Spider-Man: Homecoming finally appreciates and sympathises with the duality of Peter Parker. He is a scrawny, geeky, overcompensating high school junior who is ignominiously forced to split his ego in two when a radioactive spider inadvertently gives him a hickey. Gotta hate when that happens. Tobey Maguire played him in the early 2000s to varying degrees of success (I still cringe at the memory of his jazz club soiree). Andrew Garfield took over in 2012 and turned him into a beefcake supermodel. Now it’s Tom Holland’s turn, and to my delight he emerges as the most effective Spider-Man, simply because he gets the role and understands that to be the best Spider-Man, he first has to become the sorriest Peter Parker.
Parker is perhaps the most tragic figure in all the comic universe. Yes, Bruce Wayne lost his parents. Clark Kent phone home. Tony Stark has… well… he has all his billions. But Parker stands upon that great divide; he is a full-time superhero masquerading as a full-time teenager. One cannot give way to the other, and to see Parker attempt to balance atop the two poles of his life is simultaneously exhilarating and heartbreaking. He will miss out on all the proms, sacrifice romance and effectively flush his social life down the toilet while he swings from rooftops and battles mechanical foes. The saddest part: A part of him just wants to be normal again.
Homecoming gets all this just right. It is a tragic story of a young, spritely lad with a heart of gold. The story is told in such a way as to make us think we’re watching the Saturday Morning Cartoon version of an adult action movie, but really it’s a John Hughes drama with flashy explosions, and that’s okay. If we don’t believe Peter Parker’s story, we’re sure as heck not going to believe him when he’s dressed in a skintight leotard.
Holland’s got infectious charisma. His Parker is such a loveable dork we’re unsure whether to hug him or give him a noogie. His best friend is Ned (Jacob Batalon), a fat kid who shares my unbridled passion for Lego and predicts quite accurately that he will evolve into Spider-Man’s “guy in the chair”, y’know, the Q-type figure from the James Bond films. There are other kids in the high school, including the bully Flash (Tony Revolori) and the weirdo Michelle (Zendaya). It’s a bit of a stretch that all these far-flung characters would find themselves on the same school decathlon team, but there you have it.
The team travels to D.C. for a panel tournament and Parker uses the excursion as the perfect alibi to foil the plans of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a middle-class blue collar worker who feels betrayed by the country’s wealthy and decides to sell alien technology to interstate mercenaries and mobsters. He’s also fashioned a flight suit that looks like a pair of metallic wings, and favours a bomber jacket with one of those furry collars. One would think he was — eh-hem — a vulture.
In the great pantheon of comic villains, Toomes is among the most impressive. He’s also a man with everything to lose, which, to him, makes his cause just and his motives lethal. I only wish some of his fight scenes with the spider had been shot in a more comprehensive manner. Too often director Jon Watts opts to film energetic scenes in the dark and have them edited as if they’ve run out of footage. I miss the good old days when fight scenes were captured in wide shots, in respect of the stunt performers, and chopped up as little as possible.
No matter. Spider-Man: Homecoming stays true to the idea of its hero. I enjoyed the way the writers turned him into a superhero practically under house arrest. He’s Tony Stark’s ward, except Stark is off doing Starky business and leaves the poor kid in the rather irresponsible hands of his colleague Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). I admired Parker’s zest for romance (he develops a crush on the leader of the decathlon team, Liz, but later succumbs to the duties of his alter-ego) and his enthusiasm for keeping the streets of New York crime-free. I thought the relationship between Parker and Ned was fun and goofy, in a way that inspires real 15-year-olds to be fun and goofy. This is Spider-Man the way I’ve always wanted Spider-Man to be. Energetic, pithy, irrepressibly tough, and very, very sad.