Spider-Man: Homecoming is the sixth cinematic outing for Marvel’s flagship character (all since 2000; this iteration debuted in last year’s Captain America: Civil War), and this newest venture has to find a way to be different. In some ways what is interesting about Homecoming are the things conspicuously absent from the film. There’s very little Manhattan. There’s no Uncle Ben. And a radioactive spider is only mentioned in passing. Homecoming is very pointedly not an origin story, but in trying to stake out a unique place for itself, it forgoes too many of these classic elements to be considered the ultimate Spider-Man film.
But who can blame them for trying something new? Spider-Man was synonymous with blockbuster success a decade ago. With Tobey Maguire under the mask the trilogy directed by Sam Raimi deeply resonated with audiences. Raimi’s films are a love letter to the comics of his youth and so his films are chiefly concerned with the teenage melodrama of Spider-Man’s early years, specifically evoking the dialogue of the 1960’s comics. Larger than life and bursting with color, they are still close to the platonic ideal of what a comic book movie can be.
They were followed by Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films, which were never as creatively or as financially successful as Raimi’s films. It felt like Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone were the only amazing parts of those two films. Webb’s vision of telling Spider-Man stories in the vein of contemporary YA novel adaptations was fitting for Spider-Man—the distance between superhero comics and Twilight is closer than some would like to admit—but the clumsy way the story came together doomed this reboot.
And so Sony decided to join forces with Marvel under Disney, sharing the creative load when it comes to the web-slinger. For better and for worse, this is as much a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film as it is a Spider-Man film. This Spider-Man is the one that would exist at this particular point in the MCU’s life cycle. He is more inspired by the Avengers than he is by his dear departed Uncle Ben; as he is the first character we’ve come to know who is coming of age in this new era of Iron Man.
Homecoming picks up after Civil War. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) gives Peter Parker (Tom Holland) his new tricked out Spidey suit and instructs him to use Happy Hogan (a returning Jon Favreau) as his liaison for all things superheroic. For his part, Peter slacks off on his grades in order to focus on his “Stark Internship” an excuse he gives to his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and his Academic Decathlon team led by his crush Liz (Laura Harrier). Of course, this internship is just a way for him to spend time swinging around Queens looking for trouble.
Peter soon crosses paths with Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvage business owner who has turned to dealing weapons powered by items taken from the aftermath of superhero battles to street level criminals. Toomes also uses this technology for himself and his crew, upgrading them in the face of this new superpowered world. With his winged suit and scavenging business model, his moniker as The Vulture is appropriate. Soon Peter becomes obsessed with stopping him, despite Stark telling him not to get involved.
The film has a simple, yet chaotic plot, accurately portraying the multiple levels of stress that Peter puts himself through in his life. And though the ubiquitous phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” is not uttered in the film, this Spider-Man exhibits the poor “work/life balance” that has been a hallmark of his character since he was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962. Between school, taking on the Vulture, and protecting his aunt, friends, and neighborhood, Peter has too many self delegated duties. His ambition and sense of purpose extends well beyond his reach as a high school sophomore, even one with super abilities.
Despite the film having six writing credits, the themes and plot mesh together perfectly (I assume some of those writers were mostly to punch up dialogue or smooth out some edges). Most prominent is the theme of family and specifically parenthood, most evidently personified in the characters of the Vulture and Iron Man. Like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Toomes justifies his turn to crime because he wants to give his family the life they deserve. Stark’s Damage Control, the official salvage crew operated by the US government, put Toomes out of business, or so he believes. Toomes makes a compelling argument that he sees himself as a working class hero, taking what is rightfully his back from the genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropists of the world who use their station to keep themselves on top and everyone else down. The Vulture is truly a sympathetic villain in a way we rarely get in superhero films.
Toomes is a great foil for Tony Stark. Both men have used technology to reinvent themselves and disrupt the system. While this sets Toomes up to be a great Iron Man opponent (he’s way more compelling than any threat in the actual Iron Man films), this is still a Spider-Man movie. Throughout the film, Tony is—almost too self-consciously—guiding Peter in the way he wishes his father had mentored him. Peter Parker finds himself caught between these two men and what they represent. He’s a middle class kid who aspires to be more, not a silver spoon baby like Stark. Peter idolizes Stark, but becomes frustrated with his mentorship and generosity, chaffing against his “training wheels protocol” built into the Spider-Man suit. While Peter is an absolutist when it comes to right and wrong, there is at least one scene in the film that gives him pause when confronted with Toomes’ view of the world. Thematically, these two being Spider-Man’s mentor and nemesis create a powerful dramatic engine that adds a lot to the film’s third act.
The thematic work is bolstered greatly by Keaton’s performance. He is able to cover a huge range while remaining balanced, never going loud when he should go soft or vice versa. It seems that after almost a decade of filmmaking, Marvel actually has two films in a row with a decent villain; they are finally hiring bigger name actors and not burying them under avalanches of makeup. Keaton is a great focal point for the film. His interactions with the small time crooks working for him as well as with Peter are a highlight of the movie. In fact, one of the best things about Homecoming is that Marvel has finally, after 15(!) other films, introduced crime other than corporate espionage to its cinematic universe. This film gets back to the roots of the genre and having Spider-Man spending at least some of his time thwarting bike thieves and would-be carjackers deepens this universe in a way that is sorely needed. Doubly so after Civil War, since the hero-against-hero schtick gets old quick.
While I appreciate all of the callbacks to the source material, Homecoming doesn’t quite capture everything I want from a Spider-Man movie. It isn’t that I need another origin story. But there are plenty of things that are core to Spider-Man that I look forward to seeing in any adaptation. In this one he has a suit brimming with drones, parachutes, “interrogation mode,” and other technological wizardry, but we do not get to see Spider-Man joyously swinging through the glass canyons of Manhattan. And that is a problem. I welcome many of these tweaks, as it makes sense given the franchise timeline, but it doesn’t give me those iconography-based thrills I crave. The film tries to make up for this with easter eggs alluding to other characters (including one of my favorite of Spidey’s foes), but it still comes up a bit short. Or maybe Damage Control, one of my all-time favorite concepts from the Marvel Universe (I hope Dwayne McDuffie’s family gets a nice check from Marvel for this) is introduced so early in the film that it was all downhill from there for my inner fanboy.
That said, the film’s biggest issue is that the action is a bit lackluster. We’ve seen all of those basic Spider-Man moves enough to know how they operate. While having an Iron Man-esque suit could be a great way to bring some fresh ideas to the action sequences, nothing in Homecoming is even as exciting as Spidey’s contributions to the airport sequence in Civil War. To make matters worse, a few moments were genuinely tough to follow at IMAX size, like my eye could not figure out where I was supposed to be looking. It isn’t quick cutting to hide sloppy choreography so much as a severe lack of elegance.
Action aside, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a well-crafted film that finds the right balance between serving character and franchise. It makes for a welcome inclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, adding a new ‘street level’ layer that has been missing from the franchise, while remaining true to the Spider-Man character and history. It will never be the definitive Spider-Man film, but it isn’t trying to be, and it succeeds in making Peter Parker a true boy (genius) next door.
Spider-Man: Homecoming opens in Philly theaters today.