If Marvel had simply decided twenty years sooner that Spider-Man films should be made once every three years, and that a different young British actor should play him every time, perhaps fans wouldn’t have fussed about Spider-Man: Homecoming coming so soon after Amazing Spider-Man 2. We’d be used to the rotating lead spot by now. Granted, this would’ve caused seismic shifts in our entertainment timeline — imagine if Spidey had been played years ago by a younger Daniel Radcliffe and left a weird hole in the Harry Potter franchise. Ah, what might have been.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Whereas the Batman films took a tag-team approach but kept the basic history intact for the four Burton/Schumacher films, this time director Jon Watts has tossed Andrew Garfield’s alternate Earth and instead sworn allegiance to the even younger Spidey of the broadly titled but not-so-all-inclusive Marvel Cinematic Universe. Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, a plucky teen Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is giddy about the prospect of moving beyond his humdrum life as a Queens student and graduating to the Avengers as a real grown-up superhero even though he isn’t yet. His expectations far outstrip any and all signs he receives from his mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, more of a mature statesman here than he was in any of his three solo films) and his de facto Watcher, the increasingly irritable Happy Hogan (a returning Jon Favreau, who has more screen time than Downey). But Peter holds out hope that the international heroic life will soon be his, even as he’s slacking at his day-to-day requirements at his STEM-tastic magnet school.
The opportunity to save the day and win the big Avengers audition in his mind arrives in the form of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, righteously menacing), a NYC construction company owner enraged that the United States government — in the form of a new department called Damage Control — has gotten into the post-superhuman fight-scene cleanup biz and effectively declared a monopoly on his small business’ biggest profit sector. Sick of being undercut and pushed around by The MAN, Toomes takes his crew to the dark side and expands from scavenging sci-fi super-clutter into rigging new super-villain tools out of it. From this new sideline market is born the Vulture, Spidey’s first costumed nemesis from the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko days and retroactive spawn of thousands of Birdman jokes among movie fans. Can li’l Spidey hold his own against an opponent three times his age, stay out of trouble in school, and convince Stark that he deserves to be in all the Avengers movies from now on?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Marisa Tomei returns from Civil War as Petey’s Aunt May — younger, less fragile, and more potty-mouthed than Comics Version 1.0 ever was. Peter’s classmates include Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Lobby Boy) as a mostly impotent rendition of class bully Flash Thompson, Disney Channel star Zendaya as “woke” comic relief, and Abraham Attah (Beasts of No Nation) underused as an academic teammate. Teachers include comedian Hannibal Buress and Silicon Valley‘s Martin Starr.
Team Vulture also includes B-list Spidey villain the Shocker, whose power gauntlets are filled first by Logan Marshalll-Green (Prometheus), then by Bokeem Woodbine. Tyne Daly, costar of TV’s Cagney & Lacey, is the head of Damage Control. Gwyneth Paltrow returns for a scene as Pepper Potts. Kenneth Choi, previously Jimmy Morita of the WWII Howling Commandos in Captain America: The First Avenger, apparently continues his bloodline as a descendant who’s now Peter’s principal.
Cameos include Donald Glover (Atlanta! Community! Kid Lando!) as an obscure character, pre-costume; one very special Avenger, in one of the funniest moments in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to date; and of course Stan Lee, this time as as a friendly neighborhood kind of guy.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? This version of Peter has definitely learned the lesson of “With great power comes great responsibility” from Uncle Ben’s offscreen death (thankfully not reenacted for the 87th time), but has yet to realize that learning how to handle great responsibility requires a lot of life lessons. Being really earnest and eager is nice, but it’s not enough. Wisdom needs to be accrued, morals and ethics need to be cultivated, advice needs to be heard, constructive criticisms need to be accepted, mistakes need to be corrected or better yet avoided, and “doing what feels right” needs to be understood as the often flawed logic of far too many millions of human failures, a phrase etched right between “I meant well” and “That wasn’t supposed to happen” in the Hell’s Road asphalt.
As with any film where the upfront good guys are teens, naturally there are moments where the adults don’t listen when the teens know something they don’t. The adults are later regretful and apologetic and appreciative of Peter’s efforts, which is fine. And yet, some of his worst mistakes turn into outright disasters — literally, in the case of the alarming Staten Island Ferry sequence — when the teens don’t listen to the adults.
Meanwhile on the dark side, Keaton convincingly leans into the role of a self-made working-class average Joe infuriated by a system that invades his turf, takes away his livelihood, and effectively tells him his own government doesn’t care about him. His salvaging tactics may have been questionable in the first place, but in his mind he’s the little guy striking back because he’s sick of being disrespected by The MAN. Pretty much any side of any debate can recall a time when they were in his shoes, though most folks don’t use that position as an excuse to rationalize evil, which is what his blue-collar crusade becomes even before the bodies start piling up.
Keaton also demonstrates how recruiting multiple comic-book super-villains for your big-screen movie works much better if one them is clearly in charge — no equal partnerships, no 50/50 screen time just to mollify disparate A-list actors whose roles otherwise have nothing else in common. Vulture isn’t the only known face in the crowd (beyond his toady the Shocker, three other Spidey-foes have small parts), but putting Keaton front and center allows a more cohesive narrative than blatant cash-grab compromises just for the sake of adding more marquee names or selling extra action figures. I doubt I’m the only one who thinks Sandman/Venom and Goblin/Electro were the worst super-villain team-ups since Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy.
Nitpicking? As an old man who grew up with Spider-Man as a moral role model and as one of the senior heroes in Marvel Comics, I continue to struggle with the notion of a baby-faced Spidey being pushed around by heroes who were created years after him but in the prevailing continuity are now his elders, pulling rank and disciplining him for his youthful judgment lapses even though they owe their entire merchandisable existence to the successful precedent he set. The problem saw its worst manifestation in the “Ultimate Marvel” imprint, where at times Our Hero found himself getting stepfather-figure lectures from third-stringers like Iron Fist and Moon Knight. The genesis of the MCU, complicated by Marvel’s issues with various rights holders over the years, have necessitated an organic divergence in its heroes’ development and pecking order, but I yearn for the days when Iron Man might nag Spidey merely as a professional peer, not as a cranky gym coach more than twice Peter’s age.
As a fan of the original Damage Control, as created by Dwayne McDuffie and Ernie Colon (years before McDuffie went on to become one of the best comics/animation writers in my lifetime), I was disappointed to see their often tongue-in-cheek, brilliant idea for an independent super-business reimagined here as a symbol of uncaring government overreach. Frankly, it was a fun comics concept I never would’ve expected to go grim-‘n’-gritty.
Also, I’m not sure if it was my aging eyes or poor lighting setup in our theater, but every nighttime fight scene was rendered into indiscernible murk, all loud noises and fractured light show. The final midair showdown between Spidey and Vulture sounded like Air Force One but lost any climactic power for me because it reminded me of how drive-in theater screens look when you watch them from the wrong parking lot.
So what’s to like? As it turns out, the character scenes out number the nighttime fight scenes 10-to-1, so only a small portion of Spider-Man: Homecoming was wasted on me. When Downey and Favreau aren’t shaming Peter and making him feel three inches tall, all his best scenes are with his classmates, trying to survive in the trenches of high school, one that feels realistically multi-culti and bustling and saddled with obsolete mandatory films, where the escape hatches include crappy parties, heavily supervised field trips, and intense hobbying. Tom Holland, who previously awed me as a heroic teen under extreme duress in J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible, bears the awkwardness, frustration, angst, and excitable verve of a kid who knows he’s meant for better things but can’t get to them till he transcends his current trappings first. Along for the ride is his best pal Ned (Jacob Batalon), who stumbles into his secret early on (as already blown in the trailers) and dreams of being his computer-savvy sidekick, with ultimately competent results (maybe a bit too advanced-hacker, but hey, science magnet school!). Their solid partnership, despite its emotional ups and downs, gives Spidey a good-buddy vibe that sees him through the bad guys’ shenanigans and the usual Parker girl trouble, providing Holland with someone to bounce off of in a way that neither Andrew Garfield nor Tobey Maguire ever really had in their stints.
I do wish Holland had kept up the quipping per the old Spidey traditions instead of becoming all Serious Business once the Vulture’s backstory begins to take on a more terrifying dimension. Otherwise, part of me wishes the Spider-Man series had started this way in the first place. Whereas Sam Raimi realized the Lee/Ditko era to the fullest possible extent but struggled visibly with this third film’s contractually bound weaknesses; and whereas Marc Webb possibly leaped too quickly from the great yet small (500) Days of Summer into the hollow world of big-studio toyeticism; here, Jon Watts seems to have benefited from working under the more creatively conducive aegis of Marvel Studios rather than under the stodgy Sony regime. The defining aesthetics of all the best old Spidey comics feels right here, from teen snark to loner angst to off-the-wall single-shtick baddies. I wish it hadn’t taken them this many tries, and here’s hoping we don’t have to endure five more young British false starts to get to the next decent Spidey-flick.
Special shout-out to Homecoming for skipping clichéd Manhattan tourism and taking us into the heart of NYC’s other boroughs. We haven’t done the Staten Island Ferry ourselves, but we walked around Queens for a day on our 2016 vacation and I got a kick out of seeing it brought to life here. I think I even recognized our subway station in one shot.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: Spider-Man: Homecoming has one scene early into the end credits, and one bonus bit at the very end. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…first scene: Adrian Toomes goes to prison and has a brief chat with his old pal Mac Gargan (Michael Mando from Better Caul Saul), who in the comics would become the green-garbed menace called the Scorpion. Gargan says some guys are putting together a team, kind of like the Avengers Initiative but seedy and without A-listers. Toomes, who now knows Peter’s secret identity and yet is incredibly not dead or comatose at the end, declines the offer and walks on, smiling, without spilling what he knows, leaving Gargan and us mystified as to what he plans to do next.
Second scene: one last public service announcement from our old pal Captain America (America’s sweetheart Chris Evans) commending viewers who believe in the virtue of patience, even in futile situations such as waiting till after a movie’s end credits only to find nothing but value-subtracting disappointment. Pretty big trash talk for a war criminal, CAP.