The great novelty of Spider-Man when he first appeared in comic books more than half a century ago was that he was the antithesis of invulnerable superheroes like Superman. Peter Parker's super powers — leaping about and clinging to walls and ceilings, as well as shooting powerful webs from an apparatus of his own creation — were inseparable from, if not secondary to, the hassles of his everyday life as a teenager. He was short on cash, limited in social skills and simply trying to fit in. Those spider powers made him unique, but sometimes they were as unwelcome as a bad case of acne.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is the sixth theatrical film to feature the angsty hero in fifteen years, and the first to present the character as an actual teenager, specifically a fifteen-year-old boy as acutely aware of his weaknesses as he is of the new responsibilities that come with putting on a brightly colored costume and patrolling the streets for signs of villainy.
Directed by Jon Watts, the new adventure places Spider-Man somewhere between the consumerist teen fantasy of a Disney Channel sitcom and the soap opera pathos of Gilmore Girls. It's closest in tone to a John Hughes teen scape, with an assortment of Breakfast Club friends — and Peter himself stuck somewhere between the cockiness of Ferris Bueller and the awkward eccentricity of Pretty in Pink's Duckie.
- PHOTO BY CHUCK ZLOTNICK - © 2017 CTMG INC.
- Watts and his cast are able to make fun of some of the genre's conventions.
Watts smartly forgoes the origin stories that waste so much time in comic book movies. Parker is already Spider-Man when the film begins and the filmmakers waste no time telling us how he got there. The film begins with a home-video version of Spider-Man's brief cameo in last year's Captain America: Civil War. I haven't seen that film, but apparently Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) recruited the unknown teenager to help his cause in the fighting among the now-feuding Avengers. Once the battle is over, Parker, played with a great deal of simple charm by Tom Holland, is thrown back into his old life, waiting for a call from Stark and trying to exercise his web-slinging abilities.
The irony is that Spider-Man is a disaster as a crime-fighter. Sure, he finds dangerous criminal activity on nearly every corner, but he's so inexperienced that he nearly outdoes the professional hoods in creating havoc (on a school trip, he comes close to destroying the Washington Monument). Where other super heroes ooze self-confidence, Holland slides between naive innocence and outright bumbling. Where other comic book movies pompously flaunt their elaborate fictional universes, Spider-Man: Homecoming is simple, unpretentious fun, playing with heroic myth-making just to deflate it.
In keeping with the hero's down-to-earth roots, the villain, played brilliantly by Michael Keaton, is a working-class guy who just happens to wear a flying vulture suit. Keaton's Vulture steals alien artifacts left over from the first Avengers film to create high-tech weaponry, which he sells to criminals. A guy has to make a living, right?
Keaton is, as always, perfect in the kind of role he deflated so well in Birdman, and it's one of the film's virtues that the final conflict between Spider-Man and the Vulture seems to be as much a clash between two real people (albeit mismatched by age and ability) as it is a contrived fight between two CGI creations.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Homecoming, given the massive scale and rigid demands of the Marvel franchise, is that Watts and his cast aren't overwhelmed by the comic-book theatrics, the special effects or the careful ground-laying required to etch the film's place in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe. They even make fun of one of the MCU's most labored traditions, the now-standard post-credit scenes that sometimes try to set the stage for the next entry in the series, but are just as often equal parts gimmick and time-waster. Homecoming's parting shot, in the form of a PSA starring Captain America, is the best to date.
It's not a great film or even a particularly ambitious one, but it's content to have fun with its characters, not just wink at the fanboys and drop hints about the next three sequels.