“As breezy and enthusiastic as its take on the main character, this is a nice shot of bright, light entertainment.”
by Ken Bakely
Movies exist in their own bubbles, and should be perceived as such. Evaluate each title on its own merits. So that brings us to the gloves with which we handle Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming. At first, we realize that it’s the sixth big-screen iteration of the comic book franchise in the last fifteen years, and perhaps there’s a bit of fatigue there already. Red flags go up. Derision begins, sight unseen. The hot-take machine doubles down on its cynicism. But outright rejection would cause you to overlook the fact that there’s a lot of great stuff going on here. It’s plucky, leveled, and referential, owing equally to other films of its superhero ilk, as well as a number of classic coming-of-age comedies, which it undoubtedly wants to categorize itself with. As breezy and enthusiastic as its take on the main character, this is a nice shot of bright, light entertainment.
Shouldn’t that be the logical perspective that a Spider-Man story takes? It seems all the more obvious here, reminding us that this is a story about Peter Parker (Tom Holland), who is, let’s not forget, a geeky, fifteen-year old boy. He’s excitable and hopeful. After all, he happens to have the ability to shoot webs, launch himself between buildings, and fight crime, adapting an identity which brushes his real-life troubles away. The end game is to be taken seriously, and eventually become part of The Avengers, despite pushback from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) who has given him a super-suit with certain advanced capabilities locked off, and delegated an assistant, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), to supervise the kid’s development.
So Peter wants to break free. When his alter-ego is discovered by his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), it becomes a shared secret between them, providing important support when trouble arises. Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvager, is pushed out of a job when the cleanup from superhero battles is taken over by bureaucrats. He takes his old crew, smuggles alien technology recovered from the last job, and begins turning it into exponentially more powerful weapons. Peter sees this as his chance to stop a potential endemic: if common criminals get their hands on these contraband devices, the danger posed to society could be unimaginable.
This is an average superhero plot, but Spider-Man: Homecoming smartly augments itself by showing us the other half of Peter’s life. He’s a teenager who has to navigate the general awkwardness of adolescence. By night, he might be able to thwart any number of small-time crooks on the streets of New York City, but by day, he tries to muster up the courage to talk to his crush, Liz (Laura Herrier), and balance all of his commitments to his school and home life. Filmmakers like John Hughes knew that there was a universal appeal to telling good, solid, funny stories about high school, and this movie holds a similar reverence. A key action sequence contains more than a passing reference to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and the issues encountered by Peter Parker and his alter ego intertwine in ways that neither he, nor we, could have ever expected.
Tom Holland is the third actor to portray Spider-Man, and his ability to adapt to this material with ease is something that neither of his predecessors could claim. His portrayal starkly diverges from theirs – simply put, he acts like a kid who is also a superhero. He faces challenges without jaded or brooding pessimism. This sets the stage for a fresh reboot of the character. Holland is truly in sync with the script in this respect, and this combined mood sets the tone for the rest of the cast. He and Batalon share excellent chemistry, providing both a comedic and human backbone to the story. Michael Keaton provides us with a fairly sympathetic villain, adding a bit more weight to his character. His motivations are beyond the standard comic book bad guy’s desire to destroy the world. There’s never any doubt that his actions will wreak havoc, but the element of reasoning added to them flesh out the story in a nice way.
Watts has given us a kinder, gentler Spider-Man movie, one which rejuvenates the colorful momentum of the Avengers universe. Sure, it can’t hide the fact that it’s a disposable product, acting as a bridge for a franchise, but that doesn’t explicitly detract from the collective achievements of the cast and crew. When Michael Giacchino’s score kicks in over the Marvel Films logo, the first cue is an arrangement of the familiar theme song from the Spider-Man animated show. The melody is carried over in all its cheeky, kid-friendly glory, even through the full sound of a complete orchestra. The film mirrors this approach. Even though it’s a summer blockbuster, with all the pomp and circumstance – CGI and commercial processing – to match, the underlying creative drive is a simple sense of elation.