After the euphoria of his airport tussle with the Avengers, Peter Parker (Holland) returns to his mundane New York life. He craves excitement — and when he crosses paths with arms dealer the Vulture (Keaton), he gets it.
In the late 1980s, Marvel began a run of comic books called Damage Control, about the underpaid, overworked schmoes charged with cleaning up the mess made by superhero battles. This series is relevant to Spider-Man: Homecoming for two reasons. Firstly, it inspired the movie’s villain, flying crook the Vulture (Michael Keaton), who starts out as a blue-collar construction guy sifting through the rubble left behind at the end of Avengers Assemble.
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Secondly, and more crucially, it seems to have set the vibe for the first Spider-film made with Marvel’s direct creative input. This Peter Parker is perpetually on the fringes of something more exciting — less a noble lad discovering his inner hero than a dweeby kid desperate to get into the party around the corner. And, ditching the angst and sludgy plotting of the last few films, Homecoming is easily the best Spider-Man film since Sam Raimi’s operatic Spider-Man 2.
In no small part this is due to it starring the best screen Spider-Man so far. Nimble and shrimpy (though weirdly buff once he removes his shirt), Tom Holland’s Parker is hugely endearing from his first scene, shooting a video diary of the airport fight from Captain America: Civil War on his phone. He’s barely in control of his powers and appealingly lame. One scene in which he turns up at a party hoping to hook up with cool classmate Liz (Laura Harrier) feels like a superhero Superbad: it’s a refreshing spin on the comic-book-movie template, and nice to have a film this big not afraid to frequently keep things small.
The director, Jon Watts, is making the leap from a small film himself: 2015’s nifty thriller Cop Car. The lightness of touch he demonstrated there is here in spades, with a genius Ferris Bueller’s Day Off joke and even the big action sequences (the standout being a Washington Monument rescue) peppered with sharp gags. The performances he gets out of the young cast are sweet and sparky. And just as Cop Car pitted kids against an adult evildoer in Kevin Bacon’s corrupt lawman, Watts works the same dynamic here, as Peter butts heads with the intimidating Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture.
It’s a refreshing spin on the comic-book-movie template.
This winged bastard, complete with a furry-collared bomber jacket making him look at least a little vulture-esque, is far from Marvel’s most interesting villain, though it’s nice to have a baddie who’s just out to make some cash rather than drop cities on people’s heads. Despite Keaton’s best efforts, and being described by another character as “a psychopath dressed like a demon”, the human bird of prey is only mildly compelling, and the duke-it-out, CGI-heavy action finale between him and Parker drags somewhat. But the Vulture does provide the movie with some cool sci-fi trimmings: Toomes has adapted the Chitauri alien tech he’s found into a variety of amazing weapons. Fortunately, Peter has his own new tech, courtesy of a suit (two words: web grenades) gifted to him by his Avenger mentor Tony Stark.
Much has been made of the injection of MCU characters into Spider-Man’s until-now hermetically sealed world. The makers of Homecoming had a tricky tightrope to walk: over-Marvel the pudding and it becomes another Avengers movie, but underdo it and it’s just another Spidey reboot. The balance is pretty much spot-on, with the familiar faces treated as sprinkles on the ice cream sundae. Robert Downey Jr. literally phones in most of his performance, but in the best possible way. And there is a recurring cameo from another superhero which gets progressively funnier as the film goes on. Peter Parker geeks out every time one of them swings into a scene. It’s likely you will, too.
The characters and scenarios are familiar, but this is a loose, cool, funny remix that makes them feel fresh again. Plus, it’s mercifully short on life lessons from Aunt May.