Given how he propels himself across the New York landscape via webs that have the same purpose as Tarzan’s vines do in the non-urban jungle, it’s entirely appropriate that Spider-Man’s newest screen adaptation should invite allusions to one of the greatest Astaire-Rogers musicals, “Swing Time.” The central motif of the movie is that Peter Parker, still learning the ropes, as it were, takes repeated tumbles—and “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again” might as well be his mantra.
That Kern and Fields lyric could be applied to the Spider-Man movie franchise as well. After two excellent installments in 2002 and 2004, the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire trilogy plummeted to earth in 2007 with its final entry. The property was resuscitated in 2012 by Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield, but that series lasted only two installments. A second reboot only fifteen years after the initial effort might seem excessive even for a first-tier Marvel superhero, but “Spider-Man: Homecoming” starts out on the right foot not only by taking the character back to high school and emphasizing the steep learning curve he faces, but by turning over the lead role to a likable, suitably naïve-looking—and, importantly, gracefully athletic—young actor, Tom Holland.
The rub lies in the fact that the picture also represents the full integration of the character into the Marvel Universe that was previewed in “The Avengers: Civil War” (indeed, it begins with what is meant to be Peter Parker’s own behind-the-scenes phone footage of the action from that movie; he used to take still photos, of course, but apparently that’s passé). Until now the Spider-Man franchise had been, like the X-Men one, an entirely separate operation. Unfortunately, the decisions that have been made in folding Spider-Man into the larger Marvel movie world have consequences that are not always beneficial.
The best of them have to do with Peter’s return to high school as a full-fledged superhero-in-training; no time is wasted repeating the origins story of the bite of the irradiated spider, which we’ve seen umpteen times already, and Parker, like any teen his age, is portrayed an insecure guy infatuated, all too typically, with a beautiful senior, Liz (Laura Harrier), who appears way out of his league. Holland plays all that well, but his Peter is saddled with a best friend named Ned, who, as played by Jacon Batalon, is a dopey dweeb who discovers his secret identity much too easily and certainly cannot be trusted with it. (The final shot of the movie suggests that entirely too many people are going to know that Peter is Spider-Man.) Ned is designed as comic relief, of course, but as presented here he’s about as irritating as Jar Jar Binks was in “The Phantom Menace.” (Flash is re-imagined, too, but as played by Tony Revolori, he’s simply uninteresting.)
Parker spends whatever time he’s not mooning over Liz, putting things over on his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) or being insulted by class cynic Michelle (Zendaya), venturing out to fight local crime. For these adventures he dons the elegant new suit provided by his Avengers mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), but most of its more advanced features, courtesy of Stark Industry’s technology, are interdicted to him during training. That’s frustrating, especially since Stark’s man Happy (Jon Favreau), who’s been named his minder, keeps putting off Peter’s insistence that he’s ready for bigger things. But of course, Peter and Ned have no difficulty overriding Stark’s electronic restrictions when he confronts a bigger criminal problem in his first super-villain Adrian Toomes, aka The Vulture (Michael Keaton).
Toomes represents the nod to contemporary social problems in the script cobbled together by no fewer than six writers. He’s a small-time salvage operator who was robbed of a contract to collect the debris from the streets of New York left over from the Avengers’ first adventure to allow the big guys—like Stark—to take over. He responded by stealing some leftover alien technology and using it to fashion super-weapons, which he’s now busy trafficking to ne’er-do-wells. He’s also made a flying suit for himself, which works wonders in his airborne battles with Spider-Man, most notably the one in which they face off as Toomes goes after a plane carrying Stark’s advanced electro-goodies. (There’s also another facet to Toomes’ personality, but revealing it would spoil the movie’s best surprise, which occurs in connection with the high school homecoming dance.)
The problem in all this is that the new Spider suit to which Peter finds the key turns out to change the character of Spider-Man in an unfortunate way, turning him into a younger, more colorful version of Iron Man. There’s a disembodied female computer voice that comes with the threads, for instance, along with all sorts of gizmos and gadgets—drones, even—that really haven’t been part of Spider-Man’s repertoire before. By making the Web Slinger less the ordinary solo teen freelancer, all the extra devices actually make him more ordinary—indistinguishable from every other superhero around. What has always made Spider-Man interesting is that his powers were sui generis, and also distinctly limited; whatever the flaws in the Maguire and Garfield pictures, at least they recognized that simple fact. As good as Holland’s Parker/Spider-Man is, if future installments continue down the road established here, they’re going to be less and less true to the character and more and more cookie-cutter components of the Marvel Universe.
Still, one can be grateful for what “Homecoming” gets right. First and foremost is Holland, whose gee-whiz enthusiasm and adolescent angst is a winning combination. And while one wishes that Keaton had more to do, he gives Toomes a welcome human dimension. The final confrontation between them is better than what ordinarily occurs in this fare, for one thing because it’s on a relatively small scale (buildings are not tumbling down in droves), and also because in this case Parker’s powers have been reduced to his basic, old-line Spider-Man abilities, the Stark suit having been taken from him. To be sure, a segment involving the two fighting on the outside of a speeding aircraft is visually messy, but otherwise the action is kept relatively clear and intelligible.
That’s a testament to the skillful work of director Jon Watts and his crew—production designer Oliver Scholl, DP Salvatore Totino and editors Dan Lebental and Debbie Berman. They pull off a couple of earlier major set pieces—one at the Washington Monument and the other aboard the Staten Island Ferry—with aplomb as well. Even more importantly, Watts brings a sense of old-fashioned John Hughes charm to the high school environment.
Despite the virtues, though, “Homecoming” leaves you with the nagging suspicion that this iconic Marvel character is being redrawn to fit the existing Marvel cinematic mold in a way that’s not really true to his own established world. Having Downey around to do his Stark shtick will undoubtedly appeal to fans of the movies, but frankly by the end he and Favreau feel more than a little out of place here; and the jokey bits involving Chris Evans as Captain America come across as intrusive as well. Perhaps this revised conception of Spider-Man will find its sea legs in future installments, but for now it might strike you as being predicated more on Marvel marketing than on well-considered revision.
A couple of final points. For those of you who like them, Stan Lee does show up for another cameo—though one staged in such a stilted way that it might make you wonder about his health. And there are, as usual, a couple of bits added to the credits, one at the very end. Neither is especially memorable, though, with the final clip being nothing more than a feeble joke. Perhaps, though, that’s in the vein of the famous “Ferris Bueller” close.
So “Homecoming” is a mixed bag: it’s nice to have Spider-Man rebooted with an actor so right for the part as Holland, but the effort to integrate him into the wider Marvel Universe raises doubts the movie doesn’t resolve. Perhaps the best advice is to exercise the patience that Captain America commends and wait for the next installment to see if they work all the bugs out, as it were.