I laughed a lot at Spider-Man: Homecoming and was thoroughly entertained from beginning to end, but was left thinking nothing happening on screen really mattered. There are no real long-lasting consequences to anything anyone does, and while we are spared yet another retelling of Spider-Man’s origin story we are also robbed of a clear sense of the hero’s moral code or purpose for being. It’s a 2+ hour movie about a 15-year-old kid trying too hard to impress his hero (a sparingly used Tony Stark), repeatedly failing in everything he does before kind of triumphing long after the film has lost track of why exactly the bad guy’s actions are actually all that bad (Michael Keaton’s Vulture is a somewhat sympathetic arms dealer specializing in alien tech-enhanced weapons). Plus, there are sporadic flashes of John Hughes-esque high school drama, which Homecoming doesn’t lean into as much as it should. It’s all just a little too lightweight for its own good.
But then I remember the Joel Schumacher-esque The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and tell myself to appreciate the quality control Marvel Studios clearly brought to Homecoming. And make no mistake – this is a Marvel Studios movie through and through. As Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige told THR, his pitch which resulted in Sony-Marvel’s current shared custody of Spidey was, “Have Sony pay for the movie, distribute the movie, market the movie. Just let us make the movie and incorporate him into our universe.”
Not surprisingly, then, Homecoming checks off all the familiar Marvel Studio boxes. There’s an inexperienced, youngish director (John Watts) whose contributions are hard to pinpoint considering how much of the film was likely finished off by Marvel’s post-production experts. Jokes are repeatedly prioritized over drama or sincerity, maximizing the film’s enjoyment factor but limiting its ability to have a Wonder Woman-like impact on audiences. A superhero narrative is molded onto a familiar, yet somewhat dormant genre (in this case, the coming-of-age high school movie), creating an intriguing blend which must regrettably always revert back to superhero story beats. There are plenty of nerd-baiting moments derived from the inter-connectivity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (e.g., Captain America PSAs are exactly as corny as you’d expect), and the villain could have been better.
It’s an assembly line approach which Marvel has perfected by now, and you can certainly criticize it. But with the rest of Hollywood stuck embarrassingly chasing after Disney’s tail reliability has become a rare and viable commodity. Homecoming, like Guardians of the Galaxy 2 earlier this summer and Doctor Strange late last year, has it in spades, though. You know exactly what kind of movie to expect, and are rarely surprised or bored. After all, although this is technically the 6th Spider-Man movie in the last 15 years it’s his first solo adventure as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has racked up 16 movies over the past decade. So, Homecoming has far more in common with something like Ant-Man than with any web slinging adventures Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield ended up in. All of those things prior Spider-Man movies would hit hard (e.g., Peter’s tortured love life, the ongoing struggle between his personal life and superhero life) are present but de-emphasized here in favor of focusing harder on putting the character into unfamiliar situations (e.g., what is Spider-Man to do when there are no buildings to websling off of?).
As we glimpsed in Civil War last summer, this Peter Parker’s standard tale of woe is already behind him. Instead of re-re-relearning the old lesson about great power and all that he’s a teenager pining to join the big team, except in this particular high school movie the big team is The Avengers. This is a significant departure from prior Spider-Man movies, where Peter’s highest aspirations were more on the level of “get Mary Jane to notice me” or “get J. Jonah Jameson to hire me” and, obviously, help people because it’s the right thing to do. Instead, here Peter is modeling his behavior off of his heroes, likely making him even more of a surrogate figure for the current teens who’ve grown up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and after Civil War it’s only natural for him to be in a hurry to jumpstart his superhero career.
However, in order for Peter to impress The Avengers he must, by definition, deal with something which initially seems small and below The Avengers’ concerns (or else they’d just show up and save the day mid-movie) but eventually proves to be genuinely life-threatening.
Enter Michael Keaton’s Vulture, a contractor who makes 99% vs. 1% grumblings and goes rogue after Tony Stark monopolizes the government/city-contract sanctioned post-Avengers battle clean-up efforts. The bank robbery scene highlighted in nearly every Homecoming trailer is actually the work of a gang who bought weapons from the Vulture, and when Spider-Man attempts to stop them one of their guns goes off and destroys a nearby deli, one which Peter just happens to frequent everyday.
This is perhaps the most crucial moment in the movie because it is the only reminder we get that Peter is not just doing what he’s doing to join The Avengers; he’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do. As the movie itself jokes, he’s the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and somebody flooding his neighborhood with dangerous guns is exactly the kind of thing he should try to stop even as Tony Stark and Happy Hogan repeatedly order him to stay in his lane. However, it somehow gets muddled along the way as Homecoming attempts to juggle a story about Peter accepting the value of simply of saving your friends and neighbors over saving the world with Peter struggling to be both a high school student and masked avenger. It’s not that neither part of the story work; it’s that the movie doesn’t quite take either of them seriously enough.
Furthermore, Spidey’s heroics are far too frequently reduced to him simply using some new piece of tech in the suit gifted to him by Tony in Civil War. There’s even an out-of-nowhere mid-section where Peter is suddenly in his own version of Her, forming a more significant relationship with the female-voiced (Jennifer Connelly) artificial intelligence unit operating his suit than he ever really does with his actual love interest, Liz Allen (Laura Harrier).
Yet these aren’t the kind of faults which ruin the movie. Instead, they are the kinds of things which can be easily smoothed out in the inevitable sequel. Ditto goes for the criminal under utilization of Marisa Tomei as Aunt May (whose one defining characteristic in this movie is that she’s uncommonly attractive), Zendaya as “Michelle” (a scene-stealing, taciturn quasi-friend of Peter’s) and the over-edited, incomprehensible third act fight scene.
And I absolutely look forward to the sequel. After Amazing Spider-Man 2, I was more or less done with Spider-Man, but thanks to Holland’s memorable Civil War appearance my enthusiasm for the character has been renewed. Now, Holland’s interpretation of Peter Parker might be my favorite yet, and the multicultural world he inhabits in Homecoming is refreshing. Other than Peter, Aunt May and the Vulture, almost all of the notable Spider-Man canon characters in this movie have been race-switched to better reflect modern day Queens.
Now, the plan seems to be to spend at least one more movie if not two with Peter Parker as a high school student. He has a fantastic supporting cast to come back to, with a solid set of friends (chiefly Jacob Balaton’s hilarious Ned), rivals (Tony Revolori’s sniveling Flash), potential love interests (Zendaya), recognizable teachers (Hannibal Burress, Kenneth Choi, Martin Starr) and associates (Donald Glover). The next movie will do good to remember that even though we have seen the Spider-Man story over and over again the whole “with great power must also come…” aspect of the character is too important to be glossed over. There needs to be more of a moral weight to what we’re watching, but if light and fluffy is what they have to offer at the moment then I’ll take it when the cast is this good and jokes so consistently amusing.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As the 6th Spider-Man movie of the past 15 years, and 2nd full character reboot of the last 5 years you might expect Homecoming to test your patience for all things Spider-Man. That doesn’t really happen, though. Instead, this turns out to be the fresh start Spider-Man needed. What’s more surprising is how much Homecoming tests your tolerance for all of the usual Marvel Studios story tics. In a year which has given us Logan and Wonder Woman Homecoming could have benefited from more of the naked, non-ironic sincerity which Marvel Studios avoids like the plague. But it’s hard to come down too hard on this movie because at the end of the day Marvel Studios did the Marvel Studios thing, giving us a remarkably enjoyable superhero movie and one of Spider-Man’s finest cinematic outings to date.