Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Spider-Man has had a pretty strange cinematic history up to this point. When Sam Raimi (of Evil Dead fame) came on in 2002 to direct the first onscreen iteration, the superhero genre was still very much in its infancy. Fast-forward 15 years, and the genre has exploded; not only that, but Spider-Man has now been the focus of six live-action films (including this one), helmed by three different filmmakers. * While Spider-Man 2 (2004) rightfully remains near the top of the best of the genre, Spidey’s latest adventure (and his first as an official member of the MCU) is the closest the character has come to those highs.
Much like the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, Peter Parker’s origins as the titular neighborhood hero are arguably culturally canonical to anyone with a pulse. After five previous films, it would have bordered on insulting to run audiences through it all again. What critics often cite as the biggest weakness of the Marvel films (its need to be inclusive to the rest of the MCU) is actually one of Homecoming’s greatest strengths. By thrusting Peter into this existing timeline, by necessity, the character must arrive beyond his origins, and this allows room for an arc that feels unique onscreen. While it is a safe bet most of the audience is familiar with the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016) the film smartly opens with a brief recap of Spider-Man’s introduction to the Avengers universe; it is an effective place to begin because it establishes a tone early on, both in terms of establishing Peter’s place in the larger scheme, as well as showing how much of a kid he really is (and a modern one, at that—creating a cell phone video diary of his misadventures). At 15, this is the youngest iteration of Spider-Man we have seen onscreen ** and what results is probably the most faithful portrayal of a young man struggling to balance his desire to be a hero with his adolescence keeping him on the ground.
After being recruited into the fold by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is eager to join the ranks of the Avengers, often putting his academic and social life on hold in case he receives the call. In practice though, Peter is largely left to his own devices, reporting to his handler Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, also returning) about assisting old ladies with directions (“She was nice, she bought me a churro.”) and stopping bicycle thieves. For this writer, many of the best action films are the ones with stakes that feel reasonable; threats to the very existence of humanity have been done so many times (and not just by this genre) it is difficult not to feel like it is a sign of the creatively bankrupt. It is one of the biggest strengths of the film, then, that at every turn, the action and the stakes feel grounded (in addition to being thematically true to the character). After his first encounter with Adrian Toomes, aka Vulture (Michael Keaton), he has to be rescued by Stark, who insists that Vulture is too big of a target for Parker (though not big enough for the Avengers). In lieu of Uncle Ben, Stark takes on the surrogate father role, and there is a familiar parent-teenager dynamic that displays how alike the two are in many ways. Stark doesn’t have a large role, but it is a pivotal one, and at this point, Downey is able to make a strong impression with only a bit of screen-time. ***
In fairness to its predecessors, all of the Spider-Man films to date have been pretty stacked when it came to casting, but this time around still feels unique. Peter’s classmates are made up of a group that looks like a high school in Queens in 2017 ought to look, with obvious stand-outs like Parker’s closest confidante, Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Michelle (Zendaya) who steals the rug out from every scene she is in. It’s just icing to see guys like Martin Starr and Hannibal Burress show up in small but notably funny roles. Donald Glover also shows up in a few scenes that is a neat Easter Egg for fans that could come into play down the road. Marisa Tomei shows up as Aunt May (notably younger than her predecessors) and is played for jokes about how hot she is, and while she is not given nearly enough to do, the way things shake out ensure that she will be a more dynamic presence in the future. ****
Special mention needs to be made of Michael Keaton, a long-time favorite of this writer who brings far more depth and gravitas to the role than most Marvel villains manage to drum up. As Slash Film contributor Scott Beggs pointed out in an excellent piece, this is partly to do with Vulture’s arc, as he is a sympathetic bad guy with motivations grounded in stakes most of us can understand. Adrian Toomes is the sort of villain that does not think of himself in those terms, and that is what makes him so dangerous. His transformation into Vulture feels earned, as the early events of the film validate his perspective that the little guy will never get ahead as long as there’s men like Stark, or the U.S. government, the rich and the powerful who can flex and wink him out without even noticing. On the face of it, his outlook is not entirely dissimilar to Parker’s, as he eventually rejects the notion of joining the Avengers to stick around Queens and be a hero to the little guy. It is best summed up by the dichotomy of their beliefs in Toomes’ activity as Vulture; Toomes believes he is doing it for his family, while Parker believes he is doing it to them. The fact that they occupy a similar space is what makes watching them so dynamic, and by the end of the film, it is clear that each of them has made a mark on the other. Keaton is legitimately terrifying in the role, particularly later in the film when he shares his first scenes with Parker, and it is clear from the outset he is having a blast.
Keaton is not the only one having fun, either. What really stands out most about the film is just how loose it feels; much like the joy and vibrant color of Wonder Woman (2017) the film really digs into the notion of what teenagers grapple with, like Parker and Ned batting back and forth about whether he should use his secret identity to impress his crush. While both Raimi and Marc Webb wrestled with the notion of the weight of responsibility in being Spider-Man, this Peter Parker feels truest to the one in the funny pages, as he wrestles not with being a hero, but with trying to be a kid, too.
The superhero template has come a long way in a short time, and these days it feels more difficult to make a film that really transcends the regular comic crowd. While the preference is very much a personal one, the best superhero films (in the opinion of this writer) have been the ones that stretch their legs and aspire to something more. Homecoming is one of the best examples of this in the aughts; it is a John Hughes film filtered through the mind of an effusive comic writer. It manages the balancing act between feeling of a whole with its MCU counterparts, and standing entirely on its own. Spider-Man has come home, and the future is bright.
* Respectively, Raimi, Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) and Jon Watts (Cop Car).
** Tom Holland was about 20 at the time of shooting.
*** This is Downey’s 8th (!) time playing Tony Stark/Iron Man in the MCU.
**** For this writer, the funniest scene in the whole film is owed to her.