Warning: This review contains a plot spoiler.
Marvel’s great wheeze, when looking for a reliable method for churning out four hits a year, has been to ransack the movie archives for tried and tested templates that can be adapted to the relevant comic book.
The recent Doctor Strange channelled Inception, Guardians of the Galaxy reworked Star Wars (now other Disney subsidiary Lucasfilm does the same), Ironman had shades of Robocop and its sequel, and so on. The formula involves taking distinctive properties such as these and rinsing them through the four quadrant audience sanitiser, washing out anything too irreverent or characterful, likely to reduce their appeal to a mass audience. Real people like quirk and originality but the imagined, unknowable mass is thought to be broad in its tastes and suspicious of difference. Thus, if it’s beige (rhyming slang for Kevin Feige) it plays. Spider-Man: Homecoming is the quintessence of this approach.
Adapting Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s comic book is complicated here by the real world battle that raged between Sony Pictures and a fatigued audience. Sony, rights holders from the pre-Stark era, have been churning out Spider-flicks since 2001 – five, spanning two self-contained series, until Marvel Studios negotiated a friendly cease and desist. Fans of Peter Parker agree that Sony’s never quite understood the character or struck the appropriate tone. Those feeling less generous would argue their uneven and underwritten efforts have been too reliant on bombast and blockbuster clichés. Marvel’s deal to start anew with Spidey joining their family of micro-managed characters, therefore had to refresh the oft seen hero and tell a new story, avoiding well-worn checkpoints like Parker beginning his journalism career and fighting a deranged mutant.
Consequently, director Jon Watts and his team of Marvel hacks, under orders to rewrite the webslinger in the house style, have been very astute indeed in fashioning a Spider-Man movie that consciously plays like an old John Hughes, albeit one with a budget of $200m.
Homecoming takes Parker back to school, both literally and figuratively, picking up the character as an endearingly green, insecure 15 year old, whose superhero exploits are firmly rooted in High School and its attendant complications: fitting in, the school bully, forging your identity, and, in a highly novel take on an old trope, dealing with your would-be girlfriend’s Dad on the night of the Homecoming dance, who in a brilliant twist is reinvented as the crook Spidey’s been investigating for the first two acts.
There’s a lot to like about Watts’s movie. Tom Holland’s excellent in the lead – vulnerable without being whiney, good natured and earnest. He gives the movie a lot of heart which matters as, unlike previous Spider-flicks, so much of the story centres on the interaction between him, fat (and therefore inevitably funny) best friend Jacob Batalon, and surrounding archetypes mined from the Hughes back catalogue, namely the friendless introvert, the princess with hidden family problems, and a pantheon of kooky teachers.
What Holland’s managed to embody is what it would be like for an ordinary kid (albeit one with superhuman strength and agility) to be caught up in the MCU. He’s comically, endearingly useless; a teenager with special abilities who has no focus for or experience of using them. He looks for things to do, hoping to impress mentor Tony Stark (including saving a local cat), over extends himself and clumsily stumbles through each setpiece encounter – a welcome contrast from the Spider-Man of previous iterations who professionalised his crime fighting quickly once his origin backstory had played out.
The movie is perfectly calibrated entertainment – just the right amount of Tony Stark as superhero mentor, making Parker the perfect proxy for the target audience, a lighter, gently comic tone befitting the character’s temperament, and villainy that’s threatening enough (from a teenage novice crime fighter’s POV) without throwing the story off balance – no rampant megalomania or a plot to change life as we know it here, just a blue collar labourer with a relatable grievance and access to alien tech.
That restraint is welcome; the movie takes the time required to get to know Peter Parker with established characters like Stark and Captain America making extended cameos. But the commercial savvy of Marvel movies, so evident in the design of this one, is also their weakness. In inviting comparisons with the movies they affectionately rip off and reference – here it’s Ferris Bueller, The Breakfast Club and similar, the audience is left to reflect how much more spontaneous and witty those performances were, and how Hughes, whose special power was a line into the teenage soul, could imbue his characters with a level of (realistic) sophistication and insight, that made them feel like real human beings rather than generic Hollywood kids.
Homecoming has a charming cast and a joyous bent; it’s a lot of fun; but Marvel’s formula simply won’t allow anything they put out to have a personality. In a sense, Marissa Tomei’s obscured “fuck” at the close tells the story; all the movie’s edges are blunted, all the jokes carefully weighed to stay family friendly. It’s a great entertainment while you watch it but it’s destined to fade almost immediately as the credits roll. Yet, as product and a movie designed to cannily provide younger Marvel Heads with a new figurehead; wish fulfilment turned up to 11; it’s hard to see how anyone could have built a better brand ambassador.