Spider-Man was always my guy. By the time I discovered him in junior high school, the comic book Peter Parker was already in college, but I dug back through his origins and found a vast wealth of stories that portrayed him as a confused, socially awkward high school student, frequently bullied and leading a double life that could have potentially caused serious harm to both himself and those he loved. And this flawed teenager with superhuman abilities, a rogue’s gallery of enemies, and an off-the-charts IQ empowered me, and he did so because, with a few slight variation, he was me—me and a lot of people around me. He was us. Peter Parker was special because he wasn’t special, and when you don’t feel special as a kid, having him as a role model is a powerful thing.
But identifying with Parker/Spider-Man most of my life hasn’t always meant I’ve been fond of his film portrayals. I’m not going to go through my personal history of the Spider-Man films (I’m sure they aren’t much different than yours) or the various animated series. But as Spider-Man: Homecoming started to roll, I saw something I’d never seen before in a big-screen version of the web-slinger—I saw my Spider-Man, the one I grew up reading about, with the bad jokes, rash decisions, attempting to balance school, family, work and superheroing so unsuccessfully that it stresses him out to the point where he almost shuts down at times. Hell, this kid (played by the great British actor Tom Holland, from The Impossible and the recent The Lost City of Z) is still figuring out the range and extremes of his powers, all of which are exponentially amplified by a new suit designed (and partly controlled) by Tony Stark (a mentoring turn by Robert Downey Jr., in what amounts to an extended cameo, but his presence and influence permeates every square inch of this film).
Before we dig deeper, let me make this clear: you do not have to sit through the origin story of Spider-Man for a third time. All of what made him a superhero has already happened. There’s a vague mention of the rough time his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) has had, and in one scene, Peter explains to his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) about being bitten by a spider, but that’s it. In fact, you can fully enjoy Homecoming with even having seen Spider-Man’s fantastic re-introduction in Captain America: Civil War because that’s recapped very cleverly at the beginning of the film. One thing that is made abundantly clear here is that Spider-Man is unique in the superhero world. He didn’t ask for the hero’s life. He didn’t build a special suit or train for years, he wasn’t born a demigod; his is very much a greatness-thrust-upon-him scenario, and he’s rolling with it the best he can.
I particularly like the film’s set up, which begins years before Peter was given his powers. An opening sequence set immediately after the events of the first Avengers movie, with the shattered remains of alien and Stark technology scattered across Manhattan, shows us a salvage operation headed by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who is about to start cleaning up the mess when they are interrupted by a government group known as Damage Control, responsible for keeping this potentially dangerous tech out of the hands of civilians. Toomes is pissed at the loss of income, and manages to steal a few valuable alien power sources on his way out, eventually creating a black market for human-alien hybrid technology, which he himself uses when he straps on an impressive set of scary-looking wings to become the Vulture.
As I mentioned, we also get a little summary of Spider-Man’s brief Civil War appearance, which is important because it sets up Peter coming back from that Berlin Airport battle to a life that is decidedly less exciting. Stark has promised to keep in touch and call him in when he’s needed for his next mission, but the call never comes. Peter does occasionally get to speak to Stark’s right-hand man Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), who isn’t the least bit interested in taking Peter’s calls. But Peter is like any kid that has done something or been somewhere exciting and has to return to the hum-drum life he lived before. Peter is a changed young man (he’s meant to be 15 in this film), and he seems keenly aware that a bigger life awaits him, a life that Stark believes he isn’t quite ready to lead. Naturally, the kid disagrees.
Director Jon Watts (Cop Car) cares as much about portraying Peter’s school life accurately as he does about the big action set pieces. Casting some fine comic talents in the roles of key teachers in Peter’s life (I won’t ruin those fun surprises) as well as an interesting group of friends for him to interact with is key to establishing this part of Parker’s world. In addition to Ned, there’s also Peter’s big crush, a girl named Betty (Angourie Rice); the strange outcast Michelle (Zendaya), who is as smart as she is weird, and always seems to know what Peter is up to; Liz (The Nice Guys’ Laura Harrier); and there’s even Flash (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori), who is a brain, not unlike Peter, one who is clearly threatened by Peter’s seemingly effortless intellect.
Fans of the Spider-Man comic books will likely pick up on a few secondary criminal characters—associates of Toomes—including Michael Chernus as Phineas Mason aka The Tinkerer and the designer of most of the hybrid weapons that the Vulture sells; and Bokeem Woodbine as the Shocker, minus the dopey comic-book costume. Along with Toomes, this team moves from place to place where big shipments of valuable tech can be salvaged. There’s mention of them grabbing up gear from the debris-heavy Triskelion demolition in D.C.; there’s talk of picking up the pieces after the Sokovia disaster; and the big heist attempt at the end of the film focuses on the last load of weapons and other fun toys going from the old Stark/Avengers Tower to the new headquarters in upstate New York.
And that’s the key to making Homecoming so interesting in terms of story. In essence, the film is a street-level view of the Marvel movies to date, hovering somewhere in between the Netflix Defenders-oriented series and the big-screen adaptations. And that’s the place Spider-Man feels most comfortable, despite his ambitions to be more of a player. In the comics, Spider-Man was the keeper of New York City, and anytime he was placed in a situation that had more global or celestial implications, he seems hopelessly out of place (not that he didn’t contribute). This film is about what happens when the dust settles, and the vultures come to pick the bones of what’s left in the rubble.
Playing easily the best Marvel bad guy since Loki, Keaton is astonishing here, and his motivations for keeping this dangerous business going are sometimes tough to argue with—he’s not in it to destroy lives or because he’s evil; he’s trying to provide for his family, just as he was years earlier when he worked a legit job. He’s not a terrible person, but he is nevertheless a dangerous man who can’t risk getting caught. The movie’s tension is ramped up several notches as Peter finds out a few secrets about Toomes’ life, and Toomes, in turn, finds out a few things about Spider-Man. I hope future Spider-Man installments feature The Vulture in some capacity, because it would be a real shame to lose him.
Stark’s role in Peter’s life is complicated (shocking, I know), but he pops in periodically to either give advice or punish Peter for being too ambitious and reckless, putting more people in danger than he’d actually be saving in the process. A particularly disastrous exchange between Spider-Man and the Vulture on a ferry pretty much kills any chance Stark will trust Parker for quite some time, and he’s not wrong. I love that even without the enhanced suit, Peter is still determined to deal with the Vulture, even if it means wearing an older-model costume that looks like sweats or long underwear.
All of these elements combine to make Homecoming a hell of a movie that is full-bore entertaining and one of the funniest Marvel movies to date, while still taking everything quite seriously, both in terms of the debt it owes to the early comic books and the struggle that Peter faces in every aspect of his life—as student, nephew, best friend, and hero. Holland embodies Peter Parker to such a degree that I refuse to allow him to every stop playing him. There’s a hormonal energy that is only amplified with these powers, and in those few moments when he does feel confident, his youthful exuberance wrecks the moments with an alarming predictability. In classic Parker/Spider-Man fashion, the kid also loves to run his mouth when he should be paying attention—another trait that haunts him.
Director Watts and his team of writers have packed this film with good times, great enemies, and enough detail to keep devoted, long-term fans happy, as well as kids who know nothing about Parker’s journey or future. There are surprises, excitement, real drama, and one of the best post-credits scenes you’ll ever see (so good, in fact, they shouldn’t do another…ever). It’s nice to have my favorite superhero in the hands of a production team that is treating him right, by essentially mistreating him for two hours-plus. Spider-Man: Homecoming is as perfect a portrait of Peter Parker as I’ve ever seen, and one of the best Marvel movies to date. Face it, tiger. We just hit the jackpot.