I have to admit I was thoroughly lost during Spider-Man: Homecoming. Throughout the entire movie, I kept wondering how this Peter Parker kid became Spider-Man. I mean, what’s the backstory here? Why does he just have these powers? This is the kind of thing that begs for an origin story.
I am of course joking. Spider-Man’s origin story is such common knowledge that he, like Batman, doesn’t need another cinematic retelling at this point. 2002’s Spider-Man remains one of the best super hero origin story movies (along with, ironically enough, Batman Begins), and there really wasn’t a need for us to hear it again through the less-than stellar 2012 reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man. Besides, super hero films tend to be at their best once the origin story is behind them, with Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight remaining at the top of super hero storytelling, as they could focus more on the characters themselves and not have to worry about how their heroes earned their costumes and powers.
Spider-Man: Homecoming wisely does away with re-re-introducing us to Spider-Man’s origin story, with the details of being bitten by a radioactive spider only being mentioned in passing, and the death of his uncle Ben only being implied. So Spider-Man: Homecoming not only serves as another reboot to Marvel’s iconic web-slinger, but also, thankfully, works as something of a self-contained sequel to a narrative we are all beyond familiar with by this point.
This “proper reboot” of the franchise is only one of the newsworthy aspects of this new Spider-Man series, with the other big news being that this newest incarnation is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most prominent movie franchise not called Star Wars.
We met this newest Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where he was part of Iron Man’s team who did battle with that of Captain America. But now we have Spidey’s first solo outing in the MCU, and it actually turns out to be one of the best entries in the mega franchise, due in no small part to the film taking cues from 2004’s Spider-Man 2 by creating fleshed-out, relatable characters in both its hero and villain.
Not only does Homecoming show us Spider-Man still trying to learn the ropes of being a super hero (and often stumbling), but it also dedicates a good deal of time to Peter Parker’s high school life, and the real-world problems and hassles therein.
Meanwhile, the film’s villain is the Vulture, whose secret identity is one Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). If the MCU has had one persistent problem – even in some of its better films – it’s that the villains have been largely forgettable, with only a select few standing out, and none of them really being anything more than a villain. What makes Toomes such a winning antagonist (along with Keaton’s excellent performance) is that, much like Peter Parker is depicted as a real kid, Toomes is a very relatable everyman. Tasked with cleaning up the damage that the Avengers leave behind (the film begins with Toomes’ crew beginning reconstruction on one of the set pieces of 2012’s The Avengers), Toomes and his men end up jobless as soon as the government decides to butt in. So Toomes, wanting to provide for his family and to keep his friends doing the same, goes rogue, and leads an underground operation that steals technology left in the wake of the Avengers, SHIELD, Hydra, and any other “super” organization, crafts their own weapons from it, and sells them on the black market.
The fact that Toomes is selling super-weapons to criminals obviously makes him the villain, but he’s also presented as a relatable figure who was wronged and simply wants to set things right. Unlike so many past villains in the MCU, Toomes actually has a strong motivation for his actions.
It’s because of how wonderfully realized both its hero and villain are that ascend Homecoming to being one of the better super hero movies of recent times, though unfortunately, it does suffer a bit from its supporting characters, which can be a bit of a mixed bag.
Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) provides some good comic relief, but some of his actions may not endear him to audiences (the trailers already reveal that he learns of Peter’s secret life as Spider-Man, and he almost outs his best friend’s secret at the first opportunity). Peter’s crush Liz (Laura Harrier) works well enough for the plot, but she doesn’t exactly get a whole lot of character development. They are forgivable though, since their characters have enough likable qualities about them. Less forgivable is the character of Michelle Jones (Zendaya) who, as you may guess by her initials, is to be the MCU’s equivalent of “MJ” Mary-Jane Watson.
Seeing as this is the second cinematic reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I perfectly understand the filmmakers trying to change up the characters a bit so we can see something we aren’t already overly familiar with. But the Michelle character is simply unlikable. Zendaya’s acting is fine, but what she has to work with doesn’t exactly make Michelle an appealing character. She’s obnoxious, pretentious, brags about not having any friends… She’s basically like a checklist of all the things older generations ridicule millennials for.
But the rest of the characters are all well and fine. This being the MCU, we of course have to have crossover characters involved, though Homecoming is wise to keep them to a minimum as to not take the focus away from the story at hand: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) returns as Peter’s mentor. Meanwhile, Stark’s former driver and bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) returns to keep an eye on Peter while Iron Man is off with bigger things. And in perhaps some of the best uses of MCU cameos, Captain America (Chris Evans) is featured in public-service announcements in Peter’s high school.
I really enjoyed how Homecoming is a relatively smaller-scale Marvel movie. We’ve seen so many cities get leveled in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by this point, that I’m starting to get more tired of the mass destruction than anything. But Homecoming takes the time to humanize both Spider-Man and the Vulture, while also showing us how complicated the lives of Peter Parker and Adrian Toomes can be. The stakes aren’t to save the planet, or even a city. It’s just about a kid trying to be responsible and to do the right thing, and trying to stop a downtrodden, misguided man who’s caught up in doing wrong. And by this point, that’s pretty refreshing.
Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t reinvent the super hero genre, but it does take inspiration from the better films from the genre’s booming early years (most notably Spider-Man 2) to make a film that may not be the most grandiose of super hero outings, but one that succeeds in the two areas where it most counts: story and characters. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have great action set-pieces, because it delivers on just that as well. But for the first time in a while, I feel like the MCU has a hero worth rooting for not just because of a charismatic on-screen presence, but also for his relatability. Just as noteworthy, the same can be said for its villain.