REVIEW: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

After helping Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) fight Captain America during the superhero ‘civil war’, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) returns to his life of high school and crime-fighting as Spider-Man. When he crosses paths with the illegal arms merchant Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), Parker tries to take him down without Iron Man’s help.

Most people are probably aware that many years ago Marvel Comics sold the film rights for Spider-Man to Sony, resulting in a trilogy of films directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. When Marvel established its own feature film studio, it could not produce its own Spider-Man films because Sony still owned the rights. While Marvel proceeded with the likes of Iron Man, Thor and The Avengers, Sony tried rebooting their own franchise with a pair of films starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. While commercially successful, they did not earn as much as Sony had hoped, leading them to reach an agreement with Marvel Studios: Marvel would produce Spider-Man films for Sony, and Sony in turn would allow Marvel to include Spider-Man in their Avengers films.

So far so good, but what that does in effect is give the Spider-Man movie franchise its third iteration in the space of 15 years. It has a lot of franchise fatigue to overcome, and that’s just by itself. Add in every superhero movie getting released at the moment and it is becoming harder and harder to stand out and make an impact. Thankfully for the most part Spider-Man: Homecoming is a hugely enjoyable superhero movie, and while it does not quite surpass Raimi’s first two efforts it comes surprisingly close. It benefits enormously from avoiding an origin story: without going through the motions of Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, time is freed up for more interesting material. What is more, by moving beyond the death of Peter’s Uncle Ben – the tragedy which spurs him towards becoming a hero – the film escapes the relatively bleak and maudlin undercurrents that affected the two previous origin films.

Tom Holland is hugely likeable as Peter Parker, playing the teen angst and humour of the character extremely well. He feels the most like the original comic book Peter, which I am sure is both Marvel and director Jon Watts’ intention. He is also surrounded by a fantastic supporting cast of fellow high school students, including romantic interest Liz (Laura Harrier), classmate Michelle Jones (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). Hard-core Marvel readers may be slightly confused by Ned, who is named after future Daily Bugle report Ned Leeds but who far all intents and purposes copies Ganke Lee from Brian Michael Bendis’ comic Ultimate Spider-Man. As a reader of that comic, I am not quite sure why Marvel made the change; I am fully aware the overwhelming majority of the audience do not know or care. There is a heavy influence of 1980s filmmaker John Hughes hanging over the high school sequences, and it is an influence that Watts proudly owns within the film. It may not be entirely realistic, but it is incredibly entertaining to watch. Marisa Tomei is also excellent as Peter’s Aunt May.

The film also scores a particularly strong villain in Adrian Toomes, also known as the Vulture. Played with a nice intensity by Michael Keaton, he is a character with a purpose and a background – not to mention some proper depth. Villains have generally been the weak point of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Toomes is one of the very best they have ever had.

The film is well plotted, with a nice balance between character scenes and well-staged action sequences. It also avoids the pitfalls of the two Amazing Spider-Man films, which wound up feeling much too similar in story to the Raimi trilogy. If there is one serious flaw to the film, and to my mind there definitely is, it is Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr appears throughout the film in little scenes and moments to act as a mentor and father figure to Peter. It is ultimately not much more than an extended series of cameos, and it feels tonally wrong for the film. Most of the film works because Peter is a smaller-scale, more vulnerable character. Inserting Iron Man and the world of the Avengers feels like too much too soon for Spider-Man. It would arguably be a stronger and sleeker film with less of the MCU shoe-horned in. As it stands everything feels less like a self-contained film and more like a side story to a main attraction.

It is a flaw, but not a deal-breaker. In the main Spider-Man: Homecoming (which I have to say still feels like a weird title) is a crowd-pleasing action film that is high on humour, big of heart and utterly charming. Hopefully its inevitable sequels (the first is due in July 2019) allow Peter to stand on his own two feet without the unnecessary support of his peers.

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