Everyone's favourite web-slinger returns, tackling potential superhero fatigue by thinking small, not big.
‘Couldn’t you just be a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man?’ Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., Captain America: Civil War) asks Peter Parker (Tom Holland, The Lost City of Z). It’s a question posed by a been-there, seen-that old hand at the world-saving game, falling on the ears of an aspiring up-and-comer; however it’s also the earnest essence of Spider-Man: Homecoming. The latest web-slinging effort marks the character’s sixth standalone film in 15 years, second reboot and third cast, but it tackles any potential fatigue by thinking small, not big.
Since his comic debut in 1962, the Marvel hero has always been a teenager balancing adolescence with eradicating evil, though frequent screen iterations — the Sam Raimi-directed, Tobey Maguire-starring Spider-Man trilogy from 2002 to 2007, and the Mark Webb-helmed, Andrew Garfield-led The Amazing Spider-Man duo in 2012 and 2014 — have increasingly favoured the latter over the former. Reversing that trend proves the key to Spider-Man: Homecoming’s success, with writer/director Jon Watts (Cop Car) and his five-strong cohort of co-scribes (his regular collaborator Christopher Ford, Vacation’s Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, and The LEGO Batman Movie’s Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers) crafting a teen-centric movie that also happens to focus on a lycra-clad crime fighter.
Indeed, overtly nodding to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off proves a telling flourish for a film that follows 15-year-old Peter Parker’s high school-anchored, free-wheeling antics; instead of skipping class to see the sights with his pals, he’s tracking down salvage company operator Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, The Founder), who peddles weapons made with scavenged alien technology. Parker's affiliation with Stark provides a handy excuse whenever his Aunt May (Marissa Tomei, The Big Short) raises concerns, even if Iron Man and his lackey Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, Entourage) would prefer that he stick to his studies. You can’t stop a teen from desperately trying to live his dreams, of course. And Peter can’t stop his everyday life — social awkwardness, grappling with his feelings for classmate Liz (Laura Harrier, The Last Five Years), and attempting to ensure his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon, North Woods) keeps his secret, for example — just because he’s also trying to join the Avengers.
When Spider-Man: Homecoming embraces its titular figure’s coming-of-age journey, it glides through two genres: caped crusaders and teen flicks. One benefits from a looser, more intimate focus in the same way as the tonally comparable Ant-Man; the other hits relatable comedic marks while toying with the elephant — or spider — in the room. Thankfully, though parallels between yearning for a more exciting superhero existence and the usual, universal, youthful urgency to leave school behind for the glamour of adult life aren’t hard to find or mine, Watts and company take the time to build Peter as a character rather than simply rehashing high school movie staples. Filled as it may be with familiar scenarios such as dating, detention, prom, school trips, sneaking out and suffering the agony of meeting your potential girlfriend’s parents, the end result engagingly and amusingly spins its namesake into a likeable kid endeavouring to reconcile his fantasies with his reality, as aided by Holland’s enthusiastic performance.
Consequently, as a jump forward for cinematic depictions of Spider-Man, Homecoming’s approach is more than welcome. Left unmentioned is the tragic backstory, with the character’s introduction in his current guise already taken care of in Captain America: Civil War. Jettisoned, for now, are the bulk of his friends and enemies already seen in previous films. Avoided altogether are any accusations of once again remaking something that was already great, with Raimi’s initial two outings highly regarded for a reason. With the feature also a big-budget exercise in enforcing corporate synergy — bringing the red-suited hero into the Marvel fold, rather than keeping his tales separate in the manner of earlier instalments — that it works so well might seem surprising, but the movie’s charms spring from its willingness to go back to friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man basics. Its sparing use of both Downey Jr and the oft-used absent father-figure theme he embodies speak volumes about the concerted decisions made to perfect a specific vibe and approach.
That said, even modestly high-flying efforts can crash back to earth with a thud, which Spider-Man: Homecoming does whenever action overtakes character. Exuberance gushes from the mobile phone-styled footage that Peter shoots of his time in Berlin, and energy from his solo Queens forays, but the bulk of the film’s confrontations adhere too closely and obviously to what has now become Marvel’s template. Never is that more apparent than in the final battle — even with Keaton’s Vulture a memorable adversary — with Webb demonstrating greater affinity for the affable and intimate than the broad and climatic, and for maintaining a jovial atmosphere than making a visual impression. Still, while fun emerges victorious over flair, everyone’s favourite web-slinger emerges with a significant victory: it’s a superhero movie viewers will want to spend more time with, but not because it’s a superhero movie.
Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5
Director: Jon Watts
USA, 2017, 133 mins
Release date: 6 July
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level