After six movies and two reboots in the last 15 years – not to mention a further 16 outings for Marvel’s other heavy hitters since 2008 – fans could be forgiven for growing weary at the thought of yet another Spider-man movie. Thankfully, Spider-man: Homecoming repays audience persistence in spades.
Having already wowed fans with his zingy and zestful cameo in Captain America: Civil War, Tom Holland’s first full outing as the web slinging crime fighter deftly walks a tricky tightrope between paying heed to the larger Marvel machine and offering a fresh and revitalising spin on the typical comic book movie template.
By far the film’s best move is skipping Spidey’s tired-and-tested origin story, with which we’re already far too familiar. Unburdened by the shackles of dead parents, murdered uncles, cute neighbours and radioactive spider bites, we’re free to jump straight into the action.
Picking up right after that almighty skirmish over the Skovia Accords, 15-year-old Peter Parker is dropped back in Queens by his new mentor Tony Stark and told to wait by the phone for another call to join up with the Avengers. Cut to two months later: Peter’s heard nothing from Stark and his reluctant minder Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) isn’t returning any of his texts, leaving Peter to act like ‘a friendly neighbourhood Spider-man’, catching petty thieves and helping old ladies with directions in return for deep-fried Mexican treats.
Scaling back the influence of the larger Marvel universe proves to be a masterstroke. Though Downey Jr’s Stark featured heavily in the promos, his appearances here are minimal and fit seamlessly into the story. And with the wider MCU taking a backseat, there’s plenty of room for us to get to know our new hero in greater depth than ever before. The result is something more akin to a high school comedy than a superhero movie as Peter tries to contend with jealous school bullies, getting invited to the cool girl’s party and finding a date for homecoming dance; all the while squeezing a spot of crime fighting between the end of school and his 10pm curfew.
With so much of the focus on the young hero, it’s handy that he happens to be the best on-screen Spider-man thus far. Introduced geeking out in a homemade video after meeting the Avengers, there’s something instantly endearing about Holland’s version of the web slinger. Though he’s gifted with spider-like abilities, he feels entirely relatable. Like any teenager, Peter is reckless, impulsive, dangerously ambitious and refreshingly earnest in his attempts to figure out what kind of person he wants to be.
He also happens to be appealingly lame as a superhero, struggling to control his powers (understandable, considering he now has more than 500 web settings in his new Stark-modified suit) and frequently falling flat on his face during his hapless attempts to help others. That he remains likeable even when his mistakes have potentially fatal consequences is in no small part due to Holland’s cheeky and heartfelt performance.
Drawing sparky performances out of talented youngsters is quickly becoming a calling card of director Jon Watts. Having caught the eye with revenge thriller Cop Car, which deftly balanced gripping thrills with dark humour, Watts brings a similar lightness of touch to proceedings here. The freshman humour is uproariously on point – there’s a great Ferris Buller gag – and even the action sequences are peppered with quick-witted one liners.
Yet Watts appears to struggle when dealing with the larger scale demands of helming a Marvel movie. Many of the big set-pieces, while effective and well-executed, feel far too mundane to make much of an impact. And except for a vertiginous rescue atop the Washington Monument, there’s not a single action sequence that sticks in the memory, which falls far below the level of inventiveness we’ve come to expect of a summer blockbuster.
This lack of whizz-bang visuals is more than compensated for by the presence of a surprisingly compelling villain. Like Peter Parker, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes is an ordinary guy trying to cope with extraordinary circumstances. A former salvager who turns to illegal arms trafficking to support his family, Toomes’ motivation is entirely believable, if not forgivable. Even more so when you consider the political context of his actions – Toomes makes angry speech about rising up against the greedy 1% who keep all the money for themselves – which feels incredibly relevant in the wake of President Trump and Brexit.
It’s not quite perfect. The final showdown between Toomes and Spider-man inevitably descends into the usual blurry CGI slugfest and many of the female characters are completely without their own purpose or agency. Yet these issues feel like minor quibbles in a movie as fresh and invigorating as this. Ditching the overwhelming superhero angst and sludgy pacing which dogged previous incarnations of the character, and replacing it with a fun and breezy coming-of-age comedy, the youthful Spider-man: Homecoming is the most original comic book movie to swing into cinemas in a very long time.
Runtime: 133 mins
Director: Jon Watts
Screenwriters: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr, Jacob Batalon