The story I’ve heard most often is that writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko drew upon their own experiences as bookish, nerdy, New York kids in order to create a character to whom teen readers of the 1960’s would relate. The result was a superhero, the type of person who will run into a burning building to save the arsonist, who still had to deal with everyday issues of school, girls, shyness, family, and even tragedy. This character – Spider-Man – formed the basis of Marvel’s success then, now, and likely into the future: relatable superheroes. While our experiences will obviously not be identical chances are that something about Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, Cindy Moon, or any of the other past and present web-slingers will feel authentic to us in our boring, non-fiction lives. This, and a strong sense of humor, has always been Spider-Man’s greatest strength, weakening most when he moves away from broadly understandable real-world concerns and into the unreal realm of alien symbiotes and far, far too many clones. We will never be as strong as Superman, as perfect as Captain America or Black Panther, as rich or smart as Batman or Iron Man, or as blood-thirsty as Punisher. We weren’t born as royalty or gods or mutants. But we all were, are, or will be teenagers. We’ll have tests, classes, and crushes. We’ll be awkward and nervous and say things we know are stupid but still say anyway. We won’t have the superpowers but if we did then Spider-Man, whichever version we prefer, is who we hope we would be. This sense of identification is what made Spider-Man a success in the 1960’s and it is (among other things) what makes Spider-Man: Homecoming a success now.
After a bit of a heavy-handed origin story, followed by a Marvel Studios opening sequence that will likely induce applause from longtime Spider-fans, Homecoming offers a brilliant glimpse into what the events of Captain America: Civil War were like from Peter Parker’s point of view. His home movie immediately thrusts us into the giddiness of being recruited by the Avengers, the eagerness to impress Tony Stark, the awe of seeing Captain America and the nervousness of then having to fight him. These few, short minutes of handheld camerawork not only serve as a reminder of what has transpired in the greater Marvel Universe but also build the tone of Homecoming as smart, jaunty, and likely the most flat-out fun superhero movie since Guardians of the Galaxy. Rapid-fire cuts and humor also illuminate the mundanity of Peter’s life after this amazing experience. He goes from stealing Captain America’s shield and staring up at Ant-Man’s knee to sitting in history class and being called a loser by the school loner because as we all have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience, high school sucks.
While one of Spider-Man’s greatest strengths has always been his relatability, one of Marvel Studios’s greatest thus far is its ability to weave superhero narratives into other genres. The studio has mixed comic book stories into character drama (Iron-Man), high fantasy (Thor), allegorical political thriller (Captain America), space-faring sci-fi (Guardians of the Galaxy), magical fantasy (Doctor Strange), and even heist film (Ant-Man). With Spider-Man: Homecoming we now have comic book movie as teenage comedy. Thankfully the film doesn’t spend too much of its runtime retreading high school movie cliches (only this time with a superhero!) but rather uses the relatively low stakes of this setting to amplify the effect of its larger narrative. Peter, like many of us, comes to feel trapped in high school yet, when he attempts to step out of the small time and into the “real world,” the impact is immediate and beyond anything he’d prepared for. More gravitas could have been added at this point, if only as foreshadowing, but that would have also broken the breezy momentum of a first half that is loaded with chuckles and little punchlines including a cheesy high school news broadcast, Peter’s friend’s unending questions, and a hilarious appearance by Hannibal Buress as a PE coach who’s been at school too long to care. Most remarkably these elements don’t just make for fun moments, they also maintain the verisimilitude of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is clearly a world that has been affected by the superheroes buzzing all around it, even down to Captain America making instructional videos for detention (and adolescence. Seriously).
Much of the enjoyment of Homecoming stems from its cast. As seen in Civil War, Tom Holland makes a wonderful Spider-Man. Although not quite the geek that the character was originally conceived to be, his awkward eye shifts and vocal cracks nicely portray Peter’s youthful contradictions, the intelligent student who still does stupid things, the confident superhero who can never get things quite right, the kid who can’t believe he’s being treated as a kid. As much as I personally remain loyal to Tobey Maguire as the right choice for the original Spider-Man trilogy (even with Spider-Man 3), Holland is likely the best person to portray the character, especially given the way Parker is written now. Just as wonderful is (Hawaii-born!) Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned. The guy in the chair is the perfect foil for Parker and their banter is a source of endless delight throughout the film. The rest of the cast is strong, Downey of course is Tony Stark, Jon Favreau plays a great put-upon Happy Hogan, Zendaya’s every appearance on screen offers something intriguing, and although this Aunt May is radically different from the one most people know, Marisa Tomei does a great job playing an updated and supportive version of the character. One slight disappointment is that Donald Glover isn’t given more of a role. Considering his talent (give Community and Atlanta a watch if you haven’t seen them, they’re brilliant) and his well documented love of Spider-Man, it would be nice to see the actor receive a bit more importance.
Perhaps the most persistent criticism so far of Marvel films is their use of un-fulfilled, one-off villains. Homecoming doesn’t quite break this trend, however, Michael Keaton’s Vulture is at least given a convincing (and surprisingly relevant) motivation. He isn’t exactly compelling, and far from frightening, but he’s an improvement over some of Marvel’s past villains. None of this is the fault of Keaton, as he does bring as much menace as the film allows, but with the near-decade long build-up to Infinity War coming to a head Marvel desperately needs to increase its level of evil in order to keep Thanos from feeling wasted. Nonetheless, the film does an excellent job of bringing a sense of danger to what is a very small story in relation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The effects can be a bit of a mixed bag, with some awkward super-imposition, a clearly CGI Spider-Man swinging from buildings, and an overly kaledioscopic climax, but overall the film looks really good with a style that is consistent with other Marvel films but clearly, uniquely routed in the world of a high school sophomore. If nothing else, it’s nice to not see a blue beam shooting into the sky for once.
The significance of Spider-Man’s “homecoming” goes without saying. Although I’d still argue that Spider-Man 2 remains the character’s best film, in that the themes are the most authentic to the character Spider-Man has always been, this third iteration feels like the perfect vision of the character for the current era, in the same way that Ledger’s Joker is the best but Nicholson’s was right for 1989’s Batman. Homecoming‘s version of Spider-Man may be very different from the one created to appeal to teens of the 1960’s, and while those of us who have long since grown out of Spider-Man Halloween masks and homemade costumes (see the picture in my bio below) may not relate as much as we used to, the character’s strength remains. Our personal experiences may vary greatly, and we may even prefer to see a movie focusing on another version of the superhero, but chances are that something about this newest on-screen version of Spider-Man will resonant with the viewer, whether we have, are, or will be in his place. If not, then there’s still an enjoyable, funny, and exciting film to watch while we wait for the version we prefer. And then we need to hope that Sony doesn’t screw it up.