~This review contains spoilers.~
Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best example so far of the Marvel Cinematic Universe house style working against itself. It’s not that Homecoming is a bad movie, far from it; but it’s a better Marvel movie than it is a Spider-Man one. I write this knowing full well that my own closely-held personal opinions about the character are getting in my own way of enjoying this movie, and I think that, if I were less of a fan of the character, I would enjoy this movie much more than I do. While not to the same degree as with the Amazing Spider-Man movies, I just don’t really see an essential Spider-Man-ness shine through Homecoming as much as I sense just another addition to the MCU juggernaut.
Which is weird because the movie really does try so hard to include so much of the texture of what I think of as Spider-Man, including things – like the use of the Ramones on the soundtrack – that pander almost directly to my kinship with the character as a fellow product of Forest Hills. I’m actually finding it difficult to articulate why I feel the way I do about this movie because like, 90% of it feels like exactly what I would do if given the opportunity to make a Spider-Man movie. I like how everything is small stakes and street level compared to the threats that the Avengers or Dr. Strange face. Making more than half the movie a teen comedy is inspired, and really should have given the filmmakers the opportunity to explore an element of superheroes that almost every other Marvel character has done without – a secret identity. But where I think Homecoming really drops the ball is with Peter Parker.
Again, I know this would be less of a hurdle for me to overcome if I didn’t have such a solid idea of who Spider-Man is, but it’s not like I haven’t seen my Spider-Man in other adaptations or stories with the character. Frankly, despite a very endearing performance by Tom Holland, I really don’t know who Homecoming’s Peter Parker is with regards to the larger idea Spider-Man, and with that something missing, I can’t help but feel that Spider-Man is – to channel Max Landis – a Mary Sue.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the thesis of Spider-Man as a character is “with great power there must also come great responsibility;” and that a big component of that thesis is that in order to grow as a character, Peter must constantly confront the consequences of his more irresponsible actions. It’s basically his origin story: Peter uses his powers irresponsibly, and as a consequence, loses Uncle Ben. While this formative experience taught Peter how he should act, the rest of any Spider-Man story should be him learning to turn theory into practice, essentially. At the center of Spider-Man is the struggle between having the ability to be personally contented, and the responsibility to use those abilities responsibly, even if that requires sacrifice.
And while this movie is getting a lot of praise for skipping the well-worn origin story of one of the world’s most famous superheroes – I feel that Homecoming’s active ignoring of anything Uncle Ben deprives this new version of Spidey of his foundation. Holland’s Peter Parker never acts selfishly, and even when he acts irresponsibly; 1. It’s out of a desire to do the greater good, and 2. He never faces any serious consequences for his actions.
For example, one plot thread of the movie concerns Peter’s involvement in his school’s Academic Decathlon team, which he joins in going to the national championship with. The night before the championship, Peter’s crush invites him to a team pool party right as he’s about to track down the Vulture. Peter chooses to go after the Vulture, which means he misses out on bonding time with his crush, and also disappoints her by not showing up for the championship in time the next morning. It should be a case of doing something good as Spider-Man having an adverse effect on his other life, but instead, his team still ends up winning the championship, and the crush doesn’t really think any less of him. Peter fails to stop the Vulture’s plan, and to help his classmates, but neither results in any tangible consequence for Peter to learn from.
Another example comes from the Ferry set-piece that was advertised in the trailer. As the sequence plays out in the movie, Spider-Man tries to stop one of the Vulture’s weapons deals, but is unprepared for how powerful the weapon is, resulting in the Staten Island ferry being lasered in half, Peter needing Iron Man to swoop in to save the day, and Tony Stark deciding that this means Peter isn’t responsible enough to keep the suit he’s been using. But, while Peter may have been acting irresponsibly inasmuch as he was working against Iron Man’s orders to stop following the Vulture; his decision to follow Vulture to the ferry is still the morally correct one, and we’re not really given anything telling us that had he not been there, the Vultures plan would have failed.
And the consequence of this scene, Tony taking back the suit, doesn’t actually seem to effect Peter that much either. While we’re told that Peter thinks he needs the suit to be Spider-Man; it’s hard to invest that much into that idea when we’re shown previously in the movie that Peter doesn’t really know how to take advantage of the suit, and also because we know that many of Peter’s abilities are naturally his own. And later in the movie, the lack of suit never deters Peter from actually acting like Spider-Man when the situation calls for a hero. While Tony may have lost some confidence in Peter, Peter doesn’t lose it in himself. While, ostensibly, Peter has to learn that he doesn’t need the suit; in practice, the movie has already proven that he never did.
What this also means, for me at least, is that when Homecoming breaks out the fanservice-y visual references, they feel hollow and undeserved. For example, the homage to the climax of Spider-Man #33. Part of it is actually one of my favorite bits in the movie – when Peter is trapped under all the rubble and cries out for help – because it’s a great reminder to the audience that, for all his powers, Peter is still a kid, and still incredibly vulnerable. You get really scared for him. But then, like in #33, he begins to lift the rubble off of himself. But where in the comic, he gathers the strength to perform this feat by reminding himself of his commitment and responsibility to be a hero even when the odds seem impossible; in Homecoming he seemingly gathers the strength just by reminding himself that he is, in fact, Spider-Man – and does have super strength. It’s not a symbolic recommitment to his heroic ideals, but just a recommitment to his heroic ability. Peter starts this movie wanting to be a hero for its own sake, and basically just learns how to do that more effectively – not even responsibly; and that’s honestly not that much of a, you know, arc.
Put another way, Peter is too emotionally mature at this point considering how long he’s been Spider-Man. Peter’s effectiveness as Spider-Man should be tied to how selflessly he uses his powers, but in Homecoming, Peter is always more idealistic and heroic than his current understanding of how to be Spider-Man allow him to act upon. This early in his career, I feel that Peter should still make mistakes where he chooses to be selfish and has to face those consequences.
Though I normally don’t like doing this; if I had the ability to rework this movie, I’d have Peter accept Liz’s invitation to go to the pool party instead of tracking the Vulture; which would allow Vulture to succeed and raise the stakes for the third act, while also showing Peter what happens when he chooses to not be Spider-Man.
Incidentally, there is one movie I can think of that manages to have that style of arc – of the protagonist learning how to take advantage of his natural gifts in order to achieve a state of self-realization and also save the day – that does so successfully: the 2008 Speed Racer. And part of why that movie works where this one doesn’t is because its plot brings Speed to a lower point than Homecoming does with Spidey.
But again, there is so much that I liked about Spider-Man: Homecoming. All the actors are so endearing and fun to watch. Despite my misgivings, Holland is a sympathetic and infectiously idealistic Peter Parker and Spider-Man. He’s a hero you want to see succeed and achieve the level of heroism he aspires to. Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May leans into the Lorelai Gilmore style of parenting an extraordinary teen, and her relationship with Peter is about as electric as Lorelai’s is with Rory. Jacob Batalon as Ned is a great sidekick and friend to Peter, able to be as openly excited about his friend being a superhero as Peter wishes he could be as one. Zendaya’s Michelle and Laura Harrier’s Liz could’ve both had more to do, with the latter being mainly a damsel in distress, but each still brings a rich inner life to their character, despite not always having the opportunity to bring that through in ways less subtle than body language. Martin Starr, Hannibal Buress, and Donald Glover are hilarious and manage to steal each scene they’re in despite being hardly more than cameos.
But Homecoming’s best performance is Michael Keaton as the Vulture. Villains have almost always been a weak point in Marvel movies, but Keaton brings a grounded gravitas to the role that many of the other villains have lacked. A big part of that is that, like Spidey, he’s street level. His motivations, to provide for his family and stick it to the people he feel have stolen his livelihood, are relatable; and importantly, he manages to convince us that he sincerely believes he’s the good guy. He even manages to be the perfect foil for Spider-Man, as both are working class characters, each ostensibly looking out for the little guy when the higher powers turn a blind-eye.
And then there are just so many moments in this movie that I adore: The montage of Spidey on patrol in Queens, helping retrieve stolen bikes and giving old ladies directions, scored to Blitzkrieg Bop. The chase through the suburbs where Peter realizes the uselessness of his webs outside an environment full of skyscrapers. The bodega cat!
Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fun, enjoyable movie. I’d even go as far to say that it’s one of the better movies in the Marvel Cinematic universe, and succeeds largely by keeping things to a smaller scope. But I feel it’s lacking as a Spider-Man movie, and as such a huge fan of the character, that leaves a weird taste in my mouth. Homecoming is a movie I wanted to be good, and there is so much to like about it, including its young hero. Unfortunately, that hero isn’t quite the Spider-Man I was expecting.