It sometimes feels as audiences we’ve been conditioned to avoid celebrating the minor victories in movies. Our miniscule attention spans and need for excess have left us immune to the delights of low stakes cinema, particularly in this golden age of superhero movies and disorientating CGI-fests. We’re either left lamenting a lack of ground-breaking innovation or the missed opportunity for a genre defining spectacle. All of which leaves a film as unashamedly joyous and charming as the latest incarnation of Spider-Man slightly overshadowed in a stacked marketplace.
The film was never a sure thing though. The scepticism that greeted Spider-Man: Homecoming upon its announcement was for once entirely warranted. A weary public dealing with superhero movie fatigue is one thing, but a third cinematic reimagining in fifteen years – the sixth Spider-Man film in that time – was a ludicrous proposition no matter what studio was behind it. This was everything people hated about the superhero movie boom of the last decade condensed into one production, another desperate cash grab tied to a beloved character’s origin story that everyone on the planet should know by now. Director Marc Webb and star Andrew Garfield bore the brunt of most fan frustrations with the character’s previous reboot The Amazing Spider-Man, and with only another five years gone this latest iteration wholly deserved whatever backlash it was due.
The key argument Homecoming had in its favour leading up to the release was its backing from Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige, the team behind the colossal Marvel Cinematic Universe. The comic company’s most famous creation was now able to be a part of the same movie world as Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, a massive result for fans given the studio’s obscenely successful track record of converting Marvel’s beloved creations to the big screen. High expectations were duly exceeded with the character’s movie stealing reintroduction in Captain America: Civil War, a fresh, energetic, and most importantly youthful appearance that gave the film a spark amongst all the high stakes gloominess. Even in its brief yet unequivocally triumphant wake though, the pressure was on new director Jon Watts to translate that success to a full feature.
Continuing on directly from those short but brilliant Civil War scenes, Homecoming immediately sets about lowering the stakes, from its plucky, eager and inexperienced hero all the way to Michael Keaton’s defiantly working class villain. There are no earth shattering dangers here, no galaxy troubling concerns – just a fumbling teenager trying to navigate his way through high school, newfound powers and a reluctant local arms dealer in place of the standard big bad. After brief introductions to both Keaton’s Adrian Toomes and Peter Parker himself the movie begins properly with the sounds of Spoon’s The Underdog, a song that exemplifies everything Watts is aiming for in this brilliantly low key outing. Light, upbeat, instantly likeable and with a title that fits the character perfectly.
Watts mentioned in interviews pre-release that he drew major inspiration from 80s teen hits like The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink, and those influences bleed through every awesomely awkward school encounter here, from Peter and bestie Ned daydreaming over senior student Liz to the hilariously deadpan school news videos playing throughout each school day. Watts thankfully ignores the origin story too, dropping the audience straight into Peter’s daily life of academic decathlons and hours spent waiting for the call from Tony Stark to join up with the Avengers once again. He’s bullied at school, all but invisible to the girl he has a crush on and left vaguely wandering the streets in costume hoping for any kind of heroic adventure he can find. Unlike previous versions this Spider-Man is positively joyous over the idea of being a superhero, counting down the minutes of each school day until he can put the costume on again. It’s a rampant enthusiasm that’s been missing from some of the more recent MCU films.
Marvel Studios’ knack for impeccable casting is on point again too, from lead roles to the smallest supports. The always excellent Hannibal Burress and Martin Starr are a crack-up as teachers at the school, Donald Glover shows up in a nice little cameo that’ll have fanboys buzzing, and Marisa Tomei is a refreshing update on Parker’s Aunt May. As The Vulture Keaton manages to merge his Batman and Birdman star turns to create a villain that easily stands out as the most interesting in the MCU so far too, expertly veering from supportive to menacing in one of the film’s standout scenes kicking off the third act. Through it all though, it’s the casting of the students that’s the major winner. This is quite possibly the most loveable collection of young actors ever assembled, a veritable Avengers team-up of heartwarming teen brilliance. A suitably awestruck Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned, an against type Tony Revolori as the bully Flash Thompson, a sparkling Laura Harrier as love interest Liz, all the way down to the excellent Angourie Rice, the breakout star from Shane Black’s The Nice Guys as Betty Brant. Best of all is Zendaya as snarky and sarcastic classmate Michelle in a perfect preview to a larger role next time round. She’s only used briefly but steals every scene she’s in with some of the funniest deliveries of the movie.
On top of it all is the teenager taking over from Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield as the young webslinger. Marvel have struck gold with Tom Holland, the fresh faced Brit oozing charm in and out of his superhero tights. Where Maguire struggled to nail the endless quips while wearing the mask and Garfield was simply too cool portraying the character without it, Holland is note perfect in both forms – nervous, nerdy and stuttering as Peter and vibrant, energetic and talkative as Spider-Man. Some of the best moments are him on his own, chatting to himself or leaving a voice mail for his hero Iron Man. His earnestness is entirely endearing, and a refreshing change that sets him apart from every other hero in the MCU.
This is such a ridiculously fun time at the cinema. Watts doesn’t tick all the boxes and apart from one excellent rescue at the Washington Monument his action set pieces fall a little too flat, but even then he knows what tone to take, focussing it all on the character himself and not the spectacle. Our hero is constantly losing, either through disappointing family and friends or struggling to live up to his own lofty ambitions as a hero. Even in its explosive finale he doesn’t so much win as he does fail his way to victory. It’s the closest any of the feature films have come to replicating the comic, and summed up perfectly by its use of the iconic Blitzkrieg Bop by The Ramones, the kings of infectiously bratty pop punk. As Peter gleefully runs out the moment the school bell rings and throws on the costume the song kicks into gear, the thrilling buzz of one of the all-time great bands soundtracking the joyful, unbridled fun of a teenager having the time of his life. Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t groundbreaking or genre defining, but it’s exactly what you want from a superhero movie.