With a third try at the bat, Sony’s team-up with Marvel Studios to once again “get Spider-Man right” as Spider-Man: Homecoming plops Peter Parker (Tom Holland) into the current Marvel Cinematic Universe in tone, visual style, and at its most macro-level, plotting. There’s a bit riding on this picture, as its the first team-up between the once competing studios, and another misstep would run the risk of poisoning the well. The title of the film is a cute bit of meta-wordplay in that Spidey is finally allowed to exist within the Marvel world he belongs to, while at the same time the plot itself centers around the upcoming homecoming dance at Peter’s high school.
We’re not thrown directly into Peter’s high school life right away though, as Homecoming opens with some significant connective tissue to Captain America: Civil War, viewers are given an opportunity to see the major action set-piece of that film from Peter’s POV. Additionally, as we long-time followers of the MCU know, we haven’t seen much of the aftermath of the events post-splintering of Captain America and Iron Man’s relationship, thusly Homecoming provides some minor details in that regard. The connective threads don’t stop there though, as Homecoming offers a mini-origin story for the film’s antagonist, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a city contractor who has to resort to illegally scrapping alien tech after his business is undercut by the Tony Stark-led Department of Damage Control. From here, is born, The Vulture – who with his cadre of thugs like The Tinkerer (Michael Chernus) and The Shocker (Bokeem Woodbine) -aims to put the Chitauri alien tech and other superpowered goods for sale on the black market.
Once that table setting is complete, we’re finally offered a better glimpse into Peter’s everyday life, which involves patrolling the streets of New York, keeping his extra-curricular activities hidden from Aunt May (Marissa Tomei), and trying to get close to his crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), the captain of his Academic Decathalon Team. His only support structure for both aspects of his life, is his long-time pal Ned (Jacob Batalon), who not only shares his high school outcast struggle, but also acts as his “man in the chair” for his rogue escapades. This is where Homecoming really works best, as when the tone is light and breezy and more concerned with character over plot. The script (credited to no less than six(!!) writers) displays a very affable spirit that reflects a kind of spin on the teenage/coming of age genre. While we often hear about how each Marvel Studios effort tries to inhabit other types of films beyond superhero pictures (Ant-Man as a heist movie, Winter Solider as a political thriller, etc), this is probably the first of these projects that successfully embodies the genre it targets. This is helped with genuinely funny and warm dialogue delivered by really well cast young actors, who are, for the most part, age appropriate – we’ve come a long way since Tobey Maguire and James Franco played high schoolers. It’s pertinent to note that this movie lives and dies on Tom Holland’s performance, which is easily the best live action depiction of Spider-Man. In-costume, he is just as funny and wise-cracking as you’d hope he’d be, he’s the perfect physical specimen, wiry and acrobatic as is appropriate, and outside of the costume, he has a sort of earnestness ala Marty McFly that someone like Andrew Garfield could never quite capture. Here’s the thing, I would argue that Tobey Maguire was a great Peter Parker but a bad Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield was a great Spider-Man, but a bad Peter Parker, with Tom Holland we finally get both.
My initial reaction to his opposite number, The Vulture, was less warm, where I, at first, came out of the film thinking he was just another addition to the pile of generic Marvel baddies. But on reflection, and further discussion, I think there’s a bit more beneath the surface thematically that makes the character stand apart. The blue collar nature of Toomes himself is unique, putting a very literal spin on his villainous alter-ego: he actively picks the bones of battles and disasters for financial gain. He’s also an active comparator to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), where he views his job as being not that different from Iron Man’s, the only significant distinction between them in his eyes is power. Tony operates with the support of the government and America’s institutions, providing technology, aide, and in some cases literal weapons to the country’s defense; and as one of the character’s points out, Tony is paid not only to make the mess, but also clean it up. This consolidation of wealth and power leaves no place for Toomes in the world, so he makes his own path under the cover of night. Keaton straddles a thin line here, as his performance is aimed somewhere between “phoning it in” and realism. Given the Vulture’s salt of the earth demeanor in this incarnation, a more restrained essaying of the role is fitting. Toomes also has a deeper connection to the above-mentioned genre trappings that is especially clever.
Those really rock-solid foundations of strongly defined characters and performances allow Homecoming to largely succeed, but it doesn’t fully escape from some of the blander elements that often infect Marvel Studios efforts. For instance, while the film is a fun teenage romp, it’s not exactly an enticing action picture. Holland looks great when he’s working solo in broad daylight to keep the streets safe, but is less effective in giant action set-pieces where he’s barely visible and once again, no one has been able to solve the “rubber band man” problem where Spidey’s more superpowered exploits are concerned. The majority of this falls at the feet of director Jon Watts, whose action chops are sub-optimal, particularly for a character in need of a filmmaker who can make the best use of his powerset. There are action sequences in the film, both in the middle, and in the third act especially, that are an utter chore to get through. And for a movie that is 133 minutes long, this can feel like an eternity.
A more minor concern is within the arc itself for Peter, where the story is pitched to be about change and growth, but all told, the Peter you start with is basically the Peter you end with. It’s unclear that we actually saw Peter grow in any way, but instead was just luckier in one set of circumstances than the other. Peter is imbued with a certain amount of innocence and heroism right from the start, that any further change in his outlook seems a bit unclear, which in turn undercuts his journey somewhat. Because this angle within the story is undercooked, much of Tony and Happy Hogan’s (Jon Favreau) screentime seems fruitless and at times cut and paste into the film.
Those issues aside, it’s easy to declare this, at the very least, the most successful Spider-Man film since Raimi’s second as it skirts some of its more troubling aspects with a healthy dose of charm, humor, and the best central performance the character has ever been treated to.
(One last thing, it also features one of Marvel’s best Easter Eggs, and one of its absolute worst. I look forward to you all finding out which is which.)