Overview: Young Peter Parker struggles to balance life between ordinary life and super heroics as Spider-Man after stumbling across a gang of supervillains with alien weaponry. Sony Pictures; 2017; PG-13; 133 minutes.
Friendly MCU Spider-Man: The origins of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man are established in adolescent insecurity and regret. When there’s the opportunity to do good and help others, it’s Peter Parker’s responsibility to use his power for the greater good and not his own reward. Everyone is aware of Uncle Ben’s death by gunshot, indirectly caused by Peter’s selfishness and the iconic mantra that spawned from it. Spider-Man: Homecoming wisely doesn’t spend time discussing the idea that made the fan-favorite web-slinger as much as it delivers on the idea through action.
Peter does go through the moral dilemma of using his powers for his own social standing in school, even though he knows that’s not what Spider-Man is. But when trouble is afoot in the quiet suburbs of New York, Peter understands his obligation to help those in need. Complexities like this make the character feel like a tangible succession of what has worked so well in previous iterations while implementing the grander world-building of the MCU.
It all gives this new Peter another layer of angst aside from the guilt bound to his origin. Heroes, gods, and monsters all exist in this world. Peter is just a kid from Queens who happened to get lucky (if you want to call it that) with his abilities. Greatness was thrust upon him. In broader scenes, Peter is overeager to please his MCU superiors in Happy Hogan and Tony Stark/Iron man, trying to prove himself as Avenger material. The world he inhabits and the absence of a father figure drive his life choices. The quieter moments show Peter as Spider-Man shouting at a gunman “If you’re going to shoot anyone, shoot me,” the guilt still implied but never confronted directly. As big as the film gets, it all feels grounded in character.
Tom Holland’s Peter Parker doesn’t bear the melancholy weight of the world on his shoulders like Tobey Maguire’s does but he captures a new essence to the character. His Spider-Man is fun, but John Watts’ film understands how far to lean into the joy without it feeling like a power fantasy. The actions have consequences and impact the character trajectory for this film or in the endless sequels this will surely spawn. But the root of the actions and consequences is never forgotten. A quiet scene where Ned asks Peter why Aunt May doesn’t know he’s Spider-Man, to which Peter abruptly cuts him off saying, “After everything she’s been through…” or something to that degree. The implication of Ben is there, and the emotional weight is appropriate for this movie, but it would have been nice for the film to really push into the more melancholy territory the character has beneath his webbing.
The decision to include Tony Stark as a mentor and supporting character may have been pause for concern but thankfully his character is truly one of support. There’s somewhat of an arc there but his actions are only there to bolster Peter’s own journey. Claims of Iron Man 4 have thankfully been blown out of proportion. Another notch on the belt of Homecoming: Tony Stark is shown not to have all the answers. Yeah, he’s been doing this hero thing for a while now but he’s also made plenty of mistakes along the way. It’s easy to understand how Tony can see himself in Peter. The only difference is Peter has the potential to be better from a far earlier age.
Where the supporting cast further shines is in the honest representation of Peter’s community. Have you ever been to New York? I promise you there are more than just four-quadrant variations of people named Chris. Liz Allan, Flash Thompson, and Peter’s classmates and teachers are primarily people of color, reflecting an authentic environment in a world with larger than life attributes. Peter’s attempt at a romance with his senior classmate, Liz Allan (played by a charming Laura Harrier) is awkward in a generally appropriate way for these characters. However, it’s Ned, played by Jacob Batalon, who is given the best supporting role. It’s the one of the few instances on film of the character having someone to vent his adolescent frustrations to. Batalon’s comedic chops prove to be endearing and applause-worthy, providing just the right amount of levity without lessening established stakes. As most important in a Spider-Man story, the actions need to have lasting consequences, even if they aren’t earth-shattering. And although Marisa Tomei’s May Parker is severely lacking in screentime, she definitely makes the most of it. The same goes for Zendaya, with both actresses hopefully having the opportunity to shine in the next chapter of the series.
On Vulture Wings: On the flipside of things, Homecoming’s villains are a new breed for a Spider-Man story. Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes/Vulture is a surprisingly nuanced foil. Aptly named for his scavenging of post-Avengers battles, Adrian is a working class man who feels wronged by the evolving world around him, he tells his cleanup crew “The world’s changing. Time we change too.” His point is highlighted when he and his crew call out the Avengers for making a mess and being paid to clean it up. Of course, his methods are far more devious and involve putting weapons onto the streets of New York for his own personal gain. Toomes is just trying to get his fair share. A working class villain for a working class hero. Although he doesn’t always feel like a member of the working class with his wingsuit; a construct of hulking metal, behemoth in stature and haunting in appearance. The aerial nature of the Vulture leans heavily into the character’s cinematic quality during the action.
The action in Homecoming feels fresh for a Spider-Man film. Not as operatic as Raimi’s but fitting for a more personalized take on the character while retaining his human essence. A set piece at the Washington Monument doesn’t involve a single antagonist (of which there are several) but only Peter attempting to save his classmates from a damaged elevator. The action is predicated on the character’s wit and intellect, showing his resourcefulness and ingenuity in intense situations. A climax that still feels huge in scale and personality ultimately goes on a little too long for its own good, but still ends on a note of growth for the character. Watts has a keen visual eye from his work on Clown and Cop Car, always confident in his camera placement to evoke the most just sense of emotion. His utility with the camera isn’t as in depth here as his previous work, but even in moments when the action feels like it could get away from him, Watts adds new layers to the visuals to keep things interesting.
Keeping Feet on the Ground: Admittedly, it’s not just in the action that the purpose of Homecoming feels like it can escape the grasp of a genuine storyteller. The MCU trappings have had their detriments in other movies, occasionally leaving some entries feeling as though they are at war with themselves. The choices made here are for the benefit of Peter Parker/Spider-Man first and foremost. How the rest of the universe is impacted is secondary. In a world of gods, genocidal robots, and stones of infinite power, it’s nice to know there’s someone looking out for the little guy.
Overall: Spider-Man: Homecoming establishes a new identity for the titular web-head without sacrificing narrative to the grander schemes of franchise building.
Featured Image: Sony Pictures