It’s astonishing that this latest version of Spider-Man, one sharing a 16-movie franchise with spaceships, magic and talking animals, is somehow the most liberated of all the wall-crawlers we’ve seen in cinemas. By introducing the icon as part of such a colossal series, we know he’ll get his chance to fight aliens and save the world in other movies, meaning for his solo movie we get to sit back and watch Peter Parker be Peter Parker, free of all the melodrama and forced grandeur that never quite rang true in either of the previous two iterations.
Which isn’t to say that Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t come with its share of baggage. This is a tried-and-true superhero movie, and even with the Marvel Studios stamp of approval, is still the 6th Spider-Man film we’ve had in the last 15 years. So if at this stage you feel like you’ve done your time with this character, I’d hardly hold it against you. But for everyone not burnt out on the old web-head, Spider-Man: Homecoming is both the most authentic portrayal Spidey has ever had on screen, and one of (if not the) best first movies for any or the MCU’s heroes.
Of course, they kind of have an unfair advantage there, with Marvel Studios having given us our first taste of Tom Holland’s vigilante virgin in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. Homecoming smartly assumes the audience knows all about Spider-Man’s well-documented origin and allows us to dive right into the meat of the character. After getting a taste of the Avenger life and promptly being dropped back into his tiny teenage world, Peter is desperate to get back out there and prove his worth to Robert Downey Jr.’s far-too-busy Tony Stark. Before long, Peter stumbles upon Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes (a fortunately redesigned version of one of Spidey’s wackier rogues), who has built a successful operation out of stealing high-tech alien salvage and flipping it into black market weaponry. Frustrated Stark is treating this 15-year-old like… a 15-year-old, Peter ignores his mentor’s objections and sets about bringing down Toomes and his crew himself.
Taking a page from Bendis’ seminal Ultimate Spider-Man run of comics, Homecoming knows Parker is never as interesting as when he is in high-school, overwhelmed by his ‘power and responsibility’ mantra, and struggling with the dual lives his alter ego forces him to juggle. This is a much more vulnerable Spider-Man than we’ve yet seen on screen; yes, you’ll see him take down supervillains and lift cars with his bare hands, but he’s also afraid of heights, at times catastrophically clumsy, and he makes stupid decisions that cause more problems than they solve. Both as a scrawny, pale high-schooler, and a not entirely successful crime-fighter, there’s a charming nervousness to Holland’s take on the character that only makes him more lovable when, despite all the self-doubt, he never stops trying to do what he thinks is right.
While it may be a simple plot, it’s delivered with style and precision pacing. After a brief prologue introducing the film’s antagonist, the movie almost literally drops you into the world from Parker’s eyes, immediately warming you to the excitable teenager, and from there it never slows down once. I wouldn’t label it a comedy in the way I would Ant-Man, or even the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but strip away some of the CGI and Homecoming could easily sit on the shelf next to modern coming-of-age gems like Dope or Superbad (albeit with a lot less cussing – one expertly placed f-bomb aside). Bursting with great character moments and an effortless sense of humour, every scene flows naturally into the next, combining the confidence of the first Guardians with the tight construction of the Russo brothers’ work at Marvel. Admittedly, there is one big beat that, although it works thematically, feels extremely convenient. I was happy to go along with it for the fun of where it takes us, but I suspect it will be too distracting a leap for some viewers.
I feel pretty comfortable saying that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were the best things in their Spider-Man movies, but Holland’s version of the character is already my favourite of the three. Even his signature quips are now a window into Peter’s insecurity, a coping mechanism to distract him from how out of his depth he is. Here we go back to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original mission statement in the 60s: to give us a superhero we can actually relate to.
Supporting Holland is rich extended cast, popping with personality and giving Holland plenty to bounce off. You’ve got his lovable fellow students Ned, Michelle and a refreshingly less meat-headed Flash (played by Jacob Batalon, Zendaya and Tony Revolori respectively), Marisa Tomei as an uncomfortably attractive Aunt May, Marvel’s go-to-guy RDJ, and as a surprise favourite, Jon Favreau, the man that started it all by directing Iron Man, still kicking around as Stark’s impatient employee, Happy. If there’s one member of the cast that kind of fades into the background it’s Peter’s love interest Liz (Laura Harrier), who unfortunately doesn’t really get the chance to be more than somebody for our hero to crush on.
Lastly, we have our big bad of the movie with Keaton’s Vulture. While the rogue may not necessarily challenge the seasoned actor, he does present one of the most believable antagonists in the MCU. This isn’t a villain who wants to destroy the world or even necessarily put anyone in danger. Much like Peter, Toomes is fighting to be a part of a world that seems to be leaving him behind. He may have taken a criminal path, but Vulture’s core motivation is to protect what he’s built and provide for his family. While that might not be enough to necessarily make him sympathetic (he is still trying to kill our barely-pubescent protagonist after all), it does make him incredibly human. After all the cities falling from the sky and interdimensional invasions of previous MCU movies, it’s refreshing to have the scale brought way back down to a much more street-level story. On top of that, his flying suit with the bomber jacket and giant metal wings is just a rocking design.
Essentially, Homecoming boils down to a story of a boy wanting to stop a thief because it’s the right thing to do. It’s undeniable that this makes for low stakes, but it actually makes Peter’s determination all the more admirable. I won’t go into it for fear of spoilers, but the grounded approach and treatment of the villain finally addresses one huge problem I’ve had across all the Spider-Man movies we’ve seen before, as well as most of the movies in the MCU. Spider-Man Homecoming may be familiar, and maybe even a little simple, but the back-to-basics approach and much more personal story feels like we are finally getting the Spider-Man we’ve long loved from the comics on the big screen. More importantly, it reminds us why he is one of the most iconic characters on the planet.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10