Since the release of the first Iron Man film in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has grown into a gargantuan movie beast, like the Hulk on experimental growth hormones. Spider-Man: Homecoming is the 16th franchise-hopping entry in the potentially confusing series, and while such a busy output of product can surely be forgiven for occasional blips in quality control, this is a flick that can proudly boast being among the very best of the bunch.
Tom Holland debuted as Peter Parker with a smallish supporting role in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, making him the first actual teenager to play the schoolboy superhero. Now, a month after his 21st birthday, any suspicions he might not have the necessary broad thespian shoulders to carry such a high-profile marquee title vanish with minutes (but more about him later).
After a brief prologue set following the pitched battles at the conclusion of Avengers Assemble, the action fast-forwards eight years to events set after Civil War (hope you’re keeping up with this). Parker has a weekend internship at Tony “Iron Man” Stark’s high-tech industrial powerhouse, but Monday through Friday he’s just a normal high-school kid, sneaking out of the odd class for low-key “friendly neighbourhood” acts of heroism.
All that changes when he stumbles across a gang of ne’er-do-wells in the employ of shady wheeler-dealer Michael Keaton, using alien technology pilfered from the Avengers Assemble clean-up operation to further boost their criminal activities. Yet to be promoted to full-blown Avengers status by Stark, Peter must go it alone to bring down the bad guys and prove his worth to his multi-millionaire mentor.
Hence, he makes mistakes along the way (crashing into garbage, losing his backpack of “day” clothes, apprehending a man breaking into his own car), and it’s genuinely refreshing to see a super-powered saviour as a fallible human being. Away from the nail-biting action, director Jon Watts devotes a large chunk of the running time to Peter the awkward student, and therein lies the masterstroke of the movie.
Homecoming can claim to be one of the most keenly observed high-school comedy dramas ever, complete with subplots of peer pressure, popularity and adolescent passion, played out by the requisite roll call of ineffectual teachers, supposedly unattainable objects of desire (Laura Harrier), quick-witted loners (Zendaya) and misfit best friends (the scene-stealing Jacob Batalon as Peter’s chapeau-sporting confidant Ned).
It’s Holland who provides the web-like glue that brings it all together. In the face-covering Spidey suit, he has the athleticism and physicality you’d expect from someone who’s played Billy Elliot on the West End stage, but without the mask he is an extraordinarily nuanced actor, utterly convincing when called upon to express fear, vulnerability or shyness, not to mention comic timing no doubt passed down from his father, stand-up comedian Dominic Holland.
As Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark reiterates during one of his perfectly pitched and never overused linking scenes, it’s important that Peter understands what he can do without the red-and-blue costume – but don’t worry, there’s no mawkish burst of M People singing “search for the hero inside yourself”, this is far too classy an exercise to fall back on such lazy shorthand. Holland is capable of impressive depth for such a young actor, and pretty much corners the market in the concept of everyman hero.
Other familiar faces from the Marvel movies rock up at one point or another, not that they’ll be mentioned by name them here – but look out for a cool cameo by one half of an iconic 80s TV cop duo as the no-nonsense head of the wonderfully named Department of Damage Control. Similarly, the arrival of Keaton and his alter ego the Vulture promises more Grade A mayhem in future films, as does a feisty Marisa Tomei as Peter’s Aunt May.
There’s an all-too frequent tendency for action movies to overstay their welcome, the levels of bluster and bombast adding as much as an unnecessary half-an-hour to the running time, but that’s not the case here. Homecoming arrives in cinemas with nary an ounce of fat on its brilliantly constructed body, and barely a single wasted frame.
Director Watts is also one of six screenwriters listed in the credits, a number which would usually set off alarm bells and mutterings about camels, horses and committees. But when you consider there are an estimated 40,000 species of spider on the planet, half a dozen humans at the top of their game perfecting one spider-man is no big deal – although this particular Spidey is a very big deal indeed.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is released in cinemas on Wednesday 5 July