If you’re old enough to remember the first time Toby McGuire’s Spider-Man swung between the New York skyscrapers back in 2002, you’ll know how freaking mind blowing it was to see. Computer graphics had finally caught up with the imagination of comic book artists and suddenly there was no turning back for the movie industry. Since then we’ve gone through three Spider-Mans, an assortment of X-Men, and watched the Marvel Universe expand to the behemoth it is today. Still, it’s surprising how jaded we’ve become towards the superhero who started it all. Luckily, this weekend Spider-Man: Homecoming arrives to relieve us of our Spider-Man fatigue, and remind us just how fun the web slinger can be.
Director Jon Watts and his small army of screenwriters make great use of the established Marvel universe, while keeping the story firmly centred around Spidey. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is a high school kid living in a world of super heroes and super villains. Peter grew up in Queens, and the opening scene of the movie tells us we’re 10 years past the events of The Avengers, meaning Peter was about five years old when The Battle of New York occurred. So of course he, and everyone else at his high school, are huge Avengers fans. As we found out in Captain America: Civil War, Peter has already gained his spider powers and has come under the patronage of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr). Nevertheless he attends high school, counting the minutes until the end of each day, when he can throw on his suit and get Spider-Manning.
This is a really clever way for audiences to connect with the character and to place the film in a familiar world. Like the audience, Peter grew up with super heroes as his idols; now that he has become one, he is literally living out the fanboy dream. As he rushes out of school, flipping over fences and sticking his backpack to a wall with a quick shot of web, it really highlights how fun being Spider-Man must be. He’s also pretty new to it, and his inexperience is mined for a ton of physical comedy. He misses webs, he’s sloppy with his identity and, in one of the film’s funniest sequences, he ventures into the suburbs only to realize there are no buildings to swing off of.
The fun and excitement of being Spider-Man is also the main conflict in the film. Unlike the previous incarnations, we’re not treated to dour moments in which Peter worries about using his great powers responsibly, or how to atone for the death of his Uncle Ben. Instead, Peter is told to keep his powers a secret by Tony Stark…but he really doesn’t want to. I mean he’s a geeky loner living in a world where super heroes are gigantic celebrities, of course he wants to tell his crush that he’s the Spider-Man. It’s a relatable, human dilemma that relies on you sympathizing with Peter as a regular teenager, while also drawing on the preexisting universe.
The motivations of the film’s big bad guy Adrian Toomes – played by Michael Keaton – are similarly human, and interconnected with the wider world of Marvel. A construction foreman who’s contract to clean up alien debris left over from the Battle of New York is taken away by Tony Stark’s Department of Damage Control, he turns to stealing the technology and using it to make super weapons…including a giant Vulture suit. It’s an apt metaphor, considering he’s literally surviving on scraps, and it reinforces his blue collar resentment towards the elite represented by Stark. Despite this however The Vulture’s schemes don’t get any bigger than trying to make a buck. There’s no portal to a demonic planet or laser beam to destroy the moon, Toomes has been around for the last ten years as well, and knows that such a plan would draw the attention of The Avengers. Instead he keeps things small. It’s only when his unfriendly weapons find their way onto the streets of Spidey’s neighbourhood, that he truly becomes a villain.
That said, the villain crisis feels secondary to Peter Parker’s love life. The film’s most engaging moments are when Peter is forced to balance his desire to stop crimes, and his desire to do normal teenage things; specifically do normal teenage things with Liz, played by Laura Harrier. Homecoming scores a ton of laughs from the interplay between its young cast, and, while it’s a little hard to buy Tom Holland as a friendless geek, he’s ridiculously likeable in the lead role. Though I’m sure the temptation was there to overstuff the film and set all sorts of things up for the future, the filmmakers were wise enough to use most of their time building a small but solid supporting cast around Peter. That cast includes Marisa Tomei as the kooky, laid back May Parker, Jacob Batalon as Peter’s fanboy best friend Ned, and Zendaya as the sharp-tongued Michelle.
This restraint is the biggest success of Spider-Man: Homecoming. Watts and company integrate the characters into the Marvel Universe, while keeping the film grounded in relatable, human problems. Sure they sprinkle the film with the occasional Avengers cameo, and include a number of other Spidey villains like Shocker and The Tinkerer, but they’re all in cursory roles so as to not bog down the storyline. Spider-Man: Homecoming is really about two characters navigating the realities of a superhero universe much bigger than themselves. One, in the ruthless world of business, and the other in the often equally ruthless world of high school. It’s a plot too small for The Avengers, but perfectly suited for your friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man.