This was the movie I was looking forward to most in 2017. When it comes to my favourite superheroes, Batman and Spider-Man are neck and neck; so I was very excited when Sony and Marvel Studios did a deal that would allow Spider-Man to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His extended cameo in Captain America: Civil War was enough to leave me eager for more – but perhaps my expectations were raised too high, because while Spider-Man: Homecoming is not a bad movie, it falls far short of greatness.
After being recruited to help Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) tackle Captain America in Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is dropped off back in New York, with the new high-tech Spider-Man suit that Stark made for him, and assurances that he’ll be in touch if anything comes up. Two months later, Peter is still waiting, unable to focus on his high school life while he tries to help the city as Spider-Man and dreams of becoming an Avenger. Finally, a threat presents itself in the form of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton): a salvage worker who feels cheated by the government in the wake of the Chitauri invasion, Toomes has set up an underground business stealing and selling alien technology, assisted by his vulture-like flying suit. With his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) as his confidante, Peter takes it upon himself to bring Toomes and his henchmen to justice, despite repeated conflicts with his school career and Stark’s warnings not to get in over his head.
This film succeeds in being very different to the two Spider-Man film series that came before it. For one thing, it assumes that everybody watching already knows Spider-Man’s origin story: there’s not even a summarising montage at the beginning like in The Incredible Hulk. Peter’s spider bite is briefly mentioned, and the only references to Uncle Ben are ambiguous and indirect, like when Peter worries about putting his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) under more stress. Feeling confident enough to dive right into the present life of its hero certainly doesn’t do the movie any harm. It also feels more experimental as it mixes in high school tropes – though this can make story sections predictable sometimes – and gives us an awkward, inexperienced Spider-Man, which fits perfectly given that he’s only fifteen. His initial ventures into patrolling New York see him giving directions to pedestrians and stopping crimes that aren’t actually crimes, which is probably what the average day would look like for a wannabe superhero in real life. Even the settings are unfamiliar for a Spider-Man story: at one point, he has to chase a van through a suburban neighbourhood where there are only trees to web-swing from. It’s a far cry from his usual elegant swings among Manhattan skyscrapers. The whole approach reminded me of Kick-Ass, particularly as Peter’s youth and clumsiness makes him appear more vulnerable and makes you fear for inevitable, painful consequences.
Spider-Man is known for being a more light-hearted hero – especially if you can sidestep his origin story – and the film certainly gets that right, with a decent blend of comedy. (Three words: Enhanced Interrogation Mode.) I also liked how Peter’s relationship with Tony Stark is portrayed, with Tony having more interest and respect for Peter than is initially apparent. This definitely isn’t Iron Man 4 by another name as some people suspected: Tony only makes a few appearances, and that shot from the trailers of Spider-Man and Iron Man zooming along side by side isn’t even in the movie. As is typical with MCU movies, there are quite a few Easter Eggs, such as at least one potential future villain with a revealing tattoo on his face. As I know Spider-Man better than I do most comic book characters, it was fun to guess at whether things were deliberate references or not, like whether a girl in the background with long white hair might be Felicia Hardy.
Tom Holland does an excellent job with what he’s asked to do: keeping the character of Peter Parker likeable, capturing the adolescent awkwardness, enthusiasm and dorkiness of this incarnation, and finding time for the odd quip from behind the mask of Spider-Man. His physical performance is particularly good: he’s much springier and lighter on his feet than any previous Spider-Man (presumably owing to Holland’s background in dance), whether he’s jumping or web-swinging – indeed, just like a jumping spider. Questions like ‘how does he compare to Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield?’ are ultimately unfair because Holland is playing such a different version of the character, less mature and still finding his feet; this whole movie is a depiction of the transitional phase that went by relatively briefly with Maguire and Garfield.
As for villains, the film avoids reprising anyone from previous installments just yet, and gives us the Vulture, who was intended to be the main antagonist in Sam Raimi’s planned Spider-Man 4. (The Shocker is technically there too as one of Vulture’s henchmen, but he only has a few brief scenes and doesn’t get a full costume.) Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes is definitely one of the stronger villains in the MCU, not just because his motivations are understandable, but because rather than a god or a mad scientist or a corrupt businessman, Toomes is just an ordinary working-class guy, somebody who could live next door to you. Outside of his secret criminal business, primarily intended to provide an income for his family, he enjoys an ordinary homelife and seems like a nice bloke – then he threatens to kill you if you get in his way, and leaves you in no doubt that he means it.
For all the good stuff, the film unfortunately has its share of problems too. The script, which is pretty good on the surface, is let down by a lack of decent character moments. The majority of Peter’s interactions throughout are with his friend Ned, who is the typical annoying, overenthusiastic best bud, lost in how super-cool Peter’s secret identity is. The other side characters are badly underdeveloped: Peter’s love interest Liz (Laura Harrier) didn’t get nearly enough screen time for me to care about their budding relationship; and the other girl in his peer group, Michelle (Zendaya), seemingly exists only to make snarky comments. As for Aunt May, Peter hardly gets to talk to her at all. The action is also below average. We don’t get much of Spider-Man actually fighting the Vulture: the first three times that they encounter each other, it’s only brief, and in the climactic battle, the editing is too rapid and the light too low to properly see what’s going on.
Spider-Man: Homecoming deserves credit for trying hard to do things differently from its predecessors, and the elements that it does get right are top-notch. Unfortunately, due to its more mediocre ingredients, I found the end product to be something of a disappointment, though still a reasonably entertaining movie. Rating: 3.5/5.