“Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can”. Which, in this case, includes being really, really bad at talking to girls. One of the greatest things about Spider-Man: Homecoming is that it takes Peter Parker back to when he was 15, an uber-dork at a New York high school still struggling to master his new abilities and, like every teenager, to find his place in the world. Oh yeah, and getting together with the girl he fancies might be nice too. This then is a very different comic book adaptation, it’s essentially a bumbling coming of age story, and while Peter Parker may have extraordinary abilities, he’s a long way from a superhero.
It therefore stands in contrast to the grimaces and furrowed brows that characterise most of the MCU (yes, there are a few wisecracks but always in the context of fighting against world-ending peril). Instead, the pre-pubescent Peter greets the world with childish glee, a (relatively) little boy desperate to grow up who throws himself headfirst into every challenge with no thought for his safety or his limitations. After a brief pass within the Avengers’ orbit (the stunning airport fight from Captain America: Civil War is shown through Peter’s video diary, which beautifully portrays his fandom as he whoops and gasps with every punch and kick before eventually getting involved himself), he’s convinced that’s where he belongs and desperately waits for his call to glory. What the film quickly makes clear though is that he’s miles away from that level, he messes up tackling even low level crime, tying up a man breaking into a car only to discover that the owner had accidentally locked himself out. Oh, and he also sets the alarm off, irritating the rest of the neighbourhood. Watching these displays, it’s hard to argue with Tony Stark’s view that Spider-Man is perhaps not quite ready to be an Avenger and that he should stick to being “the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man”. Equally though, it’s difficult not to feel for Peter; which of us hasn’t, at 15, failed to appreciate the gaping chasm between our abilities and our aspirations.
A far more serious threat emerges in the form of Vulture (Adrian Toomes), a blue collar type who deals in alien weaponry and soars over the skies of New York on mechanical wings. He’s played with a glinting, malevolent menace by Micheal Keaton, who continues his post-Birdman career resurgence with a strong performance that mixes a brooding presence with a sadist’s amusement at this puny, outgunned Spider-Man’s efforts. He also sees himself as a populist hero, the man doing what he can to provide for his family in a world controlled by corrupt, greedy elites. In short, he’s a Trump voter through and through.
This three-pronged relationship between Spider-Man, Iron Man and Vulture shapes the film, it’s the fulcrum around which the comedy and drama both revolve and is given greater nuance as the film progresses. What’s striking is how rarely superhero movies operate on these lines, seemingly believing that all audiences want is striking visuals and exciting action scenes. Spider-Man: Homecoming has these, but they come in the context of a character-driven drama, making it an infinitely richer experience and expertly avoiding the hollow feeling that drags down so many of the less successful examples of the genre.
Of course, it helps that this is a film packed with great performances, Holland’s Spider-Man is a mix of naive cockiness and childish enthusiasm (and, crucially, visibly changes during the film’s runtime), we’ve already talked about Keaton, and what Downey Jr.’s Iron Man/Tony Stark lacks in onscreen minutes, he more than makes up for in charisma. Moreover, even when he’s not on screen, he continues to shape the action, the absent father figure whose approval our teenage hero desperately seeks. And then there’s the film’s true breakout star (given Holland’s stellar cinematic CV, assigning him such a status would be pushing it), Jacob Batalon, who was plucked from virtual obscurity to play Peter’s best friend cum-sidekick Ned. He and Holland play off each other effortlessly, instantly believable as two geeky teenagers on the adventure of their lives, and Ned’s irreverent attitude to his best friend’s alter ego (he’s desperate to try on Peter’s Spider suit, for example) is central to Spider-Man: Homecoming feeling so fresh and vibrant.
Due to his inexperience, Spider-Man also feels vulnerable like never before, something that’s particularly evident during the standout scene at the Washington Monument. The set-up is a bit spoilery, but suffice to say Spidey needs to rescue his friends who are trapped in an unstable elevator towards the top of the edifice. He quickly zips to the summit but, once there, pauses as, surrounded by police helicopters, the reality of what he’s doing suddenly hits. For the first time, we sense his fear, it’s one thing swinging around his neighbourhood streets, quite another to suddenly find yourself 169m up in a strange city being yelled at by police with megaphones. It only lasts a moment and is followed by a sequence of virtuoso web-assisted acrobatics, but it demonstrates the extent to which the film is driven by character and that it never forgets about the impetuous, imperfect teenage boy inside that iconic red and blue suit.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is defined by its bold choices, whether that’s taking everyone’s favourite webslinger back to when he was a cocky, naive dreamer still getting the hang of his extraordinary skills or giving the director’s chair to Jon Watts, a virtual unknown whose last feature grossed a fraction of its budget. Thankfully, these risks pay off massively, with Spider-Man’s latest cinematic outing managing to pull off the impressive trick of both being extremely funny and genuinely emotional. In short, it’s one of the year’s best films.