Spider-Man has been thoroughly abused. Critics savaged the Amazing Spider-Man series, despite Andrew Garfield’s competent portrayal of Peter Parker, and Sam Raimi’s trilogy ended with an unsatisfying downward spiral into cartoonish angst after flying high in Spider-Man 2. It was clear the Marvel Cinematic Universe wanted Spidey back (Sony holds his movie rights), but they never had any leverage. Sony would never give back such a money maker…until they got hacked. The hack didn’t reveal anything too stunning, but just enough to embarrass Sony back to the negotiating table.
Then our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man (Tom Holland) came home. He popped up in Captain America’s Civil War to the delight of the audience. Despite his inexplicable appearance (come on, Stark. You really recruited an untested 15-year-old to fight Cap and friends when Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Matt Murdock were a couple neighborhoods over?), he was a bright spot in a convoluted slog of a film. With a “Hey everyone,” Tom Holland’s web slinger was an instant hit.
The MCU pushed Inhumans off the schedule and started crafting their new Spidey film, and it instantly ran into problems. Writers came and went, the final film actually credits six writers. Fanboys hated Zendaya’s casting though her role was technically a mystery, they didn’t like Tony Revolri’s casting as Flash, actually they just hated anything that didn’t precisely look like the comics. (side note: let’s all get over that. Books have been translated to film and television for decades now, and there are always changes, and this holds true for comic books. /end aside.)
Last year at San Diego Comic-Con, Kevin Feige introduced Homecoming footage and described it as John Hughes-esque. This description…made me skeptical. Along with footage that looked very teenage angst, it was very Marvel-slick quips with no sharp edges. Then the marketing campaign started and there was. So. Much. Iron Man. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has lost his shine in the MCU, the arrogant playboy has simply been played too hard and his schtick is getting old and irritating. The trailers were standard. The posters were tacky and disappointing. Nothing was clicking.
Good lord. What marketing genius came up with this?
And for some unknown damn reason it all worked out. It’s more likely that Spider-Man: Homecoming will succeed despite its production issues, constant reboots, and marketing rather than because of it. It’s part of the Marvel marketing machine now after all, and everyone loves Spider-Man. And it’s a fun movie, with some really solid performances.
*spoiler warning-major plot points of Homecoming are described beyond this point…proceed at your own risk*
First and foremost, the Keatonaissance continues! Michael Keaton’s Vulture sparked this film to life, and will easily go down as one of the MCU’s best villains. Adrian Toomes is a working-class every man who was scavenging a decent living cleaning up after the Avengers’ battles in New York. Until the Department of Damage Control (*sigh*) swoops in and declares his work is now theirs. His enemies are the arrogant elitists and the government bureaucrats trying to prevent him from doing an honest day’s work. But Toomes’ is nothing if not a creative entrepreneur, and he sees an opportunity to get a return on his investment. He wants to protect his family, his employees, and his way of life. He develops weapons from the debris left lying around after the Avengers complete their missions to sell on the street. His flying “vulture guy” costume is very intimidating and dark, but one of the scariest scenes is actually a tense conversation in a car. That ordinary guy next door suddenly telling you, clearly and calmly, that he will kill everyone you love could be cheesy coming from a lesser actor. But Keaton has a simmering menace and a subtle, “you wanna get nuts?! Let’s get nuts!” fervor in his eyes that could explode through at any moment that really sells it. He’s Peter Parker’s “one bad day” dark mirror image.
Holland remains a delight as Peter Parker. He runs with a fairly passable Queens accent, he’s awkward, earnest, clumsy, and enthusiastic to be a great superhero even if he’s not that good at it yet. But Peter has been living back in his world of gym classes and academic decathlons after being part of a global Avengers event, and he desperately wants to prove he’s ready for the big time again. He’s been thwarting bike thieves and helping old ladies cross the street since he got home, he’s hoping for a little more action. Peter’s youth makes this Spider-Man the most interesting. You’re really worried for him because this is his Year Zero, and frankly, he’s not that good at Spider-Manning just yet. Peter is still making impetuous choices, still figuring out how to land, trying to decide between high school and being an Avenger. He falls down and hits his head a lot. Connecting the dots of the bad guys plan isn’t his strong point (to be fair, he’s 15), and one character even tells him, “you need to get better at this part of the job.”
Part of what makes this Spider-Man work is how frequently he fails; his youth and inexperience shine through. These aren’t globe threatening events. The stakes are high for Peter, but not for the world. They keep Spider-Man firmly in his neighborhood.
Peter’s high school of advanced kids works as a better background for him than his public school ever did. We don’t have to watch Peter avoid another hallway fight with the jocks. Even though he and his best buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon) are still not among the popular kids, Peter has a support group at school that likes him (plus his bully, Flash, always lurking somewhere). Director Jon Watts does a good job of letting high school life influence Peter and his decisions, while not overwhelming us with typical teen movie elements. We get a dance, and a party, both apparently essential elements of high school movies, but we don’t spend a lot of time there. (I was thrilled to see comedian Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr (Silicon Valley), and Selenis Levya (Orange is the New Black) as tired but (mostly) determined teachers!) But the setting reminds the audience of just how young Peter is. Peter is perpetually trying to run off and do some hero stuff, and Ned keeps reminding him “but we have a Spanish quiz!” It helps ground Peter’s over-enthusiasm for his new job.
Peter’s friends are a fun group. Peter’s BFF Ned is easily Spider-Man’s greatest fan, he’s your favorite happy fanboy (not the mean ones who complain about every deviation from comic book canon as a cover for their own biases), who gets excited to try on the suit and explains with a huge grin that he’s *terrible* at keeping secrets. Funnily enough, so is Holland. The Russo brothers notoriously won’t let him read the full script for Infinity War, though that’s fairly standard practice, it is hilarious that they told him it’s because he can’t keep a secret. Zendaya splashes in as that overzealous, smart, politically active, snarky friend, Michelle, and she often has some of the greatest laugh-driven moments in the movie. Peter’s crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), is pretty, Hermione-smart, driven, and popular. Even the class bully, Flash (played with happy zeal by Tony Revolori) is smart, but still a mean and entitled kid, and prone to juvenile name calling. This diverse group of kids brings a touch of what a science and technology school could really look like in New York. I mean, if all the kids were also models.Some things that didn’t work: Tony Stark. Unless it was just to point out how dissimilar Stark is from Peter, a hero with power but no responsibility, Stark shows up just as a through-line to the Avengers. No matter how many times Peter reports back that Toomes’ weapons are showing up on the streets and that the Vulture is a real threat, Stark points out that it’s above Peter’s pay grade (but apparently too low-level for an Avenger). He’s a scold, and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is one-note as Peter’s surly monitor. Stark gave a kid a super suit and left him to figure it out on his own with no training and minimal supervision. Luckily, he has a limited amount of screen time, considering. Too bad Cap is on the run in the MCU, Peter could use a real mentor.
Marisa Tomei isn’t given nearly enough to do as Aunt May. Mostly men get to awkwardly comment about how hot she is to Peter’s, and the audience’s, cringing dismay. The ladies in this movie are all well rounded, but get little action.
This movie is still a distinct entry into the MCU, it’s setting itself up for sequels and other connections to the sprawling cinematic universe. The focus on the future takes away from the impact of the action happening in the present.
Overall, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a welcome addition to the MCU. It’s light and zippy, without relying on an overly complex plot or being weighed down by weaving in a multitude of different heroes. The actors nail it, the plot is grounded but fun, and the villain is relatable and memorable. Hopefully, Marvel keeps on this track for its future films.
Easter eggs (extra spoilery edition)-
Here are some easter eggs I thought were the most interesting:
Donald Glover’s casting might have seemed extraneous to the average movie goer, but he plays Aaron Davis, uncle to one Miles Morales, who is a Spider-man in the comics (there are a lot of Spiders in the Marvel Comics world). There was some hope that Miles would be the MCU’s Spider-Man in the earliest parts of their re-acquisition of the character’s movie rights. Apparently Glover even auditioned for the role of Miles in a movie that never materialized.
When Stark revealed the upgraded Spider suit at the end of the movie, along side a press briefing, my heart stopped. We weren’t really going to out Peter and move into an Iron Spider story were we? Too soon! Luckily, Peter wasn’t interested, and makes the very mature decision to keep practicing his web slinging in the friendly confines of his neighborhood.
Principal Morita (Kenneth Choi) has pictures of the Howling Commandos on his desk. Of course, Choi actually played Jim Morita, a member of the Howling Commandos in the first Captain America movie.
The fan theories were right, Zendaya is MJ, apparently now “Michelle something-that-starts-with-J.” I was actually a little astonished by that, but thrilled that it’s going to make Spider-Man purists SO MAD. However, the moment itself fell a little flat. When studios try to tell us the opposite of what is clearly true (Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan! We all knew it!), they strip away the intended impact. Sure, the “spoiler” (how is it a spoiler if it’s so well known?) averse might complain, but it’s important to see what destiny can look like too. Zendaya playing a small, if fun, role, was puzzling. Why cast a big name actress if she was inconsequential? Wonder Woman succeeded at this by never playing coy with the fact that Steve Trevor and Diana were definitely going to get together. No acting as if they didn’t like each other for the first half of the film, no moment of, “surprise! Chris Pine is *actually* playing Steve Trevor!” We knew they would get together, and we were rooting for them by the time the characters got there.
Oh yeah, and Pepper Potts inexplicably reappeared. Presumably, just to remind us she still existed. Maybe Goop isn’t paying well enough. Maybe we just needed Tony to stop moping. That reveal was also a bit of a shrug.