’s greatest beats occur apart from his new Avengers overlords. The trade-off here though is that this post-Civil War Spider-Man arrives without the need of an origin story or a rehash of the whole Uncle Ben fiasco. Batman can learn a thing or two about letting go of things the world already knows by heart.
“If you’re nothing without this suit,” says Stark at one point, “then you shouldn’t have it.” It’s a lesson it took him three films to learn, but Peter manages it in one. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a smart, ambitious, and ridiculously fun movie about a character who shares those exact traits. It’s very cool that he’s attached to the Marvel universe now, but let’s hope he gets to continue proving that he’s something without it.
The Upside: Absolutely delightful, very funny, highly charismatic and filled with life, supporting cast is a total joy, best post-credits scene ever?
The Downside: Vulture’s action scenes cramped and dark, some wobbly CG, too much Tony Stark, we never find out why Aunt May is sad