♫ Is it good? Listen, bud: It’s no radioactive dud.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s talk about Spider-Man: Homecoming, Sony’s first experience with the Marvel movie-making machine. The wall-crawler has been a hit-and-miss property for Sony over the past decade, an oft-beleagured property sticking in there on the silver screen entirely due to the contract threatening the reversion of rights to Marvel if Spidey failed to swing a new film every few years.
2002’s lukewarm original entry was followed by a much stronger sequel in 2004, and things were looking bright for the Sony/Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire collaboration. Then, of course, somebody hired Topher Grace. There are, I am sure, many fine things to say about Mr. Grace. None of them include the word “Venom.” Cue the death and return of Spider-Man, next played by Andrew Garfield as the type of “loser” most of us could only dream of being. This version started with some amount of promise, lackluster though it was. Then, of course, somebody hired Jamie Foxx and painted him blue.
I could keep making variations of the same joke, but I’m not Sony Pictures Entertainment. Fortunately, at some point, they realized that neither were they – not anymore, not when the “entertainment” element was so sorely lacking. Cue an unlikely partnership with Marvel to return Spidey to theatres, now partnered with the mothership (does anyone think “Homecoming” was subtle?) and joined to the Avengers brand at the forefront of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A strong first appearance in Civil War paved the way for audiences to check out Tom Holland’s version of the iconic superhero in his own film. How does it turn out?
As alluded to above, very well indeed.
Tom Holland’s version of Peter Parker is the youngest yet seen, all of 15 years old and feeling every bit the inexperienced tryhard. He glosses over his origin story (“bit by a spider,” “Aunt May’s been through enough”) and we couldn’t be more grateful – there’s no need to tell it if we already know what it is, and Spider-Man’s origin story is one of the three most well known in all of popular culture. Instead, the early film introduces us to his world. Not Spider-Man’s world, mind you – that doesn’t exist. We’re talking about Peter Parker’s world, the life of a teenager with an earnest and geeky best friend, a pretty crush he acts shy around, a litany of after-school hobbies, and a new source of stress in his life that eats up his time and makes it hard to cope with the rest of being a teenager.
Spidey is clumsy, earnest, and still new to the hero game – he can stop a bike theft, but if nobody’s there to claim the bike, there’s little that a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man can do except leave a politely worded note. He gives directions to old ladies, tries to find trouble in the after-school goings-on of his small Queens neighborhood, and spends his downtime texting Happy Hogan, Tony Stark’s attaché, hoping to get called up for something important. Peter’s ineptitude has real consequences for him, whether it’s small personal stakes or the possibility of screwing up a heroic intervention, but thankfully the movie does better than drag us through the tired “you’ve harmed our friendship” clichés of a thousand teen escapism stories that always seem to crop up when the plot pits doing the cool thing against maintaining existing relationships at a this-totally-matters event.
Admittedly, there’s not a lot of time taken to flesh out the archetypes, though they have enough character to begin with (and the film is breezy enough) that we can forgive that. There’s Flash Thompson, the traditional bully, reimagined as a geek-chic DJ and academic also-ran rival to Peter who’s recognized as a class-A twit by the people whose opinions actually matter to both of them; Ned, Peter’s chubby and cheerful best friend, who rocks a hat and loves Lego; Liz, the upperclassman with a soft spot for Peter; Michelle, the self-aware outsider who likes and is liked by more people than she would ever admit. Together, they form a solid recurring cast that anchors the film squarely in its high school milieu, bringing home the context of Peter’s youthfulness by reminding us that whatever incredible feats he is capable of, this is his actual life on the other side of the coin.
Speaking of other sides, many Marvel movies operate on our love of the hero and a certain amount of explosions and wit to gloss over a bland villain. How wonderful to have a film where that isn’t the case. I actually predicted that Vulture would be the logical choice for Homecoming’s bad apple, though the interpretation of the character is quite distinct from what I had pictured. Michael Keaton brings humanity and an absolutely real quality to Adrian Toomes, a former contractor screwed out of his business by Tony Stark and the federal government. Facing bankruptcy and with employees and a family to support, he and a few of his crew turn to selling stolen super-scrap weapons to make ends meet.
Toomes cuts a surprisingly menacing figure as the Vulture, who uses a high-tech wingsuit to stage robberies from the feds and wears an ominous mask (with Iron Man visuals on the inside) and bomber jacket to create his bird-of-prey look. More of a scavenger than his comic incarnation ever was, the Vulture is a principled and pragmatic man who remembers the sting of having salt rubbed in his wounds by the people who screwed him over. He’s relatable not only to his audience but to Peter, a fellow average Joe who feels the weight of a self-justifying elite keeping him down every day and yearns for more than the churro-earning existence he’s got.
This film lives and breathes the MCU, and I wonder at how accessible it would be without more of that context – the eternal challenge for a film like this. As we were leaving the theatre, I heard a young boy asking his father “are these movies important?” When his dad replied in the negative, that they were just for fun, he was asked, “then why do we have to see more of them?” Shared universe films will invariably escalate that question, as casual fans find themselves increasingly wondering about allusions to any one of the ten or more films that have come before.
Nevertheless, whether you’re a fan of the MCU, of Spider-Man, or both, this is one of the best films in either franchise. Tom Holland is easily the best and truest incarnation of Peter Parker to grace the big screen, and his supporting cast help deliver a film as effortless as swinging from a thread. If you go see it, be advised that there are two post-credits scenes, and make sure you stick around for the second.
♫ Wealth and fame, he’s assured
♪ Action is… our reward
♫ Hey there, this movie is a bang-up
♪ Don’t worry ’bout your hang-ups
♫ Go watch some Spider-Man!