Spider-Man is and always has been my favorite superhero. Much of that is owed to growing up in the 90s and early aughts, but in my view, Spidey was the first hero to get right what a lot of the DC legends got wrong. Admiring a hero from afar is fine, but to get truly invested in one, you need to be able to sympathize with him. Peter Parker is the everyman. He’s the first comic book character whose true identity is more important than his heroic alter ego.
To date, none of his (now many) film iterations have managed to strike the balance between Peter and Spidey, human and hero while finding the melding point between the two, which is often as indistinguishable for the character as it is for the audience.
Yeah … they got it right.
For those who might not know, previous Spider-Man films (all five) have been produced, written and marketed by Sony Pictures, who optioned the film rights to the character in the late 90s. After a successful first trilogy directed by Sam Raimi, Spidey was rebooted in 2012 with the short-lived Amazing Spider-Man series. Audiences liked the casting and much of the action, but the script of the first film was a total rehash of the 2002 original and the second was the first unmitigated disaster in the franchise (Spider-Man 3 has some good moments.)
This prompted Sony to—presumably—go crawling back to Marvel, who have become a juggernaut in the film industry and in pop culture with their ridiculously successful—and largely consistent—Marvel Cinematic Universe. Both sides came together and agreed to a bit of a lease situation, giving us a new Spider-Man (played by Tom Holland) who made his MCU debut in last year’s Captain America: Civil War.
Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up concurrently with Civil War and most of the film takes place in the months (ie: semester) immediately following that darker entry in the MCU canon. The result is a breezy, fun and infectious hometown hero story that shows that everyone from the heads at Marvel Studios to Tom Holland, Director Jon Watts and the script writers firmly understand both Peter Parker and Spider-Man, what makes each tick, and what has been sorely (and surprisingly) absent from previous efforts.
It’s no easy feat to make a character we’ve seen in film six times in the last 15 years feel fresh. Homecoming does it with aplomb, and if this is the bar set by his first solo outing in the MCU, color me very excited for the webslinger’s future on screen.
Not surprisingly, much of what works in Homecoming is owed directly to Tom Holland’s incredible performance in the lead role. Again, this is an iconic role, and one that’s been played by two highly capable actors in recent years. I can honestly say that Holland is the best iteration of the character we’ve had so far. He’s awkward, funny, likable and charismatic at even turns, heartfelt when he needs to be and, most importantly, excited about basically everything to do with the superhero world he’s happened into.
Homecoming is the first film in the MCU to really go for the street-level view of the MCU (excepting the stellar Marvel Netflix shows, which only bare an ancillary connection to the MCU proper,) and the movie demonstrates in believable fashion what it must be like growing up in a world where Iron Man, Captain America and Thor are mainstays on the evening news. Because of this, Homecoming feels real in a way no MCU film aside from Iron Man and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have quite managed.
The script flows along with an easy energy, with plenty of humor (that actually works,) punching up the dialogue. Spider-Man might have enough power to challenge any Avenger, but he’s still a high school kid, and Watts manages to root him there even as he demonstrates Parker’s yearning for the larger world that he got a taste of in the epic airport fight in Civil War.
Perhaps the most pleasant and welcome surprise in Homecoming is the villain. Loki was great, but the MCU has really put the focus on its heroes, often at the expense of their counterparts. Michael Keaton’s Vulture stands right at the top for me as being potentially the best villain in the series’ long history. He’s at turns menacing, intelligent, violent and even likable. Most of all, he’s a true foil for Peter Parker, and when he does get around to a bit of monologuing in the third act, he makes some damn good points. He’s a blue collar villain coming up against a blue collar hero, and the resulting rivalry is electric to watch.
The marketing for Homecoming has largely focused on Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. It makes sense. The studio wants you to know this is a part of the MCU proper, and not everyone scours the movie blogs and comic book sites on a daily basis to see what’s what and who’s got whom in the various cinematic universes cropping up in the last decade. I’m happy to say that Stark’s presence is not only seamless, but rather essential in terms of presenting a heavily-flawed father figure for Peter to imprint on and learn from, for better and worse. He might be a marketing ploy in the trailers, but in the script, Stark serves a true narrative and thematic function.
Iron Man is in the film just enough, which is to say, he’s not there much. That’s good. This is Spider-Man’s film, and it remains such right through to the end.
While I won’t go into details, there was one scene in the third act that took Homecoming from fun into the realm of great for me, and in all likelihood it’s simply owing to the fact that it was ripped right from the pages of one of my favorite Spidey comics as a kid. It’s a moment that reminds us how strong Spidey is, and where that strength comes from. Peter Parker isn’t hiding behind that suit. He is that suit, and that suit is him.
My complaints with Homecoming are few and far between. I thought some of the action scenes, while inventive, could have used a bit more impact. There wasn’t anything truly hard-hitting about the superhero-supervillain throw-downs we get. This is a Spidey in training, and it shows. Some scenes in the middle portion of the film seemed like buttons of placeholders, serving no real function aside from lending a laugh or a clever bit of dialogue, and for a film that went through pains to emphasize Peter as a high school student, it could have lingered there a little more.
Overall, Spider-Man: Homecoming is as fun as all the reviews are suggesting. While that term is often an easy way to suggest mediocrity, here it’s brimming with intent. Spider-Man as a character combines the fun of being a young superhero with the tragedy of the human condition in a way Batman never has and Superman never could. He’s simply the best of us, and it’s why he is and always has been the best hero Marvel’s got.