Spider-Man: Homecoming is probably the cheekiest title Marvel have ever given one of their films, simply for the fact the subtitle is both literal and figurative. Spider-Man, probably Marvel’s most famous superhero alongside the Hulk, finally comes home with Jon Watts’ entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Sony Pictures have owned the rights to the character for many years and have made repeated attempts over the last fifteen to launch a franchise with our friendly neighbourhood web-slinger. The first time, under Sam Raimi’s direction, we had the original Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. There he fell in love with Kirsten Dunst’s Mary-Jane Watson and battled the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus and Venom (plus half a dozen more in the third film it seemed). Poor critical buzz partly put paid to a planned fourth Raimi Spider-Man film after 2008.
Then came the reboot. Out went Raimi, out went Maguire. In came upcoming star Andrew Garfield as Peter and Marc Webb, best known for the divisive (500) Days of Summer, behind the lens. Emma Stone joined as Gwen Stacy, the other well-known Peter Parker love interest, and this time he battled a new Green Goblin and, again, thanks to the power of sequelitis, half a dozen bad guys including Electro in the second film, which also Sony planned to use as a backdoor way of teeing-up a Sinister Six spin-off movie. Despite how the two leads impressed, the knives were again out critically and any chance of a trilogy died a swift death.
The famed Sony hack was the first indication they were hatching plans with Marvel to bring Peter Parker into the MCU. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out in 2014 and just two short years later, at the start of 2016, another rising star in Tom Holland popped up to portray the character in Captain America: Civil War. In a film rammed with established superheroes, within a story very much in the middle of an ongoing story arc eight years to that point in the making, Holland shone brightly immediately in his extended cameo. He was Spider-Man, and he was back where he always should have been.
Homecoming, the first Marvel/Sony joint collaboration within the MCU, works hard to serve both masters.
Importantly, and to its credit, it eschews the origin story. Unless you’ve been living under a cave, you know how Peter gets his powers now: science trip, radioactive spider bite, yada yada yada. Both Raimi and Webb’s films covered it in detail and most fans of Spider-Man and comic book movies no doubt will have seen those films anyway. Showing it again would be moot. Heck, Watts even has Uncle Ben dead when we meet these characters. Peter is well and truly a functioning Spider-Man.
The wiggle room Homecoming finds is that he may be functioning, but that doesn’t mean he’s working as the everyman superhero from Queens, New York. Not yet. That’s the space Watts’ film imbues and it very quickly establishes its place in the wake of two very crucial pictures within the MCU: the aforementioned Civil War and The Avengers aka Avengers Assemble. In some respects, Homecoming is still an origin story but not one about how Peter gets his powers or puts on the suit, but rather what he does when the suit is on. Great power, great responsibility, all that.
The perspective comes entirely from the high school, as any good Spider-Man film should. Holland is the first actor to truly convince as a teenage Peter Parker; awkward, gawky, geeky and way too eager, he’s both excited at the prospect of running around as a wannabe Avenger and encouraged, as any teenage boy would be, at how doing so can make him a hot prospect with girls. There’s little angst; Peter goes on a journey and gets things wrong but he enjoys himself a lot here, and that fun radiates out to the most vivacious Aunt May we’ve seen yet (how can she not be played by Marisa “she never ages” Tomei) or his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who is as overjoyed at learning his best friend is a YouTube superstar superhero as you’d imagine he would be.
Peter’s relationship with Tony Stark is one of the crux points of the picture, and Robert Downey Jr’s presence hovers over the movie even though Iron Man barely features. Tony found Peter, threw him in at the deep end in Civil War, and tosses him back to Queens with a largely absent Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to watch over him and expects him to continue impressing him from afar. If Peter learns humility in Homecoming, Tony learns how he can’t be a father figure and parent from afar at the same time. It’s his typical egocentric recklessness that partly leads Peter to run before he can walk and take on the responsibility of trying to be Tony in tackling the Vulture, when he really should be leaving the guy to the Avengers.
In truth though part of the reason Peter can’t is because of the wider political issues surrounding the Avengers in the background. The events of Civil War are hinted at—including references at one point to Captain America probably being “a war criminal” even though schools are still playing motivational videos of him—and the consequences of the Avengers actions are a direct cause of what Peter ends up fighting in Homecoming. The Vulture aka Adrian Toomes (played by slick everyman relish by Michael Keaton) is a literal bird of prey living off the powerful alien scraps from the Battle of New York in The Avengers, taking salvaged technology and retrofitting it into weaponry he can sell to local hoodlums.
Oddly enough it feels like a plot Marvel could have done in their TV spin-off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If Spider-Man is all about defending the little guy, then the Vulture is perhaps his most appropriate villain; Toombes was the little guy, first seen thrown out by a heartless city authority losing the contract to clean up the streets after the battle against the Chitauri in The Avengers, who acts on opportunity. He’s not righteous, and he’s arguably corrupted by the spoils of his racket, but his motivations are driven by the austerity of the little guy being trounced on by the super wealthy. It brings he and Peter oddly in line, just on opposite sides of the same fence.
That makes Tony’s interference all the more ‘stark’ (pardon the pun) as he represents everything the Vulture stands against, and in a way Peter aspiring to be Tony feels like a rejection of those roots. His psychology and motivation isn’t necessarily explored in Homecoming, almost as if Watts is saving it for a later film. Perhaps because it’s tied up in the origin we already know but Peter’s reasons for fighting the Vulture are clouded and compounded by his hero worship of Tony, and the fact the collective Avengers simply aren’t there to clean up his mess bring it all into sharper focus. Tony is around but, much like an absentee father, he chooses not to come down off his perch until he has to.
The other aspects of Homecoming are simpler but no less effective. Peter has to decide whether or not to impress comely senior Liz (Laura Harrier) by turning up to her party as Spider-Man, after learning she’s attracted to the superhero. There’s more than a little Clark Kent about this element of the story, recalling the TV show Smallville more than the Superman movie series, in which our hero has to decide whether to keep his identity secret while still using his powers to impress the girl he has fallen for, all while keeping the confident counsel of his best friend. It’s familiar but handled well in the script.
The constituent elements of the Spider-Man comics are rippling nicely underneath the MCU-tethered story too. Familiar faces to comic readers such as Betty Brant or Flash Thompson all play supporting roles, the latter more of a comically antagonistic, high school thorn in Peter’s side, and both played by rising stars in The Nice Guys‘ Angourie Rice & Tony Revolori, best known for The Grand Budapest Hotel, giving them plenty of options in a few years of elevating these characters into bigger roles.
The most contentious point is Zendaya’s character Michelle; she undulates beneath the story, present on the sidelines but clearly waiting to emerge, especially when we learn her ‘real’ name. Though she isn’t who you might think.
Does the film top the previous Spider-Man movies? That’s a question which will be on everyone’s lips. Instinctually, yes. Homecoming seems to understand the character better and placing him within a wider universe only appears to serve the nature of Peter’s character to greater effect, but reappraisal of the previous efforts is needed. Homecoming is a good enough piece of cinema, in superhero terms, for hype to overcome critical thinking at this stage. Nonetheless it would be hard to rank this low, if comparing the Spider-Man cinematic canon.
Homecoming, in the end, is a coming of age origin story (just not the origin story) which sticks to the Marvel formula while revelling in how good this franchise now is at it. It’s a cinematic universe not without its falters or missteps but essentially we have to think of the MCU, from Iron Man in 2008 to Avengers: Endgame in 2019, as Season One of the first long-form, TV-style season of storytelling in cinema. By that point, 22 films will have covered three ‘phases’ but if we look at the MCU in terms of a storytelling season, Homecoming fits nicely into the final third of an arc building to a point of climax, after Civil War.
Though Homecoming doesn’t directly lead into Infinity War, the seeds are being sown. The Avengers are divided. Tony Stark is trying to pretend everything is fine and he can carry on as usual. The world continues cleaning up their skirmishes and mistakes. And we seem to lie, once again, on the precipice of change we may see more hints at in Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, before Avengers: Infinity War begins a conclusion that will sweep up Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel before Endgame‘s ‘season finale’. Peter Parker’s sequel, indeed, is the first Marvel film pencilled in post-Endgame.
What landscape will the Homecoming sequel inhabit? A film which promises, at this stage, Zendaya’s character having a bigger arc & a possible return for a certain villain, could also by that stage have a Peter Parker skilled up and seasoned by the events of two grand scale Avengers movies. Jon Watts, given his quietly adept and assured directorial hand here (though one suspects this was partly directed by committee), has all the cards to deliver a natural sequel to the beginning established here in Homecoming.
Spider-Man is home. Now we get the fun of seeing him start living there.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
DIRECTOR: Jon Watts
WRITERS: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Erik Sommers, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna
CAST: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr
STUDIO/DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures Releasing