Review: “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

by Michael Henley

It takes roughly five minutes or so before Spider-Man: Homecoming completes its first, daunting task: convincing the audience that it needs to see another Spider-Man movie.

It hurts me to say that, as a fan of the character. But let’s get real. This is, after all, the seventh major motion picture to feature the Marvel Comics webslinger within fifteen years, and while his popularity endures on the page, did we need to go back to do this again on screen? The character was played, well enough, by Tobey Maguire in the rather wonderful Spider-Man movies from the early 2000s, and while the Amazing Spider-Man reboot series from a few years ago had its fans, many would agree that the chemistry between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone was an island of a quality in a sea of CGI noise. With such shaky quality control combined with declining ticket sales, it might be understandable to think this franchise was over. Been there, swung that.

What a pleasure it is, then, to see Spider-Man: Homecoming, which has been smartly conceived to exploit the audience’s familiarity with the title character. It neatly sidesteps any attempt to peg him as overexposed. It picks up in midstream, skipping over (while still implying) spider-bites, deaths of uncles, and anything else that, oh yes, we’ve seen. It ratchets the major characters back into high school age and it places them within the ever-growing Avengers universe (it’s a rare co-production between Spidey rights holder Sony and juggernaut Marvel Studios), where teens play F, Marry, Kill by way of the Avengers roster, and where teenaged Peter Parker (Tom Holland) tests his superhero muscles under the sporadically-watchful tutelage of none other than Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr). This makes sense, given this Spidey’s introduction last year in Captain America: Civil War, and the rest of the Avengers references stay strictly at the level of minor world-building or truly funny jokes.

The real inspiration here is in imagining Peter’s high school life as a spirited John Hughes-style teen comedy, where his classmates (refreshingly diverse, thank you very much) are a sweet and likable bunch. He has a crush on the prettiest girl, Liz (Laura Harrier), who is smart and determined but still also spontaneous enough to suggest an unsupervised dip in a hotel pool while on a class trip. He has a best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon) who is goodhearted, inquisitive and supportive when learning Peter’s secret, but also clumsy at keeping it one. There’s the mysterious girl, Michelle (Zendaya) who is equally into pencil sketches and self-effacing putdowns. And there’s even a school bully (Tony Revolori) who is, bless his heart, pathetically petty in attending to his bullying duties.

Some of these folks you may recall from the pages of previous Spider-Man stories, but this movie makes them feel fresh and alive. The kids are all fun, top to bottom, with standouts being probably a tie between loveable Ned (who is pudgy, unpopular, and dreams of being “the guy in the chair” who feeds Spider-Man info) and snarky Michelle, who possesses a droll, Bill Murray-ish line in aloof perceptiveness (she has much of the screenplay’s funniest dialogue). The high school scenes are well-written, and when the superheroics kick in they feel, pointedly, like an interruption. In that sense, the movie is quite faithful to the Spider-Man comic books, where Peter devoted equal time juggling worries about bank robbers and supervillains as he did social life woes and academic troubles.

The superhero-in-training scenes are downright delightful to watch. Part of that is due to Holland, who makes for a wonderful Peter Parker and a deliciously smart-alecky Spider-Man. He projects a sincere, lovable vulnerability, and he captures just the perfect notes of growing confidence while still being halfway-apologetic to breathe the same air as the love of his life. His alter-ego, meanwhile, is quippy without being flippant…just unduly cocky at times. And the script does a nice job of validating Tony’s belief that Peter has more heart that sense this early in his career.

He’s frequently in over his head. Upon hacking his tricked spider-suit that Tony Stark made for him, he unlocks menus upon menus of staggering possibilities, as well as an AI named Karen who speaks with the voice of Jennifer Connelly and helpfully offers “over 230 webbing options, including instant kill mode.” In one of the film’s biggest set pieces, he has to stitch together a bisected Staten Island ferry, and his elaborate solution is ingenious except for the fact that it doesn’t work. In another action scene atop the Washington Monument, he spouts webbing from his underarms that he can use as a parasail. These deviations from Spider-Man canon somehow feel earned and fair within the framework the movie develops.

And of course there is a villain–The Vulture, a.k.a. Adrian Tooms, played with blue-collar ooze by an invaluable Michael Keaton. He runs a salvage yard that specializes in illegal cannibalized alien tech, leftovers from the New York battle seen in The Avengers, and he flies with the help of a fearsome mechanical exoskeleton. He also nurses a grudge against Tony Stark, who ended up muscling Tooms’ low-level business out of a city contract post-alien invasion, and Peter’s connection to the man, plus his own capacity for investigating trouble, puts him eventually into Tooms’ orbit. Keaton is wonderfully menacing, and he has a trio of well-done scenes late in the film between himself and Peter where he makes compelling, sympathetic points.

Before the requisite action showdown, of course. All of that is standard superhero stuff, and rather perfunctory this time around (there’s no action sequence here to match, say, the elevated train sequence in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2). The film is clearly having more fun in the high school scenes, but can you blame it? That said, the script (by six writers, no less–usually a bad sign but not here) knits the superheroics and the human story together in skillful and surprising ways, buyoyed by a strong supporting cast (not just Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, but also invaluable bit parts for Donald Glover, Michael Mando, Bokeem Woodbine, and Martin Starr).

The director, Jon Watts, like many directors these days, has made only one previous indie feature (the terrific Cop Car) before being handed the keys to a big-budget franchise. In this instance, the execs have picked very correctly. He does a great job of keeping the stakes small and relatable, making the characters fresh and likable, maintaining the humor, juggling all the pieces, hustling along the action, and above all stoking our goodwill for a character who has seen more than his share of ups and downs. At the end of the film (stay to the very end, by the way!), the legend “Spider-Man will return” appears, and for the first time in a while, that feels less like a threat and more like a lovely promise.

Sony Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios present a film directed by Jon Watts. Produced by Kevin Feige, Amy Pascal. Screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers; screen story by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley. Based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Music by Michael Giacchino. Photographed by Salvatore Totino. Edited by Dan Lebental, Debbie Berman. Production designed by Oliver Scholl. Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr, Hannibal Buress.