Tom Holland may be the third Spider-Man to crawl across our cineplexes in the last decade but, as a much younger version of Peter Parker than his predecessors, he and director Jon Watts have presented a new enough spin on an old classic. That’s not to say that everything that Watts and company do to give Spiderman: Homecoming a fresh coat of paint works but, for the most part, the freshly minted union between Marvel and Sony have produced an acceptable enough product, incorporating yet another super-powered hero into their increasingly unwieldy lineup and laying the groundwork for a solo series involving the fresh-faced webslinger. That being said, the sting of superhero fatigue is real and even when Watts and his spray of screenwriters (there’s a sinister six of them) avoid familiar Spider-Man tropes (the fated spider bite, the iconic “with great power comes great responsibly” lesson, Uncle Ben’s untimely demise), this is still a character we’ve seen onscreen a whopping 7 times in the last 15 years. That’s not to say that Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t a fun, splashy, perfectly acceptable mid-July popcorn spectacle, because it is just that. But is it really anything more than that? Not exactly.
Homecoming starts by recounting the events that wrangled Spider-Man into the Avengers interfamilial throwdown (witnessed in Captain America: Civil War) through Peter’s eyes. Peter acts as a cipher for the younger generation going to see these movies, oohing and aahing at the big personalities clashing onscreen and geeking out over the fact that he’s actually in the mix. Tony Stark’s ill-tempered (and ill-named) Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) becomes Peter’s ill-fitting wrangler and after the Avenger’s fisticuff reunion, Peter returns to his Queens dwelling and lays in wait, anticipating his next mission from mentor/absentee father figure Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., as if you didn’t already know that).
That day never comes. Instead, Peter is left to his own devises, acclimating to his powers, hunting for small-time crime to fight, trying to keep best friend/accidental confidante/“man in chair” Ned (Jacob Batalon) quiet about his secret identity. And, most importantly, surmising whether its kosher to use his Spidey persona to impress crush Liz (Laura Harrier). It’s the getting used to his powers bit that proves the most fertile ground for Watts and Holland as we get to see Spider-Man realize the limitations of his abilities (he isn’t so great outside the interconnected web of NYC skyscrapers) while also nerding out over the super-enhanced suit Stark has fashioned specifically for him.
Watching Spider-Man race on foot across town because there’s nothing nearby to swing from or boosting a sports car from a dickish classmate and smash it up the street because he doesn’t have a license or any experience behind the wheel provides some fresh ground the previous entires hadn’t covered yet while making for some of the film’s funnier moments but in terms of genuine character moments, Homecoming comes up short. Like the film at large, i’s fun for a laugh but, more often than not, Spider-Man: Homecoming ends up emphasizes visual gags and lippy snark over genuine pathos and character development.
Holland’s portrayal of the character isn’t too blame. In fact, he’s pretty great as both Parker and Spider-Man; nerdy but relatable, fast with a comeback but still low on the popularity totem pole, stretching himself too thin at the cost of his loved ones’ concern but fundamentally good at heart; but I just feel like outside of his pestering relationship with Happy and Tony, his pursuit of his winged adversary and his lusting for Liz, I didn’t really get to know this version of Peter Parker all that much better. We see an evolution of the character – who begins the movie wanting to move into a bigger playground, one whose daily tasks involve more world saving and less homework, and ends realizing his place and respecting his relative innocence – and it’s nice to see a world that’s self-contained, one that gets smaller rather than recklessly bigger, but it just never feels like quite enough.
Watts’ vision of Spider-Man emphasizes the “friendly neighborhood” portion of Spidey’s legacy. He’s probably the most grounded hero in the MCU, one who helps old ladies cross the road and relishes a reward of free churros. He’s the millennial hero, more a YouTube star than a full-fledged Avenger, and that helps set him apart from his Earth-saving co-heroes. He doesn’t deal in extinction-level events and that’s ok. Sometimes a local hero is more enticing than one constantly bringing humanity back from the brink of destruction.
Fulfilling Iron Man’s request to keep “low to the ground”, this juvenile Spider-Man faces stakes better suited for a high school sophomore’s origin story. Michael Keaton’s Vulture – who, thankfully, is never referred to as that silly name – is a thief and an arm’s dealer, and an example of one of the MCU’s better handlings of an antagonist. His relatively low-stakes threat is aptly suited to Spider-Man’s abilities. He’s a distinctly human character (albeit the metal birdlike hoversuit) and his motivations are relatable (providing for his family). We know why the bulk of the Avengers aren’t showing up in force to deal with him although Tony’s nonchalant shrugging off of the threat he poses is both problematic and annoying.
In fact, Tony Stark and his relationship with Peter Parker throughout Homecoming is problematic and annoying. What should have developed into a mentor/mentee relationship becomes a stalled out trope of the oblivious parent shirking their responsibilities. The film never really account for why on earth Tony involved Spider-Man in the Civil War tussle in the first place, got him all geared up to be an Avenger and then just dropped him back in Queen like an every-other-weekend divorcee. Even for a savant alcoholic in a iron suit, the move seems crazy irresponsible no matter what kind of “training wheels” protocol he installed in 15-year old Peter’s suit. In his millionth turn as Tony Stark, RDJ seems to be mostly phoning it in (quite literally in some scenes) and the back-and-forth between the two characters seems to service Downey’s contract than it does the actual characters. As a result, I just never bought what they were selling.
Perhaps that’s because outside of Peter, there’s not a lot of character development taking place in Homecoming. Personality types populate the feature; Zendaya’s Michelle is a distinctive take on a comic classic while Tony Revolori’s Flash is nothing more a worn out bully type; funnymen Martin Starr steals laughs as a jaded teacher while Hannibal Burress half-dozes through his screen time; but at the end of the day, we don’t exit Homecoming caring for Marisa Tomei’s sexier take on Aunt May or rooting for Peter and Liz to end up together. It’s enjoyable getting to hang with this group of youngsters as they navigate high school but more often than not the need to race to the next action scene keeps it from every settling in and getting in touch with any of these people. Insomuch as Spider-Man is such a beloved character that he will be earning his own separate interconnected universe, Homecoming only goes so far as to really invest you in the continuing journey of this collection of characters and that is precisely where it suffers the same fate of Spider-Man on an open field. It falls flat.
CONCLUSION: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ is a fine entry in the MCU, a superior option to any of the last three Spider-Man efforts, but Jon Watts’ vision doesn’t top Sam Raimi’s nor does his breezy fun times take on the character offer much in the way of substance. Holland may be strong as both Peter Parker and his suited up alter ego, and the MCU world-building is kept to a minimum, but there’s just not quite enough of the goods to really propel this iteration of Spider-Man into primo superhero territory.