The homecoming in the title has two meanings. The first is a sly dig at Sony (who co-produce – I hope they don’t feel too insulted). Sony bungled the Spider-Man property with their less than Amazing Spider-Man reboots, and went crawling back to Marvel when they realised they had no idea what what to do with the web-head. Marvel assumed creative control, and Spider-Man finally came home.
Homecoming also refers to the American high school tradition (still baffling to us Brits), and hints at how Marvel is trying to distinguish this from previous Spidey outings. See, Spider-Man: Homecoming occasionally flies close to being a teen comedy, and it is in these scenes where it really shines. The rest of the film – the fights, the character beats, the MCU references – is fine, and probably enough to ensure Spider-Man stays at Marvel; but it falls short of the grand welcome we were expecting.
Fresh from his participation in Iron Man and Captain America’s falling out, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) settles back into his daily routine in New York, eagerly awaiting his next Avengers mission. That routine consists of going to school, then donning his red and blue suit to thwart petty criminals and give directions to old ladies. Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man, sure; but Peter longs for something more. Namely, a full membership in the Avengers.
Holland has the makings of the best Spider-Man yet. Six years younger than Tobey Maguire was when he first played the wall-crawler, Holland certainly looks the part of the high schooler who slings webs on the sly. He also brings a feigned bravado to the role that barely hides the fact that this more a Spider-Boy than a Spider-Man.
Man or boy, Peter still has to go to school, and like I said, that’s where Homecoming is at its best. The screenwriters (there are six of them. Six!) have plumbed the fecund depths of the high school comedy to populate Peter Parker’s circle of friends. There’s Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), a less sex-obsessed version of Superbad’s Seth. Flash (Tony Revolori) has a little of Mean Girls’ tryhard Kevin. Then there’s Zendaya (apparently she was on the Disney Channel) as Michelle, who could be mistaken for The Breakfast Club’s Allison.
These four are on Midtown Tech’s academic decathlon team, which again echoes Mean Girls and its mathletes. There is also a student-run television news broadcast that is so hilariously awkward that I wish there had been more of it.
Unfortunately, the nascent teen comedy is drowned out by the increasingly tired Marvel formula. It is a curious, and a little disheartening, that despite forgoing the origin story (everyone knows who Spider-Man is, after all), Homecoming still feels the need to retread the same narrative beats as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange.
The broader story involves Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a city contractor with the job of cleaning up the messes left behind by the Avengers. When he’s stiffed out of his contract by the government, Toomes and his crew use the alien technology they’ve scavenged to build weapons, which they sell to New York’s criminal element. He also builds himself a giant metal wingsuit, which is pretty cool. Keaton is a far more compelling villain here than he was in that terrible Robocop remake. Toomes has that down-to-earth integrity laced with villainous menace that Keaton excels at.
The fights between Spidey and Toomes (who is never actually referred to as Vulture) are adequately staged, but never match the best that Marvel has offered in the past. A late sequence, in and around an airborne jet, is so cloaked by smoke and cloud as to be confusing. The rest of the action just doesn’t make the most of what Spider-Man is capable of. Perhaps it’s confidence on Marvel’s part, confidence that the early tribulations of this new Spidey are enough to carry the film. Or perhaps it’s just mediocre filmmaking.
The teen comedy stuff is great, though. Homecoming needed more of that. Sure, it’s better than the two Amazing Spider-Man films, but then, what isn’t? This feels like an easy win for Marvel, a quick grab for goodwill before Infinity War plunges the MCU into its riskiest phase yet. But it could have been more than that. It could have been the homecoming that Spider-Man deserved.