Spider-Man: Homecoming shouldn’t have worked. It has six(!) credited screenwriters, it has to tie into a greater established universe, it’s the child of two different major studios, and it’s the third time we’ve had a new Spider-Man franchise in fifteen years. This movie could have been a complete disaster but it’s not. In fact it’s the best Spider-Man movie since Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2 and it’s one of the most fun you’ll have at the theater this summer.
Anchored by a star making performance by Tom Holland as Spider-Man/Peter Parker, probably the best performance in the lead role of any of the Spider-Man movies, Homecoming bursts on to the screen by eschewing the bombast of other Marvel films and choosing to tell a smaller more grounded story. The villain in the film, a pitch perfect Michael Keaton as the Vulture, isn’t trying to destroy the world or conquer the universe, he’s basically just an arms dealer. However, this smaller story enables us to spend more time with Peter and learn more about him. Fresh off of his stint fighting with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Captain America: Civil War Peter is feeling neglected by Stark as he continues to attempt to juggle being a small-time neighborhood crime stopper and a high school student in Queens.
While this idea has been previously explored in Spider-Man movies, it’s never received as in-depth a look as it does here. Director Jon Watts pulls of the difficult feat of making Peter feel like a real teenager, in a real high school, with real teenager classmates. For long stretches the film feels more like a John Hughes movie, a coming of age tale, with Peter and his best friend Ned (a hilarious Jacob Batalon) navigating crushes, detention, cliques, and teachers. This is perhaps one of the funniest Marvel movies but it rarely feels forced, the humor from each character comes differently and each quip feels organic. It helps that the film brings in ringers for some comedy including Martin Starr and Hannibal Buress as teachers, and a woefully underutilized Donald Glover as a street level criminal.
At the end of the day this is a coming of age story in the vein of many an 80’s teen film with Peter as the teen protagonist who needs to learn a life lesson and Stark as the father figure mentor, a role usually reserved for Peter’s comic book father figure Uncle Ben. In a world where it seems like every superhero movie is an origin story for someone, it’s refreshing to have Spider-Man movie where Uncle Ben is mentioned once, to have movie trust it’s audience to understand why Peter acts the way he does due to what occurs on-screen and not because we are told that “with great power comes great responsibility”. It helps that the script coupled with Holland’s expert portrayal manage to create a compelling and complex character that develops and grows through out the film.
The few problems I have with the film come down to two things, story and direction. First off the direction by Jon Watts struggles to showcases the film’s action scenes, often making them less visually interesting than they should be. Secondly as with most Marvel movies this film feels a bit too filled with ideas, and it’s need to touch on a variety of different point hurts it overall. It also leads to some characters getting used less than they deserve, the aforementioned Donald Glover as Aaron Davis and especially Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. Aging her down, the film imagines Aunt May as more of a single mother, an idea that sadly goes mostly unused. The romance between Peter and cool girl Liz (Laura Harrier) also could have used more time together, especially with the pivotal role it plays in the back half of the film.
What the story lacks at times in character ideas it more than makes up for with world building. We get small glimpses at the much larger Marvel world that make it seem so much richer. Vulture gets started on his life of crime due to a new government department that collects and disposes of waste and debris caused by superhero activity, we see small PSAs in Peter’s school starring Captain America, and in universe events are mentioned with one teacher referring to Cap as a “war criminal”. This real world feel also extends to Peter’s Queens, a place the film treats like a real place complete with bodegas, grumpy neighbors, trains, and people who argue about where to get the best sandwich. While the characters in the Marvel universe are great, the same can’t be said for the worlds the create, often feeling just like backdrops instead of real places. In contrast this Queens feels lived in, feels real, and unlike many a Marvel movie doesn’t feel like the background setting to an inevitable big fight.
In the end that’s what sets this movie apart from the rest of the Marvel canon. It feels smaller, more lived in, and in doing so provides a breath of fresh air. It’s funny without feeling forced. Holland in the main role creates a someone who feels equally believable as both Spider-Man and Peter Parker, and refreshingly just loves being a hero. The villain is compelling while also being genuinely threatening. The film manages its light-hearted tone while being able to deal with serious moments and never becoming a pure comedy. There are some problems but in the end the film gives you so much to enjoy that it becomes hard to care about the problems it has. In Spider-Man: Homecoming something truly unique in the Marvel universe has been created, characters and a world worth following and exploring.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Directed by Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, and Robert Downey Jr.