I have a love-hate relationship with the modern era of superhero movies. I hate what they represent – cookie-cutter, anti-auteur filmmaking prioritising profit over creativity and franchises over films – but I find myself enjoying these films more often than not. Over the last year or so there’s been the aching emotionality of Logan, the climactic thrill ride that was Captain America: Civil War and the frivolous fun of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. While I’m not as enthusiastic about Wonder Woman as its many proponents, it’s a long way from bad.
Despite all this, it still feels like a surprise that Spider-Man: Homecoming is as good as it is. Homecoming – the first Spider-Man film from Sony to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – makes no attempts to break out of the establish superhero mould. It boasts your typical narrative structure – three action setpieces interspersed with characterisation and banter – along with the mandatory feints at a sequel. Director Jon Watts (who?) makes no attempt to inject his own personal style; formally, this is very much from the post-Iron Man playbook. But across almost every aspect of the film, the execution is so spot on that you can’t really complain about the film’s disinterest in reinventing the wheel.
Befitting the film’s arachnid origins, then, here are eight reasons why I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming, and why I’m happy to forgive its reliance on formula.
There’s no two ways about it – Tom Holland is the best Spider-Man yet to grace the silver screen. He’s buff and hot, yet believably nerdy; he’s young enough (20 at the time of filming) to pass as a teenager, unlike his predecessors. (Okay, he doesn’t look fifteen, but this is Hollywood.) His offscreen enthusiasm for the role – watch this training video – or showbiz itself – watch his amazing Rihanna lip sync if you haven’t seen it yet – bleed into his charismatic lead performance. Spider-Man: Homecoming needs you to be excited to watch this guy for over two hours, and it well and truly succeeds.
Teen Movie Charm
Holland’s Peter Parker isn’t quite the wisecracking motormouth we saw in Civil War here. That might be a disappointment for some, but I think it’s a wise choice – cockiness is fine for a supporting character, but you need to mix that up with some vulnerability if you want to sympathise with the same character as protagonist. Particularly if they’re the protagonist of a teen movie.
Granted, Spider-Man: Homecoming is only just a teen movie; Peter’s peers – best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), crush Liz (Laura Harrier), bully Flash (Tony Revolori), mysterious pseudo-stalker Michelle (Zendaya) – are secondary to the superhero stuff. Nonetheless, they feel more integral to Peter’s life than your typical superhero supporting characters, ensuring Peter feels like a human first and superhero second. The style is unapologetically indebted to the films of the ‘80s – Watts pays explicit homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – which lends the film a bouncy style that elevates rather than distracts from the superheroics.
The marketing for Homecoming leans heavily on its connection to the MCU; understandably so, given the dismal reception to the last few standalone Spider-Man movies. Thankfully, though, the film’s deployment of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man is far more strategic than the carpet-bombing you might expect from the trailers.
That’s because this isn’t a Avengers film. It’s not a film about averting the end of the world – or the universe – but just a story about a kid trying to do the right thing. Iron Man does appear often enough to provide some comic relief and to recalibrate the film’s momentum, but this is not a Spider-Man and Iron Man movie. Stark assumes a sort of foster father role, encouraging Peter while reprimanding him for his teen impetuousness. And Spider-Man really does come across like a teenager: intuitive and excitable but also over-confident and unprepared for consequences.
I’ve long held the opinion that big budget movies are inherently interesting because they’re big budget movies. Anything that’s got that much money, marketing and labour behind it is worth talking about (even if it does turn out to be egregiously bad). Behind the scenes, the most interesting thing about Spider-Man: Homecoming is how it’s born of the marriage between two studios, Marvel and Sony.
I have no interest in going into the particulars – if you care about it you already know the broad strokes, if you don’t then it’s not really that exciting – but I love how this extratextual tension bleeds into the film itself. The way Peter Parker is so eager and enthusiastic to join the Avengers after his stint at a Berlin airport (in Civil War) might not be intended as meta-commentary on every other studio scrambling to emulate Marvel’s success, but damn if it isn’t fun to read it that way.
Avoiding Origin Story Tropes
Nothing wrong with a good origin story every now and again, but I think we can all agree that the well is running dry on innovative takes on superhero origin stories – especially Spider-Man origin stories. So it’s refreshing to see Homecoming blithely skip over the origins of its webslinging star; there’s a passing joke about a radioactive spider (“It’s dead now.”) and no mention of Uncle Ben at all. With breathlessly pacing and smart montages, Homecoming tells us everything we need to know about Spider-Man without needing to check off a laundry list of stuff we’ve all watched before.
Experimentation within Action Scenes
Let’s be clear: Spider-Man: Homecoming’s action setpieces aren’t anything especially outside the box. There are four of them, if we don’t include his ‘friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man’ montages, which is probably one too many: Spidey’s ferry showdown serves an important narrative purpose but isn’t much chop as an action scene in of itself.
What makes the remaining three scenes work is less the action itself – which is pretty stock; well-executed but familiar – than how Watts iterates on the action to make the scenes pop. For instance, an early showdown between our webslinger and a couple of goons equipped with alien-tech weaponry is nothing special on the face of it, but by introducing humour (including the aforementioned Ferris Bueller cameo) and tension (Peter’s supposed to be at a high school party), it keeps you entertained without being broadly memorable. Similarly, a rescue at the Washington Monument is improved by incorporating Peter learning – or attempting to learn – the new features of his suit.
These are small details, but they largely avoid the ‘action lull’ that I’ve been come accustomed to in superhero films. That point where you just kind of tune out and look at the pretty special effects and wait for the hero to inevitably prevail. While you might not remember the action sequences in any particular detail in Homecoming, it’s unlikely you’ll be bored while watching them.
A Good Villain
If there’s one constant across Marvel’s competent-to-excellent run of superhero films, it’s the mediocrity of their villains. Beyond Loki – who the studio has understandably seized upon as a flagship character after standing out in the first Thor film – the universe lacks a single antagonist of note. I even found myself praising Mads Mikkelsen’s character in Doctor Strange because Mikkelsen made me believe his ‘we’re not so different, you and I’ speech.
Spider-Man: Homecoming bucks the trend with Michael Keaton’s Vulture. This kind of mid-tier villain is perfect for the smaller scale setting, but it’s how the Vulture is incorporated into the narrative that make him so effective (and Keaton’s gravelly performance doesn’t hurt, either). He’s introduced in a prologue as a salvager, digging through alien junk in the wake of the devastation wrought by the events of the Avengers. Having staked his livelihood on the line – selling his house to pay for the salvage equipment – the ‘Vulture’ turns to the black market, stealing and salvaging alien tech to craft weapons and tech to sell to criminals.
It’s a clever backstory that instantly makes our villain relatable. Sure, he’s doing the wrong thing, but he’s motivated by profit rather than megalomania. Thus, his crew of flunkies make sense, and his motivations suit the scale of the film. As someone points out later in the film, he’s profiting off selling weapons – something that Spidey’s hero, Iron Man, can well and truly relate to. There’s another twist waiting in the wings that makes the Vulture an even more effective villain, but I’ll leave that revelation for you to discover yourself.
Actual Political Subtext
This last point is really tied in to the previous one; I don’t want to seem like I’m saving the best ‘til last (this is fairly incidental to the quality of the film), but I really needed eight reasons.
It’s easy to overstate the political elements of these superhero films, which tend to hedge their bets and incorporate provocative ideas without any kind of coherent thesis. That’s sort of true of Spider-Man: Homecoming as well. But for all its egregious product placement – wow, Audi sure do make nice cars! – the film manages to offer a devastatingly simple indictment of the progression of contemporary capitalism.
To whit: Peter’s alibi for his Spider-Man jaunts is that he’s attending a “Stark internship.” It’s not too far from the truth, not only because he is trying to impress Mr Stark and earn entrance into the Avengers, but because it operates much like an internship. Peter sacrifices his social life and involvement with extracurricular opportunities to engage in activities that don’t profit him at all – yet, anyway. You get the sense he’s less interested in the fundamental heroism of what he’s doing than how it will impress his prospective ‘employer.’
Combined with the Vulture’s illicit ‘disruption’ (he’s like Uber, but for alien guns!), Homecoming paints a portrait of an America where success requires working yourself to the bone for little reward – even if you’re a superhero. Despite the bright colours and cheerful soundtrack, it adds some shading to an otherwise thoroughly entertaining film.