The opening moments of Spider-Man: Homecoming let the audience know exactly what kind of film we’re about to watch. While the epically grandiose Marvel Studios logo unfolds on screen, a small army of strings plays the theme to the Spider-Man cartoon from 1967 fortissimo con brio. It’s an announcement that what we’re about to watch is comedic without being campy, serious without being dour, and unashamedly true to the spirit of Spider-Man himself. And for the most part, that’s fairly accurate, even if it requires a few qualifications.
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is the web-slinger in question, who’s made a minor celebrity of himself in New York City thanks to viral videos of his everyday adventures. Well, that and there was that time he fought half the Avengers and stole Captain America’s shield. Things start to take a serious turn, however, when Peter comes upon the work of Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Michael Keaton), an arms dealer equipped with advanced alien technology scavenged from the Battle Of New York. Desperate to prove himself and prove he has what it takes to join the Avengers, Peter sets out to stop Toomes’ plans.
That’s the plot summary if you’ve come for a superhero film, and it works just fine in the context of the narrative. But the real A-plot revolves around the precarious balance Peter maintains between his life as a high school sophomore and his life as a wall-crawling superhero. Arguably, it’s this conflict that’s the infinitely more interesting of the two, and the film’s biggest issues tend to arise from director Jon Watts not being able to mesh both plotlines in the proper ways. Which isn’t to say that Watts does a bad job, especially given that this is his first film of this stature, just not a stellar one.
To be fair, Watts is working off of a script that has six writers attached to it, even if said script seems remarkably coherent for something seemingly written by committee. There are many legitimately and honestly funny moments, the characters tend to have very natural but distinct voices, and there aren’t a whole lot of weighty speeches to weigh it down. Best of all, it wisely skips the creation of Spider-Man himself and gets right to the action; there’s all of one line of dialogue referring to the famous spider-bite that gave Peter his abilities. It might not reach the levels of some of Marvel’s best — because let’s face, Joss Whedon is a very high bar to clear — but it’s remarkably solid.
And speaking of Whedon, there’s a great deal of early Buffy The Vampire Slayer in S-M: H, which is oddly appropriate as classic teenage superhero stories were surely an inspiration for Buffy in the first place. It’s not just the high school setting or the deadpan snark of characters like Zendaya’s scene-stealing student Michelle. Like Buffy, the film is strongest when it focuses on the dual-aspect of Peter’s life and his struggle to reconcile the two, recognizing that Peter can’t shirk his responsibilities to either side of his life. He doesn’t angst or brood about this too much; like a teenage Buffy Summers, he just does his best to keep things balanced.
Part of what sells this is Tom Holland’s remarkable, star-making turn as Peter Parker. He’s the youngest actor to wear the red tights so far and the closest to Peter’s actual age in real life. That’s part of what helps his performance, as Peter’s youthful and borderline-naive exuberance seems less like an act and more like nature. But Holland connects with the fundamental core of the original character in ways his predecessors never could. His Spider-Man is a nerd with superpowers instead of a super-powered nerd. He might be able to lift a car over his head without effort, but he still lacks the confidence in himself to ask his high school crush to the Homecoming dance. He’s imminently relatable without being idealized.
Holland is helped by a uniformly talented and well-chosen supporting cast, and even the weaker parts of the script come alive thanks to the undeniable chemistry between literally everybody on screen. Even outsized personalities like Robert Downey Jr., who’s refreshingly down-played Tony Stark serves as Peter’s quasi-mentor, fit well into the fabric of the film. Despite the large cast, nearly every character gets a moment to shine, from Jacob Balaton as Peter’s best friend Ned to Marisa Tomei as Peter’s guardian Aunt May (unquestionably one of this reboot’s biggest and most welcome upgrades). Oddly enough, some of the best moments in the film are conversations Peter has with the artificial intelligence in his Stark-built Spidey-suit, voiced by a pleasantly warm Jennifer Connelly.
The only cast member who doesn’t fare well, unfortunately, is the villain. This has absolutely nothing to do with Michael Keaton’s intense, confident, and sympathetic performance. Keaton keeps a tight lid on Toomes, expressing the most about the character when not outwardly expressing much at all. Unfortunately, he’s hampered by the script, which doesn’t seem to know what to do with Toomes, sometimes feeling like he’s only there because there has to be an antagonist. He’s still handled better than most of Spidey’s cinematic rogues gallery, which isn’t terribly hard to do, but there’s the overwhelming feeling that the character is underdeveloped.
That being said, there are far more positives about the films than negatives, and the negatives that are there are more disappointments than failures. The action sequences aren’t terribly inventive, but they also don’t lose themselves in the need to show off just how well a CGI Spider-Man can swing between buildings. The story might be fairly light, but we’re also spared another origin story and yet another speech about “great responsibility.” It might be the third reboot of the character in 15 years, but it also gives us the most appealing, fully-dimensional, and naturalistic Peter Parker yet. Homecoming might not be perfect, but it’s a great start. There’s nowhere to swing but up.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B (but an A for effort)