Superheroes are, by and large, a fairly serious bunch.
Hailing from backgrounds character-formingly full of death and trauma (hello Batman, Superman), given powers which unexpectedly and absolutely alter the trajectory of their life (Deadpool, the titular here of this film) or simply born into greatness and a nobility of purpose (Wonder Woman), they are not the sort of people to goof around, have fun with what they do or try to impress girls or guys with their better-than-average, lycra-clad abilities.
But then they are not 15 year old school boys like Peter Parker (Tom Holland) who, in short order, got bitten by radioactive spiders, discovered he had the ability to leap from building to building, defy gravity and sling webs from slimline gizmos on his wrists.
It all sounds like a lot of fun, especially if you’re a young guy in the throes of growing up, orphaned (although Aunt May, played in this case with relatable brio by Marisa Tomei) and trying not to be a “loser” at school, and yes Peter does have more than his fair share of whooping and hollering as he swings through his Queens neighbourhood.
So much fun is had in fact by the youthful, nascent Avenger – if you recall Spider-Man, newly-installed in the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU), was introduced, at least in the latest of many incarnations, in last year’s Captain America: Civil War – that Spider-Man: Homecoming kicks off its very limited, and tidily-delivered exposition (sans, thankfully, the origin story; c’mon we all know it) with a montage of Spidey enthusiasm so irrepressibly gleeful that you wonder why more superheroes don’t have this much fun.
That could be because once they have been real up close and personal with the messy business of stopping villains, all of them intent on nefarious derring-do that takes no account of peoples’ wellbeing, making staying giddily gung-ho considerably more challenging.
Still, the opening scenes of the film are a delight in large part because of Parker’s sheer exhilaration at his utterly-transformed life.
In a series of staccato scenes, rife with video selfies and self-referential dialogue, we are not only given some extra insight into the events leading up to the big airport battle in Captain America: Civil War which Spider-Man enthusiastically treats as a real-life, starry-eyed video game, but given greater understanding about why Peter Parker is so excited about his new role as an Avenger in the making.
The excitement is so palpable and rampant that he has trouble staying grounded in the here-and-now as a sophomore student at Midtown School of Science and Technology where the future nerd kings and queens of the universe such as Parker’s best friend, gaming enthusiast and pitch-perfect comic relief Ned (Jacob Battalon) reign supreme, with all the trials, tribulations and broken hearts of high school are present and accounted for.
While you can chalk many of Parkers’ growing up pains – and when you’re a superhero these can be rather destructive and worldchanging – to typical think-not-of-the-consequences-just-do-it enthusiasm (which it is), he has also been feverishly egged on by Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) who seems intent on a weird mix of encouraging mentor and harsh “tough love” father figure.
Caught between his own giddy glee at his newfound powers, a nobility of purpose that sees him playing unofficial sheriff in his local neighbourhood and Stark’s big promises, you can hardly blame the guy for getting ahead of himself which he does with really messy results.
It’s a case of heart in the right place, but excitable self-belief and heart-of-gold intent outstripping ability, and Spider-Man comes spectacularly a-cropper more than once in pursuit of the villain of the piece, Adrian Toomes aka Vulture (MIchael Keaton), who is, Marvel gods be praised, not burdened by twistedly psychopathic tendencies.
Much of the sheer delight of this most welcome of Spider-Man entries in the canon, which gets the balance between Peter Parker, aspiring high school student and klutzty teenager, and Spider-Man, powerful, well-intentioned superhero damn near perfectly right, is watching Holland exuberantly, and often adorably, trying desperately hard to be the hero he knows he can be.
Like anyone, but particularly a teenage one, trying their best to get it right, he gets it wrong more often than he doesn’t, and while those stumbles, and Stark’s on-off parental misadventures, do dampen his chutzpah more than once, watching himself sling himself back up on the skyscraper is a brilliantly-realised masterclass in character development, helped along to a great extent by Holland’s achingly vulnerable/thrilled to the core performance.
So Spider-Man Homecoming winningly get its protagonist right; but what about the villain, who it must be said in most Marvel efforts – this film of course is a co-production between SONY who still own the cinematic rights to the character but have been persuaded to play nice in the MCU – is usually muddled or inert of purpose, clumsily melodramatic and ultimately weak as the proverbial?
Vulture is that rarest of superhero breeds – a grounded, understandable bad guy who is committing evil acts, but not too evil mind you; he kills a few people but mostly it’s the smuggling of alien Chitauri artifacts, re-purposed into useful inventions, to the criminal underworld, who simply wants to provide for his family (with whom Peter comes to have a terribly awkward and plot-pivotal connection).
Nuanced and layered, and granted even more substance by Keaton’s emotionally well-judged performance which never overplays its hand, Vulture is the perfect foil for Spider-Man, who he sees an annoying impediment to his business interests, and nothing more.
And while they do have the inevitable big fight at the end of the movie, a Marvel trope that cannot be denied, thank you very much, theirs is a battle of two reasonably real, grounded people caught up in extraordinary times.
It’s still impressively epic with requisite stratospherically-high stakes, thus fulfilling one of the sacred requirements of this or any other superhero movie, but giving each combatant reasonably earthbound motivations grants Spider-Man: Homecoming an emotional resonance that eludes many of its genre mates.
Beautifully-realised characters, a taut-enough narrative and a perfectly-balanced mix of teenage angst, youthful enthusiasm and accelerated growing up, combine for distinctly-different superhero film – knowing and grounded but epic and enjoyably over the top.
It’s spectacle with heart and lots of Larb – trust me this will make sense at some point in the film – and it works supremely well, endearing Spider-Man to a whole new audience who, by the end of the film, will realise that it is possible to have your superhero powerful and endearingly human too, with neither cancelling out the other.
Spider-Man Homecoming is as good as a Marvel movie comes – funny, epic, full of pounding action and poignant moments, tropes and counter-tropes, a thrilling introduction to a new take on the web-slinging superhero which pretty much gets almost everything right, placing the franchise on the path to perhaps its most pleasing iteration yet.