Tom Holland's Peter Parker joins Robert Downey Jr. and the Marvel Cinematic Universe to battle Michael Keaton
When is an origin story not an origin story?
When super-producer Kevin Feige and his brigade of talent behind the unyielding success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe took the creative reins of Sony's third go at Spider-Man in 15 years, they promised not to retell the character's origin for the umpteenth time.
A great call, of course; avoiding a now-tired retread while still nonetheless managing to deliver the central appeal of an origin story. By setting the story just after the events of last year's Captain America: Civil War, and having scored the participation of Robert Downey Jr., Homecoming is freed up to explore Spidey's early-days foray from small potatoes do-gooder into the higher-stakes world of the Avengers.
Peter, with unending wonder and charisma, spends much of the film unlocking the secrets of his cool high tech new suit, which he first wore in Civil War. Turns out it was a gift from ace suitmaker Tony Stark, fully equipped with all manner of high tech bells and whistles. (Not the least of which being a Siri-like "suit lady" a.i., voiced by Jennifer Connelly). Thus, we have the origin-like gee-whiz rush of the discovery of new abilities, with a fresh and fun angle, a lightly lifted and heavily tweaked version of Peter's comic book interactions with Stark in the best-selling Civil War comic book mini-series.
To the shrieking chagrin of online pious purveyors of progressivism, Marvel has opted not to ditch the Peter Parker character in favor of the newer, non-white Spidey of the comics, Miles Morales. It's the right call for now, as the MCU, as good as it's been, has been incomplete without "puny Parker" to kick around. Alongside of him are oodles of ethnic American minorities, making up the most accurately diverse representation of New York City in one of these movies yet. And as a bonus, Morales fans are thrown a referential bone to appease them this time around.
Who would've thought that by placing Marvel's once-flagship character into the hands of its own film studio, that the property would finally break free of its shackles of comic book continuity? Amazingly, Homecoming does just that. By not being beholden to dipping into fifty-plus years of published history, the franchise finds a forward-moving freshness. Spider-Man is still Spider-Man and the supporting cast and locales are intact, but whereas Sam Raimi's and Marc Webb's films bore the weight of being comic book adaptations, this one feels like reading a really fun comic book. The predecessors have all struggled to varying degrees to be true to what Spider-Man has been. This one is true to who he is.
Of course, it takes a hero's share of pieces falling into place to make a film come off as effortlessly as this one does. Director Jon Watts, infamously reeled in for this gig following his micro-budget indie Cop Car, nails and maintains a tone that is at once breezy but also not without stakes. Michael Giacchono delivers a score worthy of any Marvel movie, surpassing most. He's wisely employed Alan Silvestri's Avengers main theme and an orchestral version of the classic Spider-Man cartoon show. The screenplay credits list is chock full of hip and happening writers of mostly not-awful comedies.
The true standout, it must be said, is Tom Holland, who assumes the lead. Holland, so good in The Impossible several years ago, radiates a nervous charm and energy befitting of everyone's favorite wall crawler. His is a Peter Parker we can immediately believe as a selfless hero, fundamentally torn between that responsibility and his fifteen-year-old's desire for a "normal", unobstructed life. He'll go through the effort of taking the girl of his dreams to the homecoming dance, but what are the odds he'll get to stay very long? Such is the plight...
If you happen to hear an unintended scraping sound during the film, it's probably the creative team foraging the bottom of the Spiderverse barrel for heretofore unused villains and supporting characters. Fortunately, the absence of familiar staples such as the Osborn clan, Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson, and the entirety of of Daily Bugle is unnoticeable, as Spider-Man comics have long boasted one of the greatest rogues gallery and THE greatest supporting cast in comics. Plenty of remaining characters to mine. Plus, there's now the entire extended Marvel universe to play with.
Not only is the MCU well represented by the likes of RDJ, Jon Faverau, and several others, Homecoming flies in with a boast that everyone's favorite recent DC Comics movie withheld. Let's just say that there's only one comic book superhero film this summer with an invisible jet, and it ain't Wonder Woman.
Is that a spoiler? Eh, not really. In a movie so packed with satisfying spectacle, relatable angst and charm to spare, the very minor detail that the villainous "Vulture", played by a sneeringly irritable Michael Keaton, at one point commandeers a high tech cloaked plane over the city probably isn't giving away much of anything.
The amount of high powered and mysterious gizmos and gadgets the Vulture and his crew of emerging sinister fiends salvage to illegally sell is almost stream of conscience. The source they are pulling from is both familiar and, it must be said, altogether logical - if also reckless. Keaton takes to the skies in a lethal mechanized version of the old-school old man comic book baddie.
His presence as the film's main antagonist both elevates and helps modulate the locked-in lighter tone of Homecoming. One can't help but think about how Keaton, who darn nearly won an Oscar for playing Birdman - a film that itself took Best Picture for its snarky criticism of modern superhero movies, singling out Robert Downey Jr. in particularly - is now costarring in a film with RDJ's Tony Stark. Sooner or later, the shared universes will lay claim to everyone.
This being a major franchise now enveloped within another far more major franchise, there's no need to kid ourselves regarding who is and isn't calling the shots behind the scenes. But for all the multi-studio moving and shaking that has gone down over this incarnation of Spider-Man, this film, perhaps miraculously, ends up being one homecoming event well worth attending.
The film opens in theaters in wide release in the U.S. on Friday, July 7.