When the latest version of the Spider-Man surfaced in the middle of Captain America: Civil War, fans of the web-slinger had reason to hope. In just a few brief glimpses, something existed that was sorely missing from earlier screen adaptations. The lightheartedness was there. The quippy one-liners were on point. We finally had a Spider-Man that felt aligned with the comic book source material. It's about how I felt when Hulk finally just smashed and proclaimed "Puny God" in the first Avengers film.
But, is this a character best served in small bites, or does a full course cinematic meal prove that Spider-Man is now a legitimate player in the MCU?
Let's face it, Tom Holland, as Peter Parker, is the best thing about Spider-Man: Homecoming. With no disrespect to Tobey Maguire, who looked at least 30 years old on a good day, or Andrew Garfield, adding an angsty, emo vibe to the character that was so far removed from the iconic web-slinger Stan Lee created, Holland found the pieces that were lacking and sold us on this new version within minutes. Holland's boyish exuberance is infectious. He feels like a high school kid with high school problems. Stop the petty thief from robbing the local five-and-dime by night, figure out who to ask to the prom by day.
I really enjoyed how the stakes in the film were kept manageable. At one point, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) implores Peter to just be a "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man." When it comes to bigger problems, "there are people who handle that." Keeping the focus on a smaller scale was the right thing to do here. Had the studio gone with another over-long, big CGI laden third act, with aliens and mass destruction, we'd all be talking about ending this franchise. Instead, we got compact storytelling; a nice jumping off point for the character to get involved with the larger MCU.
Credit the effectiveness of the film on two specific things.
First, we aren't bogged down with yet another origin story. There are a couple of throw away lines regarding a radioactive spider, and a cryptic comment from Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) regarding something happening, presumably lip service involving the absent Uncle Ben. Thankfully, no more of the lengthy narrative explaining how we got to this point. Director Jon Watts and his slew of writers seemed to understand their audience was no longer interested in starting from point A. Now, if we can just get the DCU filmmakers to understand that we know Bruce Wayne's parents were killed in an alley, we might be on to something.
Secondly, the villain, Adrian Toomes, aka Vulture (Michael Keaton) is much smaller scale and relatable. Toomes is just a regular guy trying to make a buck off the system that tries to screw him over. It's a notable contrast to the take over the world construct that plagues superhero films far too often. Keaton hams it up in a very "Palooka Joe" sort of way. He and his goons cause just enough mayhem to advance Peter as Spider-Man, but the stakes always feel contained. In many Marvel films we walk out wondering why someone didn't just call the Avengers to handle an issue that seemed Avenger worthy, but here, it's believable that Spider-Man and his mentor Stark could easily manage what Vulture brings to the table.
I'll add a bonus thought here... I like that there wasn't an overwrought love story being shoehorned into the plot. I get that Peter's story at some point needs to include the likes of a Mary Jane Watson or Gwen Stacy, but it would have felt wrong in the context of what this film was trying to do. Sure, Peter shows interest in a fetching classmate named Liz (Laura Harrier) and suggestions are made that the surly, sarcastic Michelle (Zendaya) will become the burgeoning love interest in future films, but he's a high school kid. Of course he's going to show interest in such things. It just doesn't weigh down the story, and it never becomes the focal point.
The addition of Tony Stark as mentor is essential. Peter is a teenager with amazing new abilities. He needs the structure from someone who has dealt with and learned from the experience of being a "superhero." Without this, Peter quickly loses focus and gets himself into situations that are much bigger than him. Everything that happens in the film is leading Peter to the conclusion of "great purpose, great responsibility"; the symbolic mantra of the web-slinger. But instead of telling us, Watts shows us. Peter learns life lessons through trial and error, with Stark at arms length to jump in as needed with sage advice or stern warnings.
The addition of Stark tech to Peter's suit proves to be a nice touch, and quite helpful in certain situations. "Suit Lady" (voiced by Jennifer Connelly) is a source of some great comic bits, and serves as a reminder that Peter is never in this alone. Keeping Peter on a leash helps both him as a character and the film from not getting too large in scale.
Some of the side characters didn't quite work for me. Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is okay in small bursts, but there were a few too many bursts to deal with. I get his is a character designed to provide comic relief, but I just don't find him particularly funny. Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel) isn't given anything to do other than be a dick to Peter. And Peter's best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), is written as a tired cliche; the portly funny friend who riffs off every new thing Peter discovers about himself. His act gets a bit tired by the final frames.
I'd be remiss if I didn't throw some props to Tomei's version of Aunt May. The casting of a younger (perhaps more age appropriate for a fifteen year old) version of the character plays much better than the doddering old woman in earlier films. Tomei's Aunt May is more relatable in the context of this story, and the relationship she has with Peter feels much more realistic and genuine.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is a smart movie, made smartly. It understands that in order to establish itself within a larger universe, it needs to be deliberate and not unveil every trope within its arsenal. This is a franchise definitely holding some of its cards for a later hand, and we are better off for it. Between Wonder Woman, and now Spider-Man: Homecoming, I'm hopeful that the superhero genre has reached a turning point; recognizing that story and characters must be at the forefront, ahead of CGI spectacle. I know the instinct is for gratuitous action and demolition, and I get the necessity of such in these films, but if we can't connect with the characters on the most basic of levels, the films devolve into sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Thankfully, Spider-Man: Homecoming finds the right balance.
4 out of 5