After an early 2010s run with mixed results and the worry that a new stab at the spider would put audiences off the iconic character, Marvel Studios has brought back their A-team hero with force. With new Spidey actor Tom Holland showing full mastery of the part, and the creative team bringing back a spark not seen since the first two Sam Raimi movies, this film feels fresh, inviting and full of love. It’s a big old excited hug from a friend you haven’t seen in a while.
The newest iteration of the Peter Parker mythos doesn’t dwell in the gutters, sulk in the shadows or brood under the basking moon. No, this Parker is the tee-total perfect blend of hapless and happy. He’s a nerd, definitely has his detractors and isn’t so great with girls. He’s awkward, fumbles in the alley while trying to get his super-suit on and haggles with the kindly local deli guy for a discounted sandwich. He’s real.
This Parker is just like you were when you were a teen… if you were one of the uncool kids. Holland, the latest young actor to be bitten by the radioactive arachnid, really delivers. His Parker is a happy-go-lucky fellow who relishes every chance he gets to go out and save the day, even when his heroic duties might only involve pointing a nice old lady in the right direction (for a churro, no less!).
Director Jon Watt departs from the gravity of the Raimi films and eradicates the troubled loner vibes from the Marc Webb films. His Spider-Man is just happy to be here, a young man who has already been directed towards the call to justice by his dearly departed Uncle Ben (who nary receives even a name check in this newest film). He’s the kind of geeky do-gooder who’s going to ensnare a generation in his web. Holland blew the doors off the theater when he swung into Captain America: Civil War. Now, he’s proven there was money where the moxie was. Meet your new movie star.
Watt keeps his film moving at an amiable pace, slicing and dicing high school-ready humor with a grounded sense of scale and a lighter step towards the fight. This Spider-Man film doesn’t utilize high stakes and crashing buildings to mount its tension – instead, the struggle comes from Parker simply growing up and trying to find himself in this rich tapestry of heroism the Marvel Cinematic Universe has woven. Instead of having a man-in-a-mask chasing him every step of the way, he’s running from the kinds of problems that plague kids his age. Who am I? What’s my role on this planet? Does this girl like me? Why won’t the buffoon in Bermuda shorts leave me alone?
Sure, Parker’s got unique struggles for a kid his age: So, am I really an Avenger? What’s my part in this grand operation of superhumans and otherworldly beings? How can a teen from Queens truly make a difference?
The overarching Avengers plot doesn’t force itself on the narrative as often as you’d think here – it’s more indirectly touched upon. Bank robbers wear Avengers masks when they’re robbing a bank. The main bad guy – Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes (the Vulture) – scraps alien tech from the first Avengers film and sells it on the black market. Captain America hosts cheesy civics videos shown in detention and gym class. This is one of the first Marvel films to really show the impact the Avengers have had on this fictional culture, and the clever little dashes here and there are a credit to the screenwriters.
Everyone seems to be having fun here – outside of Holland, Keaton gets to smack his gums and cast a few sly, sinister grins as Toomes, though he’s less of a psycho killer and more of a methodical mobster – just doing what he can to take care of the family. Nothing personal, just business. Laura Harrier, Jacob Batalon, Zendaya and Tony Revolori play off Holland well as his various classmates, and Marisa Tomei effectively marches her Aunt May to a different beat than we’re used to (though no one is coming for Rosemary Harris’ Aunt May crown anytime soon).
The film has to pay its dues to the grand Marvel Cinematic Universe narrative, which is where Robert Downey Jr. fits in as Tony Stark for the umpteenth time. Even though the marketing material sold this as a major Iron Man flick, the film barely uses Stark outside of a few scenes as Parker’s mentor-from-afar. It’s actually a pleasant transition for Downey Jr. in this series. He may not get as meaty a role as he had in Civil War in the MCU, but his presence here doesn’t take the spotlight from Spidey. Stark’s bodyguard/point man Happy Hogan makes a return here and arguably has a larger role as Parker’s in-city supervisor. Jon Favreau has always brought a fun bluntness to the character, and he gets to flex it here for the first time in a while.
Sure, the film, like all the Marvel films, can feel a bit stuffed with all of the moving cogs and wheels that keep the train running towards the future – actors like Donald Glover and Michael Mando are clearly inserted as glimpses into future roles and fill basic points in the plot. Glover and Mando will certainly be back for the sequel or sequels, but here, it’s a big jarring to see such talents wasted on bit parts, at least for now. And if the plot deserves praise for the absence of a dour tone, the final act could have used a bit more dramatic panache. It’s almost too workmanlike and footloose-and-fancy-free for its own good. Though Holland and Keaton get some uneasy scenes together, and a nervous escape for Spidey under a pile of rubble evokes a feeling of genuine unease and stress, Watt should utilise this approach more in the sequels to generate more tension.
These are minor quibbles for a major achievement for Marvel Studios. They’ve pulled Spidey off the scrap heap and have brought him back home where he belongs in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Spider-Man has already been given his due credit at the multiplex, but Watt and company have given your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man his spirit back. In Holland’s hands, the role feels alive once more. What a homecoming, indeed.