An interesting thing has been happening in the comic book genre over the past few years. Many of the latest superhero fare have taken on an additional sub-genre. Captain America: Winter Soldier, while definitely being a superhero story, was also firmly planted in the 70’s political thriller category. Ant-Man was a heist film, Logan was a western, the list goes on. I thought all of these worked genre additions well, and really helped breathe new life into the genre. However, when I heard Spider-Man Homecoming described as a teen comedy in the style of John Hughes, I was immediately skeptical. John Hughes is one of my all time favorite directors, and I think comparing anything to his work only sets it up for failure. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to be wrong.
Lets start with Tom Holland, who I believe is the best cinematic Spider-Man to date. Holland is able to inhabit so perfectly both Peter Parker and the Spider-Man persona. Theres a scene early on where Spidey sneaks up on a group of criminals robbing an ATM. Before he confronts them, we see him trying to get into just the right pose, eventually landing on a sarcastic lean against a wall before making his presence known. Its little moments like this that help us get inside the hero’s psyche. It’s so easy to forget, behind the mask and web shooters, its just a fifteen year old kid trying to figure out his place in the crime-fighting world. It’s scenes like these that set this reboot apart from the other franchises, and Holland handles them with incredible talent.
Not only does Homecoming make full use of its high school setting, but it makes me wonder what took the producers so long to finally pull the trigger. Spider-Man belongs in high school; The character is himself an analogy for puberty (a teenager’s body suddenly goes through changes, feels like an outsider at his school, keeps his ability to shoot white goo a secret from his maternal figure). There are quite a few times throughout where Holland and Jon Watts, the films director, demonstrate so clearly the tension Peter feels: Constantly caught between fighting to make his neighborhood a better place, while also trying to navigate the struggles of adolescence. This is only amplified by his goal of keeping his alter-ego a secret from Aunt May, given a charming new take by Marisa Tomei. The Aunt-Nephew (but really Mother-Son) relationship between Holland and Tomei feels natural and lived in, my only complaint is that we didn’t get enough of it.
Adding to the struggles of adolescence, are a cast of likable and believable high school characters. Zendaya as Michelle, Tony Revolory as Flash Thompson, Laura Harrier as the love interest Liz, and the anchor to our protagonists personal life, Ned Leeds, played endearingly by Jacob Balaton. All of these students make the Midtown School of Science and Technology feel authentic. Like a real school with real teenagers and their real teachers (Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr are also delightful). This setting and cast are where the John Hughes tone of the film really shines. At times, I found myself so caught up in the high school antics, that I forgot I was watching a superhero blockbuster.
The movie doesn’t lack for super heroics though. When we see the web-head throw down, it does not disappoint. Some of the choreography, the physicality that Holland brings to the role, it doesn’t feel like a stuntman connected to wires, it feels like Spider-Man. One thing I love about the set pieces is how small they are compared to other tentpole franchises. They don’t feel the need to go over the top, this is an inexperienced kid, and that is reflected in the action. This Spider-Man is one who’s still afraid of heights, one who’s still getting used to his suit, one who hasn’t quite figured out who he is and what he’s capable of. He’s not ready to be an Avenger; throw him in a battle against Loki or Ultron, he looses every time. This is a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, still honing his craft.
And yet, for every friendly neighborhood hero, we need a less-than-friendly neighbor hood villain: Enter Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, The Vulture. Keaton has been on a resurgence lately, and at some point or another every beloved actor has to end up in a comic book movie right? I was worried when he was announced to be the villain in a Marvel co-produced film. It’s not secret that Marvels main complaint is that they keep fumbling with their antagonists. Christopher Eccleston, Corey Stoll, Lee Pace, Mickey Rourke, all great actors, all completely wasted in their roles. But I thought Keaton was great, giving a nuanced and layered role we don’t often get. I’ve been wanting to see Vulture on screen Since John Malkovich was rumored for Rami’s Spiderman 4, and it was worth the wait.
Toomes isn’t out to destroy the world, his desires are much smaller. And I love that he doesn’t see Spider-Man as an arch rival who must be vanquished, rather, just some pesky meddling kid who keeps getting in the way. In the same way we see Holland explore both the hero and secret identity, we also see both the villainous and private life of the Vulture, a dynamic relatively un-explored in many modern day superhero movies. I’m glad that Watts and the films writers took Vulture in the direction they did, it gave Keaton the opportunity to do what he does best, and boy does he shine. He’s not quite on the level of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, but still a welcome addition to the Marvel family, and I hope we get to see more from him.
Along with the Vulture comes a crew of henchmen and underlings. Bokeem Woodbine and Michael Chernus are fine, but they don’t have enough screen time to give us anything more than second-tier villain with a quirk. Donald Glover also makes an appearance, but don’t expect much. I’m fairly certain that he was brought in purely to make fans happy, based on his previous history with the character. It absolutely worked, but if it were any other actor of his caliber, they would have been absolutely wasted in the role.
That brings us to what I believe to be the films only glaring flaw: It’s integration to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fantastic that Marvel now gets to play with Spider-Man and all of his attached mythos, but for me, it was the weakest part of the movie. Marvel/Sony seemed to know that people would be turned off by yet another Spider-Man reboot, so they doubled-down on the MCU aspects to try and piggy-back off their success.
While Robert Downy Jr. is great as Tony Start (again, obviously), but he just felt wholly unnecessary. It felt similar to Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: He was barely in it, was relied way to heavily on in the marketing, and didn’t really need to be there. All that said, I can’t wait to see the dynamic between Holland and the rest of the Avenger’s continue in future installments.
Spider-Man Homecoming does a wonderful job at showing us who Spider-Man is. This is a movie about what makes a 15 year old kid driven enough to do some incredible things. We see in the trailers Tony Stark say “If you’re nothing without the suit, you don’t deserve to wear it.” I think thats a perfect summary of what this movie is about. It’s not about the web-slinging, the gadgets, or the super heroics. It’s just about a kid trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs in the world.
Rating: 4.0 – Great