Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko back in 1962, Spider-Man has endured a long and juggled history. Springing from the pages first in the timeless late ’60s cartoon (enjoy that theme song in your head for the remainder of the day), then to the Nicholas Hammond TV series of the ‘70s, and finally to the inevitable live-action films beginning with 2002’s Spider-Man, and seemingly ending with 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Though that last film suffered a bit from Batman and Robin-itis, most felt that its studio, Sony, would simply take a few years off and safely reboot down the road. A new era, a revamped Peter, a fresh take.
Then something astonishing happened. Sony and Marvel worked out a magical backyard deal that shocked the internet and allowed Spidey’s birthplace to not only get involved with a few films, but also allowed Marvel to incorporate the character into its own Cinematic Universe. Making his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War, this iteration of Peter Parker (played with relative ease by newcomer Tom Holland) became a student under the tutelage of Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark himself. The world lost their minds with praise, audiences emptied their wallets, and word soon came that this take will garner its very own film, the aptly titled Spider-Man: Homecoming.
I should preface this review with stating a fact: Spider-Man is my favorite character in all of fiction. Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes nip at his heels, but Peter Parker is my spirit animal. Growing up, Marvel’s reluctant hero lit a torch under many dark days for yours truly, and for that, I am particularly primal about his use.
When Sam Raimi’s film released, I was giddier than Aquaman at a hot tub party. Tobey Maguire captured Peter’s naiveté in an almost surrealistic manner, perfectly accentuating both hubris and heart. When Emo Pete danced the franchise into despair, the rebranded Amazing Spider-Man delivered Andrew Garfield as a lesser Peter, but a stellar Spidey. Garfield masterfully played with every weapon in his arsenal as the web-slinger, and delivered the right touch of snark and wit missing in Maguire’s take. Neither franchise was lost due to these two actors, of course. Instead, they were doomed by studios and producers determined to crowd Spider-Man with as many plotlines and supervillains as they could reasonably afford. Obsessed with expanded universes instead of character development, Sony – desperate to salvage a sagging franchise – partnered with Marvel, and now offer us the third reboot of the same character in 15 years.
To say I’ve been reticent would be an understatement of biblical proportions. Favorite character or not, even the best marriages could stand some alone time. I’ve remained consistent in regards to my issues – #1 being Tony Stark overtaking the proceedings – and now the moment-of-truth has finally arrived. Could this partnership save a beloved hero, or is it time to give the web-head a rest? Most importantly, will everyone allow Stark to hop in the backseat and let Parker drive this Audi all the way home?
Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up shortly after Civil War, with Holland’s Peter Parker readjusting to teen life. Much like Neo in The Matrix, it’s difficult to taste true heroism and resort back to mediocrity. As Tony mentors and stalls his development, Peter seeks to prove his mettle by becoming a grandiose hero in the vein of Iron Man or Captain America…if Uncle Tony would simply loosen the leash. As a new threat emerges in the form of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), Peter struggles to maintain a delicate balance between courageous acts of nobility and the ordinary inconveniences of a humble lifestyle, maintained with his gorgeously reimagined Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
So, is the third time a charm?
Don’t get me wrong, inside the MCU cage of this film is a great movie. As we swing in-and-out of the narrative, it keeps peeking out from behind closed doors, waving hello, pleading to come in. The reason for its absence stems from Marvel’s blind overindulgence in Stark tech, Tony-isms, and excessive Happy Hogan sightings. I like Jon Favreau as much as the next fanboy, but do you really need a glorified Kevin Costner to serve as the supporting backbone for the first MCU Spider-Man flick?
Even when Robert Downey, Jr. is not mentoring or standing steadfast as Peter’s grand idol (Uncle Ben would weep at this…if he could), Stark is omnipresent. Spider-Man’s suit is a stripped-down model of Iron Man’s gear, with more technical wizardry in 15 minutes of this film than you glimpse in all of the previous versions combined. When he’s not zipping around the city, talking to his very own Jarvis (but she’s named Karen, so it’s totally different), everyone else is mentioning him by name. Sure, Homecoming is a set-up for a larger world, where Peter and Stark can team up and take on Thanos in Infinity War, but currently we’re talking solely about this one specific movie. And each and every time we get an inkling of traction or momentum in Parker’s world, Stark – in one fashion or another – rears his beautifully coiffed head.
This will not be a problem for many, as Tony Stark is hard not to idolize. He’s sleek, smooth, and a verbal ninja. Cast aside his reckless arrogance and it’s easy to understand why a teen would be eager to please the billionaire. The thing is, that’s not Peter. That’s #notmyspiderman. Chasing aimlessly after a girl he quietly pines for, sure, that’s Spider-Man. Stalking Tony Stark and stopping just shy of a restraining order as he begs to be an Avenger in the most annoyingly puppyish way possible is most definitely not.
Tom Holland still has some settling down to do in the role of Peter – he’s a bit whiny and even childish at times – but overall he’s doing a notable job of blending both personas of Peter Parker and Spider-Man into one cohesive wrap. Holland has the chops and he’s near impossible not to like, but his mile-a-minute delivery can occasionally ride the cusp of grating. Not because the charm or wit isn’t there, but because this rapid-fire style leaves little time for contemplation or belief. Everyone wants their films fast, fleeting, peppy. But Spider-Man also needs heart. Holland definitely can deliver the goods, he – or the writers – just need to pump the brakes a hair and allow the kid to emote for a second. It’s the difference between character and caricature. Much like your yippy nephew whose ADHD is kicking into hyperdrive, Peter needs a sedative to hang out at our house.
As for the rest of the cast in director Jon Watts’ obvious nod to John Hughes’ cinematic vibe, Tomei works well with what she is given, although Aunt May just isn’t integral to this story. As Peter’s best friend Ned, Jacob Batalon bats a clever retort like a pro, and it’s a breeze to line-up on this kid’s side (even if a teen hacker cracking Tony Stark’s secret code with a laptop and 20 seconds of free time is a stretch). But as far as those close to Peter go, Zendaya’s Michelle does the most with the least. A snarky scene-stealer from start-to-finish, Zendaya’s character lacks prominence, yet makes up for it with a winsome flair. As we jettison to the next installment, this is the role I look to for an intriguing arc.
And then there is Toomes, aka Vulture. Marvel has a glorious reputation for crafting the worst villains in the superhero-verse, and Keaton is a noble exception. Rather than build Toomes up as another freak experiment gone awry, or yet another derelict out for world domination, Jon Watts and company keep it small-time. Toomes was once an honest man with meaningful work. When the Avengers and Stark (yet again, omnipresent) cost his very livelihood, Adrian turns to a life of crime. Toomes isn’t a supervillain, he’s Mr. Mom when daycare went south. It’s a blue blood setup that delivers, and Keaton chews every scene with restrained determination.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is an entertaining film with plenty of humor, thrilling set-pieces, and setup to reinvigorate the franchise yet again. Holland is a worthy heir to the world of Peter Parker and, with a little care and nurturing, he could one day rival the heroes before him. Unfortunately, the sunlight illuminating from the whispers of greatness throughout the film are too often darkened by the looming shadow of Stark Industries, forcing us back to brighter memories of our solo adventures with Maguire and Garfield. When Peter Parker and Spider-Man fought a very personal struggle, without the aid of borrowed schematics or advanced weaponry.
As the movie closes, and this new iteration is complete, I was reminded of an ideology too often forgotten within the frames of these proceedings: With great power, comes great responsibility.
You’ll get ’em next time, Tiger.
Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey, Jr., Marisa Tomei
Written by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers
Directed by Jon Watts