No films demonstrate the quagmire of the Hollywood reboot culture better than the Spider-Man movies. With three Tobey Maguire and two Andrew Garfield movies all in recent memory, Spider-Man: Homecoming marks a third iteration for the character and matriculates the hero into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The film is a bipartisan effort between Sony, film-rights holder to the classic character, and Disney, grand master of the MCU. Both companies share this Spider-Man (played by Tom Holland) and each has plans to use the character in projects independent of the other. Homecoming sets up a surprisingly compelling new era for the hero, one that I hope can be maintained by both companies.
Holland’s new Spider-Man was briefly unveiled last year in Captain America: Civil War. But a promising tease in that film didn’t assuage my fears that the character’s full debut in Homecoming would simply be another humorous but ultimately kind of bland Marvel movie.
I was pleasantly surprised by just how deftly Homecoming sidestepped many of the pitfalls of recent superhero flicks. As with this year’s Logan, the key to Homecoming’s success is, I think, a scaled storyline that emphasizes character, as well as a third act absent of any civilization-upending CGI apocalypses. Another element of its success is a very human and sympathetic villain played by Michael Keaton. Finally—departing from the morass of recent superhero-ensemble films—we get to follow a single hero on a journey, with something to learn from the events of the story.
Homecoming opens in the immediate aftermath of the devastation wrought in the climax of the first Avengers film. A group of contractors led by Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes are working as the clean-up crew for the city, until they are replaced by a bigger outfit financed by Stark Industries. With his men out work in the poor economic climate created by the alien attack on New York City, Toomes turns to the lucrative business of developing weapons for street-level criminals using alien technology scavenged during the clean-up. This sets Toomes on the path to becoming “The Vulture” and crossing paths with a high-school-aged Peter Parker.
The film’s story creatively integrates with the larger MCU while keeping proportionality with its own setting. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark quips at one point that Parker, who is eager to join the Avengers, should remain a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” sticking to blue-collar crime-fighting in Queens and leaving the big, global-staked battles to Iron Man and Company. Setting and theme are successfully synthesized and reinforced at every progression in the story, giving the hero a compelling arc, as he must put aside his adolescent infatuation with saving the world and come to terms with the immediate good he can do in his own backyard.
The movie is so successful on the levels of story, setting, and character that it allayed my concerns about its smaller problems. When it comes to these comic-book movies, I tend to be a purist, preferring orthodox interpretations over too many heterodox innovations. One of the key components to the Spider-Man story that is missing from Homecoming is Peter Parker’s guilt associated with his Uncle Ben, whose death traditionally signals the character’s transformation from immature bully to superhero. The iconic “With great power comes great responsibility” line has always been the real underpinning to Spider-Man and in Homecoming, it’s absent. The film passes the “surrogate father, dispenser of wisdom” role on to Tony Stark, an unlikely candidate given his character’s own wrestling with maturity in the first Iron Man film. The choice, however, does provide an opportunity for mutual character development and heightened interconnectedness across the MCU films.
As with Logan, the subversion of conventional depictions—in that film, the post-apocalyptic setting, in Homecoming, the elements that connect it to the world of the Avengers movies—are less important than a good story and a solid lead character. Logan marked the end of a hero’s story; Homecoming marks the beginning. Will this caliber of storytelling be maintained in future Spider-Man films? I’m sure we’ll find out.