REVIEW: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Is this the Spidey adventure of our dreams? Oscar swings in to give us his verdict. 

With a decidedly meta title like Spider-Man: Homecoming effectively inaugurating everyone’s favourite web-slinger into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, hopes were certainly riding high that the compromise between Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures was a successful one. Personally, while the result is perfectly entertaining and makes for a major step up from the last three Spider-Man movies (especially the dreadful Amazing Spider-Man 2), it doesn’t reach the lofty heights of several MCU outings. Let’s take a swing at why that is.

Following the Battle of New York between the Avengers and the Chitauri, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his salvage company are removed from duty by Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) U.S. Department of Damage Control. Enraged at being driven out of business, Toomes persuades his employees to keep the Chitauri technology they already scavenged and use it to create and sell advanced weapons. Now, Toomes raids high tech facilities with a suit and mechanical wings made from Chitauri scrap, adopting a Vulture-like visage.

Eight years later, Queens resident Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is drafted by Stark to help settle his dispute with Captain America (Chris Evans) but resumes his studies at the Midtown School of Science and Technology. At school, Peter confesses his crush on high school senior Liz (Laura Harrier) to his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), but is often the subject of derision from Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori). Exhilarated by his brief encounter with the Avengers, Peter quits his school’s academic decathlon team to spend time stopping petty criminals as Spider-Man, using the enhanced suit given to him by Stark. One night, he encounters a gang of ATM thieves with advanced weapons from Toomes, and barely escapes with his life when the weapon inadvertently destroys a nearby grocery store. Feeling responsible for his new abilities, Peter starts following up on Toomes’ associates, but Stark intervenes and warns Peter against involvement with the heavily-armed criminals, insisting that the boy is not ready to become an Avenger.

The majority of the cast put in good to excellent performances. Holland is a joy to watch as Spider-Man; he’s got a good mix of being level-headed and fast on his feet, while also being a bit of a goofball. As Parker, he manages to be charming in an innocent, nerdy kind of way and doesn’t try to act cool. He can be a bit of a chatter-box at times, too, but because of Holland’s naturally likable personality it manages to work throughout the film. As Toomes, Keaton is able to pull off being a very smooth and commanding presence but also a cold and ruthless criminal without descending into hammy acting. While Marisa Tomei is no Rosemary Harris, she does a good job at instilling a lot of humour and heart into her scenes as May, and has a believable maternal relationship with Holland’s Peter. Downey Jr. is on good form as Stark as usual, and is used sparingly enough so that he doesn’t take over the story. And Jon Favreau reprises his role as Happy Hogan and works well as a liaison between Peter and Stark. Batalon does well as Peter’s best friend, and I like the buddy buddy dynamic between the two teens. Harrier as Liz has good chemistry with Holland, and gets more worthwhile material to work with in the second and third acts of the film, but is just an okay love interest. Donald Glover was just kinda there as low-level criminal Aaron Davis. But the weak links are Zendaya, who is really one-note and boring as the snarky hipster Michelle (I won’t reveal an end twist here, but it did make me groan in annoyance), and Revolori who is mostly a nuisance as the new, gawky, obnoxious Flash Thompson.

Jon Watts’ direction doesn’t immediately lend itself to highly-stylised action, with the set-pieces coming off as fairly workmanlike and not really that memorable, with the exception of the sinking ferry scene which worked because the film maintained the element of civilian danger. Because the movie is mostly set in Queens and other suburban areas of New York, we don’t get that much classical Spidey action or imagery of him swinging across Manhattan – it’s fairly low-key in that regard. But it does succeed in making you realise that Peter is just a kid in these very close brushes with death. At over two hours long, it can feel a bit slow at times in the high school setting, but it never feels overwrought or boring. The look of the film offers a somewhat sedate and homey feel to it, much akin to the warm and colourful hues of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, whilst blending into the standardised look of the MCU world well enough.

Despite Industrial Light & Magic handling the visual effects, they’re mostly a mixed bag. All of the scenes with Spider-Man and the animation applied to the new suit work well enough, with the eyes being animated for humorous effect, and most of the time the Vulture looks decent enough to get by. But a lot of the background locations and effects-heavy action beats have that vaguely fake looking sheen to them.

The score by Michael Giacchino was fairly unmemorable, and not a reflection of his best work. They do play the classic “Spider-Man” theme song during the Marvel Studios logo, but they don’t use it as the character’s leitmotif, instead applying this very generic cue that kinda sounds like the theme song… but not really. Even the low, brassy theme for the Vulture was more memorable. Opportunity successfully missed.

The script plays it in the spirit of a John Hughes film with the adolescent angle being put to the forefront, and serving as the basis for most of the comedy. It has elements of The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, with Ned effectively delivering as a young Del Griffith and Peter serving as the straight-man figure. Not all of the jokes land, as a a few come off as misplaced, and the ones from Zendaya and Revolori really don’t work for me. Because the high school aspect of Peter Parker is usually brushed over, allowing it to be the focus here allows for his character to be believably tested. Being mostly confined to the Queens area allows the film to give the neighbourhood and its residents some personality.

Not being an origin story, a remake of a previous Spidey film, or an attempt to bog down the film in exposition and world-building works to the film’s other main advantage: simplicity. They do faintly allude to the Uncle Ben situation but never say his name or what happened, allowing the film to be more focused on the here and now. The hero and villain dynamic is very effective. It’s a fascinating contrast between a former bluecollar worker and a poor high school student who unexpectedly came across incredible powers and abilities, with Toomes coming over as a dark reflection of Parker and a vision of what he could be without his moral principles. Being introduced early enough and setting up his motivations, allows us to understand where Toomes is coming from and why he has a vendetta against Tony Stark. Although, while he’s given a good set up for his villainy, the transition from everyman to arms dealer is very rushed.

In a universe where the Avengers became Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, it does make sense that Peter would idolise them (and Iron Man in particular) as a wide-eyed teenager, and he is the new kid on the superhero block. This has the effect of changing Spidey’s motivations for wanting to be a hero, at first just to impress Stark before having to learn the hard way, and Uncle Ben doesn’t factor into it. The idea that Peter has to win Stark’s approval as an Avenger takes away much of his free agency. On the other hand, it does give Stark some credit after his questionable actions in Civil War. He did basically drag a teenager into a warzone, so I do respect his reasoning for wanting to keep Peter out of harm’s way and trying to make sure he doesn’t grow up to be Tony Stark Jr. The other downside to Peter trying to win Stark’s approval is that he relies less on the spider sense, detective work and his own skills, and relies more on the Iron Man gadgets. I hope this doesn’t stay that way in the inevitable sequels. Also, the humorous recap of Civil War is appreciated, and gives me personal leisure to skip that film if I so choose!

In an effort to be more with the times (and differentiate from previous Spider-Man films), Midtown High School is shown to be populated with students from a wide variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. It’s not a plot point, but it does reflect the city of today and give it a degree of authenticity without forcing diversity for its own sake. It is what it is. At times it feels like they try too hard to be revisionist and “new” for the sake of not walking on classic ground. It should be noted that the character of Flash is generally depicted as a white, heavily-built jock in the comics, but Revolori’s Flash is re-imagined as a smug rich kid to reflect modern views of bullying, but it isn’t all that interesting or amusing, especially since Holland is way more charismatic (and in much better shape) than Revolori.

Above all else, they really succeed in making you care for both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. In depicting the dilemma of having to choose between being a teenager and being a superhero, and the way it was executed, was reminiscent of the 90s Spider-Man animated series which often depicted Peter struggling with his dual life in humourous but hard-hitting ways. While the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” is never uttered in the film (nor do they try to say it differently), you can see how that is integral to Peter’s development and the film’s overarching theme. They succeed in conveying that without being clumsy and awkward about it, and the payoff is satisfying in a way that befits the character’s principles.

Ultimately, Spider-Man: Homecoming is an origin story without the actual origin. This is both a good and a bad thing. The good aspects are the fresh take on a familiar superhero by focusing on a few months in the life of Spidey, and the earnest approach to Parker’s less than glamorous high school life. The bad is the often awkward reworking of Spider-Man lore and shifting the focus of Spidey’s motivations. While not as impacting or as creatively-made as the Raimi films, it is held up by Holland’s likable performance and their fidelity to the spirit, if not always the letter, of Spider-Man.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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