After a semi-successful trilogy by Sam Raimi and two over-the-top films from Marc Webb, it seemed like everyone’s neighborhood wall crawler was going to put up the cowl for good, while studios battled over whether Spider-Man should be portrayed as an emo teenager or an emotionally challenged Tobey Maguire. Yet, who would have thought that thirty minutes of Tom Holland donning spandex in Captain America: Civil War was a sign of better things to come? Holland’s performance earned him stripes for his own solo movie in the form of Spider-Man: Homecoming, the title of which references the eponymous high school dance and is symbolic of Spider-Man joining the larger Marvel family owned by Disney. As with anyone who has to interact with new relatives, Homecoming can feel awkward and terse as it attempts to navigate and connect with past films, but once it finds its own footing, the movie flips into high gear. In the end, the latest Spidey excels as a greater extension of the Marvel Universe, and also as a solid stand-alone feature buoyed by a stellar supporting cast, infectious humor and a fresh, contemporary high school setting.
Spider-Man: Homecoming takes place soon after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) attempts to fight crime and prove his worth as an Avenger while struggling to adjust to the monotony of high school life. Right from the start, director Jon Watts establishes a tension between the “civilian world” and the “superhero world.” While New York was explored in past MCU movies, Watts focuses specifically on highlighting Queens, keeping the camera focused on the ground and only slightly oscillating the view up when Spidey was swinging throughout the city. There’s an emphasis on Queens’ business but also its idiosyncrasies, from hole-in-the-wall sandwich shops to creviced alleyways, perfect for hiding one’s super suit and backpack. Likewise, shots of Avengers Tower, PSA announcements given by Captain America and casual conversation about Hulk in Peter’s high school gymnasium remind viewers that this Spider-Man movie very much takes place in a post-Avengers world, where the public has largely accepted that superheroes are a part of daily life. This evolution is interesting to note in comparison with the first Iron Man and also adds pressure on Peter, as he is forced to grapple with what makes his superhero antics special in a world of demigods and super soldiers.
As Peter wrestles with his superhero side, one of the more off-putting elements of the film is that it feels like Jon Watts was attempting to shoot a high school drama (think along the lines of Sixteen Candles and Breakfast Club), pitched his film to the studio and Marvel forcefully reminded him that he was hired to make a superhero movie. Montages of Peter and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) raising their hands in Spanish class may seem out of place, but these unadulterated looks into Peter’s life is what makes him relatable. Watts likewise provides a fresh spin on traditional high school angsts: we can relate to wanting the bell to ring. But, there is always an element of the unordinary, as most high school kids might hang out with friends after school, but Peter has already donned his costume, ready to serve his community whether that is giving directions to an old lady or stopping a bike thief.
Tom Holland’s zealous and effervescent portrayal of Peter Parker was a highlight of Captain America: Civil War and it continues to the anchor of Homecoming. He dually portrays the quirky and shy nerd archetype, perhaps best fleshed out in his hilariously realistic and awkward interactions with his crush, Liz (Laura Harrier) or as he fumbles to lie to Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) why he was out late on a school night. At times he even seems Peter’s innocence to be self-sacrificial, as he cares fiercely for the people around him. This contrast between Peter Parker and Spider-Man is brilliantly fleshed out as Peter has all the right to brag and be egotistical, yet he remains humble whenever the spotlight shines on him.
Spider-Man has always had a great supporting cast and this trend continues with Homecoming, as the film masterfully balances its great star power with equally admirable responsibility. At long last, the problem with MCU Villains is rectified in the form of Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, also known as the Vulture, whose mechanical flight suit makes Falcon’s harness look pathetic by comparison. Toomes has a compelling and genuine motivation that drives him to turn to a life of crime, and Michael Keaton steals the show in every scene that he is in, being able to turn from the sneering villain caricature to a cold and calculating genius at a moment’s whim. People may have been worried that Homecoming was secretly Iron Man 4 featuring Spider-Man, but Robert Downey Jr.’s role as Tony Stark (Iron Man) thankfully does not eclipse Tom Holland’s. Jacob Batalon’s portrayal of Ned is another standout, providing many hilarious moments in the film. Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May is wittier and more deductive than past incarnations, but is not given too much to do. Other characters such as Zendaya’s Michelle and Donald Glover’s Aaron Davis are unfortunately given only a handful of minutes on screen.
Spider-Man: Homecoming has all the elements you would want from a superhero movie: action, humor and great character development, yet those elements also make for a great high school drama film. Like its titular protagonist, Homecoming lighthearted without ever being insincere, thrilling yet also humorous. It is one of those rare films that defies all typical genre conventions while being an exemplar for what superhero films can and should be.
Zachary Lee is a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org