It may have taken fifteen years, three reboots and three different leading actors, but the Spider-Man movies finally have a decent villain. Gone are the Green Goblins and anthropomorphic sandpits, replaced at long last by...a guy. Just a guy; a vulnerable, human, salt-of-the-earth labourer trying to carve out a little something of his own amongst the rubble and ruin of an Avengers-devastated city. Played by Michael Keaton, ’Toomes' is an ordinary character in an extraordinary world, whose bare bones simplicity helps ground this refreshingly low-key Marvel instalment.
And low-key is the key to this film’s appeal because Spiderman, of course, isn't a world saver. He's just your average, 'friendly neighbourhood Spiderman’ - a nice guy for the little guy, intervening in grocery store holdups and helping grandparents with their luggage. The problem, though, for Spidey (Tom Holland), is that he’s had a taste of the bigger picture. He’s fought alongside Iron Man and taken on Captain America, and the expectation of future Avengers action is what drives his every daily routine. Expectation, however, soon falls short of reality, and he’s subsequently told by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) that which no teenager ever believes or wishes to hear: “You’re not ready”.
What's worse: Stark is plainly right.
Gaining super-powers doesn't mean you automatically gain super skills, and Spidey/Peter Parker is a superhero very much still in the training wheels phase. It’s a clever device by Director Jon Watts, whose hero - like a giraffe attempting its nervous first steps - repeatedly fumbles his landings, misses his web castings and wreaks low-level havoc in backyards during pursuits than consistently fall short of success. Paired with raging hormones in a body that's also transforming in a non-superhero way, the probie/puberty double play makes Peter a likeable and relatable lead, aided by the 21-year old Holland’s performance proving far more plausibly ‘teen’ than either of Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield could ever manage.
The teenage superhero setup has always given Spiderman an added complexity that's perhaps only shared by Superman, in that their public personas are painfully weak and nerdy. Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark get to be billionaire playboys when they’re not battling criminal kingpins, but Peter Parker is perceived as a weedy, bookish, scatter-brained dork who rolls over for bullies and can never keep an appointment. His life would be immediately and immeasurably better if he simply revealed his true, courageous self - however to do so would invite sudden and deadly peril upon all those he cared about. That dilemma, in turn, passes on to the audience which at once wants Spidey to give chase to the villains and yet somehow also make his date with the dream girl. Even better, all of this comes without another version of Uncle Ben’s ‘great power comes with great responsibilities’ speech, or even seeing Parker’s spider-bite origins. It’s a film that knows what we already know and gets on with telling its story.
If there’s a drawback on all of this, it’s that too often Spider-Man: Homecoming feels a little too child-friendly. Yes, it’s a film about a teenage superhero, but any number of past movies have deftly and authentically captured the teenage experience without feeling like they were also written by teenagers, and here there’s far too much ‘whoa, awesome, dude, bro, cool’ going on. Every scene with adults (Downey Jr, Jon Favreau, Marissa Tomei and Keaton) immediately elevates the film into something grander and more complex, as well as bringing out the best of Holland’s performance by giving him lines instead of toy commercial reactions to deliver. Still, it’s a fun cinema experience and a refreshing human story amidst the surfeit of superhero movies continuing to flood our screens.
Oh, and yes - there are additional scenes - so if you’re so inclined, stay through to the very end of the credits.