“Don’t mess with me. Because I will kill you and anyone you care about.” ~ Adrian Toomes
“You need to stop carrying the weight of the world around on your shoulders.” ~ May Parker
“Can’t you just be a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man?” ~ Tony Stark
“Spider-Man is not a party trick!” ~ Peter Parker
Spider-Man Homecoming marks the third go-around in fifteen years with another actor taking on the role, but this time set squarely in the Marvel cinematic universe. After making a debut in Captain America: Civil War, Tom Holland gets a solo film of his own as the signature Marvel character pitting the teenaged neurotic character against a villain not entirely unsympathetic, and quite familiar to comic book readers. And the resulting film is a refreshing new take on the character with a light hearted tone, free of the hipster angst of the Andrew Garfield films, and the emo tone and cluttered writing of the third Tobey Maguire film.
The film opens in the past, in the wake of the Battle of New York, the first time the Avengers came together. We meet Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a salvage company operator who finds himself losing business when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) helps establish the Department of Damage Control to clean up the damage from the climactic battle (you wouldn’t see Superman do that, and frankly, his big battle in the end of Man of Steel did a lot more damage to Metropolis). Toomes is understandably irritated by losing business, but ends up salvaging some of the alien tech for himself.
In the present day, Peter Parker (Holland), having had served briefly as an Avenger, is busy dealing with school and stopping crimes in his spare time. A classmate and friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon) discovers his secret, while Peter’s time spent as a vigilante is something of a growing concern for Tony, who’s come to have something of a fatherly concern for the teenager. It doesn’t take long before the paths of the brash young superhero intersects with Toomes, who’s developed the tech he’s stolen and has turned himself into a criminal, the Vulture.
The two previous incarnations of Spider-Man on the big screen were their own entities, not in the Marvel cinematic universe. Sony set up a deal with Marvel Studios to place him into that Marvel universe after the Garfield films tended to meander too much, particularly after the second film underperformed. There are a total of seven people credited with the story and screenplay, including the director, Jon Watts. The story wisely refrains from re-telling the origin story yet again, instead simply having the character already established as a vigilante stopping crimes and helping people out around New York City. We’ve already met this version of Peter Parker, and as an audience, we’re already familiar with his origins anyway.
And the story successfully weaves him into that Marvel universe, giving us well established cinematic characters like Tony Stark and his driver Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), and a couple of other cameos along the way from previously established characters. At the same time it establishes new characters we haven’t seen in film that will be familiar to readers- some of Toomes’ associates are well known villains in the Spider-Man rogues gallery. Characters like Herman Schultz, the Shocker, or Mac Gargan, who’s used more than one villainous name in his day, appear (I would love to see a cinematic version of Gargan’s Scorpion down the line). The story also tends to weave in the tone of high school dynamics as it goes along, which fits with where Peter is in his life, and how he relates to other students around him.
Watts has a rather limited background as a director- two features in recent years, Cop Cars and Clown, so he might seem an odd choice to helm a big budget superhero film. However, he turns out to be a good choice for the job, pacing the movie in just the right way. It never really slows down, even in the quiet spots, and he deftly handles both characterization and action in good ways. Of the older films, a sequence Sam Raimi did on an elevated train in Spider-Man 2 stands out as a breathtaking action scene, and well done. Watts does similar work with an airplane and a ferry in scenes here, raising the stakes in a big way and leaving the audience impressed with the result. So it turns out that a limited background as a director is not that bad a thing.
Production design looks good. The action moves between New York and Washington, as well as up in the air and on the water, and after all this time, the CGI involved in some of the more distant shots of Spider-Man look more natural. Compare this one to Raimi’s Spider-Man, where some of the CGI looked very artificial at times, but it’s come along through enough trial and error that it now looks considerably sleeker. The same applies to the plane sequence, which feels tense and unfolding right before you, as opposed to feeling like an effect.
I like the casting. Some of the characters are composites of those from the comics. Jacob Batalon as Ned is very loosely based on Ned Leeds, a workplace colleague rather than a buddy to Peter as is played out here, but the character gets a good deal of comic relief sort of work to do, really taken in a drastically different direction than the source material. More close to the original character is Laura Harrier as Liz, a strong willed senior at the high school, and based on Liz Allen. As is the case in the comics, Liz is Peter’s first crush. She is, however, somewhat in a different position in this film- she’s the daughter of Toomes, something that departs from the comics. Zendaya plays one of their classmates, Michelle “MJ” Jones- the initials have meaning, of course to the comics lore, but the character is a different creation; she's smart but awkward, something of an outsider.
Donald Glover, who in the not too distant future will be featured as a younger Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars universe, plays a character here named Aaron Davis, a crook looking for a weapons deal who is something more than he appears. I haven’t seen him in any film before, but look forward to more from him. Jon Favreau, who’s been in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the beginning as a director with the first two Iron Man films, has also been a part of it all as Stark’s chauffeur Happy Hogan, the somewhat hapless and occasionally exasperated driver. Favreau gives the character a dry sense of humour.
When May Parker was first devised in the comics, she was written as past sixty, but looking thirty years older. It makes more sense, realistically speaking, to have someone who’s not knocking on heaven’s door with one foot in the grave as the guardian of a teenager instead of two generations ahead. Marisa Tomei made her debut as Peter’s aunt in Captain America Civil War, and the character returns as the wise widow, more of a big sister to Peter than a mother figure. She’s no-nonsense at times, but sympathetic at others, all while her nephew seems to spend time around a known Avenger and can’t quite account for how he spends his spare time.
Robert Downey Jr. has been at the core of the Marvel cinematic universe from the start as Tony Stark, who of course spends part of the time as Iron Man. He’s snarky and sarcastic, quick with a quip, and finds himself in something of a mentor role to Peter, filling a gap that’s been there for the teenager since his uncle’s death. He’s also influenced by the events in his life in the last few years, which provide him with a different perspective than the carefree Tony we first met- he considers the consequences of his actions and those around him. The actor has a ball playing the role, popping in and out of the movie on occasion, sparring with Holland, who nicely keeps up with the banter.
Michael Keaton has had a career renaissance as of late, which is a good thing. This is the second take at a comic book character (if you count his work in the acclaimed Birdman as part of the genre, maybe the third). His first take was as Batman in Tim Burton’s two films in that franchise, and he played it well. Here he gets the fun of playing the villain. Toomes is depicted as years younger than he is in the comics- the Vulture of the comics looks like a ninety year old rotting corpse in a flight suit. And his motivations are different. The Vulture of the comics is a crook, through and through, utterly ruthless. Toomes becomes a crook because of one bad turn- an opportunity missed that costs him his company and his line of work. It embitters him, drives him into crime and the world of arms trafficking, and at the same time, you can understand exactly where he’s coming from. He’s out for the good life, not a megalomaniac out to take over the world, and it creates a different point of view for the character. Keaton makes him formidable, and seems to be having fun chewing the scenery throughout the film.
Tom Holland gets to play Peter Parker again, this time as the lead in a solo film. He looks young enough to come off as a fifteen year old, fresh to the world of super heroics. The character doesn’t drift into the angst or hipster takes of Maguire and Garfield’s roles; Holland’s take balances between a light hearted tone and the sense of responsibility (driven by grief) that his powers have given him. He plays the character as smart, a bit socially awkward, dealing with all the issues that a teenager would usually cope with, while also dealing with crime on a super-human scale. It’s a fresh take on the character that fits well with the comics version.
What’s next for the cinematic friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man? Well, the character will be in upcoming Marvel films, as well as sequels to this one. The film offers tidbits of future threats and possible directions yet to come. By itself, the film is a whole lot of fun, mixing together the serious threat of a formidable foe, the comic book tone of a brash web-slinger, and the high school dynamics of a teenager just trying to get through school- all while setting it strongly in the Marvel cinematic universe. The director proves to be adept at handling the action and the cast, and the production design, and the film as a whole succeeds in establishing Spidey firmly in the Marvel cinematic universe.