It’s almost hard to watch Marvel movies now since each new one released seems to vie for my attention as my favorite superhero movie of all time. Spider-Man: Homecoming is no exception.
Sony has held the movie rights to Spider-Man since 1985. They had wild success with the first cinematic outing with the web-slinger, portrayed by Tobey Maguire. But after that initial success, the studio weighed down the sequels with a bad case of “more villains = more betterer”. Eventually, after a rather poor showing for the third movie, they opted for a reboot. While I enjoyed Andrew Garfield’s portrayal, it still felt like too much of the same. Plus, we got the origin story. Again.
For Spider-Man: Homecoming Sony partnered with Marvel, allowing them to take the reigns and sprinkle the franchise with a bit of that patented Marvel Magic Movie Dust. I don’t know what powerful mojo Marvel has brewing, but that shit WORKS!
This time around, we lose the traditional origin story (and the traditional forty-five minute lead up to the spider bite) and get right to the business of being Spider-Man. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is the most teenagery Peter we’ve ever seen. He pulls off a very believable fifteen year old, complete with the requisite mix of euphoric spazzy angst you would expect from a teenage superhero. He starts the movie more Spider-Boy than Spider-Man, and making that journey of self-discovery is at the heart of this film.
Peter Parker’s exuberance about being a superhero is infectious, as I was literally giddy while watching the movie. Picking up the occasional easter egg or reference, watching classic scenes from the books played out, and thrilling at the gags that address things Spider-Man fans have been discussing for years.
The movie also gives us our most bumbling Spider-Man to date. It didn’t occur to me how smooth and athletic the original movies were until I saw Tom Holland mostly stumbling through his missions with all the grace of an overeager teenager. It makes sense though. With a great spider bite comes great responsibility, but not an inherent knowledge of Olympic-level gymnastics.
I’ve always said that a good guy can only be as good as the bad guy is bad. Peter’s first solo outing against a super villain has him perfectly paired with The Vulture (Michael Keaton) as a street level thug with a penchant for high-tech tinkering. Keaton can really pull off smoldering menace (watch Pacific Heights for a truly frightening performance) and he brings to the character real depth, far beyond the usual “I will rule the world! Muahahahah!” we get with so many villains. Perhaps just above The Defenders pay grade but well below the notice of The Avengers, The Vulture and his scavenging crew make for a perfect challenge for young Peter Parker.
I appreciate the Marvel method of focusing on one central bad guy with small appearances by, or references to, the rest of Marvel’s rather deep bench of C list heroes and villains. Vulture’s henchmen include a few of Spidey’s other foes in minor support roles (you’ll know ’em when you see ’em.)
The rest of the cast is well-rounded and delightful. I don’t think there is a throwaway part in the bunch, all the way from Peter’s best friend Ned to gym Coach Wilson (Hannibal Buress). But we’ll delve more into the gang (including Tony Stark) once we start talking spoilers (below).
I went to opening night with my oldest daughter (12) and we left chattering away about characters, plot points, gags, and we spoke with light, fun-filled hearts. And at the end of the day, THAT is what I expect from my superhero movies. Spider-Man: Homecoming brilliantly encapsulates what makes Spider-Man such a beloved character. He’s funny, flawed, and flailing but always with a good heart and doing the best he can to keep his little corner of the world safe. Watching him prevail over the forces of evil is truly satisfying (and did I mention, fun).
Leaving the theater, I was fully sated and felt that even if Sony fully takes over the franchise again and brings us more muddled, heavy-handed, villain laden fare: at least we have one pure, perfect Spider-Man movie to look back on.
I recommend it wholeheartedly and will, naturally, be seeing it many more times in the theater. I recommend you do the same.
And yes, even though it’s Sony, stay for the end credits. The VERY end credits. Your patience will be rewarded.
!!!!WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!!!!
Let’s get to it, shall we?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe As A Character
To begin with, we all knew Iron Man played a part in this new chapter of Spider-Man, but I didn’t realize just HOW much of the MCU we’d see and how ingrained Spider-Man’s story would be. They deal with the Chitauri Attack on New York, the Sokovia Accords, the new Avengers headquarters … hell, Coach Wilson even makes an off-hand comment about Captain America being a “war criminal now, or something” (in reference to Cap being on the run during/after the events in Civil War). You feel fully immersed in the MCU from beginning to end, both in location as well as tone.
I was absolutely thrilled to get to see some of the MCU events through a different lens and things like logistics (moving day) and the aftermath of battles. The inclusion of Damage Control (the subject of four short comic mini-series) was a real surprise. But it’s that attention to detail and the Marvel roster that makes Marvel helmed movies so good. Hell, even the hard core grognards say “Who? Oh yeah! Wow, that takes me back.” during Marvel movies.
Interesting tie-in: Ant-Man was an employee of the Damage Control search and rescue team, but in the comics it was Eric O’Grady (sleazy Ant-Man) in disguise as Slaying Mantis. This makes an interesting opening in the MCU to allow Scott Lang to earn a living at a respectable job by using his size-changing abilities to help search and rescue efforts. You listening Marvel? (actually, yeah, they probably are.)
Since we also knew Iron Man, one of Marvel’s most popular characters, was anchoring this foray into another studio’s franchise, I was very pleased to see it wasn’t “Marvel Team-Up: Iron Man and Spider-Man”. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is more a presence that is felt than seen. Stark is in it long enough to get Pete underway and to later fulfill the Uncle Ben role. He makes sure Pete keeps his head on straight and get’s back on track after overestimating his powers and using them poorly.
Speaking of Peter’s fall from grace, I found it poetic that Spider-Man is basically stripped of his suit by Stark for committing one of the gravest crimes in recent cinematic history: putting innocents in danger. From DC’s near criminally negligent fights in population centers to Marvel’s attention to collateral damage (they even saved a single guard they knocked unconscious in Ant-Man), putting innocent spectators in danger has become a hot topic. The Internet is judge, jury, and box-office executioner on matters of what are and aren’t acceptable losses. And seeing Spider-Man put people in danger through his own overconfidence really sets the tone of “with great power comes great responsibility”, without having to say it (yet again).
Batman, Birdman, Vulture … Michael Keaton seems to be typecast as a winged thing in whatever superhero movie he’s in. But in his turn as the second villain Spider-Man ever faced (The Amazing Spider-Man #2, 1963) Keaton’s Adrian Toomes plays the “blue collar guy screwed by the system” and turns to a life of crime to make ends meet. The Vulture as a blue collar criminal doing bad things for good reasons is far more well rounded than Sony’s previous attempt with The Sandman in Spider-Man 3.
Michael Keaton’s intensity kicks into super menace overdrive as you see him work out who Peter is in the car ride. We quickly feel Peter’s discomfort as we see the gears turning with a final culmination of Toomes turning to face Peter and threaten everything he loves.
But The Vulture is more than a gadget-happy super kook. He’s a businessman, responsible for his crew. A family man, doing all he can to provide for his family. And as ruthless as he is, he’s still honorable. He spares Peter’s life for saving his daughter and does Pater a solid again by not revealing Spidey’s identity in return for Peter saving his life after the botched ‘moving day’ heist.
Vulture’s wing suit is pretty damned cool, IMHO, and I’d love to see him go head to head with Falcon in an aerial engagement. You also have to love the nod to the original Vulture by emphasizing the fuzzy collar on Keaton’s bomber jacket.
Familiar and Not So Familiar Faces
Since Sony technically has the cinematic rights to every character and storyline that’s appeared in Spider-Man comics, it has been a mystery why they seem to focus on repeating the origin story and only featuring the core characters: Peter, Aunt May, Uncle Ben, Mary Jane, J. Jonah Jameson, Gwen Stacy and the villain du jour (and even then it’s usually one of the Goblin family).
We get a few secondary villains in The Vulture’s crew with The Shocker (Bokeem Woodbine) and The Tinkerer (Michael Chernus) with a brief nod to two or three more potential baddies (including a future Scorpion). I particularly liked Shocker’s modified hydraulic punchy fist from Crossbones suit from Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Flash In The Pan
Peter’s long-time adversary and high-school bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) in fully on board the “Penis Parker” hate train. There was an outcry from an unenlightened few about race changing in the movies and an unusual amount of it centered around the casting of Tony in the traditional white male role of Flash. I have to say that this social media savvy “mean girl” version of Flash fits in MUCH better as a modern day cyber bully than the old school, physical, push you in the locker bully we’ve seen innumerable times. Flash’s update is in line with what I originally wrote about a new Lex Luthor dropping the robber-baron image for a start up rich tech nerd with an ability to sway public opinion with a Tweet. A new bully for a digital age.
Marvel showed Sony how to really mine those back issues for gold. We get just about every girlfriend Peter has ever had in the comics, minus Gwen Stacy. Liz (Laura Harrier) and Betty Brandt (Angourie Rice) have romantic ties to Peter in the comics and while Liz is the object of Peter’s affections this time around, it’s nice to see him with other options beyond the typical two.
And speaking of Peter’s love life…
Is Zendaya Mary Jane?
Zendaya’s Michelle is the opposite of the typical Mary Janes we’ve seen in comics and movies. Instead of a glamorous party girl covering up inner turmoil, Zendaya plays a social outcast, bereft of makeup, fashion sense, or friends. But her oddball Michelle steals every scene she is in and immediately makes us love her (and hopefully Peter eventually sees her the same way). The only real tie she has to the canon Mary Jane is when she tells Peter and friends at near the end of the movie: “My friends call me M.J.”, alluding to the nickname used for Mary Jane. Michelle is her own character and a new one they wanted to explore in the Spider-verse.
Best Boy Ned
Peter’s best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon) shares the same name as comic buddy Ned Leeds, but his introduction and demeanor are ripped straight out of the Miles Morales storyline where heavyset Korean American Ganke Lee is Spider-Man’s confidant and “chair guy”. Hopefully movie Ned can avoid the untoward future of the comic book Ned.
As a special treat for Spider-Man fans, Aaron Davis (Donald Glover) makes reference to wanting to keep the neighborhood free from super powered weapons since “my nephew lives around here”. And who is Aaron’s nephew? Why none other than Miles Morales!
Yes, this movie sets up the inclusion of fan-favorite Miles Morales to take on the mantle of Spider-Man someday. Marvel cleverly use Donald Glover’s character (who’s supervillain name in the comics was The Prowler) to introduce the the existence of Miles in a round-about way. It serves to whet long time fan’s appetites without burdening fans new to the series with a whole new hero. At least not yet. 😉
There are so many in-jokes, references, and easter eggs in the movie it’s almost impossible to list them all, but my personal favorite is when Peter gets called to the principal Morita’s office. Actor Kenneth Choi sits behind his desk, with a picture of his character’s grandfather behind him, wearing his WW2 uniform. And who is that grandfather? It’s Kenneth Choi himself, as his character Jim Morita, the Japanese American who joined the Howling Commandos in Captain America: The First Avenger. I loved the subtle touch to keep things tied together.
I also enjoyed seeing Pepper Potts back. Personally, I’m not a fan of Gwyneth Paltrow, but I like Pepper and Tony together. And speaking of Tony’s “ladies”, the spider suit’s Jarvis like ‘Karen’ was a super addition to the cast. Funny and acerbic, this Jennifer Connelley voiced tech support system was a welcome introduction.
And who can forget this classic moment, brought to life. One of my favorites. 🙂
A Weighty Issue
When I saw the rubble collapse on Peter after he confronted The Vulture I gasped as they pulled back and I realized they were going to do ‘The Final Chapter’ scene from Amazing Spider-Man #33. Spider-Man, trapped under a mountain of rubble, has to set aside doubt and draw upon his inner strength to break free. When this scene happened my daughter asked “Spider-Man has super strength?” and I said “Yeah, pretty much. How do you think he survives getting smashed into busses and brick walls?”
For anyone watching the movie, it’s a pretty powerful scene. Peter piteously cries for help before he comes to terms with his situation and digs down deep to save himself. But for readers of the comics, it’s an event that was a keystone moment: one of a handful of situations a true fan can nearly recite. And it’s something I don’t think Sony would have picked up on while rifling through back issues, looking for inspiration.
Bringing It Home
And that rubble scene there is a prime example of what makes the title Spider-Man: Homecoming resonate with me. This is truly Peter Parker coming home and being brought back into the pantheon of Marvel greats. Marvel not only knows their audience but their creative directors ARE their audience. They know the ins and outs of the Marvel Universe and expertly plumb the depths to surface the best characters, situations, and ideas. They can also make drastic choices in the MCU that break with long standing tradition but make for better story options. Just as Tony Stark’s “secret identity” was deftly side stepped in the original Iron Man film, this time around we get an Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) who finds out the jig is up in a rather shocking and hilarious way.
It seems most studios with Marvel properties pick and pull from the source material with wildly varying degrees of success (new movie Deadpool > old movie Deadpool). It’s like they are given long boxes of material to pull from, but only browse the covers for ideas to put up on the big screen. But hey, knowing a studio can put aside creative control for the betterment of the franchise fills me with the hope that there may be a good Fantastic Four movie someday.
For now though, we can finally embrace the fresh-faced kid who harbors the same sense of wonder we do, who is facing the same high-school challenges we all faced, and who we fell in love with on the pages of flimsy, yellowing newsprint.
Spider-Man has come home.