OnScreen Review: 'Spider-Man: Homecoming'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

I’ve been a Spider-Man fan ever since I was a kid. I had the action figure. I watched the cartoon “Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends” on Saturday mornings. I read the comic books in the 80s (I fondly remember the Sinister Six series). I watched the animated series in the 90s. And then the Sam Raimi films came along. What Raimi did through two movies was everything I hoped for in a Spider-Man movie. I ranked both Spider-Man (#7) and Spider-Man 2 (#3) in the Top 10 of my Superhero Movie Rankings that I made last spring. And then Spider-Man 3 ruined everything. It’s a movie I still can’t revisit. That led to Sony deciding the reboot the franchise and go in a darker direction with The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, sucking out much of the joy of the character. Each new release brought diminishing returns and lower box office receipts. Things looked bleak when word of another reboot and a third origin story surfaced. But it’s always darkest before the dawn, right? Miraculously, Marvel swooped in and somehow managed to convince Sony to let them bring Spider-Man into the MCU, essentially wresting creative control of the web-slinger from Sony and bringing their prized (but slightly tarnished) property back into the fold. The extended Spidey cameo in Captain America: Civil War showed promise. Spider-Man: Homecoming capitalizes on that promise, bringing audiences the best version of the character since Spider-Man 2.

Forgoing the outright origin story, the film instead uses the events of The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War to bring us into the story. After going to Germany to fight in Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) awaits further instruction from Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), frequently checking in with Tony’s bodyguard and head of security, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Still just a 15 year-old teenager, Peter spends his days in high school with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), being picked on by Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), quietly pining for a senior named Liz (Laura Harrier), and being subtly mocked by lone classmate Michelle (Zendaya). Believing he is capable of more than the friendly neighborhood crime-fighting he is mainly stuck doing, he is eager to prove to Stark and himself that he is ready for more when a he foils an ATM robbery that is using modified Chitauri technology from The Avengers. This technology leads his to a burgeoning criminal weapons syndicate led by a former salvage worker Adrian Tooms/The Vulture (Michael Keaton).

There is so much that this film gets right. First and foremost, is Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. His performance brings back the joy and fun of being a superhero to the character. Spider-Man was always a wise-cracking superhero who was also a big time nerd. There was a bit of awkwardness to the humor of the character that Tobey Maguire could tap into, though I would suggest that Maguire made a better Spider-Man than he did a Peter Parker, on the whole. Andrew Garfield, a talented actor, never quite fit the part of the weird, picked on outsider. It was a role that was ill-fitting on him.

Holland might be the best balance between the Parker and Spider-Man role yet. There have been plenty of Spider-Man stories involving an adult Peter Parker, but the default image of the character in the minds of most people is that of a high school kid getting these super powers and abilities, his age is a distinguishing characteristic. Holland is young enough and talented enough as an actor to look believable as a 15-year-old kid; Maguire and Garfield were way too old to play the character that young. Holland brings a youthful energy to the character too. The film isn’t an origin story, but it is still about the character learning to be a hero and growing into the role. When a class field trip to Washington D.C. provides him the opportunity to follow Tooms and his crew to Maryland, Peter unlocks his suits full capabilities with the help of Ned, essentially taking off the training wheels of the suit without having to do the training. He even gets an AI assistant like J.A.R.V.I.S. that he names Karen (voiced by Jennifer Connelly, who is married to Paul Bettany who voiced J.A.R.V.I.S. before becoming The Vision.) This opens up over 500 variations of web attacks and other enhanced features that he plays around with (among other things, enhanced interrogation mode, which gives him a booming, threatening voice). Holland plays the character in these moments like a kid at Christmas who is playing with a new toy, trying out all of the bells and whistles of the suit.

The script nails the high school aspect of the story, making Peter Parker’s life as important to the story as the actions of Spider-Man. They achieve this by drawing inspiration from The Breakfast Club and other John Hughes classics and other high school movies. Nearly all of the characters in Peter’s orbit at school (Ned, Michelle, Flash, and Liz) are involved in the school’s academic decathlon team. The story also wisely brings both worlds crashing together in the last act, making the climax of the action have personal stakes involved.

The action happening in this movie is another aspect that the film nails. It shows surprising restraint in keeping the size and scope of it all small by comparison to the stories of Captain America, Iron Man, and the rest of the Avengers. Aside from a field trip to Washington D.C. the story is contained to New York City and mainly to Queens. Most of the action takes place on a small, individual level rather than involving giant city-wide destruction. In this regard, it reminded me of the handful of series that Marvel has made for Netflix and Ant-Man in how Marvel has shown a certain level of dexterity in being able to modulate the scope of their projects to fit the characters and format. It takes the “friendly, neighborhood Spiderman” phrase to heart. The action gets bigger at the end, but it works because it’s after a previous failure that he has learned from and it demonstrates that he has essentially grown into the suit, so to speak.

Michael Keaton is a great casting choice as The Vulture. A friend of mine who is very much into comics was incredibly skeptical of making The Vulture be a main villain in any Spider-Man movie, but they pull it off pretty ingeniously here, incorporating the wrecked Chitauri tech from the end of The Avengers as the basis for the wings he uses to fly. Also, Keaton plays him as a character that does not see himself as a villain, but is doing things to provide for his family. He is someone who is not outright villainous, but is looking to take advantage of a changing world after being burned in the past.

Given his prominence in the trailers, I was worried that Downey Jr. would be overused, but there’s actually just the right amount of Tony Stark involvement, basically popping in and out of the story four times, one of which was via phone call. The rest of the cast is also really quite good, even Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, who I was not sold on as a playing Peter’s aunt compared to how she was depicted in the comic books. Zendaya, Tony Revolori, Laura Harrier, and Jacob Batalon all work well in their roles as well as look age appropriate for the characters. Bokeem Woodbine, who always makes every project he is in a little more interesting, has a supporting role as The Shocker. Martin Starr, Donald Glover, Marshall Logan-Green, Michael Chernus, Michael Mando, and Angourie Rice round out the strong supporting cast, while the film also sneaks in small cameo appearances as well.

Despite Marvel’s insistence to the contrary, Zendaya is this iteration's Mary Jane for all intents and purposes, and pretty overtly so by the end. As Mary Jane was essentially my first cartoon crush as a kid, Mary Jane just has to be a red-head. But because of that, I also recognize that I’m incapable of being unbiased in regards to that character. Regardless of the color of his skin, the changes to Flash Thompson didn’t entirely work for me. Changing him from the school jock who bullied the nerdy Peter Parker into a rich nerd who bullied Peter Parker because learning comes so easily to Peter seemed like an unnecessary change. However, I’m not going to begrudge Zero from The Grand Budapest Hotel getting parts in mainstream movies. In the grand scheme of things, these are minor quibbles that did not detract from the enjoyment of the film in any significant, meaningful way.

Overall, there is a noticeable shift toward diversity in the cast from previous Spider-Man movies and previous Marvel movies. This is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, all of the performances are really good (even and especially the previously mentioned Zendaya and Revolori). And the racial diversity on display in the high school likely reflects the demographics of modern day New York City far more accurately than the far more homogenous one depicted when Spider-Man first appeared in comic book form. On the other hand, it feels like a blatantly obvious overreaction (or just reaction) by Marvel to the lack of diversity in some of their previous franchises and the whitewashing of some characters. The reason that this is a mixed bag for the film is that surrounding white main characters with racial diverse supporting cast members does little to quiet the criticisms. The best way to address these issues is to make an awesome Black Panther (which does, in fact, look awesome), and cultivate other diverse characters.

I could go on at length about the suit (I liked it) and some of the Easter eggs (there are plenty), but there are enough words in this review already. When it all adds up, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a great example of what a summer blockbuster can be. It is a standout in a pretty mediocre summer overall, so far. Marvel had a lot of heavy lifting to do with this film. They had to rehab the image of the character. They had to effectively incorporate him into the MCU. They had to make The Vulture an effective nemesis to Spider-Man. They had to nail the casting and the high school setting. On nearly every front they succeeded, in some aspects they excelled. They fixed Spider-Man, and I couldn’t be happier.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars