Editor Chloe Woods reviews Jon Watts’ MCU re-introduction of the beloved superhero.
Reboot fatigue? Nah. It may only be three years since the last Spider-Man movie, but it’s important to remember that’s it’s fifteen years since the last really good one. Spider-Man: Homecoming is up there with the best of its predecessors and the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and stands as an example of what the MCU can do when playing to its strengths. This is a fast, fun film which audiences are almost certain to enjoy.
From airport battles in Germany and other far-flung adventures, Homecoming reels the MCU into a more grounded perspective on the city of New York. The sense of the city itself, thoroughly established in the first act, might drift a little as the film progresses; but it does ultimately remain rooted in place, with appropriately local and personal stakes. Much of Homecoming revolves around Peter Parker (Tom Holland)’s high school and his relationships there: both looking and feeling like an actual school populated by actual teenagers, the famously quip-heavy style is far more effective here than in more serious settings. (I could be snide and say it works best among teenagers because the Marvel films have always had something of a teenage mentality. Since the Hollywood action industry makes no apologies of the fact that its main target audience is the average fifteen-year-old boy and the rest of us come as a bonus, I don’t think I’m being very snide.) Kids at quiz team practice, after all, might actually talk like this.
And Peter Parker is very much a kid. He falls asleep at school, gets tongue-tied around the girl he has a crush on and builds Star Wars Lego with his best friend. He’s overconfident, overexcited and still learning his way around his own abilities. Under all this, there’s a good heart: Peter’s no killer, which marks him out from the more bloodthirsty bulk of the MCU and draws a particular line between Peter and Tony Stark (a slightly-more-than-cameo by Robert Downey Jr). Peter, for all his smarts, doesn’t recognise that yet, and neither does Tony – who’s trying to be a mentor to a boy with a perspective on the world he will never grasp. The precise nature of this – which I shouldn’t give away – does something to assuage the unfortunate implications of pitching for-the-little-man Vulture (Michael Keaton) as the enemy, in the wider context of both America’s current slide into outright plutocracy and the more typically Randian leanings of the Marvel universe. Even taken alone, it’s hard to say whether or not Homecoming succeeds in avoiding that trap: it mostly depends on whether you take the Vulture as a tragic villain or simply a villain, and that’s such a narrow line here that there’s unlikely to be a consensus. Either way, he’s one of the more compelling and memorable MCU antagonists – though that’s not exactly a high bar.
Others of the usual weaknesses are here. The soundtrack is perhaps the strangest thing about the film. It’s upbeat, lively, perfectly pitched – but the recognisable songs date from circa 1976 (The Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop) and no doubt there are whole essays to be written on what that says about a film which, on the surface, is making such an effort to feel fresh and modern. The cinematography is – look, I’ve admitted many times it’s not my forte, but even I could tell it was more a journeyman’s than a master’s work. A few shots are distractingly odd, though most are simply uninspired, and suffer from the usual frenetic inability of the camera to settle for more than ten seconds at a time. The action, similarly, works well enough but is hardly going to win any prizes. Homecoming’s strengths lie in its characters and relationships, in its dialogue, in a sense of fun resting on many familiar but not-quite worn-out jokes. Peter Parker’s character arc as Spider-Man is central here, of course, and comes to a head at three particularly powerful points late in the movie – one of which comics readers are likely to recognise. (I recognised it, and my comics knowledge mostly stops at Tintin.)
Iconic moments from the source material may serve as Easter eggs; but there’s an interesting point to be made about the importance of prior knowledge and the development of shared cultural canon in relation to superheroes, who’ve been established as the modern world’s Hercules and Dionysus (and, um, Thor) over the last few decades. Spider-Man: Homecoming assumes at least passing knowledge of the events of The Avengers and would be, if not hard to follow, a significantly less meaningful film without it: but what’s wrong with that? Anybody who hasn’t caught up on at least part of the MCU by now is unlikely to start here. This kind of obligatory intertextuality, building on taken-for-granted reference points, surprises us only because it is no longer common in a world of almost boundless media choices – historically speaking, most societies had a much smaller set of stories to work with and could afford complex allusions or recurrent retellings (think Arthurian legend). The MCU has been criticised for using each of its films to set up the next one, to the detriment of the current film, only for the following movie to suffer the same fate: it is a genuine problem. But we do see here how the same idea can be turned on its head – Homecoming exploits the events of previous movies to develop its setting and themes without being beholden to anything but itself (notwithstanding the more traditional act of setting up characters and dangling plot threads for sequels – but that would be telling).
As integrated as it is within the MCU universe, however, Homecoming is its own film. Apart from Robert Downey Jr and Jon Favreau (reprising his role as Happy Hogan), it stars an almost all-new cast. Tom Holland, who made his debut in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, is delightful and utterly believable as Peter. Jacob Batalon gets some of the best lines as Peter’s not-totally-bumbling, fanboy best friend Ned, while Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May manages to pull off the cool aunt vibe without undermining her position as Peter’s concerned and struggling guardian. Laura Harrier plays Liz, with a crush on Spider-Man and a sweet spot for Peter Parker, quite delightfully. (That all the people in the know about Spider-Man are male while women and girls are left in the dark is a little niggling. In terms of the narrative, it’s something that just happens, the way events play out, because it’s not as if Peter ever told anyone on purpose: but more broadly speaking, nothing just happens in any movie.) And Michael Keaton makes a delightfully human villain, affable even in his threatening moments, driven by both resentment and ambition well-earned enough to make Loki look like a petulant child.
It would have been nice if they’d figured out how to make a Spider-Man movie before the several previous tries, but hey, you can’t have everything. This one is the success story: a very strong Spider-Man film, a very strong MCU film, and a bloody good all-round movie. There’s a sequel already in the works, of course, so let’s just hope they can keep it up.
Final thing: I highly recommend sticking around for the final end-credits scene.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is released in the UK on July 5. See the final international trailer below: