Once again I’m reviewing another entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mainly because I find Marvel’s cinematic experiment so interesting in it’s size and scope. With every new movie brings a new piece to the puzzle, and seeing the brand build itself through multiple franchises all bound together is a sight to which we have never seen before in Hollywood. But, what fascinates me the most is how Marvel has managed to maintain this for so long, especially when given some of the roadblocks that have been in their way. As many people know, this bold plan formed once Marvel created it’s own independent studio, with the intent to have more creative control over their own properties. Before then, Marvel had been spending years licensing out their characters to other studios in order to see them make it to the big screen. There were successes, like the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man trilogy at Columbia Pictures, as well as Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films at Fox. But, there were plenty of failures as well, such as the disappointing Daredevil (2003), Fantastic Four (2005), and Ang Lee’s disastrous turn with the Hulk (2003). This would lead Marvel to take more responsibility over their own characters, and thus, with the leadership of producer Kevin Feige, they formed their own studio. Starting with the foundation of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Marvel set out to not only do a more earnest job of bringing their comics to life, but to bring everyone back into the fold under one house. With the acquisition of Marvel by the Disney company, Marvel not only had their home, but a parent company with deep pockets to make the dream happen. Unfortunately, some holdouts would still remain before their plan could be fully realized.
Chief among those holdouts was of course Spider-Man. Sony, the parent company of Columbia Pictures which held the rights to the character, refused for the longest time to let Marvel have their character back, believing that they could still profit well enough on their own with him. As part of their original contract, they could retain sole cinematic rights to Spider-Man as long as they continued to make more movies. Unfortunately for them, both Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire were done with the franchise and had moved on to new projects. This left Sony in the position of strategizing a new direction for Spider-Man, not only as a means of keeping him within their fold, but also competitive with Marvel’s rising success. Thus, we got the newly re-branded The Amazing Spider-Man series. With Andrew Garfield now filling the iconic role, this new Spider-Man was intended to be a more grounded and dramatic take on the character’s mythos, with a bold plan to establish a multi-layered cinematic universe of it’s own. Along with The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and it’s 2014 sequel, Sony was planning plenty of character spin-offs as well, including a Sinister Six film, centered on Spidey’s rogues gallery. Unfortunately for them, it didn’t work out. The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t perform as well as hoped against hard hitters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises that year, and the sequel proved to do even worse. So, Sony, probably reading the signs, relented and Marvel got their golden boy back; but with conditions. All movies made with the character from here out carry a 90-10 profit share between Disney and Sony. If Spider-Man has a cameo in another Marvel Property, like he did in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Sony gets a minority share of the profits. And when it’s a Spider-Man franchise film with other Marvel characters in it, then the opposite applies. So, now that he’s living under shared custody, Spider-Man now is able to have his own adventures in the Marvel Cinematic universe, and it all begins with this new film; Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Taking place right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, we find high schooler Peter Parker (Tom Holland) feeling very confident that he’s about to become an official member of the Avengers. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, still insists that he has a long way to go before he can prove to be a full-time member of the team, so he encourages Peter to use his power responsibly within his own community of Queens, New York. So, Peter spends most of his after-school time stopping petty crimes and helping the less fortunate in his community. In other words, being the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. All the while, he pesters his contact to Tony Stark, chauffeur Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), with phone calls wondering when he can join the Avengers again. At school, he tries to keep his identity a secret from other students, including fellow nerd Michelle (Zendaya), his school crush Liz (Laura Harrier), and the school bully Flash (Tony Revolori). Unfortunately, Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) discovers his identity by accident, and Peter desperately tries to keep his very blabber-mouth accomplice quiet on the matter; though he still finds him a rewarding ally in the end. On one routine encounter with some bank robbers, he discovers that some highly advanced weaponry has been hitting the black market. Through his investigation, he discovers that they are being sold by an underground organization that has been stealing artifacts left behind by the Avengers and their adversaries and creating new weapons from them. The leader of this group, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) even has a special winged flying rig for himself and has assumed the criminal identity of the Vulture. Along with his accomplices known as the Shockers (Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green), Toomes has his eye on a big prize (Tony Stark’s private collection) and it’s up to Spider-Man to stop him. And all the while, he has to balance this with the normal life of a kid that he wants his beloved Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to still believe he is.
For Spider-Man, it’s been a rough cinematic road. We are now on the second reboot of the character in 10 years, and the third overall iteration in general. This could lead to a lot of fatigue for fans who just want to see a good, basic Spider-Man story on the big screen. Thankfully, they will find it with Spider-Man: Homecoming. This is an excellent translation of the character; probably the best we’ve ever seen. And the fact that he finally is able to stand alongside his fellow Marvel peers is just the icing on the cake. What I especially like about this movie is the fact that both Marvel and Sony made the right choice to not go backwards with the character again and retell his origin. Instead, Spider-Man is already an established hero this time around, and the story focuses more on his journey of learning what kind of hero he wants to be. My biggest fault with the Amazing Spider-Man films was that they retreaded already familiar ground and added nothing new or interesting into the mix. Their complete lack of knowing what they wanted to be also hurt those films a lot. With Spider-Man: Homecoming, the story has a lot more identity, and that’s of a coming of age tale for a young high schooler, who also just happens to have superpowers. The people at Marvel said that the mid-80’s films of John Hughes were a particularly strong inspiration for the tone of this movie, and it’s a good match for the character. Up until now, we have never seen Spider-Man depicted as a young man like he is in the comics; bearing the responsibilities of his power, while at the same time dealing with the anxieties of growing up and the social pressures of high school. This helps to make everything in this story feel fresh and interesting, without the need of explaining everything we already know about the character again. His origins barely even get a passing mention here. Thus, it helps the story flow much better without that cumbersome exposition.
Another reason the movie works as well as it does is because of the character himself. This is without a doubt the finest version of the character we have ever seen, and a large part of that is due to the casting of young Tom Holland in the role. Both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were fine in their turns as Spider-Man, but what hampered their versions of the character was the fact that they were perhaps too mature for the part. Both started playing Spidey in their late 20’s, so buying them as teenagers was a little hard to swallow. Also, they were never allowed to play the character like a teenager, instead focusing more on the pathos of Peter Parker’s maturity rather than reveling in the energy of his youth. Maguire got around this a little better by having the character quickly grow out of high school within the first movie. Tom Holland’s version of Spider-Man on the other hand perfectly embraces the youthful essence of the character. From the opening sequence, which has Peter Parker documenting the events of Civil War from his smartphone camera, we are given perfect introduction to a new Spider-Man who also just enjoys being a kid. Holland is in his early 20’s, but still looks youthful enough to be believably still in high school, and his energy throughout the film is endlessly endearing. He’s all parts charming, funny, awkward, and remarkably agile. Knowing that quite a few stunts in the film were performed by Holland himself makes his performance all the more impressive. But whether he’s in the suit or out of it, Holland’s Peter Parker nevertheless feels authentic, and truer to his comic origin than ever before. This is largely what makes Spider-Man: Homecoming work so well, because it puts the emphasis back on the character, and less on how he functions within the story or a larger master plan.
But it’s not just Tom Holland’s endearing performance that makes this movie work. He’s also surrounded by a strong supporting cast. The other teenage acquaintances in Peter Parker’s life are also all well rounded. Just like with Holland’s performance, all of them are not acting out of place for the characters they are playing; they all act like real teenagers do, with the same social awkwardness and impatience of youth that comes with that. The influence of John Hughes movies really helps in this regard, because like with his movies, it spotlights the often disregarded misfits in high school. Parker and his friends often find themselves falling victim to adults who don’t understand their plights as well as facing the abuse and humiliation from bullies their own age. They are kids who have special skills, but also suffer the disappointment and inconvenience of detention and getting the courage to ask a crush out on a date. The adults in the film are also given plenty of excellent scenes as well. I especially like that the movie gave an extended role to a side character like Happy Hogan, and you can tell that Jon Favreau is relishing his extra screen time here. Robert Downey Jr. of course still shines as Iron Man, but he also does a good job of not hogging the spotlight away from his young co-star. Marisa Tomei’s stunningly beautiful and sexy Aunt May could put off some purists, but she does a fine job filling the role here. However, it is Michael Keaton who really steals the show as the Vulture in this movie. What a casting coup for Marvel to get a former Batman into their cinematic universe, only this time in the role of a villain. Keaton’s performance thankfully belies little of his Dark Knight days, and instead fits perfectly within this story. He’s devilish and intimidating in all the right ways, and helps to make what is generally a silly character in the comics into a very effective cinematic baddie. It’s a real testament to Keaton’s abilities as a performer and he makes a great asset to this film in general. There’s also a great running gag involving Chris Evans’ Captain America, which delivers a killer punchline by the end.
Now, while I do have a lot to praise about this film, there are some nitpicks as well that unfortunately keeps this from becoming an all-time great for Marvel. Chief among them is the way this film is directed. Not that director Jon Watts does a bad job here. For most of the movie, he actually does a really good job of maintaining the right tone for the movie, and excels when delivering some of the film’s more humorous parts. However, he still seems inexperienced when it comes to crafting an effective action set piece. While the action moments are fine, none of them ever come off as exceptional. As the director, it seemed like Watts went for the more basic approach of action directing; utilizing a lot of quick cuts and shaky cam footage to ratchet up the suspense. It’s something that doesn’t ruin the movie, but doesn’t elevate it either. One wonders what a more stylized vision would’ve done with the material, like Sam Raimi managed to do during his run. Raimi may not have always hit a bulls-eye with his Spider-Man films, but he nevertheless aimed high with some of his set pieces. The phenomenal train sequence from Spider-Man 2 (2004) is still a standout sequence that remains a high water mark for the series. That’s why I hesitate to call Homecoming the best Spider-Man film, because it lacks a sequence like that, although it does enough to come close to the top. The movie also suffers from a slow first act. While there are plenty of enjoyable bits in the first part of this movie, the plot actually doesn’t kick into gear until very late, and it might have been to the films benefit to tighten things up in the beginning. But, again, none of these nitpicks are deal-breakers, and the movie for the most part holds together very well. In the end, most people won’t care as long as they are having a good time, and this film definitely delivers on that.
What I hope for the most is that this movie leads to a new era of cooperation between all Hollywood players with regards to who has the rights to use characters from Marvel’s stable of heroes and villains. Sony learned that it would be in their better interest to play ball with Marvel rather than battle against them, and in the end, both companies with see lucrative returns because of this deal. Captain America: Civil War’s $1.5 billion dollar gross certainly benefitted both parties, and Homecoming will hopefully do the same. My hope is that it also serves as an example that working together is in the best interest for all involved; something that I wish the lone holdout Fox would wise up to. It’s a shame that characters like Wolverine and the Fantastic Four are still left out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe purely out of a stubborn refusal by Fox to have things done their way. What Spider-Man: Homecoming proves is that allowing Marvel to call the shots makes the end product feel all the more authentic, and people are now excited for the character once again because they are interested in seeing how Spider-Man interacts with the rest of Marvel’s universe. A closed off approach no longer works in this industry, not with so many other cinematic universes being launched, and the fact that Fox is still going in that direction will only limit their potential for better profits down the road. It makes the title of Homecoming such an appropriate one for this movie, because not only is it appropriate for the high school setting of the film, but it’s a declaration of how much Marvel appreciates the character as a part of their family. Spider-Man is indeed home, unencumbered by how well he fits into a corporations plans for future profits, and instead allowed to exist as a crucial piece of Marvel’s ever expanding universe. It’s also a film that just wants us to have fun, and that’s something that we’ve have seen a Spider-Man movie be in a very long time.