thanks to DanielSTL via Flickr
It’s been a while since we had a really cracking Spider-Man film – about 13 years, to be precise. The first two from director Sam Raimi, which saw Tobey Maguire’s wall-crawler face off against the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, were both enormous fun. After that came the overstuffed conclusion to the trilogy in 2007, then the misfiring 2012 ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ reboot starring Andrew Garfield - which was more concerned with building sequels than the story at hand, and not terribly amazing.
Enter Marvel Studios, now working with Sony Pictures to use their flagship comics character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, alongside the Avengers. We got our introduction to the new incarnation, played by young Brit Tom Holland, in Captain America: Civil War, and the motormouthed hero was a highpoint of that film. But do we really need yet another Spidey movie so soon after the recent solo disappointments?
Well, yes, actually we do – and it is a delight, from start to finish. And while the core character is classic Spidey, his life in a world filling up with other superheroes gives this reboot a new lease of life. Peter, fresh from being enlisted by Tony Stark to help in Civil War, is desperate for the call that will make him a fully-fledged Avenger. Problem is, it doesn’t seem to be coming. Instead, he’s prowling the neighbourhood, still in his Stark-enhanced Spider-suit, taking down minor crooks and helping everyday New Yorkers where he can – a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, no less. But the stakes go up a notch when he encounters a group of thugs selling and using high tech alien weaponry, scavenged from the battle of New York that ends Avengers Assemble. Leading the gang is Adrian Toomes, aka The Vulture, who doesn’t take kindly to spandex-clad do-gooders messing with his business – and has a fearsome set of wings to help him take Spidey down.
Meanwhile, Peter Parker is a typical, if extremely brainy, high schooler, desperate to summon the courage to approach classmate Liz Allen, and generally survive his education. This incarnation of Peter owes as much to classic 80s John Hughes high school comedies like Pretty in Pink or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as it does more traditional superhero fare – a great move that differentiates it from the other comic-book films out there.
The end result is not only packed with visually arresting action and excitement, it is also funnier than most proper comedies. It’s light on its feet and the two-hour-plus running time breezes by. Peter, while he still has the weight of the world on his shoulders at times (almost literally in one terrific sequence), is not as burdened by angst as in many of his former outings. Tom Holland is a fantastic fit for the character – extremely likable and witty, but awkward and unsure of himself. When things go wrong, it’s often down to his own mistakes or inexperience. With Tony Stark acting as an awkward father figure, the whole thing has the feel of a coming of age story – at times touching, at others hilarious. What’s also refreshing is the relative lack of body-count – this doesn’t have quite the hunger for collateral damage that many summer blockbusters have, giving it a good-natured feel.
Marvel Studios typically have problems with their villains – Tom Hiddleston’s Loki aside, most veer between lacklustre and ‘just about OK’. Michael Keaton, in a witty bit of casting that riffs on his Batman and Birdman roles, goes some way to redress the balance. His Adrian Toomes is a working man, squeezed out of business by the superpowered world around him. He doesn’t have a grand scheme to slaughter millions or take over the world – he just wants to make a few bucks for his family. That’s not to say, however, he’s not dangerous – there’s certainly some anger management issues there, and Keaton deploys his wild-eyed stare to tremendous effect, keeping his recent career renaissance flying high. The Vulture’s a bit sketchy in the early stages of the film, but by the end he may be Marvel’s most compelling baddie since Loki.
The climax of the film falls victim to that familiar archenemy of the superhero genre – overblown battle fatigue. It’s not terrible, and some of the film’s tensest moments come in the build-up to that showdown, but the final confrontation feels a bit like it’s going through the special effects-laden motions. It certainly lacks the sparkle of the standout moments of the film ( a tremendous rescue scene atop the Washington Monument, for instance).
But that is a relatively minor quibble for such a joy of a movie. Fast, funny, and occasionally heartfelt, this is what Marvel does best, and long may it continue. It’s been 13 years since Spidey swung this high – it’s good to have him back.