The web-slinger is a beloved superhero. One of the most endearing ones perhaps. His tale is a sad legend, one that is almost a fable by now. A fable so well-known that Marvel admittedly chooses to do away with telling his origin, assuming instead that audiences are already familiar with the details. Such is the confidence of Marvel that they choose to do away with what has been a hero’s most defining trademark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. And to think among all the superheroes, they’d choose to take this route with their most popular brainchild. Then again, after two reboots, a third origin tale telling the same story would’ve bordered on fatigue.
The studio in fact chooses to do several things with the movie differently. We thus get a high-school version of the character who’s merely 15-years old, played by an audaciously cast Tom Holland (who himself is 20). There’s no Uncle Ben, no grandma-aged Aunt May (a much younger one graces the screen instead), neither Mary Jane nor Gwen Stacy, no Oscorp, Goblin or meta-humans either. Instead, this Spidey has a much more grounded foundation, his suit straddled with technological innovations courtesy a certain Mr. Stark, his struggles more about high-school crushes, homework and balancing assignments with his superhero acts which themselves have a much smaller scale to them. The world is not really in danger and the villain does not want ultimate power. This is a much younger, much more amateurish if you will version of the character. He makes plenty of mistakes and goofs up several times in his crime-fighting endeavors. To get a sense of how grounded it all is, I’ve wondered several times on seeing the past movies how exactly would Spider-Man manage to navigate his way around in a park or a desert or an open space without skyscrapers. It seems like this thought struck the filmmakers as well who went as far as to address this in the movie to my absolute delight.
Speaking of the villain, we get the first cinematic iterations of The Vulture, The Tinkerer and The Shocker despite this being the sixth Spidey movie, with the former taking center-stage. Like the Spider-kid, Adrian Toomes’ The Vulture is a grounded villain as well with a family who he’s genuinely worried about after the establishment of the Department of Damage Control (again by a certain Mr. Stark) essentially salvages his business of collecting left-over materials and selling them to make a living. We’ve seen previously how having the villain care for someone they love instantly makes for a sympathetic antagonist and can be used to great effect as was the case with Alfred Molina’s Doctor Otto Octavius a.k.a. Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2 (which happens to be my favorite of all Spidey flicks so far).
This man-with-a-family plotline instantly lends a certain gravitas to the antagonist and as was hinted at by Keaton, we start seeing his point of view. This is most relevant when in a scene, Parker comes face to face with Toomes and berates him for using wrongful means to earn money, only for Toomes to retaliate asking how did Parker think Stark made all that money from. It’s a very strong moment that instantly takes us back to the very first Iron Man movie where Stark Industries was making huge profits by smuggling arms to the Ten Rings Terrorist organization. While Stark himself may not have been directly responsible for it, the fact that he didn’t care about it lends some credence to Toomes’ accusations.
Speaking of Mr. Stark, it’s surreal to see how far both him and the Marvel Universe as a whole have come. A fact that hits you right in the face when the movie begins with Toomes and his crew cleaning up the mess of the now famous Battle of New York from The Avengers followed by a title card flashing 8 Years Later. Of course it’s actually been 5 Years since that movie came out (continuity sabotage there?) but the fact is that it’s now almost a decade since Iron Man kickstarted the MCU. What this means is every appearance of these characters comes with several years of baggage and backstories behind them and naturally carries a lot of weight.
And this is one aspect where the movie succeeds brilliantly. It shows us, as director Jon Watts had said, things from “the ground-floor level as opposed to the penthouse level”. We’ve seen how billionaires, gods and age-old legends fit in this shared universe of superheroes but how about the common teenager? What do The Avengers mean to these high-schoolers? Video Logs of the Civil War fight and pictures of Abraham Erskine, Bruce Banner and Howard Stark plastered over the school walls really help integrate the MCU into the movie and make us realize how vast and rich this world has now become, a fact that until this movie was largely highlighted by the Marvel TV Show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Netflix series.
But despite all these references, the movie works on its own merits as well, thanks in large part to the witty writing, the funky direction and Tom Holland’s enthusiastic performance constantly brimming and exploding with energy. He shines in every scene he’s in, whether it’s the fanboy seeking Stark’s approval, the lover struggling to express his feelings to his long-time high-school crush Liz Allen or the struggle and genuine fright on his face when (minor spoiler ahead) Toomes causes him to be buried under a pile of debris. It’s a delight seeing Tom Holland embrace the role as a result of which, Marvel is able to make the movie fresh.
Tom alone of course couldn’t have carried this movie, as best as he does. His sidekick, the guy-in-the-chair Ned played by Jacob Batalon gives a commendable performance and their camaraderie together adds generous dozes of humor to the goings on in the movie. Tony Revolori makes a less physically imposing Flash Thompson work while Zendaya is weird in her role in a good way which is sure to elicit positive responses. Keaton lends an authenticity to a villain I haven’t seen in Marvel movies at least in a long while. And finally of course, Robert Downey Jr. is Robert Downey Jr. and it’s great to see Jon Favreau back as Happy (along with a few more surprise returns). And the best I can say about Donald Glover’s role without spoiling it is that it is sure to lead to lots of speculation online as regards to the future of Miles Morales.
By now these big-budget productions seem to have reached a stage where it’s really hard to distinguish reality from VFX / CGI. Almost all the sequences would’ve certainly gone through some level of effects work / post-production and they blend in seamlessly. My favorite sequence so far has to be a trapped and desperate Peter Parker rushing to save his high-school friends from a potential explosion atop the Washington DC monument, frantically scaling it to make it on time – a scene that despite its humor leads to a nerve-wracking finish.
So is Tom Holland a better Spider-Man than his predecessors? Well, a definite answer to that question is difficult to give. For whatever the faults were with the prior movies, the actors playing the costumed superhero definitely weren’t one for them. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield truly did justice to Spidey and choosing between them and Holland is like choosing between Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan as directors. That said, I certainly loved Tom Holland’s portrayal of Spider-Man and definitely dig what Marvel has done to refresh the series.
This one gets a huge thumbs up from my side. It’s been a delightful homecoming of Spider-Man back to Marvel and I certainly look forward to visiting Midtown School of Science & Technology for the next chapter in the series soon.
Overall Score: 8.5 / 10