Director: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau
This latest incarnation of the Spider-Man mythos is a slick, streamlined, and refreshingly down-to-earth offering of Marvel’s heroic mascot, who swings back into focus on the shoulders of a strong, convincing lead, a relatable villain, a generally likeable cast, and a plot that keeps you engaged even if it leans a bit too heavily on the comedy at some points.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has risen to something rather singular in the world of multi cinematic franchises over the past decade. Despite a few stumbles here and there, Marvel Studios has generally kept the quality on the up and up, even as they crank out the films like cars on an assembly line. With Spider-Man: Homecoming, my expectations were already high, as I’ve not only been spoiled to quality from this series, but Tom Holland’s brief but memorable appearance in Captain America: Civil War filled me with high hopes. I sung Holland’s praises in my review of the superhero tussle, and I figured that the new movie only had more teen witticisms and awkward bonding moments to offer. And in a very, very rare display of magnanimity by the movie gods, my faith was vindicated, for Homecoming proves itself a high-flying, funny, and heartfelt addition to the canon, giving a unique twist on the Spider-Man legacy and providing the perfect vehicle to catapult Holland up the MCU pantheon.
The story starts a little while after the Battle of New York featured in the first Avengers movie, where scrappy salvage chief Adrian Tomes (Keaton) finds himself muscled out of a contract for some choice alien goodies by Tony Stark’s Department of Damage Control. Feeling the financial squeeze and burned by this latest insult by the big shots, Tomes and his crew pilfer a few Chitauri trinkets and use them to start a new, more clandestine line of business. Flash forward a few years, and we find our favorite web head giving a hilarious video diary of the events leading up to his recruitment during the Civil War Arc. High on the adrenaline rush born of trading blows with some of the best heroes on the planet, young Peter Parker (Holland) has seemingly nudged his way under the tutelage of Avengers heavyweight Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and waits eagerly by his phone, ready to spring at a moment’s notice should he be needed once again. But as the months pass with no contact, our hero-to-be wilts in the dark, trudging through his days at Midtown School of Science and Technology (an interesting twist on Peter’s alma mater) dreaming of the global-scale heroism he believes is his destiny while taking care of routine crime in his neighborhood. But when a series of Tomes’s super high-tech weapon deals leaves a trail of devastation and near-shattered lives, Peter decides that he’s had enough of sitting on the sidelines. With the help of his nerdy friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his upgraded suit, he strikes out, hoping to slay this new criminal power shaking up his turf - and maybe in the process, work his way into Tony's good graces.
At its best, The MCU has the hallmark of consistent high quality, and Homecoming is no different. The writing, acting, pacing, and other necessities of cinema storytelling are top notch here, and hits every note a decent reboot should. Holland continues his triumphantly awkward march to cinema legend, balancing Peter’s wit and intellectual acumen with all the uncertainty and confusion that comes with being a teenager. He's only a movie and a half into this franchise, but he's already proven to have a leg -up on his predecessors; Tobey Maguire relied too much on an unnatural adult charm that didn’t feel convincing most of the time, while Andrew Garfield, though a more worthy heir to the web shooters, was crippled by a convoluted plot line that morphed him into an unstable head case. Holland breathes life into Peter Parker, and plays so naturally off of everyone he encounters in the story that it made the pacing and everything else a breeze.
Of course, Holland wasn’t alone in bringing this ship to shore, as Watts and company assembled a crack cast to support our lead. While I was initially wary of the changes made to Peter’s school and social circle (it stunk a bit of that tired old cynical ploy of diversity for the sake of it) it turned out for the best, permitting Peter to thrive in his little niche in the high school pecking order without, as in previous incarnations, giving him reason to go on a shooting spree out of sheer frustration. I wasn’t fond of Ned at first, who seemed disproportionately present and unpleasant as Peter’s “best friend” who causes more trouble than he’s worth. But as the movie moved forward, he settled into a mercifully saner background role, simultaneously Peter’s sidekick and bridge to a perspective outside of his own ambition. In fact, most of the film’s minor tweaks to denizens of the Spider-Man mythology turned out for the better. The refreshing absence of Mary Jane Watson not only frees Peter from getting strangled by a romantic subplot, leaving him free to pine harmlessly for the ineffectual Liz (Laura Harrier), but it also introduces a new “MJ” - the strange, so-called apathetic Michelle Jones, played by the singer and dancer Zendaya. Sardonic and observant, this newbie in the Spider-Man universe is more wound-down Allison Reynolds than a sultry girl-next-door, and Zendaya’s subtle expressions and mood shifts made her far more welcomed than the typical canon foreigner. While the MCU received a bit of backlash for casting Marisa Tomei as a younger, sexier Aunt May, she plays naturally off Holland, their relationship more like siblings than the oddly underdeveloped mother-son (or grandmother-grandson) dynamic of yesteryear. These characters, interesting enough on their own without overshadowing either our lead or the plot, are full of verdant possibilities awaiting full bloom in the awaited sequel.
But the film really bears its fangs through the down-to-earth treatment it gives the superhero enterprise, the success of which lays squarely with Holland and how he battles with both his mentor and his adversary. Robert Downey, Jr., of course, has mastered the Art of the Stark, and needs no further commentary on his role by this point; he’s so melded to the character that it's impossible to envision anyone else in that role. What’s unique here is that he’s not pitching battle against aliens, superhuman freaks, or cybernetic antagonists, but rather, along with his assistant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) he faces the more arduous task of forming a mentor relationship at turns both hilarious (Happy’s aggressive neglect, and the continual reinforcement that Tony sees the web-slinger as a wee spiderling) and serious. Peter is driven by his admiration of Iron Man and everything he represents, while the flawed, cranky elder hero wants him to aim lower and do better. At play throughout the film is this tension between Peter’s high-flying aspirations, and everyone’s attempts to keep him grounded so he can learn how to walk. These concerns come to a head in his bouts against Alan Tomes, a.k.a. The Vulture. Keaton’s villain is not an insane psychopath, nor is he a mutant, alien, or global threat whatsoever. He’s simply a high-tech thief with a blue-collar ethic, a glorified arms dealer leading a team as muddled and bumbling as they are scarily competent when they need to be - and is more worried about providing for his family than taking over the world. His pedestrian motives and origins ooze from every inch of his mundane surface, from his so-called “lair” (little more than a mechanic’s garage, even with the alien technology) to the Vulture suit itself, which melds a tacky but practical pilot’s jacket with a set of wings that, sci-fi luster aside, looks like something built in a backyard shop. His ambitions never move beyond this scope, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Spider-Man’s most dramatic rescue in the entire movie (that wasn’t a mop-up of something he had caused) is of Happy Hogan’s career. Keaton gives the rogue a very likeable demeanor even at his worst, and the serious talk he had with Peter at one point during their final showdown pretty much cemented their working-class positions on the hero-villain pecking order: through their concerns and perspectives, they probably have more in common with each other than either has with the likes of Tony Stark.
With all this praise thrown at it, there’s certainly some negative ballast to balance everything off, right? Well, not really. Sometimes the humor can be a bit invasive; while the MCU is known to perfectly blend bathos and gravitas in their films, this time the pendulum shifted a bit too far in one direction, delivering laughs when I’d prefer not to hear them. But this is just the gripe of a pedant, for the mood of the movie hardly missed a beat, and the actors involved were all talented enough to know when to drop the smiles and push their dramatic chops.
The rest of the film - the stellar effects, the smart script - is mere dressing on an already elegantly crafted cake. The reprieve from apocalyptic battles or the clashing of superhuman titans is most welcomed, and the solid story of a young hero’s growth and journey as he learns to act locally while keeping his eyes on the big picture proceeds spectacularly from start to finish. As the MCU hits the hump in its 3rd phase, Marvel’s most iconic hero couldn’t have asked for a better showing.