Once the fresh-faced poster boy of the modern superhero movie era, Spider-Man slowly became a sadly symbolic shill, emblematic of an industry obsessed with merchandise-hawking regurgitation and petrified of creative risk. Sam Raimi’s first two chapters were thrilling and light-footed, his third was catastrophic. Five years later, (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb was the unlikely and ultimately unconvincing choice to reboot the character. Two soulless committee-made films followed, covering boringly similar ground, and two years later, we had yet another refresh with the character showing up in Captain America: Civil War to pre-empt a solo outing.
There’s an understandable fatigue, a tiring inevitability that greets the arrival of Spider-Man: Homecoming, from little-known director Jon Watts, but also something vaguely resembling hope since it’s the first attempt that exists within Marvel’s cinematic universe. While its formula has recently showed some signs of rust (for me, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 and Doctor Strange both failed to spark), there is still a watchable slickness and an ambitious long-term strategy that bodes well for a reboot-free future for Peter Parker.
It helps that one of the few things that stood out from the otherwise over-stuffed Captain America: Civil War was the decision to cast 21-year-old British actor Tom Holland, previously best known for his roles in The Impossible and the stage version of Billy Elliot, as Parker. In a few short scenes, he made a more powerful impression than poor Andrew Garfield did in two whole movies. As well as his ease with physical comedy, he seemed like an actual high-schooler – which immediately marked him out from his two predecessors, both in their late-20s when they played the character. It means that the decision to turn his first full-length adventure into a teen movie is one that pays off heroically, the structure serving as the ideal device to describe the web-slinger’s journey to maturity.
Holland’s Parker is an excitable 15-year-old who is recruited by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) to aid his side of the Avengers bust-up, and cleverly we are reshown this Civil War set-piece via Parker’s smartphone recording. He impresses Stark, but not enough to gain automatic entrance into the crew, much to his annoyance. Parker must settle for a Stark “internship” while living with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) in Queens, waiting for that all-important call. His high-school life is somewhat less thrilling than his costumed late-night jaunts; he and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) remain largely unpopular, firmly established on the geekier side of the dining hall.
Parker lusts after popular senior Liz (Laura Harrier) while being mocked by tomboyish Michelle (Zendaya), his heroic connection to the Avengers seeming to fade fast. But there’s a nefarious plot in his neighbourhood involving a disgruntled blue-collar worker known as Vulture (Michael Keaton), who has been modifying technology recovered from the Avengers battles and selling weapons on the black market. Parker’s luck might be about to change but first he needs to work out how to become the hero he thinks he already is.
One of the major issues plaguing Marvel’s overstretched cinematic universe is the increasing need to interlink each new instalment with its counterparts while also introducing the next one. It’s what made Civil War such a headache: the idea that the more costumed crusaders crammed in, the more enjoyment viewers will gain. This tiresome expansion has meant that each new entry has felt less like a film than a crude product, the sole purpose to upsell us the promise of more still to come, release dates already confirmed.
The refreshing joy of Spider-Man: Homecoming is that it’s a relatively self-contained piece of entertainment. Sure, it exists very much within the Avengers canon, but a finely crafted script builds the bridges with care, and storytelling rather than cold commercialism is apparently the film’s key concern. Downey Jr’s presence is mercifully minor, while other cameos serve to poke fun rather than to preview forthcoming attractions. The pretext of the previous Avengers films functions as a smart setup for Keaton’s Vulture, who takes grievance with the flashy excesses of the heroes who have left him struggling to make ends meet.
Marvel has had a longstanding problem with its villains, each less compelling than the last, but the film’s handling of Vulture is one of its many masterstrokes. He’s given depth, humanity and moral ambiguity, a working-class grafter up against what he sees as Tony Stark’s careless elite. Civil War’s smartest idea was examining the damaging effect that the Avengers had on the world around them, and that theme is nicely built on here, class warfare serving as a subtle subtext to the film’s more literal conflicts.
But that’s a rare dark element to an otherwise light, snappy and frequently hilarious crowdpleaser. Holland is sensational: funny, awkward and believably vulnerable, adding a necessary tension to his early attempts at superheroics. There’s something at stake throughout because, as an audience, we genuinely worry about what might befall him, his progression never made too easy. He also attends what feels like an actual New York high school: racially diverse and with just the right level of grit. The gloss that was overused in previous Spider-Man films is absent this time, the film focusing on locations outside Manhattan. (Key set pieces take place on Coney Island, the Staten Island ferry and a Queens bodega.)
The young cast surrounding Holland are not playing reactive stereotypes, and forge a dynamic strong enough to support any high school-based sequels. There are small but memorable roles handed to talented breakouts (Beasts of No Nation’s Abraham Attah, The Nice Guys’ Angourie Rice and The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori), while Parker’s inner circle is stacked with charm from Harrier, sidekick wit from Batalon and scene-stealing snark from Zendaya. There are brief comic cameos from Donald Glover and Hannibal Buress, the forever underused Tomei is given room to make an impression and Keaton, bristling with menace and a well-rooted sense of injustice, is a perfect choice for the bad guy.
The script’s smart decision to scale back on interacting with the entire cinematic universe is also well-matched with Watts’ pared back action sequences, which are noticeably less flashy and far more comprehensible than in other Marvel blockbusters. The film also plays with the superhero formula, avoiding backstory repetition and throwing in a killer twist near the end, leading to a surprising, seat-edge finale, a rarity within the genre.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is so joyously entertaining that it’s enough to temporarily cure any superhero fatigue. There’s wit, smarts and a nifty, inventive plot that serves as a reminder of what buoyant fun such films can bring. It might have taken three attempts but Spider-Man has finally spun gold.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010