Spider-Man: Homecoming review: Not the character-defining movie we've been waiting for

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The latest Marvel blockbuster is strewn with in-jokes, each one a little gift for the fans who have continued to buy tickets for a franchise that now spans 16 movies over almost a decade.

Take the title: “Homecoming” does refer to an event in the film, but every Marvel geek knows it’s really a nod to Spider-Man finally being brought back into the Marvel stable after being tied up in a long-standing deal with rival Sony.

A scene-stealing cameo by new kid Tom Holland in the recent Captain America: Civil War brought excitement in the character back to levels unseen since the early days of Toby McGuire. It’s from this memorable sequence that Spider-Man: Homecoming picks things up.

After taking part in the super-hero battle of the century – brilliantly retold in a snappy “video diary” – Peter Parker is ditched unceremoniously back in Queens. “We’ll call you,” says Tony Stark. Parker, complete with a new high-tech suit, goes out in search of crime to fight, but ends up doing more harm than good, at least until he stumbles upon a group of low-level arms dealers peddling stolen alien technology to street hoodlums.

The gang leader, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toombs, is the perfect antagonist for the Trump generation, a regular Joe who’s fed up with the rich elites running the show, lashing out wildly against injustices both real and imagined. He’s nuanced and smartly written, and Keaton plays him brilliantly; he’s an ideal foil for the burgeoning teenage hero.

The fight sequences between the two, however, are among the weakest parts of the movie; they’re serviceable but you can’t shake the feeling it’s all been done before. This extends to the set-pieces, too: one involving the Staten Island ferry is remarkably similar those seen in previous films (the cable-car scene from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and the train sequence from the sequel both spring to mind), although a vertiginous scene atop the Washington Monument is a highlight.

Director Jon Watts, whose only previous credits are for little-known movies Cop Car and Clown, wisely spends time poring over the minutiae of Parker’s life. The scenes featuring Parker and his nerdy friend Ned are exceptionally well-paced, with their quick-fire, goofy exchanges about girls and computers perfectly suited to Holland’s off-kilter charm and flair for physical comedy.

If Homecoming had been content to be a high-school movie with a couple of fights, it might have ranked among Marvel’s best. But it also wants to be an action blockbuster, and a part of the ever-expanding Marvel mega-structure. It clocks in at just over two hours, but it packs in so much it ends up feeling far longer.

In the end, despite the promise of an all-new Spidey, it feels ever-so-slightly stale, lacking the visual flair of the recent Doctor Strange or the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. It’s still imbued with the crackling energy and sharp humour that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made a stock in trade, but it’s not the character-defining movie many of us had hoped for.