‘Down to the ground’ is an odd phrase to be repeated in a Spiderman film. In past iterations, our web-slinging hero has been seen to swing gracefully through Manhattan skyscraper chasms and clamber up to their peaks. Not so with director Jon Watts’ and Marvel’s latest reboot of the young arachnid superhero. From its opening shot descending into the debris of collapsing buildings to Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) handheld mobile footage to the suburban neighbourhood less suited for bungeeing from ground to air, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a more ‘down-to-earth’ affair. Gone is the needless exposition of irradiated spiders, secret biochemical projects and murdered uncles. Instead, Watts and his team of writers (John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein et al) have created an energetic, optimistic caper that has some wonderfully affable performances and excellent light-hearted humour. In lowering the actors’ ages and seriousness from Sam Raimi’s Spiderman and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spiderman there is an appropriate adolescent tone to this new take: idealistic with a slight rebellious edge. There are a few disheartening entanglements, but this was one of the most enjoyable ‘Spidey’ action-adventure I’ve seen since I was a teenager watching the 1990s animated Spider-Man repeats on a Saturday morning.
15 year-old Peter Parker is fresh off his first mission with the Avengers- an exhilarating battle alongside and against the world’s greatest defenders (as seen in last year’s Captain America: Civil War). Expressing himself as modern teenagers do now, through a series of mobile-filmed videos, Peter couldn’t be more excited to work with the superheroes that have become idolised and institutionalised at home. However, Peter is soon dumped back into the reality of his teenager life: decathlons, homecoming proms, exams and unspoken crush for fellow student Liz (Laura Harrier). Peter juggles this with his secret alter-ego, some admonishing remarks from high-school bullies and geeky Lego-building with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). Longing for recognition from his benefactor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and ignored by his heavy-set, disinterested ‘minder’ Happy (Jon Favreau), Peter sets out to become the local neighbourhood hero- but he’s got a challenge ahead. This comes in the form of local criminal kingpin Toomes (Michael Keaton), who is salvaging the remains of Avengers’ past battles and creating new ‘exotic’ weaponry. ‘The world has changed’ he remarks, resentful of the shadow that Stark tower casts and keen to profit himself. When his plans go awry due to a pesky, web-slinging do-gooder, he sets out to squash the spider with his own alter-ego- the flying mechanical nightmare ‘The Vulture’. Peter is set to learn a few hard lessons outside of school and that the path to heroism has many bumps along the way.
With its stark blue skies, bold mustard-yellow school jackets and buses, and golden sunsets on Queens’ housing stairwells over the train-lines, there is an unassailable optimism to Watts’ new film that feels quite refreshing after the previous entries. Both Raimi and Webbs’ versions were darker, inward looking, perhaps more desperate to prove their dramatic weight (until Spiderman 3 and The Amazing Spiderman 2 that is). Watts ignores this without necessarily making Homecoming the silly romp of Tim Story’s Fantastic Four(s). There is uproarious humour, with rarely a joke not entering each scene, while it retains tension, angst and sadness. This can be found in the quiet moments between Peter and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), where their losses are treated as subtext rather than through a weaker reliance on heart-rendering flashbacks. The moral journey is still here, but it doesn’t need the typical ‘Spiderman’ narrative for guidance. Instead, Watts’ and co are keen to set him more firmly in Generation Z while also emphasising his original moniker- ‘the friendly, neighbourhood Spiderman’. The writing team appear to need Stark to point this out in a rather flat, clumsy joke but they also take time to have Peter live and assist in his neighbourhood- quite specifically Queens, New York in this case. This lack of exposition and a different interpretation of the character was certainly needed and by not overburdening the film with the MCU’s wider masterplan, it stands alone successfully.
Holland is marvellous- earnest, funny while also being a bit headstrong and complacent. Appropriate to this new tone, he’s not as graceful in his acrobatics nor as introverted as Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield’s Parker. He tumbles clumsily onto rooftops, swings wildly between buildings but his quipping is spot on for the part. He’s excitable, dedicated and silly but a perfectly likeable screen presence that has filled out his rather unimpressive debut in Civil War. Backing him up are an amusing and endearing cast of characters. From Jacob Batalon’s enthusiastic but indiscreet Ned who gets some of the best one-liners here to Zendaya’s sarcastic and subversive social outcast, who only draws people in detention to ‘witness their pain’. It’s a memorable cameo from the singer-actress, who I definitely hope we see more of in future. The aptly wrinkled Keaton is also brilliant as ‘Vulture’ and it finally refreshing to watch a villain whose motivations we can understand (even get behind, considering his comments on the global arms-dealer Stark). Keaton must love the irony, as he is so far from his debonair Wayne/Batman in Tim Burton’s original while also playing a ‘Birdman’ again and he certainly looks like he’s relishing the role- getting in and out of his patch-work, mechanical owl-like costume (think Amelia Earhart’s flying suit crossed with Megatron) with macho toughness and sly menace. He’s probably the best antagonist since Willem Defoe’s snarling Goblin and even some of the tense encounters out of their suits recall those uncomfortable confrontation between Maguire and Defoe.
There are some snags, however. While Watts’ and Marvel have been successful in bringing the racial and ethnic diversity of the Queens’ borough to the screen and have offered the most racially diverse cast of any MCU film thus far, this doesn’t go far in building deeper characterisations for those characters of color. Ned, while for the most part is affectionately realised by Batalon, still remains the supporting Asian ‘side-kick’ who idolises Peter’s abilities while being self-deprecating constantly. His character also appears to be inspired by Ganke Lee from the Ultimate Comics: Spiderman, where the mantle of Spider-Man was taken up by a new hero- black-Latino teenager Miles Morales. While there are vague allusions to Morales through Donald Glover’s much-hyped cameo, Watts and Marvel have opted for the ‘status quo’ in casting another white Parker (even considering the character has always been portrayed as white). It appears to be a missed opportunity, considering the clear connections the film makes to Morales, while once again centring a white protagonist and letting people of color serve in background and supporting roles. While these aspects do not by any means fall into the more explicit racism in the whitewashing of Marvel’s Netflix series Iron Fist or Doctor Strange (and Marvel have committed to an appropriately all-black cast in Black Panther next year) it does slightly undermine a film that has had its diversity applauded universally.
Despite this, Watts has delivered the most fresh and fun Marvel outing in years and has charmed me enough to watch for its future instalments. It was a rare moment that I wasn’t laughing or smiling. It’s certainly a pleasant surprise that this franchise, which appeared crushed after recent failed attempts, has returned with such zest. ‘Kids got a future now’ one construction worker tells Toomes’ while they admire an illustration of the Avengers. Watts has proven that Spider-Man, at least, does have.