By Jack Mansfield
(mild spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming)
For the past ten years or so, we’ve been living in a culture where the superhero movie is the new spaghetti western. That’s why it feels so exciting when a new film in the genre comes out that is different, and Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017) is exactly that. This is especially impressive seeing as we’ve already had two iterations of the character (portrayed by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) across five solo films since the turn of the century. Now, however, Spider-Man is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe having cameoed in Captain America: Civil War (2016), and his first solo film within the MCU is a fun addition to the franchise.
There is no question that other Spider-Man films have explored the balance between a normal life and being a superhero, but none do it so well as Homecoming. And this is partly down to the casting of younger actors for Peter Parker (Tom Holland), his friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), the enigmatic Michelle (Zendaya), and bully Flash (Tony Revolori) amongst others: in doing so, director Jon Watts is allowed to tell a more faithful high school story than perhaps we’ve seen in the other films. The whole high school aesthetic feels much more immersive when for example the bullies are actually relatable, and not thirty-something year old beefcakes compared to Tobey Maguire.
But it’s not just the fact that the characters’ actors are of a more faithful age that makes this film stand out from the others: there were always going to be comparisons made of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man with those of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. In those films, Peter Parker and Spider-Man always felt like two separate characters; Parker is shy and nerdy (this is more the case for Maguire as Garfield’s Peter Parker was too cool) whereas Spider-Man is confident and charismatic. Here, however, Tom Holland plays both parts of the role very well, and it feels much more like Parker and Spider-Man are one. Both are awkward, with Parker fawning over love interest Liz (Laura Harrier) and Spider-Man – in a series of great comic moments – trying to get used to his new suit from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) And, for the most part, this is the simplicity of the narrative that plays out through the film. There’s no world-threatening danger, the stakes never feel as high as any other MCU film; it’s primarily about Peter Parker trying to balance his high school life and his alter ego, and to me that’s what Spider-Man is all about.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t get plenty of web-swinging action, from Spidey stopping small-time crimes such as a bike thief to fighting big-time villain the Vulture (Michael Keaton) in an attempt to impress Tony Stark. This is another thing that sets Homecoming apart from the other films starring the wall-crawler; there’s a clear feeling of Spider-Man being out of his depth (an example of this would be the scene on the Staten Island ferry seen in the trailer.) He’s fine with cleaning up the streets of Queens, but dangerous situations feel like a proper step up for Spider-Man. One reason for this is the great portrayal of the Vulture by Michael Keaton, in his third outing as a winged comic book character (after Batman and Birdman.) This brings me back to my point about superhero movies feeling “different”, and why I think Homecoming is as good as it is, as we don’t need to see Spider-Man completely in touch with his powers.
This doesn’t mean, however, that this is yet another Spider-Man origin story (there’s only so many times I can pretend to be shocked when Uncle Ben gets shot.) There’s no recurring mantra of “with great power comes great responsibility”, no ambling subplot about Peter’s parents being spies for some reason; all that we get in terms of Peter’s family are a few scenes with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). The fact that both Peter and May are younger than we’ve seen before adds an extra layer of humour, with a nicely-handled joke about people flirting with May in a little meta nod to the internet’s reaction to Tomei’s casting.
Homecoming, like the Guardians of the Galaxy films, relies very little on the established world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it doesn’t need to. Of course, there are plenty of references that hark back to earlier films in the franchise, but you don’t have to have seen any of them to understand everything that takes place in Homecoming. This only works in its favour, as the film feels like a standalone Spider-Man movie whilst still a part of the MCU. Not only does it properly introduce Spider-Man in this cinematic universe, but it’s also a very fun movie, and the closest thing we’ll ever get to John Hughes directing a superhero movie.
Oh, and the post-credits scenes (two of them if you’re counting)? Don’t miss them, especially the last one. You’ll be rewarded for your patience.