Spider-Man: Homecoming: A Review
Okay, first things first. I’m going to be blunt about this. 1) It’s not 1964 anymore. That should be obvious, considering that I wasn’t born yet in that year and I’m well into my forties now. 2) Peter Parker and his Aunt May live in an apartment in Queens in New York City. Why am I pointing these two very basic things out? Well, unfortunately it’s because I’m imagining some objections to the nature of the new Spider-Man reboot from people who want its supporting characters to adhere firmly to those presented in the comic book stories of the sixties through the nineties. Look, I get it. I grew up in the eighties firmly entrenched in that well-established classic Spider-Man world. If you read my ranking of the first five Spider-Man movies, you’ll know that Sam Raimi’s films were my favorites there in part due to their stylistic and character similarities with those books I read as a teenager. But if you’re going to present a teenaged webhead set in the current day, some changes are just going to have to be made. Are we on the same page with this? Great. Let’s talk about the new movie then.
It is in part due to these changes that this new Spider-Man film is easily one of the best we’ve seen yet. If you are hoping for no spoilers at all in a review I would recommend that you stop reading here and go ahead and see the movie. It has my unreserved recommendation even if it’s not absolutely perfect. If you’re okay with some very mild spoilers, then read on!
This iteration of Spider-Man smartly avoids the well-known origin story and instead spends its time on showing the fifteen year-old central character struggling with adjusting to his new super hero life. He has both outsized expectations and undersized competence. You know, sort of like a real life fifteen year-old would. It’s actually pretty frustrating sometimes watching Spider-Man stumble in situations we’ve seen him knock out of the park so many times before. But that’s actually a pretty big part of the story here. Peter’s status as a super-powered being who doesn’t yet really know how to handle himself and hasn’t matured into the role he’s destined to play is not just entirely appropriate, but central to who the character is.
Anyone who has read any of the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics (I caught many of them in reprints when I was a comics reader back in the eighties) knows that this is actually pretty accurate to that early iteration of the character. He had a tendency to make some pretty stupid or foolish mistakes sometimes and he pretty much always got his head handed to him the first time he faced one of his growing cadre of super villains. It was only with experience and maturation that Spider-Man grew into the confident and ultra-competent hero he had become by the time I was reading his books. There was always a suggestion that his powers were growing as he learned life lessons – and there is a version of an iconic Spider-Man moment from 1966 that drives this point home here in this movie.
You’ll also notice that the movie spends a significant amount of time establishing Peter’s life in high school. Yet again, this is an element that was also present in the earliest Spider-Man books which were almost as concerned with Peter Parker’s love life as they were with his exploits as Spider-Man.
In this version of Spider-Man, Peter’s best friend is Ned Leeds as played by Jacob Batalon. If you’re one of those readers of the classic books, you’ll notice that the character is pretty different on first glance. As one of those readers I’m going to argue that this version of Ned is far superior to the boring character from the early books and also preferable to the rage-filled jerk he became later on. As presented here, Ned supplies Peter with a confidant his own age who serves the story as the voice of his more immature impulses while still being a dependable, smart, and loyal friend. He pokes and prods, but ultimately respects his friend’s boundaries. That’s pretty refreshing in the current age of comedy films that seem to think an utter lack of couth or respect for others is always super funny (it’s really really not).
And make no mistake, Spider-Man: Homecoming is at times one of the funniest films in the entire Marvel universe. Word is that the head honchos at Marvel saw this reboot of the wall-crawler as their chance to make a John Hughes style teen dramedy. Sony, on the other hand, was keen to focus on the action elements it felt were key to attracting audiences and sending them out satisfied. The resulting movie does a very good job at integrating these two approaches to the character and giving you a pretty well-rounded take on the character and his world. While the big picture stakes of the action are relatively small in comparison to the Avengers films, the ease with which Tom Holland’s Peter/Spider-Man can be related to manages to keep us fully invested in the action scenes and uncertain of how they will turn out.
Adding to this uncertainty is the wonderful adaptation of the classic, but ultimately second-tier villain The Vulture. By the time I was reading in the eighties, the Vulture was one of the villains Spider-Man had graduated past. This was true to the point that he actually only had any trouble with Vulture when there were other distractions or villains around. Writers of the comics seemed to always need to arrange for something else to be going on in order to prolong any Vulture story. If it was a simple one-on-one melee, Spider-Man tended to wipe the floor with the winged senior citizen pretty easily.
That is most decidedly not the case here. Peter’s neophyte status and the Vulture’s strength, wide range of weapons, and utter ruthlessness combine to make him more than a match for Spider-Man. Michael Keaton’s presence in the role sure doesn’t hurt either. His Vulture is a small businessman picking over the remains from the Chitauri attack on New York in the first Avengers movie and a man with his own understandable point of view on his own motivations and the implications of Spider-Man’s interference. He is both relatable as a character and terrifying as an adversary for Peter.
So, what were the movie’s weaknesses? Well, I must admit to being a little confused by the timeline. The Chitauri invasion was presented in The Avengers in 2012, and I don’t remember any indication that the events of that film took place in any year other than 2012. But Spider-Man: Homecoming very clearly indicates that the attack happened eight years prior to the primary events it presents. Are we looking at stuff going on in the year 2020? What’s going on with that? I also have to admit that I found some of the execution of the final battle between Spider-Man and The Vulture to be a little unsatisfying. I won’t go into detail here about why I feel that way other than to say that it could have been easily fixed.
My one disappointment about how the character is presented has to do with how this version of Spider-Man was introduced. The mentor role Tony Stark plays in Peter’s life means that pretty much all of the technology he employs as Spider-Man is not of his own invention. One of the satisfying elements of the classic books was that Peter would use his scientific know-how to concoct solutions for the problems his foes were presenting him with. Often this meant that his tech was both experimental and sometimes of low quality at first. But I do have to remind myself that the Spider-Man of the sixties lived in a world in which any sort of advanced tech was a little unusual, whereas this one is very used to a world in which every teenager carries around a doodad far more sophisticated than most of the stuff Peter ever invented. Still, I’m hoping to see more of Peter’s own adeptness as an inventor in appropriate super hero problem solving.
Apart from those three things, any other weaknesses would be quibbles on my part. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a wildly entertaining super hero movie with engaging characters, fun action, and lots of laughs.
Oh, and be sure to hang around at the end for two different post-credits scenes, the second of which is perhaps the funniest and most self-aware scene of its type concocted yet.