February 2023

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)


CAST: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori


When it comes to probably their most popular and best-known superhero, after the disappointment of 2007’s Spider-Man 3 and the 2012-2014 reboot misfire, Sony and Marvel are hoping the third time’s the charm.  The title refers both to the high school homecoming dance that takes place in the movie, and is also a bit of a sly in-joke referring to Marvel Studios finally gaining access to Spider-Man’s film rights via a deal with Sony, allowing Spider-Man to finally join the Marvel Cinematic Universe; this is the sixth Spider-Man movie, but the first in which he’s had the chance to interact with other superheroes.  Even while Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and others were enjoying the cinematic limelight, both individually and together, Marvel’s most iconic superhero was missing from the crowd.  Getting Spider-Man back into the fold was a major ace in the hole, and now, after his debut with his glorified (and awkwardly shoehorned) cameo in last year’s Captain America: Civil Warthe latest onscreen incarnation of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is swinging into theaters in his own solo outing and the first of what Marvel hopes to be a successful new franchise with more longevity than Sony’s last attempt at a reboot.  Homecoming is already opening strong and receiving glowing critical reception, but while it’s entertaining and enjoyable, like too many of the MCU’s solo outings that feel like side pit stops apart from the larger Avengers continuing narrative (also including 2015’s Ant-Man and 2016’s Doctor Strange), there’s something a bit underwhelming about the whole affair.  Homecoming is a lot more watchable than Spider-Man 3, but feels lightweight and low stakes and lacks either the large-scale action or emotional depth of Spider-Man 2.

We open with a cheeky flashback to the airport battle from Captain America: Civil War, as seen through the camera and excitable narration of high school student and fledgling superhero Peter Parker/Spider-Man (played with gung-ho exuberance by Tom Holland), but after being recruited by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to help combat a renegade Captain America (Chris Evans), Pete has been unceremoniously dumped back into his humdrum life in Queens, with Tony brushing him off on his long-suffering bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), who is not enthusiastic about babysitting a kid and leaves Peter to his own devices waiting anxiously by the phone for months for his next “mission”, strung along with vague promises of eventually joining The Avengers.  In the meantime, Peter divides his time between being one of his advanced science school’s best and brightest, and taking down petty crime as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but one night he stumbles across a gang of thieves with advanced powerful weaponry, which eventually leads him to Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (Michael Keaton), who scavenged alien technology left behind after the Manhattan battle in The Avengers and has used it to build a criminal enterprise (along with building himself a cool flying supervillain costume).  The Vulture isn’t happy about Spider-Man’s interference, and their first couple skirmishes result in Peter getting his butt kicked, narrowly avoiding civilian casualties, and a scolding from Iron Man.  But when The Vulture stages a hijacking of some of Stark’s own high-tech inventory, and Stark isn’t answering his phone, Peter determines to rematch Vulture on his own.

Unlike 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Manwhich rehashed things we’d already seen from Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire a few years earlier, Homecoming skips straight past the old familiar origin story, including Peter getting bitten by a genetically engineered spider and the death of Uncle Ben (both events are in the past here, and vaguely alluded to but not explicitly referenced).  Giving us an already established (albeit still fledgling) Spider-Man allows Homecoming to cut to the chase and jump straight into the action instead of Tom Holland having to spend half the movie acting out scenes we’ve already seen from both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield.  And presumably in a further attempt at feeling fresher and avoiding repetitiveness, it also leaves out some staple Spider-Man supporting characters.  We still have an Aunt May (albeit a rather different version from what we’re used to), but there’s no Harry Osborn (or his father), no J. Jonah Jameson, and neither of Peter’s “great loves”, Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson (though, if this series continues, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some or all of the above characters added into the mix sooner or later).  Here, Pete’s best friend is Jacob Batalon’s Ned Leeds, his would-be girlfriend is Laura Harrier’s Liz Allen, and rather than more iconic Spider-Man villains (and ones we’ve seen onscreen before) like Green Goblin or Doc Ock, the filmmakers plumb the depths of Spidey’s rogues gallery for a less famous member, Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (it should be pointed out that these all are characters from the Spider-Man comics, just lesser-known ones).

Tonally, Homecoming stays lightweight.  Director Jon Watts and star Tom Holland were upfront in interviews about setting out to make a film that combines the superhero genre with a John Hughes-esque high school comedy-drama.  The allusions are not subtle; one chase sequence has Peter running and bumbling through people’s backyards and straight past a TV showing Matthew Broderick doing the same thing in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and later there’s a cute montage of Pete getting ready for his Homecoming date, with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) teaching him how to tie a tie and showing him a few dance moves, that would feel right at home in some ’80s high school rom com.  It’s not a straight comedy, but it rivals Guardians of the Galaxy for coming the closest of any MCU outing.  In fact, the feel remains so gee-whiz lightweight and low stakes that it makes the movie feel a trifle insubstantial and lacking the emotional depth of its predecessors.  While both previous series had a love story (Peter and MJ in the Raimi films, Peter and Gwen in The Amazing Spider-Man), Pete’s high school crush on Liz Allen is a minor subplot with an anti-climactic fizzle, and the absence of the presumably already deceased Uncle Ben leaves out any moment of tragedy.  Additionally, the movie feels self-conscious of its membership in the MCU.  While Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t have a lot of screentime, the entire plot hinges on Tony Stark.  Vulture is initially motivated to turn to a life of crime by being put out of work by Stark Industries.  Tony hooks Peter up with a high-tech suit with an array of features (and an AI voice provided by Jennifer Connelly) that, while providing some amusement, reduces Peter’s agency as a self-made, homespun superhero and makes him overly reliant on Tony’s patronage.  The climax revolves around Vulture trying to hijack a planeload of Tony’s tech.  The promotional material prominently featured Iron Man and Avengers Tower, as if to ensure we remember this is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and there’s a Captain America cameo to further drive it home.  The action sequences are underwhelming.  There’s a few scenes with Peter easily taking down run-of-the-mill thugs, and a handful of Spider-Man/Vulture skirmishes, but nothing that holds a candle to the train battle in Spider-Man 2.  Homecoming lacks any “it” moment like the train fight, or the upside-down kiss in the rain from Raimi’s first film.  In fact, the most memorable moment of the movie is not any of the action, but a tension-fueled, suspenseful scene in which Peter and Toomes, each in their civilian identities, end up under the same roof with only one of them knowing the other’s secret.  While dispensing with a third version of the oft-told origin story was understandable, it leaves Holland’s Peter feeling a little underdeveloped.  Like Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne in Batman v Supermanhe’s been unceremoniously dumped into the middle of an ongoing universe without feeling properly established.

On the plus side, the humor is generally breezy and effectively amusing (though Peter’s best friend/sidekick Ned is a little much) and there’s some nice touches.  There’s plenty of Easter Eggs referencing the larger MCU; sharp-eyed viewers might spot John Slattery’s Howard Stark and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner among the photos of famous scientists on a wall in one of Peter’s classrooms, or notice that Kenneth Choi, who played one of the Howling Commandos in Captain America: The First Avenger, plays his own previous character’s grandson as Peter’s high school principal.  Michael Giacchino even incorporates an instrumental version of the Spider-Man theme song from the 1960s cartoon into the opening credits.  I also liked the world-building touch of Toomes scavenging alien technology left behind from the climactic battle in The Avengers; it feels like a realistic, organic way to tie Homecoming into the larger universe.  Inevitably, viewers coming into Homecoming without having kept up with previous Marvel installments will feel like they’re missing a few things, but overall like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange, Homecoming tells a smaller-scale, mostly self-contained story.  Like Bruce Wayne first venturing out in a ski mask and almost falling to his death the first time he jumps off a rooftop in Batman Begins, a good chunk of the humor comes from Peter being very much a fledgling superhero (as evidenced by him wreaking inadvertent havoc through a lot of backyards and roofs while chasing some criminals early on), and from not knowing how to use the bewildering array of gadgets Tony has equipped his “upgraded” suit with (once Peter hacks the “training wheels protocol” he finds insulting and gains access to its full capabilities).  There’s also an amusing chase sequence with Spider-Man stuck chasing criminals in the suburbs and finding himself without anything to swing from and forced to run on foot.  In fact, the filmmakers arguably go too far making Peter/Spidey a little too bumbling and fledgling for comic relief purposes.  Peter seemed more capable in his first appearance in Civil War—where he more than held his own in an all-out superhero brew-ha—than he does here.  In their quest to emphasize Peter as a kid struggling to get the hang of the “superhero” thing, they arguably sometimes make the character a little too weak and ineffectual.

As he previously gave us a taste of in his smallish role in Civil War, Tom Holland is a good fit for the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man; in fact, he’s the most comic accurate rendition we’ve gotten thus far.  He’s geeky and awkward in a way that feels more natural and unaffected and more like a real teenager than Tobey Maguire’s overly exaggerated nerdiness, he’s believable as a high school student (Holland recently turned 21 but passes for the 15-year-old he’s playing), and he brings a wealth of earnest likeability.  He exudes youthful exuberance, and he throws around Spider-Man’s incessant quips and one-liners with aplomb (at times, with his sarcastic asides and running commentary, he’s a bit like a kinder, gentler, more family-friendly Deadpool).  While I have reservations about aspects of Homecoming, I have none about Holland himself, who is earnest and endearing and a welcome addition to the crowded MCU.

He is solidly offset by Michael Keaton, who previously played a DC superhero (Batman), and now returns to the genre switched around as a Marvel bad guy.  The movie does a couple interesting things with Toomes, chiefly by portraying him not as a mustache-twirling megalomaniac, but as a blue collar scrap scavenger with a chip on his shoulder due to being put out of work by Stark Industries taking over clean-up after the Avengers battle and who justifies his criminal activities as providing for his family (given the current economic/political climate, his backstory and motivations might strike a cord with some viewers and make him a little more relatable and semi-sympathetic than your average comic book villain).  He’s not interested in world domination or fighting superheroes, and when it comes to Spidey, he just wants the kid to get out of his way.  At the same time, when push comes to shove, the more persistent the pesky Spider-Man is about interfering with his business, the rougher he’s willing to get.  Toomes is low-profile and down-to-earth by comic book villain standards, which makes him a fitting counterpart for the fledgling Spider-Man, and also a “bad guy” who’s not really “evil”, which makes him feel a little more human and rounded than we typically expect from these kinds of movies (though one could argue the Spider-Man films have a recurring pattern of featuring more human, semi-sympathetic villains).  Adrian Toomes/The Vulture is hardly among the top tier of comic book bad guys on paper—actually he’s regarded as B-level at best—but this is a rare example of a movie adaptation of a character actually being a marked improvement.  In fact, Watts/Keaton bump The Vulture up to being among the better onscreen Marvel villains (a not inconsiderable accomplishment, given how corny the comic character is widely-viewed as).

Alas, as enjoyable as Holland and Keaton are, the supporting players are weak, leaving one longing for the strong ensemble of The Amazing Spider-Man and wishing to somehow mash-up the best of both versions.  And while Tom Holland resembles the Peter Parker of the comics in both looks and personality more than either Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield, and Michael Keaton’s Vulture actually improves upon the comics version, they’re surrounded by poorly-adapted “in name only” versions of everyone else.  Despite the makeup and wardrobe department seemingly trying to make her look a little frumpy, Marisa Tomei isn’t my idea of Aunt May, and this version is underdeveloped; there’s adequate chemistry between Tomei and Holland, but their relationship lacks depth.  Jacob Batalon’s Ned Leeds is in the same vein of annoying comic relief sidekick as Michael Pena in Ant-Man, and while he’s called “Ned Leeds” he resembles Ganke Lee in all but name, who in the comics is the best friend of Spider-Man 2.0 Miles Morales, not Peter Parker.  Even more obnoxious and an equally odd comics-to-page adaptation is Tony Revolori as Peter’s high school nemesis Flash Thompson, who resembles his comic namesake in name only and has been switched up from a hulking jock to a fellow nerd who’s less of a legitimate bully and more of an annoying nuisance.  Despite being heavily-featured in promotions, Disney television star Zendaya has a minor side role and seems totally superfluous unless the filmmakers have bigger plans for her down the road.  As Peter’s abortive would-be “love interest”, Laura Harrier’s fizzle of a subplot that never gets off the ground reduces her to irrelevance.  An eclectic batch of names pop up in supporting bit parts, including Logan Marshall-Green, Bokeem Woodbine, Hannibal Buress, Donald Glover, and Tyne Daly.  Chris Evans’ Captain America makes a couple amusing cameos in videos Peter watches in school (including “The Captain America Fitness Challenge”).  Other familiar MCU faces have small roles, including Jon Favreau’s inappropriately-named Happy Hogan and a last-minute cameo from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts (whom we haven’t seen since Iron Man 3).  Those who worried Robert Downey Jr. would take over Spidey’s solo outing need not have worried; Downey zips in and out in scattered drop-ins, and his total screentime probably doesn’t exceed ten minutes.

Among the various onscreen adventures of the iconic webslinger, Homecoming falls somewhere in the middle.  There’s nothing in it nearly as objectionably bad as Spider-Man 3 or The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but it lacks the memorable action of Spider-Man 2 and the emotional depth of Raimi’s first two outings and The Amazing Spider-Man.  It’s fun but it lacks substance, and ends up in the overstuffed bag of more or less disposable side pit stops scattered along the MCU’s long winding road that feel like tangents from the “main” (insofar as there is one) narrative thrust of The Avengers (to finally be pitted against Thanos, joined by the Guardians of the Galaxy and various other superheroes, including Holland’s Spider-Man, in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War).  Spidey fans may rejoice at him returning to the spotlight and finally taking his place among his fellow Marvel superheroes, but to casual fans, it’s just another comic book movie.

* * 1/2