Some ten years after Marvel Studios first asserted its box office dominance with Iron Man, this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming feels like the culmination of a decade’s worth of world building. Thanks to some historic Hollywood deal-making, Marvel’s flagship character now has a place in its shared cinematic universe. And both the character and the world are richer because of it.
Homecoming is a Spider-Man movie built for a generation of kids raised on comic books and ’80s movies, so it stands to reason that its pop-culture reach extends far beyond Marvel lore. In addition to being Spidey’s proper introduction to the MCU, Homecoming’s also just a really earnest high school comedy. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker strikes a sort of balance between nerdy and cool reminiscent of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (a film Homecoming borrows from both figuratively and literally). It’s this approach and setting that make Homecoming such a unique and inventive window into the Marvel Universe, portraying normal kids who have grown up in a world with Captain America, Thor, Hulk, etc.
Where Sam Raimi’s wall-crawler drew inspiration from the character’s classic comic roots, this latest take is retrofitted to work within the confines of the already established Marvel U. To that end, Homecoming’s positioning of Tony Stark/Iron Man as a surrogate father to Peter is, while unique to the history of the characters, completely organic in relation to the way Peter was first introduced in Captain America: Civil War. A case can be made that Homecoming leans too heavily on Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma, but his role never feels like an overreach. More often than not Stark’s presence is appropriately serving Peter’s arc. Furthermore, teenage Peter’s relationship with father-figure Tony is a welcome pivot off the tragedy of Uncle Ben’s death. After getting killed in 1, re-killed in 3, then reboot re-killed in Amazing, it’s perhaps time to give the poor old guy a break. (Though one wonders who’d play the hunky Uncle Ben that snares Marissa Tomei’s Aunt May, and then one further wonders why one wonders that).
Surprisingly it’s Peter’s non-Stark relationships that anchor the film. Homecoming succeeds in large part thanks to the revelation that is Jacob Batalon. As Peter’s geeky friend Ned, Batalon gets many of the films strongest and funniest lines. Even MCU founding-father Jon Favreau gets to take a well-deserved victory lap, with Happy Hogan effectively serving as Spidey’s chaperone and baby-sitter.
And that’s the other remarkable thing about Homecoming. It turns out this Marvel U’s web-head isn’t quite ready for prime time. In line with the lighter tone, this is a Spider-Man that kind of sucks at being Spider-Man, and even by the end it’s pretty clear he doesn’t have it all figured out. Homecoming is about a Spider-Man just beginning to navigate the gravity of the adult world, sometimes surprised that the most readily available solution isn’t always the right one. Homecoming’s greatest triumph is in its ability to code “With great power comes great responsibility” into the tapestry of the film without ever uttering the line out loud.
Helping Peter to learn this lesson is Adrian Toomes, aka The Vulture, played by Michael Keaton. If we’re ranking Marvel movie villains I’d put Toomes somewhere in the middle. It’s not that The Vulture isn’t compelling, or that Keaton’s not his usually reliable self; it just so happens that, in a movie jam-packed with characters and story, the villain comes off a little thin. A neat twist in the third act puts a bow on things and paints the character in a better light. Still, I found myself caring more about Vulture’s ragtag crew of henchmen than their threatening leader.
Considering the absolute train wreck that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2, this can only be looked at as one helluva course correction for Sony. Spider-Man: Homecoming is everything it needs to be and little extra. It doesn’t have the gravitas of Raimi’s first two films, nor is it a landmark in comic book filmmaking in the way The Avengers was. It’s just a fun and witty action comedy, one bolstered by a game cast and terrific writing. Its biggest sin is perhaps being too light, robbing it of a larger dramatic impact in the end. Even still, Spider-Man is clearly back where he belongs.