Joss Whedon did his bit for gender equality in an undeniably male-superhero multiverse. Jon Watts has turned out to be a champion of refreshing ethnic diversity. The New York City borough of Queens we see in Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t polished, sanitised or whitewashed. Everything is that much more believable. Peter Parker’s (Spider-Man with the suit off) Aunt May (a delicious Marisa Tomei) is Italian. At school, his best friend is Asian, his arch rival Guatemalan (Tony Revolori, whom we last saw in Grand Budapest Hotel), his love interest African American. These characters have all been white in the movies thus far. The effect is interesting. Without a suffusion of characters, you’ve suddenly got more texture in the story. It’s not just about the hero and the villain – though that approach could have been forgiven when the bad guy is Michael Keaton in formidable form.
Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, is by far the most effective villain since Dr Octopus in Sam Raimi’s second Spider-Man outing. It isn’t the backstory – Toomes is a blue-collar salvage contractor who gets stiffed by the suits. So he begins scavenging forbidden technology from the debris of superhero battles over the years and selling them to the highest bidder. The motive for villainy, clearly, runs out very quickly. It’s just that Keaton sells it with energetic, focused intensity. And thankfully, he isn’t smothered in make-up or CGI. The appeal of the bad guys, clichéd as it might seem, is their humanness. A lack of access to the person underneath the villain perhaps had something to do with the failure of the latter Spider-Man movies and a lot of the other superhero fare that failed. Keaton rends and consumes the scenery from the get go. Right from the introductory scene and up to a brilliant, tense few minutes within the confines of a car. There was so much atmosphere in that car it was like a tube of packed dynamite, ready to blow any second. You don’t usually get that in a superhero movie. Here’s where Tom Hollande, the youngest man ever to play the titular role, musters the maturity of all of his 20 years.
Fresh off a battle with the Avengers (one half of them), Peter is back to the daily grind at home, waiting for the next call, the next mission, which never comes. Hollande is completely convincing as an antsy 15-year-old, desperate to be taken seriously, to be treated as an adult. A grown-up couldn’t have pulled it off. Once it’s done, it seems elementary. Spider-Man wasn’t a man, he was a boy. Ergo, a boy must play Spider-Man. The filmmakers were also very wise in ditching the overused origin story. Where it rather unnecessarily eats up screen time in The Amazing Spider-Man, it is reduced to a punchline in Homecoming. Peter’s friend, who only recently discovered his super-secret, asks him, “Do you lay eggs? Do you spew venom?”
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Sony and Raimi kicked off the franchise in style, but after the abysmal disappointment of the third iteration and a largely redundant (except for the excellent chemistry between the leads) reboot starring Andrew Garfield, the arachnid hero seemed to have run out of webbing. The studio arm of Marvel has swung in and jumpstarted the franchise again. Not with a CGI upgrade, but with an infusion of heart.
In fact, the action set pieces weren’t what one would call spectacular. Not that they lacked finesse, just that they weren’t terribly ambitious in scope. Even the finale wasn’t the typical CGI overdose one has come to expect. But it made narrative sense. When Spider-Man was in over his head, Iron Man jumped in to lend a hand or slap him on the wrists. A large spectacle would have seen the Avengers descend on Queens. That this didn’t really matter is where you realise it all works. One suspects the entire movie was a sort of extended shot to establish the new character. Whatever’s coming next is something to look forward to.
If the Easter Eggs in the movie (can’t be discussed without spoilers) are any indication, there’s some good stuff ahead. For instance, one of the weapons developed by the Vulture’s tinkerer – the Shocker – was used by Diamondback against Luke Cage in the Netflix series. Could TV meet film sometime in the near future?
Anand Venkateswaran is a Chennai-based freelance writer.
Note: The actor Tony Revolori is of Guatemalan and not Indian origin, as stated in an earlier version of this article