Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige achieved what seemed the impossible last year: he obtained a share in the rights to Spider-Man, Marvel’s most popular superhero, who’d been in the profit-hungry claws of Sony Studios for some time with less than stellar success in the form of Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man double feature. Along with Sony Studios president Amy Pascal, Feige intended to reunite Spidey with his fellow Marvel superheroes, and did just that with ol’ webhead’s scene-stealing cameo in Captain America: Civil War, courtesy of the freshly cast up-and-comer Tom Holland of The Impossible fame.
With this introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was inevitable that Feige and Pascal would attempt to plug a solo outing for Spider-Man. A household name, it would undoubtedly score a fresh little profit to keep the studio motor running in time for that behemoth that is Avengers: Infinity War to arrive. So here it is, Spider-Man: Homecoming, starring the aforementioned Holland in the title role and helmed by director Jon Watts, the man behind indie hit Cop Car (starring an abnormally yet effectively sinister Kevin Bacon).
So what’s the result? Is this really the best Spider-Man film since Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, a film that is considered by many (including myself) to be the best of all superhero films? Does it reinvigorate interest in a character deemed to be the most relatable, as well as the most charismatic, of all of Marvel’s heroes?
In all honesty, I’d like to push all the glowing praise from other critics to the side and be honest with you: I didn’t love this movie. It is certainly a serviceable adventure, but in relation to its competition from the likes of War for the Planet of the Apes and Wonder Woman, thoughtful and envelope-pushing spectacles, it doesn’t stack up as well as it’d like.
To start off positive, what it achieves with flying colours is its depiction of the eponymous hero and his high-school roots. See, the difference with Spider-Man: Homecoming, in relation to previous entries, is how it stars an actual teenager in the title role, going through the typical pubescent stages and suffering from the same insecurities. Peter Parker a.k.a. Spider-Man, has a secret crush in the form of Liz (Laura Harrier), is getting bullied incessantly at the hands of Eugene “Flash” Thompson (Tony Revolori), regularly spends time building Lego sets with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). Difference is, he’s got superpowers, and has to separate these from his ordinary life, keeping this side of his persona a secret: he tinkers with compounds in his chemistry class to make some fluid for his web shooters, sneaks off on his walk home to don his suit and take a webbed spin around the town. He’s living a life I think we could all wish for, even just for the ability to save a trip up the stairs in favour of crawling straight up to the bedroom window (as Peter takes full advantage of). It’s a classic set-up, and grounds the character in an identifiability that honours what makes him so popular.
What’s more is that director Jon Watts has quite vocally taken inspiration from classic John Hughes coming-of-age comedies in devising this setting. From The Breakfast Club to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (quite literally, in one obvious reference), Watts has tried to capture the high-energy frivolity of these classics, in order to fashion something original in the complex tapestry that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And in many respects he succeeds: Spider-Man: Homecoming works best when it takes itself away from its core mystery, and chooses to focus on Peter and his exploits in getting the girl, conquering his fears, achieving well as part of his academic decathlon team. It’s in these smaller moments that the film clicked best: there’s one particular scene, involving Peter’s guardian Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) assisting Peter in tying that seemingly impossible Half Windsor Knot (a scuffle that I can only too ashamedly admit to experiencing) that is hilarious yet touching in its elementary humanity.
However, breaking up these effective moments is the broader story, which is far less engaging and ultimately comes off feeling a little obligatory. It doesn’t seem like Watts’ heart is in these moments: if his previous film Cop Car can teach us anything, it’s that he works best when exploring the anxieties and endurances of teenagers. Instead, it feels like the studio had to have its way in making this the blockbuster that Summer movie fans would be looking for. So, Watts provides the action, the Marvel references and the zippy narrative without much of a second glance at its inherent simplicity. Yet this structure isn’t audacious in the slightest: it’s recycled Marvel formula and it’s not very investing. Aside from a short but nail-biting scene involving the Washington Monument, the majority of the action in the first two acts doesn’t feel very innovative or stimulating, instead feeling like a rehash of more successful attempts at similar sequences in the past (the Staten Island Ferry scene is a little too parallel to the classic Spider-Man 2 train sequence, to not elicit a less than favourable contrast).
Additionally, the appearance of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) would appear to be a masterstroke: how better to encourage emotional investment in a new portrayal of Spider-Man than to have his mentor be the character that started it all. However, rather than inject his assuredly sardonic wit into proceedings, Tony feels completely unnecessary and a little awkward in the moments he arrives. He acts as a Deus Ex Machina, a plot device that out of pure happenstance, always seems to be around when Spider-Man needs him. It’s a little jarring and I felt that he was added purely to fill the void left by Uncle Ben, due to fans crying out against another origin where Ben’s sacrifice would be involved. I understand this reservation, but his replacement isn’t his equal: considering what he’s done and how he has acted over the franchise, Tony is the last person to be telling a young kid something akin to ‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility’.
What I will say is that while it struggles, tonally, with balancing action with its high-school elements, Spider-Man: Homecoming ends on a high note with a third act that really struck a chord, especially in terms of how it brings both threads of the plot to a head in a surprising and satisfying way. While the film’s villain, Adrian Toomes a.k.a The Vulture (Michael Keaton), appears a little generic for most of the film’s runtime, serving only as a demandingly physical threat, revelations in this third act cause him to take on a whole new light that brings him closer to Alfred Molina’s candid and grounded characterisation of Doctor Octopus in Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Watts learns that bringing Peter a little closer to home in his conflicts encourages audience investment, rather than witnessing it as pure spectacle. Plus, it features a third act set-piece that wasn’t about world-threatening alien wormholes or the threat of nuclear annihilation: instead, it was a personal struggle, between two working class people just trying to get by in the world, to protect and provide for those they love. It’s efficient stuff and Watts proves adept at crafting this more emotionally driven action scene, as compared to the Staten Island set-piece.
I’ll conclude by affirming that the film’s highlight is definitely in its portrayal of Peter Parker. Tom Holland emulates charm and incorruptibility, flipping out one-liners and relishing in the luck he’s had in being granted these superheroic gifts. Holland makes it impossible not to root for him to get the girl, to stop Toomes on his villainous quest, to simply get by in his high-school. It’s just that Feige and Marvel have stated so often about how its hero is their essential character, how they want to primarily focus on creating a protagonist that is likeable and charismatic so that we want to see more of them in future instalments, both solo and ensemble. They have certainly accomplished this, but at what cost? The characterisation of the other characters. Parker’s best friend is amiable as hell, with Batalon quite often stealing scenes with his impeccable comic timing. But we’re not given any chance to really get to know any of the other characters beyond comedic through-lines or basic representations of character types, such as ‘the bully’ or the ‘repressed teenager’. With this, and the confused tone between John Hughes coming-of-age dramedy and Marvel action spectacle, Spider-Man: Homecoming strains in its labours to reignite love for this franchise. I can’t help but feel that Watts, Feige and Pascal were at loggerheads as to what they wanted the film to be, and too often we feel all these cooks in the kitchen, causing the film to stop and start until it ultimately steadies its course in its exciting yet emotionally justified final act. Let’s just hope that Holland is given a stronger script next time, less interested in narrative nods to comic lore, and more fascinated in building a strong cast of characters to evoke Peter’s sense of self-conflict between his duties as Spider-Man, and his personal desires and accomplishments as Peter Parker.