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Here comes the Spider-Man

Spider-Man: Homecoming presents us with the third cinematic version of the titular character in ten years. It avoids character fatigue not by re-imagining the character but by reminding us just how much fun he is.

This version of Spider-Man has spent his life looking up to the Avengers. He idolises them, and last year in Captain America: Civil War he actually got to fight alongside (and against) some of them. It was, understandably, the highlight of the 15 year old Peter Parker’s life. The downside? Heading back home to Queens and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and waiting for Tony Stark to call.

The film opens with Peter’s self edited movie of his experiences with Tony and the fight at the air field where he took on Giant Ant Man. It’s endearingly goofy and reminds us despite his abilities, Peter is just as we were as teenagers: super lame. He’s awkward, excitable, over eager, whip smart, and has no idea how to deal with Liz Allen (Laura Harrier), his high school crush.

Whilst Peter is busy constantly bugging Iron Man’s driver / right hand man Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is dealing with problems of his own. When the Avengers fought off the Chitauri invasion there was a lot of clean up to do, and a lot of scrap to be salvaged. Toomes and his crew were given the contract by the city but before they could get started, Damage Control, employees of Stark and SHIELD, turned up and took the job out from under them.

Unbeknownst to Damage Control, Toomes had a whole bunch of Chitauri weaponry and tech stashed. Jump forward to the present and Toomes is selling that tech to low level criminals looking to step up to the big leagues, as well creating a flying rig for himself and becoming The Vulture.

This is the first time a Spider-Man movie has taken place in the Marvel universe with other active heroes, and the film strikes the right balance between featuring them but not focusing on them. This still feels like a Spider-Man movie and not another Avengers joint.

But what this does is recontextualises the character. In this universe Parker isn’t the lone hero out there making a difference. He lives in a world where people have seen Thor fly over head and The Hulk punch out a giant space worm. He might be amazing, but he’s not a god. This allows the film to take a lower stake approach. Peter isn’t out saving the world. His antagonist isn’t trying to usher in the end of days, he’s a peeved arms dealer unhappy with his lot in life.

The greatest strength of Spider-Man as a character is that he is relatable, and by having him have his own heroes to worship, who he follows online and hangs posters on his walls, makes him even more so. He’s a kid. He’s human and recognisably so. This version of the character really is the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Tom Holland nails this side of the character. He’s desperate to do right and prove himself, and Holland brings a nervous energy to the role that really works. His constant chatter and quipping is almost John McClane-esque in that it’s clear he’s talking to keep himself sane and grounded as all the madness unfolds around him.

The rest of the high school characters are cast to resemble the types of kids you’d find in a New York high school today. All of them convince. Most notable is Zendaya’s Michelle, who is a kooky, quiet, socially aware, and very cool friend of Peter’s. She is likely to have a larger role in the franchise going forward.

But the film’s most valuable player is without doubt Michael Keaton, whose Vulture is one of the strongest villains to appear in the Marvel Universe in some time. There is one scene in particular, you’ll know it when you see it, where Keaton absolutely kills it. All he is doing is talking, but it is the most chilling performance of any Marvel villain to date. He oozes menace. Threatening with just the smallest curl of his mouth.

Toomes is a far more interesting character than you’d expect going in. He sees himself as a working class schmo, a guy who has grafted all his life to provide for his family, and time and time again he gets stepped on by the ruling class. By the Starks of this world, who profit off the little guy. And I guess that was true once. But in the time the story takes place, that’s no longer true. He fails to see he has become the very thing he hates. Toomes is a hypocrite, but not completely without honor. There are moments in the film where Keaton hints at a begrudging respect for Peter Parker. That he sees something of himself in him. A kid from the neighborhood standing up for what he believes is right, no matter the odds. There is a surprising amount of depth to this character, both on the page and in the performance.

The set pieces are perfunctory. It is perhaps unfair to compare them, but this isn’t Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 which is chock full of inventive, exciting action sequences. The set piece at the Washington Monument is solid, with clearly defined stakes and some rousing moments. The final battle isn’t as strong though. The editing is a little muddled and the action isn’t always that clear. But what matters is emotionally it works. The action may not be A grade, but you are invested in these characters and they pull you through.

The film’s biggest strength is its heart. The tone is spot on. It looks like Spider-Man, it sounds like Spider-Man, and most importantly, it feels like Spider-Man. The film is not without its flaws, but it gets this right. Spider-Man isn’t the only hero in the city, let alone the world. He’s just a kid who wants to stand alongside his idols and heroes. To be considered one of them. Which is such a universal feeling as a teenager, to make your mark and stake your claim. But over the course of the film he comes to see that he doesn’t need to be saving the world. There are already people doing that. People with magical hammers. But he can make a difference at home, in his neighborhood. He has the heart of Captain America, but not the ability. He screws up, he gets things wrong. He’s got to constantly work to be better as a person and as a hero. But it is not a task he will shy away from. That is Spider-Man. And that is what this movie gets right.

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