Directed By: Jon Watts
Written By: Jon Watts, Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei
Watching Spider-Man: Homecoming, I found myself resigning to the fact that when it comes to comic-book blockbusters, derivative, overblown action sequences are a strict inevitability; something this type of film must feature if it is to fulfil its spectacle, popcorn friendly mandate. Upon reflection however, this isn’t so. Consider Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and the first mono-e-mono showdown between Batman and Bane—the scene is stripped bare; there are no explosions, no swirling camera movements, no thunderous score. The scene is quiet, visually legible, still. There’s an intimacy there. By honing in more on the participants in the action rather than the rubble they’re creating, the sequence becomes instantly more physical, more intense, more engaging. There are undeniable flashes of genuine wow-factor in Spider-Man: Homecoming’s many boisterous set-pieces, chief among them a stunning rescue sequence atop the Washington Monument, but it’s at the point of cacophony that a film loses individuality and becomes one with any number of Hollywood’s corporate ventures. For Homecoming in particular to lose sight of its individuality is a disappointment, given just how peppy and endlessly luminous its spirit proves when given the chance.
It would be remiss to linger on those action sequences however; what most defines Marvel’s latest cinematic project is the urgency and boundless fervour which stream through it. The urgency takes root in the wise decision to bypass Peter Parker’s well-worn origin story of radioactive arachnoids and car jackings, and hit the ground running, joining our fish out of water super teen hot on the heels of Civil War as he now attempts to reconcile his new secret lifestyle as a quasi Avenger, with his more run of the mill yet just as challenging school life. Newcomer to Marvel Studios Jon Watts (whose previously noted features combined have grossed 173 million dollars less than Homecoming’s budget), swiftly unveils a penchant for efficiency and breeziness, wasting little movement, especially movement over ground that’s already been so well covered.
The latter of those adjectives (fervour) takes root in the many fine performances that lay at the film’s heart. Like Gal Gadot before him (in a rival cinematic universe), Tom Holland instantly makes himself indispensable, no mean feat given the quality of performances which have preceded him in other Spidey incarnations. In keeping with Marvel Studio’s unassailable passion for their comic-book creations, what Holland on the most basic level offers is a raw affection for the character he’s playing, one that spills from the screen and infects the audience. On a deeper level, what the young Brit captures so effortlessly is that peculiar blend of eagerness and angst which accompanies adolescence—socially clumsy, yet bright, witty and determined to a fault. So natural is Holland in his role, that one wishes the film found more time for Peter’s day-to-day non-hero life, the one that happens in between all the patterned web slinging and crime fighting, where his personality governs centre stage.
It is that aforementioned eagerness which in a sense proves Peter’s greatest challenge. The 15 year old is overzealous and trigger happy with his powers, wanting to put them to use before acquiring the moral codes and sense of self to guide them. As his mentor, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, phoning it in yet still stamping his charming authority on every scene in which he appears) advises Peter to temper his eagerness, to earn his stripes as a “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” before advancing to the big time; “I’m nothing without this suit” Peter cries as Stark concludes to strip his pupil of his famed blue and red spandex. “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it”. The most arresting moments of the drama are Peter’s grappling with what it means to be truly heroic, moments where his resolve is tested as he’s pinned under debris, moments like his heated exchanges with the parental Stark. This is a Peter Parker with a journey to complete, with complexity, his greatest foe so often within himself.
Appreciably, there’s substance to Peter’s antagonist too. With his Grinch like grin and creased face, Michael Keaton channels his winged expertise into blue-collar villainy as Adrian “Vulture” Toomes, a browbeaten everyday man sick of feeding from the wealthy’s scraps. Toomes is a contractor, hired to clean up the alien wreckage left from a prior Avenger’s clash, only to be booted out of a job in ironic favour of a Stark affiliate. Toomes is sure to get one up on the big guy however, sneaking some of the interstellar goodies for himself on the way out and combining them with state of the art military technology to forge black-market superweapons. Toomes is also sure to put the technology towards a nifty high-flying suit of his own, hence the “Vulture” moniker, and categorises his crimes as necessities completed for the good of his family. Think of him as an ill-tempered Robin Hood, who steals from the rich and keeps it for himself. There may be some merit to Toomes’ outlook, one which speaks to larger social complications veiled within the story—the tried and true proletarian saga of a man sick of the rich getting richer off his back. Once again, we find ourselves wishing the film had more time to explore these more personal corners.
Never far from focus however is Marvel’s trademark wit, a comedic underlining that not only allows the film to evade the oft maligned portent of rival DCEU, but one which instils in the film a tonal vibrancy matched only by its visual palette. In this respect, Holland again shines, drawing great mileage from his interplays with everyone from best friend and “man in the chair” Ned (Jacob Batalon, exhibiting great comic timing), who joins Peter on the social sidelines where our hero fixates on the dreamy Liz Allan (Laura Harrier); to his costume’s in-built version of Siri voiced by Jennifer Connelly, constantly bombarding Peter with hundreds of web variants and attack modes; to Jon Favreau as Happy, Tony Stark’s number two, a man with zero tolerance for Peter’s at-the-ready sprightliness. The crown jewel of Spider-Man: Homecoming’s comedy however is Chris Evans’ running vignettes as Captain America, rearing his head in a series of 80s style made-for-school videos, each dorkier than the last, and culminating in a cute late finale.
It’s this sort youthful fizz and inexhaustible vitality which leads Homecoming to ultimate triumph. In that respect, the film becomes an unintended allegory for its own making: anchored by a young, relative novice in Jon Watts, the film rises above lofty expectations by riding its effervescence and boyish enthusiasm to surprising effect. It defies the odds, and before our very eyes a new and immediately promising branch of the Marvel Universe comes of age, all in true superhero fashion—it’s just that the odds in this case involve delineating oneself amongst the densest franchise in cinema and preserving identity whilst dutifully checking off the obligatory core requirements, as opposed to alien tech wielding supervillains.