Last year, Spider-Man sidled into the Marvel Cinematic Universe courtesy of Captain America: Civil War in what amounted to an all-too-brief but endlessly entertaining cameo. This year, we get to see what Tom Holland’s Peter Parker can really do as he’s given the spotlight in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
It is, comfortably, the third best Spider-Man film. Maybe even the second. It’s tough to watch this without comparing to Raimi’s, which presented such an iconic and timeless version of the character and, to their benefit, had first pick of the villains. Homecoming is a lot less iconic than those movies, and spends considerably less time in Peter’s head, but what this film does, it does incredibly well. It’s Spider-Man as a high school comedy – exactly like the comic was when it began.
Holland, we already know, is a brilliant Peter Parker. Meek and nerdy, awkward but resolute. He’s not the bespectacled professional wallflower from the sixties, but as a modern interpretation of that character he’s more than there. Flanked by a fantastic set of supporting cast members, of whom Jacob Batalan’s Ned Leeds is the stand-out, the high school elements of the film are where it does its best work. The characters click so well that you immediately care about the tension between his personal and superhero lives – almost more than Peter seems to, at times. The only real misstep cast-wise is in the complete sidelining of Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, whose minimal presence belies her importance to Peter and his choices.
At least this leaves time for Keaton’s Adrian Toomes to establish himself in the top tier of MCU villains, with a layered personality, intriguing motivations and some fun visual moments that lean into the Vulture motif (though for various reasons he’s a more interesting presence outside of the costume than in it). It’s a shame he isn’t linked to Peter in any explicitly thematic way, because they hint at some ideas that make him a great foil for Spider-Man, but never quite draw the parallels. By far the best interaction between Peter and Toomes actually comes during the one scene where they’re both out of costume and finding some common ground rather than fighting.
Indeed, the lack of big ideas is a problem with the movie overall. What few themes and ideas there are get used incredibly lightly, and director Jon Watts seems to actively avoid the “power and responsibility” idea at the heart of the character in favour of going all in on Spider-Man as a trainee Avenger. I don’t buy that this is a Peter Parker who’s getting in the costume because he believes people will get hurt if he doesn’t: it’s a Peter Parker who’s getting in the costume because he wants to be a superhero. Understandable, sure, but with his origin story side-stepped, we spend time waiting for Peter to learn a lesson about recklessness that even when it comes, doesn’t seem to sink in.
As a director, Watts is clearly more at home with the comedy than anything else, and on that level it’s impossible to fault. Every scene gives you a reason to grin, and there are some absolutely huge laughs. When it comes to the action however, Watts is a little out of his depth. The final sequence has moments of borderline incomprehensibility, and some of the hero moments are fumbled throughout. It’s a shame, because Watts gets great mileage out of balancing the mundanities of being a superhero with the imagined scale of it – he just can’t quite do the actual scale when he has to.
Still, the movie has such pace and energy that the flaws aren’t to be dwelt on. When the credits roll, you’ll be convinced that Spider-Man is not only back, but that’s he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be. Homecoming indeed.