Extended universes seem to be the norm these days – in the nine years since Iron Man (2008), not only has the MCU grown by fifteen movies (including Spider-Man: Homecoming), but other universes have started to crop up in their wake. DC is attempting to make their own extended universe of superheroes, Universal is bringing together all of their old monsters to create the Dark Universe, and there are rumors abound that both King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) and Power Rangers (2017) are the first stepping stones to their own new universes (though neither movie did so well that I can’t imagine those universes have much of a chance). So, with all of these universes exploding, is it possible for the universe that started it all – the Marvel Universe – to still create movies that are something new, something fresh, and something worth watching when every other film in the world is starting to be just the same? Even when it throws the rest of the MCU into question (maybe even doubt), it seems to me that Spider-Man: Homecoming is trying to follow in the footsteps of its comedic predecessors – Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Ant-Man (2015) – and the MCU could be all the greater for it. Maybe it’s time to set aside the darkness of Civil War (2016) and let the audience have some fun with their heroes.
Two months after Peter Parker (Tom Holland) fights alongside Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) against Captain America in Germany, he is given a new Spider-Man suit and instructed to report to “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) on his superhero activities. He goes back to his normal high school life, telling his friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and classmates that his superhero work is an internship with Stark Industries. Wanting desperately to prove he is ready to become a full-time Avenger, Parker stumbles upon a villain team creating weapons and gadgets from leftover Avenger and alien technology, led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), aka Vulture. Parker must balance the life of a hero with the life of an average high school kid and decide how far he is willing to go to be taken seriously as an Avenger.
In order to prepare for this film, the cast was required to sit down and have a John Hughes movie marathon to get in the right mindset, and you can definitely feel that tone for the majority of the film – not only is Spider-Man quippy and fun in that eager teenager kind of way, but the entire atmosphere screams “high school, coming of age”. In fact, I am legitimately surprised that no one broke out into a dance to “Take On Me”. One of the reasons that Guardians of the Galaxy has done so well in the box office is because it is fun, and it doesn’t try to be as high-minded or heavy-handed as many of the Marvel movies have done – mostly since Phase 2, I’ve noticed, Phase 1 wasn’t trying nearly that hard to be dark – and Spider-Man: Homecoming felt (correctly) that was the right way to go for its interpretation of the hero. The humor felt real, the laughter that was drawn from the audience felt real, and that made every moment that was not funny – moments of fear, the moments of shock, the moments of pain – seem all the more real. There was also a great understanding of how much (or little) each character should be used. Leading up to Homecoming’s release, everyone was joking that it was going to end up being Iron Man 4 since almost all of the trailers featured a great deal of Tony Stark as well as Peter Parker, but his actual presence in the film is quite small, except for when it matters. That gives us plenty of time to focus on Holland’s interpretation of our friendly, neighborhood spiderling, and the people in his life outside of the Avengers.
It also gives us a chance to really marvel at the best Marvel villain since Loki (Tom Hiddleston), since creating interesting and developed villains has always been a bit of a challenge for the MCU in the past. Toomes does have a bit of a “sob story” behind him, as many of the MCU villains have had before him (dead families, mainly, though with Kaecilius we couldn’t even really be sure that was entirely the case, we just knew we were supposed to feel sorry for him), but one of the hallmarks of a good villain is not only recognizing that he believes himself to be a hero, but understanding why he believes that. We can understand why Toomes believes he must do what he choses to do, but that doesn’t mean we don’t fear him a little. Though Loki is a charismatic villain, he never quite inspired fear in his audience (indeed most of the audience loved him so much that he started overtaking the main characters in his movies) but the same cannot be said of Toomes. Keaton always gives a great performance, one where his character has great facets and nuances, and Toomes is just up his alley. We may feel bad for him, and even respect him a little, but that doesn’t mean we don’t flinch a little in fear when we realize he’s about to snap, because when he snaps people tend to end up dead. He also is the best balance of a villain I think Marvel has given us – so many of the villains are given as the dark side of the hero (half of Iron Man’s villains even had a version of his suit), but while Vulture has a fleeting respect for Spider-Man, he is far more experienced and weathered to be anything like the fifteen-year-old boy who is just coming into his powers. The balance between them is built on something more than a recognition of each other in their enemy. All I can say is that if Keaton does not make any more appearances in the MCU, they’ve wasted a great resource and one of the most refreshing additions to their franchise that we’ve seen in nine years.
Perhaps the greatest realization that comes with Homecoming’s performance is that Marvel still knows how to surprise us. I can counted at least five different moments that caused everyone in my theater to gasp and cry out – I have always assumed that I might be easily impressed, since plenty of people I know are not so easily fooled by a film writer’s red herring, but it seemed like everything that surprised me in this film surprised everyone who was watching it with me. Marvel has always been a bit formulaic, and usually we take it because they know what they’re doing with that formula. We know that they do it well, for the most part. Sure, I couldn’t really connect with Tomei’s performance as May, and by skipping over Peter’s origin story, it can be argued that part of his character and identity as Spider-Man is being completely skipped over, and perhaps worst of all, the growth of the Marvel Universe is being brought into question since the Sokovia Accords are given only a brief mention in the film, despite their importance in Spider-Man’s first Marvel appearance. But, to make up for it, Marvel is putting twice as much work into changing their formula, if only a little, to show us that they can still surprise us, and we love them all the more for it.
5 / 5
Imagine how much more frightening Spider-Man would be if he actually could summon an army of spiders. I mean, I’m not even that scared of spiders and that thought gives me the shivers.