A modern hero blockbuster with a Brat Pack blueprint, Spider-Man: Homecoming scales back the bombast to tell a humbler story that’s as much about the hardships of high school as the perils of being a wall-crawler. Whether fifteen year old Peter Parker can summon the courage to ask his crush to the dance feels as important as seeing him take down the bad guys, with a sense that the stakes are just as high. Since the original Guardians of the Galaxy film, which set itself apart for being cosmic and madcap, no superhero outing has felt as fresh – this time because of how grounded it is. With Homecoming, the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to change the game and push things forward, this time by taking a careful step back.
The film picks up shortly after the events of Peter’s MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War (we get an amusing look at his perspective of the Berlin battle via his own shaky iPhone recordings). Peter is riding high off the thrill of having taken part in a superhero throw-down and wants nothing more than to be back in the thick of it. His mentor Tony Stark has other ideas though, and delegates his right hand man Happy Hogan to act as Peter’s contact/long-distance babysitter.
Dumped unceremoniously back in Queens (albeit with a fancy new suit), Peter is mostly left to his own devices on the crime-fighting front. But being a “friendly neighbourhood” Spider-Man, chasing bike thieves and spending fidgety hours on rooftops, has lost some of its lustre after going toe-to-toe with Captain America. Having been given a taste of his destiny when Iron Man knocked on his door, Peter is now so eager for his life to “start” that he begins to take for granted what’s going on around him.
For all of his talents, Peter is still a slightly nerdy kid with less-than-thrilling obligations like homework and algebra tests to contend with. Before the school bell rings and he can change into his Spider-Man suit, he spends most of his day fending off mean jocks, pining over senior dream girl Liz and geeking out over Lego Star Wars with his best friend Ned. He struggles to hide his secret identity from his Aunt May and his friends, with varying degrees of success.
None of the other MCU heroes have had secret identities to protect so this actually feels like new ground, and Peter’s growing pains make it an especially poignant challenge. The last thing he wants to do is stress out Aunt May and make her life as a single parent more difficult. When bullies tease him, you feel him fight the urge to shoot a web in their face. When Liz gushes about how cool Spider-Man is, you see the anguish on his face to stay silent.
What makes Spider-Man such an enduring and lovable character is that he’s such an underdog. He can save the day on the superhero stage, but he bumbles his way through social situations and everyday interactions with girls, tripped up by his famous bad luck. A stand-in for the perennially misunderstood, Peter is secretly way cooler than those around him realise; it’s a fantasy that most of us can relate to.
Tom Holland is utterly endearing and sweet in the role of Peter. At the age of twenty-one, he possesses the boyishness to convince as a teenager in a way that his predecessors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield never quite managed. A theatre actor and dancer (he starred in the London production of Billy Elliot) Holland delivers the stunts and physical comedy with a fluidity that showcases his training. Fast on his feet and overflowing with enthusiasm, his Peter epitomises the uncomplicated joy of being a kid with superpowers.
His inexperience is reflected in the film’s choice of villain as well; for those wondering why there aren’t any Osborns in sight, the fact is that Peter simply isn’t ready for a Green Goblin or a Doc Ock at this stage. While not as notorious as those aforementioned foes, Michael Keaton’s Vulture stands out as a compelling antagonist, particularly as he and Peter share more in common than either of them realizes.
Where Civil War shined a light on the inadvertent destruction caused by superheroes, Homecoming follows the same thread with the Vulture’s grudge against Tony Stark, delving into the long-term repercussions of Avengers battles on the economy.
Adrian Toomes (aka Vulture) is a blue-collar contractor whose salvaging company cleans up in the aftermath of superhero brawls – that is, until they’re ousted by Tony Stark’s own cleanup crew.
Embittered toward a system that favours the élite at the expense of the working class, Toomes and his gang swipe the alien tech they’ve collected and use it to form a black market weapons-dealing operation. A family man whose main concern is putting food on the table, Toomes isn’t looking to take over the world; he’s claiming what he feels he’s entitled to in the face of social inequality. His dealing is small-scale (his gang sells to street criminals from the back of a van) but Toomes is no Robin Hood; he’s cynical to the point of callousness and ruthless enough to cut down anyone who stands in his way. He even creates his own flying battle suit with Chitauri technology, for the purposes of terrifying and assailing his enemies.
Toomes is as much of an underdog as Peter, but where Spider-Man sees injustice and stands against it, Vulture manipulates to his own advantage. With the odds stacked against him, he bypasses what he deems corrupt and becomes corrupted in the process. Both have issues with Tony Stark; in Toomes’ case it’s a seething resentment and in Peter’s it’s a longing for approval.
Vulture isn’t the only bad guy comics readers will be familiar with; a veritable who’s-who of Spidey rogues are also in attendance (this falls into the ‘winks and nods’ category rather than the ‘overstuffed with villains’ category). The savvy Marvel fan will also be on a first name basis with most of Peter’s school friends. The film is peppered throughout with clever little details (a glimpse of the Daily Bugle here, the passing mention of a certain character’s nephew there) that are there for those quick enough to catch them, as well as some hilarious cameos from established MCU characters. Let’s just say that, despite having the most screen-time, Iron Man isn’t the Avenger to get the biggest laughs in this film.
Somewhere along the line, we are given a little lecture about patience (those without it may very well miss this part) that works on a number of levels. Peter is an extremely smart kid but he still screws up all the time, unintentionally putting lives in danger nearly as often as he saves them. His lack of experience in life as well as in superheroics is his greatest obstacle, which is something he can only overcome by going through the motions. Homecoming is about discovering that the small moments can be just as important as the big ones, and that doing what good you can in your own friendly neighbourhood can be just as heroic as saving the world.