If three live-action Spider-Man movie franchises over the course of 15 years have taught us anything, it’s that superheroes aren’t set in stone. We like to think that we know these characters but the fact of the matter is that everyone knows them differently.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was a guilt-ridden, self-destructive neurotic who didn’t think he was worthy of happiness. Marc Webb’s Spider-Man never quite got to the whole “with great power there must come great responsibility” phase, and spent most of his films wrestling with self-absorption… which only makes sense, since due to the changes in the plot, that world all but literally revolved around Spider-Man.
Now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has their own version of Spider-Man. He’s played by Tom Holland, he’s directed by Jon Watts. He’s back in high school and young enough that we can expect him to stay there for a while. His origin has already taken place and he appears to have moved past his grief over Uncle Ben, since his death is only vaguely alluded to once in the movie. Spider-Man is a wise-cracking teenager struggling with his dreams of greatness, eager to skip over his adolescence altogether.
Yes, the plot is that Spider-Man wants to grow up, but the filmmakers can’t let him. This is a young Spider-Man for a young audience, the first MCU motion picture about a teenaged character. It’s the breeziest Spider-Man movie ever made, free of major melodrama and focused almost exclusively on the aftermath of Spider-Man’s first appearance in Captain America: Civil War. He was sent to the big leagues but now he’s back in the minors… along with his fellow minors.
Meanwhile, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) has set up shop in New York City. After the alien invasion at the end of The Avengers, Toomes was hired to clean up the extra-terrestrial wreckage, but got screwed out of the contract by Tony Stark. So Toomes and his crew stole the technology, reverse-engineered it, and are selling super-weapons in secret, creating villains like The Shocker and The Vulture, a.k.a. Adrian Toomes.
There’s a thin connective tissue between Spider-Man’s storyline and The Vulture’s, a tale of so-called “little guys” trying to make good in a world that favors the rich and powerful. Spider-Man pursued a superheroic version of celebrity and got kicked to the curb. Toomes pursued the American dream of a small business owner and got steamrolled by a corporation. Frankly, they both have legitimate grievances against Tony Stark, but Spider-Man: Homecoming never quite goes there.
Indeed, that’s probably about the worst you can say about Spider-Man: Homecoming. It never quite goes there. It shies away from the character’s deep-seated pathos and skips ahead to the whimsy. It raises questions about Tony Stark’s reckless impact on people who aren’t rich or gods or have unbreakable shields, but it never takes him to task for it. There’s a confused quality about the film’s whole theme, as though Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t quite want to take a stand because it might make Tony Stark – the franchise’s most popular hero – look bad.
Meanwhile, Spider-Man is going about his business, venturing out into parties, attending school field trips, and trying to bust an arms dealer who is supposedly way out of his league. But of course, the very concept that The Vulture is out of Spider-Man’s league doesn’t hold water. Spider-Man beat up several of The Avengers already. He may be a kid but he’s obviously capable.
Spider-Man: Homecoming feels trapped in a self-reflexive cycle. The plot revolves so fully around the Marvel Cinematic Universe that it ceases to be wholly relatable to those of us who don’t live there. That may be fine if you’re telling a story set in outer space but Peter Parker is Marvel’s everyperson, an average schmoe in an average high school who chanced into superpowers and doesn’t always know what to do with them. Regardless of what each reboot brings to the character, he’s supposed to be someone we can all connect to.
Instead, Spider-Man is now someone we can watch. And we can enjoy the heck out of watching him. Tom Holland is perfectly cast. He knows how to land a joke and undercut himself at the same time. He can sell the film’s most dramatic moments, when it looks like all is lost. His adventures are snappily portrayed and engagingly filmed. But his emotional journey is a bit muddled because this version of the character wasn’t introduced as the star of his own story, he was introduced as an anecdote in someone else’s, and now the filmmakers have to work backwards to make him more emotionally resonant in retrospect.
But here’s the thing: my criticisms about Spider-Man: Homecoming only apply because of what “I” think of the character. To me, Spider-Man is the hopeless neurotic. That’s the version of the character I grew up with, the one I identify with the most. We had that character for a while, back when Sam Raimi was running the show, and now we’ve moved on. That’s only a bad thing if the new version of Spider-Man either completely betrays the idea of the character, or doesn’t work on its own merits.
There’s nothing technically wrong with the Marvel Cinematic Universe of Spider-Man. For many, this may be the version they always wanted: a deft, cheerful, everyday hero making his way through a densely populated, increasingly complex superhero universe. If that describes you, then you’re really going to love Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s a clever and intriguing journey into the MCU, with a lot of likable characters doing a lot of entertaining things. The jokes hit the mark. The action looks great. The villain is one of Marvel’s best. It doesn’t pack quite the emotional wallop I was hoping for (cutting out the death of a family member would do that to any story), but not every movie has to be a potent exploration of Spider-Man’s doomed psychology.
Spider-Man has come home, so the filmmakers wanted to have a good time with him. So that’s what they did. They gave him some light coming of age antics, they gave him a villain that’s not too far outside of his pay grade, they touched on meaningful ideas without doing any heavy lifting. They made a spry, lovable Spider-Man movie about a spry, lovable Spider-Man.
I just wish it fit my definition of a “great” Spider-Man movie.
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Top Photo: Sony Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.