By Preston Wilder
Something quite shocking happens about two-thirds of the way through Spider-Man: Homecoming: “It’s not working out. I’m gonna need the suit back,” says Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) to impulsive young Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man), effectively casting him out of the Avengers. It’s shocking to see such a durable superhero come so close to expulsion – but it’s also shocking to see Stark treating him like a mere employee. Isn’t PP a genuine, spider-bitten mutant, unlike Iron Man who’s just some guy in a high-tech suit? Where do the Avengers come off, passing judgment on his crime-fighting skills? – especially when he’s actually out there fighting crime, while they’re preoccupied with admin stuff like moving the Avengers HQ to upstate New York. And Stark himself … well, he’s a bit of a jerk, right?
At some point, the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) is going to have to grapple with the fact that its star attractions – the superhero clique known as the Avengers – are increasingly behaving like a gang of overbearing fascists, and Tony Stark (despite being played, with his usual voluble charisma, by Robert Downey Jr) is not a nice man, being an arch-capitalist and classic one-percenter. Given what a long game Marvel play, I suspect this is already on the cards – and Spider-Man: Homecoming does contain a few hints of censure, like the early revelation that Stark’s company won the clean-up contract after the battle of New York (even though the destruction to be cleaned up was caused, to a large extent, by Stark himself). This injustice is what prompts a working-class contractor named Toomes (Michael Keaton) to turn into a supervillain named Vulture – and the only thing standing in his way is Peter Parker, a nerdy high-school kid who can secretly shoot webs and climb tall buildings.
Spider-Man: Homecoming, Marvel’s first Spider-Man outing after introducing the character in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, is an unusual MCU movie in that the Avengers are viewed from the outside. Iron Man and Co. aren’t our identification figures – instead, they’re adults and authority figures, talking down to Peter and pulling some dodgy NSA stunts like tracking him without his consent. Captain America is almost Orwellian here, being the moralistic scold who appears on video when Peter finds himself in detention, urging him to think about what he’s done wrong. (He also does friendly announcements for confused teens: “So your body’s changing? Believe me, I know how that feels!”) The most intriguing aspect of this film is the chance to view heroes from a new, less flattering perspective.
The least intriguing aspect is the reason why it’s going to be a massive hit – namely, Spidey himself, played by 20-year-old Brit Tom Holland with an overdose of puppyish charm that’s nonetheless very charming. Holland looks and sounds like he’s waiting for his voice to change so he can apply to join a boy-band. “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!” he marvels (no pun intended), forever rushing around, dodging traffic, getting all loveably awkward around girls, brimming with gawky energy. (Spidey’s best friend, played by Jacob Batalon, is even more trying, though his questions are valid nerd questions: “Do you lay eggs? Can you summon an army of spiders?”) One montage, set to ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’, sees him fighting crime in his own, still-developing way: he stops a guy from stealing a car – but in fact it turns out to be his own car! Spidey, Spidey, Spidey…
I don’t mean to sound snarky. The film is extremely cute – almost cute enough to make you forget that it’s the third Spider-Man reboot in 15 years – and the action is mostly solid, especially a scene where our hero has to scale the Washington Monument, hanging on by a web as he desperately tries to get inside and save his friends who are trapped in a collapsing elevator. Later, he shoots webs frantically in an effort to fasten a ferry that’s literally splitting in two, finally hanging like a crucified Jesus between the two halves – which seems a bit heavily symbolic, considering how fluffy the rest of the film is, but we’ll let that go.
Homecoming opens with a few bars of the theme song from the old Spider-Man show, the one that called him a “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” – and the movie is equally sunny, operating as clean-cut teen comedy with a glimpse of a friendly neighbourhood as our hero dashes through suburbia. The question, I suppose, is what happens next, once Spidey is no longer “that spider guy on YouTube” and evolves into a full-fledged member of the Avengers. Can he still be interesting once he loses the adolescent cuteness that now defines him? (The previous reboot, with Andrew Garfield, went for a vague exuberance that quickly palled.) One thing’s for sure, Tony Stark will have to start treating the kid with a bit more respect; Homecoming is fun, but the Coming of Age is where the sparks will start to fly.
DIRECTED BY Jon Watts
STARRING Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr
US 2017 133 mins