Spider-Man: Homecoming is aptly named for several reasons. From a purely corporate level, it is the official celebration of Spider-Man’s return to Marvel Studios (through Sony Pictures’ gracious lending of the character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe). But from a more essential level, Homecoming represents a return of the character to his roots as a vulnerable, awkward, and wise-cracking high school student who just happens to be a superhero.
Refreshingly, Homecoming is not terribly concerned with the larger happenings of the increasingly complicated MCU but narrows in on Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his dealings in Queens. After an chuckle-worthy turn of Peter Parker as YouTube star, the movie picks up with Parker being just another of many students struggling to get by in school, seemingly ignored by his more famous mentor Tony Stark. He is reduced to helping recover stolen bikes, giving old ladies directions, and performing backflips for appreciative supporters. He is a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man in a world of larger than life titans. And in an early scene where he changes from everday clothes into his Spider-Man costume it is clear why: Though he has the necessary powers, the rest of the superhero package is not quite there. He is clumsy and awkward, his voice squeaks when he tries to be intimidating. For every cool move he pulls off there are several more where he flails around helplessly. He is just not a slick superhero yet but just an awkward teenager trying to find his place in the world.
The best Marvel movies are ones that try to not just be a superhero movie but also try to incorporate another genre and Homecoming is no different as it is basically a high school movie disguised as a comic book movie. The genius of the movie is that the filmmakers wisely realized high school would still feel like high school no matter who is saving or destroying the world. Peter Parker’s famous alter-ego does nothing to make him feel any more confident or less awkward outside of it. His superhero pursuits are no more exciting than his nerdy love of Star Wars (with some nice corporate synergy). While perhaps it might seem disconcerting that Spider-Man might be as concerned with impressing his high school crush as he would saving the world but it is also makes sense because he acts exactly as any kid would.
But what is most refreshing about this entry into the gargantuan MCU is that it is perhaps the first that truly gets how cool it might be to be a superhero. Almost every action scene in this movie is punctuated by just how cool Parker feels about being Spider-Man. After accidentally revealing his identity to his best friend Ned (the frequently hilarious Jacob Batalon) they share multiple moments completely geeking out at what Parker gets to do. He seems as excited about the idea of Spider-Man as all of his peers. It’s infectiously giddy but it also captures perfectly how a teenager would act if they suddenly got superpowers. Thus almost paradoxically, this movie also feels the most grounded in the MCU.
The grounded feel of this movie is incredibly helped by the fact that Peter Parker’s Queens actually looks like an actual approximation of the diversity that is modern Queens. You hear Spanish on the streets, Peter and his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) eat in a Thai restaurant, and Peter’s high school friends are a smorgasbord of different races, body types, and personalities. And to director Jon Watts’ credit, this sensitive and intentional attempt at diversity is effortless. The movie never calls attention to this diversity and instead is confident enough to just tell a superhero story in a fictional world that looks like ours. And by accomplishing this so effortlessly and organically, it puts the rest of Hollywood and their well-documented problems with diversity to shame.
Special praise should also be given to Michael Keaton, who in playing the Vulture finally gives the MCU the first compelling villain since Loki. His motives are clear as a small arms dealer in Queens who just happens to deal mostly in alien tech. In fact his crimes are so small that not one of the illustrious Avengers (not even Hawkeye!) think it is worth their attention. In fact, to paraphrase Scooby-Doo, he would completely get away with it if not for a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. His goals are refreshingly simple as world-domination takes a back seat to the promise of cash. And as a someone who was screwed by the rich and powerful, his motivation for going bad are entirely believable. Keaton’s performance and character goes to show just how much a good villain can help in turning a good movie into a great one. It is no coincidence that the best Spider-Man movie since Spider-Man 2 (2004) also has the best villain since Spider-Man 2.
Unfortunately though, because this is a MCU movie, it has to somewhat care about the continuity of the Marvel universe and this is where the movie falls slightly short. Both the beginning and the end of the movie are filled with clunky expositionary scenes that try and either fit this movie into what has come before or set up moving pieces of what might come next. While Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t do anything bad as Iron Man, the fact is that his appearance doesn’t produce even the remotest bit of excitement that he once did when he showed up briefly in the otherwise mediocre The Incredible Hulk. After nine long years the continuity is simply a heavy and unwieldy burden. It is increasingly frustrating to see more and more promising solo movies weighed down by the need to conform to this larger universe. It is somewhat ironic that in those nine years the actual Marvel Comics universe has gone through at least three big reboots, but its cinematic cousin soldiers on in unwieldy continuity. This schtick is simply worn out.
Still, as a Spider-Man movie this one is fantastic. It is intimate, funny and fun, and as the best Spider-Man stories often go, a little heartbreaking as well. It is the first superhero movie that captures the giddy joy of imagining what it would be like to be a superhero. It is a high-school comedy disguised as an action movie, and it is all the better for it.