The fundamental appeal of superhero fiction is the same as the enduring and fundamental appeal of the soap opera. It’s human emotion writ large, blown up to a scale so big that it seems all-consuming in the moment, and then stretched out so it can stay with you your whole life.
The teen drama is similar, in that the emotions of teenagedom are so internalized that they really do become the whole world. With that crossover DNA in mind, it seems odd that Spider-Man: Homecoming is the first superhero movie to explicitly seize on the connections and make a superhero movie about a teenager that actually feels like a teen drama.
This is a world where saving the world has to be weighed against a Spanish quiz or where you talk about the girl you like with the super AI inside your suit. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a surprisingly effective teen drama wrapped up in the sort of rip-roaring blockbuster summer is made for.
We all know the story of Spider-Man at this point, so I’m pleased to tell you that this movie basically skips over it. Instead, it picks up shortly after Captain America: Civil War and Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) participation in the battle against Team Captain America in Berlin. Parker has been waiting for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to give him another call to action as he solves petty crimes in his Queens neighborhood.
But those petty crimes lead to intrigue, as he runs smack-dab into a ring of criminals dealing reconstructed alien weapons, led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former construction worker who had his business taken from him and now goes around stealing tech from the Avengers incidents in a massive flight suit. While dealing with this, Peter still has to survive school, alongside his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), stave off his bully Flash (Tony Revolori), and try to finally take his crush Liz (Laura Harrier) to Homecoming.
As with many of the Marvel Studios films (Sony’s name may be in front, but this is a Marvel Studios film through and through), the film’s biggest coup is in its casting.
Giving Tom Holland a chance to expand on his time in Civil War was much needed and he sails through it with flying colors. Both a believably nerdy and awkward Peter Parker and a Spider-Man that, though still very new at this, you can see the fundamental good that will make him a great hero one day, Holland nails every moment he gets in this movie, the kind of moral center you can see this universe reorienting around.
Lest we think Holland is the only one to impress, it must be said (though it is no surprise) how extremely well Michael Keaton does in this movie. Marvel’s villain problem is well-known at this point, so it’s a particular delight when any of these films manages to break that pattern. Of course his performance, that mix of menacing and charismatic that Keaton does so well, is much of the success.
But it’s also that Keaton is given a great character to play with. His Adrian is not an outcast by any means, but disaffected. He wants to do right and provide for his family, but the powerful haven’t exactly given him a whole lot of opportunities to do that. It’s a system that leaves a lot of people vying for something, anything to scratch their living. In other words, he kind of has a point. It’s not cartoonish evil, it’s a working class answer to Peter’s working class hero.
In fact, that’s why this whole supporting cast works, they’re answers to a larger piece of Peter’s life. Revolori orients his Flash Thompson as a rich prick who can’t imagine not having the privilege he has. Batalon’s Ned is the earnestness without the power. Zendaya’s scene-stealing Michelle is all of Peter’s brains without necessarily any of his same optimism.
Spider-Man: Homecoming has a cast packed to the rafters with great supporting actors, not even getting to touch the amazing utility of players like Donald Glover or Hannibal Burress or Marisa Tomei.
In fact, the biggest shame of the whole movie is that a cast this dense with talent playing great characters necessarily has to cut corners. Most get one or two scenes of highlights and little else, leaving you dying to see more of them. Zendaya gets the worst of it, popping off the screen every time she shows up but getting something like 10 lines. I’m sure there’s more to come, I do wish some of the more standard superhero fare had been cut to spend more time with what’s unique here.
Not to slight any of that. For the Marvel Studios nerd, there’s a lot here, Spider-Man: Homecoming is brilliantly woven in the current continuity, showing a ground floor look at what these heroes have done to change the world. Plus, far from the weightless CGI lasers of many of the other films, there’s a much smaller and more graspable sense of action here, one that actually seems to utilize Spidey’s unique power set.
Superhero action is common enough though that I wish we’d gotten less of that and more of the unique teen perspective, using those superhero struggles to really attack the tribulations of youth from a new angle. Yeah, Iron Man and whatnot, but the movie really succeeds when it plays Stark not as the hero, but as the absentee father figure that Parker tries to please and desperately fears disappointing.
There’s countless examples of that (I’ll put my favorite in the Spoiler discussion) where the movie manages to use the superhero tropes to make the teen stuff really feel fresh and new. Spider-Man: Homecoming most succeeds on those terms, where it riffs on the John Hughes picture and gives it that big modern sheen.
Director Jon Watts simply gets how kids operate, and the interplay and dynamic feels real, both in how adults and kids talk and how kids talk to each other. It never feels precocious, it never feels condescending,
It also feels much more in control than any script with six (!) credited screenwriters should have. It navigates its pathos and humor pretty deftly, never letting either step on the moment. Funny and heartstring-tugging in equal measures.
In other words, it’s Spider-Man, a character who always knew how to swing between those. While never quite the cinematic work that the Raimi films were, Homecoming feels like the most accurate adaptation of the feel, the tonality, and the original purpose of Spider-Man. It’s a hero for teenagers to see themselves in, Homecoming pulls that off with flying colors.