Spidey’s solo debut in MCU is a very satisfying hybrid of high school and action-comedy, focusing on the growth of Tom Holland’s phenomenal version of the character

The “homecoming” in Spider-Man: Homecoming may be literally referring to the upcoming high school dance that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his high school friends are preparing for throughout the film, but it also serves as a meta reference to the character’s celebrated transition into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sony and Marvel finally struck a deal in 2015 that allows the web-slinger to play nice with all of the other super powered titans. We got a euphoric but brief tease of the possibilities of this partnership in Captain America: Civil War, when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) recruits Parker in an attempt to help subdue Captain America’s group of rogue heroes. It was the kind of note perfect scene-stealing mayhem that had audiences ready for him to swing onto the front lines of massive battles with the headliners.

But much like the continuing progression of it’s hero in the film, Homecoming slams on the breaks a bit by limiting the amount of references and appearances of the rest of the team, instead focusing on who this version of Peter Parker is at this point in his crime-fighting life. As a result, the stakes are relatively low on Homecoming, as director Jon Watts tries to expands upon what makes the ultra-popular superhero so likable and relatable to the average fan by showing him as an earning do-good person first and a hero second. The most prevalent and best material in Spider-Man: Homecoming focuses on Spider-Man himself, which may sound obvious but should not be taken for granted given the wonky last decade for him. It helps that they’ve found the perfect actor at the perfect time for this version of the character, and the results live up to the iconic and extremely entertaining stature that the character deserves.

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The evolution of Holland’s dorky, overly excited but earnest Peter Parker into the heroic and powerful Spider-Man that could save the entire city of New York on his own is at the crux of Homecoming’s story. More than any other Spider-Man film before this one, we get to see Peter Parker stumble at his job and fail. The brief twenty minutes of sparring with the Avengers he got to experience (recounted in amusing student film fashion) has left the teen antsy for his next world-saving mission, not realizing that the time in between is when he should be honing his crime-fighting skills. Much like the excitable kid who got a present from daddy without earning it, Parker toys with the advance tech in the suit that Stark built for him before he’s even truly mastered the basics of what it means to be a superhero, instead constantly pestering bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) with a barrage of text messages waiting for his next mission.

It’s clear that Parker is not ready for the big-time, botching simple things that we’ve taken for granted in Spider-Man’s skill set. In Homecoming, basic Spidey skills like casual web-swinging and civilian interaction become “how-to” processes, extended but amusing sequences where he’s earning his stripes under the guise of the “Stark Internship”. His growing pains are rushed through an accelerated timetable when Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) comes into play. As a foil for this somewhat grounded training-wheels version of Spider-Man, Toomes and the charming but dangerously rugged Keaton are perfect choices, antithesis’s to everything that the fifteen-year old dough eyed teen wants to represent. Some real world history involving a certain caped crusader that Keaton played in the past adds some subtext to his bitter villainy, an everyman construction worker with a vendetta against the rich and powerful Tony Stark. Whereas Parker isn’t even old enough to drive yet, Toomes has seen this new super-powered world chew him up and spit him out, and in a truly survivalist (if a bit extreme) move, he decides to adapt to the times by dealing recovered and stolen alien technology on the black market. For intimidation purposes, he dons the “Vulture” tech suit, a winged monstrosity that Parker deems is a major threat and is eager to stop as soon as possible, even if it means going behind Mr. Stark’s back.

The film’s choice to ground Spider-Man a bit and force him to walk before he can swing is a smart one, as it not only makes it more satisfying when Parker does eventually succeed, but it also helps give more personality to a neglected corner of the MCU, which is the normal, non-super powered people. When you really think about it, none of the Marvel superheroes could be described as an “average” person, all either exceedingly rich or disconnected from society to a radical point. The closest examples are probably Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, who was a specialist veteran in the military, and Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, who is a convicted criminal. Peter Parker, on the other hand, lives in a modest apartment in Queens with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), goes to a normal public high school, and has academic and social responsibilities outside of crime-fighting. Seeing his reaction and interaction as he crosses over into what might as well have been a whole other universe pre-Civil War to him is extremely satisfying, and again Holland really sells the wide-eyed wonder and amazement that high school sophomore Peter Parker would find in all of this unchartered territory.

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It’s also a joy to see Holland struggle to play the role of casual New Yorker, as the delicacy of that balance is so important to the Spider-Man character. Barring a thrilling stop in Washington D.C., the majority of Homecoming takes place on the streets of Manhattan with the average people, and you really get a sense of how aliens floating down from the sky has affected the common population in a way that maybe only The Defenders Netflix series have been able to show. Beyond just Parker, Toomes and his henchmen have their own difficulties with learning how the alien technology works, a nice touch that reinforces how foreign all of this is to the common man. When someone picks up an alien gun or a new super-powered feature in Homecoming, they don’t immediately know how to use it right away, and that helps the average viewer to relate to both heroes and villains.

There’s a large quantity of colorful and multicultural side characters peppered throughout the film that are a delight to spend time with, from students like Parker’s equally dorky but just as likable best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and deadpan nonconformist Michelle (Zendaya) to adults like academic decathlon supervisor Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr) and gym teacher Coach Wilson (Hannibal Burress). These are the kind of breakout characters that became iconic in 1980’s high school films, and Watts clearly took a bunch of inspiration from classics like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, as more than a few shots are direct references to John Hughes. It’s a bit frustrating that the film almost has too much of a good thing when it comes to likable characters, because very few of them are actually served. The focus is squarely on Peter, and that’s where it should be, but some of the best moments of the film are small bits he shares with these people in his life, like a tender montage getting ready for the dance with May or a party at love interest Liz’s (Laura Harrier) house. It’s rare that I say this, but Homecoming could’ve benefited from being about 10 minutes longer so we could’ve taken some time to get to know these supporting characters so that they aren’t strangers by the time the sequel comes around.   

Homecoming gets off to a bit of a slap-dash and sloppy start in its first half hour because of this overabundance of good personalities, as its really hard to get a sense of whose important and whose ultimately going to background dressing. While all of the Avengers universe stuff is clearly necessary to this story, it sometimes feels at war with the much more unique and fun high school New Yorker material. Downey Jr. is in the film a lot less than the marketing indicates (there are moments in the trailers that don’t even appear), and while his presence is vital to Peter’s progression in Homecoming, the film doesn’t feel like it would be that much weaker if his appearances were even more limited. Like its hero, the film is stuck with a very tricky balancing act, and it takes a little while before it strikes a rhythm between two very different visions.

Once Spider-Man: Homecoming settles in, however, it doesn’t stop delivering everything you could ask for from a solo Spider-Man film in a post-Avengers universe. It may lack the emotional depth and complexity of Spider-Man 2 or the awe-inspiring originality and freshness of the 2002 Sam Raimi original, but it tops both of those films in a number of other categories. This was almost certainly a tricky task for the inexperienced Watts to pull off, with the voices of six different writers, twelve producers and potentially billions of dollars at stake for the future of two studios. It’s remarkable with all that in mind how thrilling and satisfying Homecoming mostly is, with a lot of great humor, diverse action sequences, and a genuine sense of heart and earnestness that a lot of corporately driven blockbusters lack (but Marvel never tends to neglect). While the clutter is here, it’s minimal, and Holland is given the spotlight to show why he might be the best and most realized version of the superhero yet.

Rating: 8/10 

 

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