In a 1980s Kenny Everett sketch, Spider-Man rushes to a urinal only to find that his bodysuit allows no facility to relieve himself – making him, in effect, a spider without a fly. Such a scene wouldn’t be amiss in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which thrives on the same spirit of nutty irreverence.
The superhero life is anything but slick for the 15-year-old Peter Parker (Tom Holland), who strips down to his boxers in a grungy alley and struggles laboriously into his costume. Swinging through the neighbourhood, he frightens small children, collides with dustbins and accidentally brings a tree house crashing to the ground. Adversaries offer gentle advice even as he apprehends them. “You gotta get better at this part of the job,” says one.
Even the most accommodating superhero fan will experience arachno-fatigue at the prospect of yet another iteration of the Spider-Man story – the fourth in total and the third in 15 years. Do we have to go through all that boy-gets-bitten-by-radioactive-spider palaver again? Well, no. Spider-Man: Homecoming dives straight into Peter’s life after he is earmarked for membership of the superhero UN that was introduced in Avengers Assemble.
The main threat now comes from a former construction boss who steals a toxic alien chemical (see previous Marvel movies for details), with which he manufactures weapons. It’s unclear how this fits with his hobby of wearing clattering steam-punk wings – Spider-Man refers to him as “Flying Vulture Guy” – but the casting of Michael Keaton is a double in-joke, allowing the actor, in essence, to reprise the character from his 2014 comedy Birdman, which was in turn an allusion to his baleful Batman.
Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t overhaul a tired franchise so much as dust off its cobwebs. Peter’s previously homely Aunt May is played by the sassy Marisa Tomei, though she does little more than get swooned over by the male cast. One smart move was to cast an actual young person as the hero. Tobey Maguire (27 when he first played Spider-Man) and Andrew Garfield (29) were the oldest high-schoolers since Grease. But Holland, who was 19 when he made his debut in the role last year in Captain America: Civil War, has a goody-two-shoes gaucheness. When he opts for the “Interrogation Mode” setting on his hi-tech suit, the gravelly voice that emerges from his mouth seems like just another unpredictable symptom of adolescence. (As Captain America says in one of the splendidly corny educational videos shown at Peter’s school: “So, your body’s changing. Believe me, I know how that feels . . .”)
Spider-Man movies have been here before – both Maguire and Garfield were shown losing control of their web-shooters in a sticky metaphor for the adolescent male body. But the new picture extends its curiosity to the other youngsters in Peter’s orbit, all misfits on the “academic decathlon team”. The jolly Ned (Jacob Batalon) is bursting with questions: “Do you lay eggs? Can you summon a spider army?” The peevish Flash (Tony Revolori) leads disparaging chants about Peter while DJ-ing. Richest of all is the laconic, politically clued-up Michelle (Zendaya), who wears a Sylvia Plath T-shirt and attends detention because she “likes to sketch people in crisis”.
The superhero genre hasn’t previously been a hotbed of diversity, but each of these bright sparks has a different ethnic background. What matters more is that they have been invested with a level of detail that leaves the usual conventions of the superhero movie looking superannuated. When Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) – also known as Iron Man – shows up for several scenes of smug preening, he doesn’t have an ounce of Ned’s gawky charisma. When Spider-Man has to keep the Staten Island Ferry from sinking, or dodge Flying Vulture Guy’s laser cannons, it’s hard not to wonder how Michelle is spending her evening.
Holed up in their corporate headquarters, the Avengers are passé, their concerns and conflicts remote. It’s time for a movie about their infinitely more interesting human counterparts – Academic Decathlon Team Assemble.
This article appears in the 05 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania