It can’t be easy being Spider-Man.
Not just for Peter Parker, the central character of the series, but for Tom Holland, the third actor to portray Spider-Man in a major live-action film. Indeed, the entirety of Spider-Man Homecoming, opening this weekend, has to do the job of living up to the excellent (first two) Sam Raimi films, as well as washing out the taste of the awful Marc Webb movies, the most recent of which came out only three years ago.
So it’s nice to report that Spider-Man: Homecoming rises to this considerable challenge, and for the most part, gets Spider-Man right. You’d think this might have to do with Homecoming taking place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the massive multi-media franchise that allows for crossover cameos by Iron Man and other established Marvel characters. Interestingly though, the larger universe stuff in Spider-Man: Homecoming is often the least compelling. All the best scenes belonging to Peter’s social misadventures in high school, and his small, contained clashes with a group of ruthless arms dealers.
This is a movie that understands the best elements of Spider-Man, and recreates them faithfully and inventively. It understands that tension should come from Peter’s personal life as much as it comes from super villains. It knows to make it painful when Peter is forced to abandon a friend at a house party, or miss a school event. It also knows that Spider-Man should be out of his depth as much as possible, dealing with villains who are more experienced, smarter, and unlike him, willing to kill. When it stays focused on Peter, Homecoming is a near perfect adaptation of the of the Spider-Man comics, at least the era that I read, and plays like a dream.
Where the movie runs into trouble however, is in it’s distracting ties to the larger Marvel universe. Not all of this is bad, the villains building their weapons out technology salvaged from the first Avengers film is cool, as is a funny opening montage involving Captain America: Civil War, but for the most part, the MCU stuff feels extraneous. Iron Man is in the film far less than the trailers imply, but every time he shows up, he guts the momentum of Peter’s story. He just doesn’t have much to do.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the MCU. I like when they make super self-contained movies like Guardians of The Galaxy and I also like when they make big event movies like The Avengers or Civil War. The movies I like less are the ones where it feels the filmmakers don’t fully commit to an approach, like in Ant-Man. Ant-Man is a fun movie, but there is a scene in the middle meant to establish a connection to the Avengers films, that just doesn’t work. It’s a fun scene on it’s own, but it kills the pace of Ant-Man’s personal story, and feels unnecessary.
Homecoming has several of these scenes. There are Iron Man cameos, cameos by Iron Man’s bodyguard, and an overlong sequence where Peter tries to figure out how to use the new suit Iron Man gave him. Again, these scenes are not bad on their own, but I ended up wishing we were spending time on the better elements of the film, a lot of which could have used more development.
Another thing the movie wastes it’s run time on is unnecessary action sequences. A rescue on the Washington monument feels pretty superfluous, and though it’s exciting enough, doesn’t really move the story or characters forward in any meaningful way. The final battle is also disappointing, and ends up surprisingly generic for how unique the set up for the fight actually is.
The ending also feels a little hollow because most of the thematic subtext in the movie isn’t fully explored. There’s hints at themes about identity, with Peter struggling to reconcile his two personas into one fully formed person, but it feels a little thin. Ditto Iron Man playing father figure to Peter, which could have been a great sub-plot. Instead, the idea is dismissed with a throwaway joke.
If it sounds like I’m being overly harsh, it’s only because for much of the movie (especially the first 20 minutes), get very close to being great. Tom Holland is a fantastic Peter, sliding into the role so naturally it feels like he’s always been Spider-Man. The high school cast is a ton of fun, with Jacob Batalon, in his first major role, makes Peter’s best friend Ned a very funny and empathetic presence. Zendaya, as the mysterious and angsty Michelle, is also excellent, as a character more nakedly driven by her insecurities than even Peter and Ned. Martin Starr and Hannibal Buress are hilarious in supporting roles as Peter’s teachers, though Selenis Levya and Kenneth Choi are completely wasted. Ditto Laura Harrier’s Liz, who, considering she is Peter’s love interest and the focus of a major plot point, feels pretty underdeveloped.
Still, the movie’s best asset is it’s characterization, which extends to the Vulture (Micheal Keaton), the film’s main villain. Keaton is great, unsurprisingly, but it’s the script’s insistence on giving this character enough scenes to really develop that sets him apart. Adrian Toomes is part of a demolition crew, kicked off the clean-up operation of the alien attack from The Avengers. In retaliation, Toomes and his men steal some of the alien tech and begin making weapons, putting them in the path of Spider-Man. Toomes is both menacing and sympathetic, with his economic background giving him something in common with Peter Parker, who feels more authentically working class here then he did in previous films. However, this is undercut a little bit late in the film when we get a glimpse of Toome’s home, which doesn’t feel working class at all. Is this an intentional story choice to expose him as a hypocrite, or another movie distorting the definition of “working class”? Not sure, but it felt weird. Ultimately though, the Vulture is a great villain, and a suspenseful scene that positions him as a high-school boy’s worst fear is easily the best in the movie.
Less great are the Vulture’s rotating crew of henchman, who look cool, but are way underused. Only Donald Glover and Logan Marshall-Green manage to make any impact, the latter maybe more than he’s suppose to.
Bottom line, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a super fun time, and entirely worth seeing. The first half is pure joy, and though the middle drags a bit, there is a second act twist that gives the final act new energy and tension. Not the best Marvel film, not the best Spider-Man film, but probably the most faithful.