Well, Marvel and Sony kept their promise. Within ten minutes of Spider-Man: Homecoming getting started, any hint of origin story business for both Peter Parker and the film’s key antagonist – Adrian Toomes/Vulture – is done and dusted. The pair are set up for the two hours that follow, and there’s no radioactive spider bite in sight. Surprisingly, there’s not much Iron Man in sight either. Given that the promotions for the film have often been dominated by Robert Downey Jr and/or his metallic alter ego, be assured that this is very much a Peter Parker story. If anything, more a Peter Parker story than a Spider-Man one.
That’s the core of the movie we get, and it’s a choice that really pays dividends. In a film with some well-delivered rug pulls, perhaps the biggest achievement is that Spider-Man: Homecoming turns out to be a very good high school movie most of all, only occasionally tugged back by the Avengers film that keeps creeping in around the edges.
The premise is pretty straightforward. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) feels he’s on the verge of becoming a fully-fledged Avenger. Following his work in Captain America: Civil War – briefly, wittily recapped from a different point of view for those who missed it – he’s waiting for the call from the returning Happy (Jon Favreau in fine comedy form) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (that Robert Downey bloke) to join the heroes he’s seen on the telly. We’re therefore presented with effectively a Marvel fanboy going through high school, trying to fit in, and aching for the moment when he gets to fight alongside Marvel’s heroes again. On the one hand, he’s got an ‘internship’ with Tony Stark. On the other, there’s the academic team at school that wants his help.
It’s spoiling nothing to say that the aforementioned call from Mr Stark and co doesn’t immediately come, and thus Spider-Man: Homecoming grounds itself in more domestic matters. One of the conversations we often have behind the scenes of Den Of Geek is how comic book movies only seem to be compared to comic book movies. It’s inevitable to cross-reference this with earlier Spider-Man films – I think it’s the best since Spider-Man 2, although Sam Raimi’s sequel is still the champion there – but I do think that the television series Freaks & Geeks is a more pertinent counterpoint. And not just because of a terrific supporting performance from Martin Starr.
No, it’s the fact that the film spends so much time in such down to earth settings, examining the tensions and conflicts in a teenager’s life in a way that’s not too far removed from the work of John Hughes either. It doesn’t shy away from this being a world of heroes the film is set in (although the perspective – Peter Parker has effectively been us, watching these characters in their many battles – on that feels fresh), but also, there’s a conscious and prolonged effort to bring Spider-Man back to being your friendly neighbourhood crimefighter. When the film decides to raise its stakes later on, it can’t match the relatability and sheer fun of Spider-Man’s earlier, more trivial crime fighting in the Queens area of New York, for instance.
It helps enormously that the film is so well cast. Tom Holland’s take on Peter Parker is quick, physical and raw. For all his intelligence, this is a Parker whose insecurities feel realistic, and whose youthful enthusiasm crackles through the screen. It’s all but impossible not to root for him, and director Jon Watts brings across from Cop Car the idea of letting his actors emote non-verbally to get some of their feelings – fear, bemusement, discomfort -across. Tom Holland is expert at this. That said, the film is nearly stolen from him by Jacob Batalon as Ned, and if Marvel is indeed resurrecting its one-shots, as has been rumoured, he’s our choice for whatever short film it does next. The younger members of the ensemble uniformly sell the school-based moments too, and it’s here where the film is absolutely at its strongest.
Because of the fact that we’re viewing the Avengers world through a character who’s grown up with it too, Spider-Man: Homecoming is an ideal jumping on point for the Marvel cinematic universe, shed of the assorted interactions between lots of heroes (there are winks and leg pulls, but the film could happily exist with or without them), and the hunt for strange objects. Its focus is more precise, and the storytelling more streamlined as a result. Sure, there are objects here, leftovers from previous battles, but even those are grounded for the most part, used to make a point about class divide, and how the rich people who make a mess get even richer by being paid to clean it up.
Where things stumble a little are when it becomes more of a superhero film. Notwithstanding one or two good set pieces where Spider-Man’s powers and suit are put to the test, as something akin to the world being under threat takes prominence, the movie suffers when it veers closer to convention. It’s only in these moments that it feels longer than its 133 minutes, including credits. Furthermore, Michael Keaton is far more interesting – and far more sinister – as Toomes than he is as the key villain Vulture (helped by the fact that in Toomes mode, we get him in full-on Carter Hayes stare mode from Pacific Heights). When the whizz-bang effects-driven stuff comes in – robbing the film of its feel of physicality when it does – it feels like Spider-Man: Homecoming is paying lip service to what it’s supposed to do when things escalate. I never felt its heart was as much in the action stuff.
What then lifts the film again though is the sheer comedy of it. This is by distance the lightest, breeziest superhero movie we’ve had in a good while. It’s not the best, but it’s very, very funny. The screenplay is credited to six writers, and it feels as though they’ve come up with six good jokes each. From start to the very end, there are regular, often hefty chuckles, some from physical comedy, some from the lines themselves. There’s even a twinge of Richard Curtis to some of the gags.
It’s a cocktail of a few things, Spider-Man: Homecoming, but a very well managed one. Crucially, it’s also really good fun, and a blast to watch at its best, not hampered by a need for broader world building. Occasionally the momentum drops, but so much is sizzling, and so much is going right, that it’s impossible not to cut the film, and its sheer good nature, the slack to get over that. A sequel that raises the stakes further is going to be a challenge, given the local feel of this one. But for right here, right now, the webslinger is back on form.
Oh, and whoever cast Tom Holland deserves a bonus. What a find he is.