By Travis Trombley
Don’t worry, that’s not an overall indictment. Like every other wall-crawling fan who saw the film, I enjoyed Homecoming immensely. The music. The humor. The color. The wit. The actors. The hijinks. But I must confess that in trying to define an angle of analysis for this review, I found that the film didn’t really say too much. Rather, Watts tapped into the simple fact that Spidey can be extremely entertaining and his experiences can resonate with folks, and that such features can be good enough, at least for a first (or...seventh?..) outing.
With Homecoming, we get treated to yet another Marvel take on a classic genre: the high school coming of age yarn. This time, Spidey’s DNA is as influenced by early-seasons Buffy and John Hughes as much as it is by a mutated spider. Like Hughes, Homecoming's production team respects the angst and struggles of teenagers, giving the film a unique authenticity.
Thematically, the film centers on a common enough experience: wanting to be an adult without first growing up. For Peter at the beginning of the film, being an adult means being a professional superhero, being an Avenger. He can’t shake the experience of fighting with “Mr. Stark” during the airport encounter in Civil War, so he’s constantly calling and texting his liaison Happy, but to no avail. In the meantime, he spends every available moment at his “Stark internship,” which is code for dressing up in his fancy Stark-made Spidey-suit and swinging around Queens to stop crime. And when he’s not doing that, he’s thinking about it. But that means he’s let everything else - his relationships and school responsibilities - take a backseat.
“I just feel like I could be doing more,” he laments. Yet Mr. Stark plays the role of the adult who just doesn’t get it, telling Peter to keep away from the dangerous stuff, and justifiably so. But as all teenagers would, Pete only hears, “you have to prove yourself before I take you seriously.”
The best image of internal conflict comes in the second act when Ned discovers that Pete’s suit comes with a number of hidden features currently protected by the “Training Wheels Protocol.” “I’m sick of Mr. Stark always treating me like a kid,” Pete says...while jumping on a hotel bed... The irony is clear to everyone but him.
And while he goes behind Stark’s back to track down some local weapons dealers, he does something all teenagers do so well: screw up. The film is like an extended training montage in this way. He botches an attempt to stop the Vulture from robbing a truck and ends up trapped in a bunker. He lets his friend hold on to an artifact that turns out to be a bomb. He hilariously tries to “intimidate” an informant using a voice similar to Christian Bale’s Batman. He gets vertigo when climbing the Washington Monument. He struggles to understand the various functions of his suit, especially the hilarious “Instant Kill” mode. And all the while, he’s letting his friends down by failing to make a showing as Spider-Man at a party or dropping out of school activities.
However, none of these screw-ups “stick.” There aren’t any lasting consequences. Pete ditches Ned, he worries May, and he stands Liz up multiple times, yet nothing sticks. These scenes come and go without really factoring into the grander fabric of Pete’s character, mostly because the other characters involved fail to hold him accountable, save for Mr. Stark who takes Pete’s Spidey suit, which prompts a few reconciliation scenes, granted, but ultimately only means Peter spends the third act brawl in a hoodie and sweatpants.
At the end of the film, Michelle questions Peter hurried departure in a serious tone: "Where are you going Peter? What are you hiding?" she inquires. When he starts to fumble out a response, she interrupts with a smile: "I'm just kidding, I don't care," letting Pete off the hook. The film takes a similar stance to on Peter's development as a character - it interrogates him a bit, but then laughs it off, in itself a very teenagery thing to do.
Again, for more on this topic, head over to my in-depth Spider-Man character analysis.
First, Watts and writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley constructed this narrative in a way that feels genuine for the teenage experience. This is a film about high schoolers for high schoolers (and middle schoolers, sure...but no seventh graders, please - I firmly believe seventh graders represent humanity at its worst, both morally and hygienically, but I digress).
More so, it’s about high schoolers today, in as much as the Breakfast Club archetypes still exist, but they’re altered enough to fit comfortably in 2017. The bully Flash Thompson isn’t a football jock, but a hyper-jealous intellectual rival of Peter’s who revels in his own insecurities. Liz is a homecoming queen archetype, but with a modern, college-bound twist. Michelle, eventually revealed as Mary Jane, isn’t the out-of-his-league model anymore, but a socially conscious wise-cracker who casually reads Of Human Bondage and refuses to tour the Washington Monument because it was “built by slaves.” What’s more, all of these people are actually different colors, injecting some much-appreciated diversity into the mix (though some will bemoan that the titular hero is still a white male even though the opportunity for Miles Morales was present - and, yes, he’s hinted at, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there).
What’s more, it’s also a high school film set in a well established Marvel Cinematic Universe (do we capitalize MCU now? Is it that much of a thing?). Pete starts the film making a handheld video diary of his experiences at the airport. Girls play “marry, f&@k, kill” with the Avengers roster. The apathetic gym/detention teacher shows cheesy Captain America videos, snarkily commenting at the end of one, “I’m pretty sure this dude is a war criminal now.” A social studies teacher tries to explain the effects of the Sokovia Accords. Peter’s best friend Ganke, a chubby, Asian-American nerd who likes building Lego replicas of the Death Star, barrettes his friend with questions upon learning his secret, and - of course - eventually takes the prized role of “guy in the chair.”
Wait - did I say Ganke? I mean Ned. Sorry. Ganke is Miles Morales’ best friend in the Ultimate Spider-Man comics; he’s a chubby, Asian-American nerd who likes building Lego replicas of the Death Star. But Marvel was very clear that this character isn’t Ganke….
Anyway, the street-level presentation of this world grants it a degree of legitimacy and grounding that no MCU film before it could accomplish. This is more than a reference - it’s the world, and it works really well, including as the set-up for one of the MCU’s best villains to date: Adrian Toomes, played by Bruce Wayne.
Toomes brings to the table something in short supply in the MCU: a realistic motivation informed by a realistic anxiety. He resents Stark - the stand-in for the 1% elite who, in Toomes’ eyes, get rich by screwing over the ‘little guys’ like him. One of Toomes’ crew comments about how Stark can make the mess and then get paid to clean it up, gesturing at some military-industrial complex kind of cycle. Feeling cheated out of the American Dream, as it were, of achieving wealth through hard work, Toomes feels completely justified in resorting to criminal endeavors to provide for his family: “world’s changing, boys,” he tells his crew. “Time we change, too,” gesturing at a postmodern morality that sadly boils down to an ends-justify-the-means rationalization of criminal behavior. Thankfully, Spidey counters with a youthful simplicity: “I’m pretty sure selling weapons to criminals is just wrong.” Yup.
Narratively, Toomes is the opposite of the dark elf dude from Thor: The Dark World in that, well, we actually know what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. Not only does this help the film, ya know, make sense, but having a grounded villain allows that villain to impose a genuine sense of threat on the protagonist and - by extension - the audience, which Toomes certainly does later in the film. There’s a whole sequence in which Toomes and Pete find themselves closer than either expected that takes the cake for most intense in the MCU. And for some, that’s enough. But for those looking for a character foil of sorts by which the film could explore the intersection of morality and socioeconomics, well - that’s not here. Pete and his aunt have it rough, but their financial situation isn’t as salient as in Raimi’s films, which makes one wonder if this Vulture would have been better pitted against Tobey MaGuire instead.
As for the visuals, this is the most fun Spider-Man to date, though - again - not the smartest. The movement here is wonderful, a testament to the writing as much as it is the special effects. By taking Spidey out of the skyscraper-filled Manhattan and placing him in Queens, Pete is forced to be a bit more creative in his traversal techniques. He dangles behind runaway vans, rides atop trucks and trains, and - well - jogs. And let’s be honest, there’s just something visually enthralling about seeing Spidey’s unique movements translated to the screen. Likewise, the fight scenes are fun, full of flips, and close calls. There’s a ton of new web-gimmicks thanks to Spidey’s suit getting the Stark treatment, though most get relegated to jokes rather than slick implementation. As for the fight choreography, Watt’s opted for more of a hyper-gymnastic, momentum-oriented style over the web-slinging brawler style of Raimi's Spider-Man. It’s fun, but nothing very memorable in terms of composition or tension like the famous tower / train sequence featuring Spider-Man and Doc Oc in Spider-Man 2.
At the end of the day, Spider-Man certainly climbs to the top of Marvel’s most entertaining installments. It’s hilarious. It’s touching. It’s compelling. It’s . . . a tad vague on meaning. It wants Peter to grow up, and it does a great job illustrating the various pangs of that process and the setting in which it takes place, but it seems unclear as to what maturity means. Hopefully the next installment will reach the heights of Sam Raimi's sequel.
PS. If you liked this review and want more in-depth analysis of the wall crawler's latest cinematic venture, check out this article that explores why Peter made that big decision he makes at the end of Homecoming, and why I think Wonder Woman did it better.