The “homecoming” in the title of Spider-Man: Homecoming has two meanings, and they both speak directly to the movie’s small focus. The film is a literal homecoming, as Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man (a.k.a. Tom Holland), returns to Queens after the epic Berlin battle in his last Marvel Cinematic Universe outing in Captain America: Civil War. But Peter’s sophomore homecoming dance also plays a significant part in the story, as he sweats over whether to confess his crush on his senior classmate Liz (Laura Harrier), the head of his school’s Academic Decathlon team. Even though Spider-Man went toe-to-toe with Captain America and the MCU’s other biggest heroic power players in Civil War, Homecoming is a constant reminder that he’s a newbie hero and a 15-year-old kid, dealing with Spanish tests and chemistry classes as much as he’s dealing with criminal throwdowns. The refocusing — part of Sony’s effort to bring its Spider-Man stories in line with the MCU while creating a separate, smaller cinematic universe — should seem like a comedown after Civil War. Instead, it feels like a joyous celebration, not just of the MCU’s usual crowd-winning balance of humor and action, but of a little guy’s ability to make a difference, even when, for once, the fate of the world isn’t on the line.
In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter fights his traditional rogues’-gallery enemies Vulture and Shocker, but even more distinctly, he fights mundanity and the not-particularly-compelling but still urgent call of ordinary teenage life. He’s dealing with his own backyard supervillains, but his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) wants him to come over and help build a 3,000-piece Lego Death Star. It’s a familiar tension for traditional Marvel superheroes like Spider-Man — more so in their comics infancy than in the modern movies, where they’re more likely to be saving the planet than sweating over secret identities — but Homecoming puts it front and center, and makes it a heartfelt conflict. Every time Peter has to choose whether to do his self-appointed job or seize one irreplaceable personal moment with Liz, the strain shows on his face. Civil War made his conflicts big, funny, and thrilling. Homecoming makes them personal.
They’re also personal for Vulture, a.k.a. Adrian Toomes (a.k.a. Michael Keaton), a New York City salvage contractor initially hired to help clean up the mess made by the Chitauri invasion back in 2012’s The Avengers. The Avengers’ fight against the alien force left New York City buried under wrecked Leviathan armor and Chitauri weaponry, and Toomes invested heavily in trucks, men, and gear to fulfill his contract. Then Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man, a.k.a. Robert Downey Jr.) swept in and took over the cleanup effort. Facing bankruptcy, and furious at the dismissive, preemptory attitudes of Stark’s functionaries, Toomes decides to keep the tech he’s already salvaged, and go into business for himself. With the help of Phineas Mason (The Tinkerer, played by Michael Chernus), two different Shockers (Logan Marshall-Green and Bokeem Woodbine), and his old wrecking crew (though not yet Marvel Comics’ actual Wrecking Crew), Toomes sets himself up as a small-scale weapons manufacturer, stealing recovered Chitauri technology and turning it into hand-held gear for the aspiring street criminal.
Homecoming makes a bit of a straight-faced joke out of the small scale of Toomes’ operations: eight years after the events of Civil War, his men are still peddling their supervillain gear out of the backs of trucks, including to a consternated wannabe hood named Aaron (Donald Glover) who was just looking for a simple handgun. But the small scale defines Homecoming’s ambitions. As Toomes is taking his protracted revenge for Stark’s dismissal, Peter Parker fights his own frustration with Tony Stark, who’s stonewalling him about further Avengers missions, and refusing to let Spider-Man return to a global stage. Peter dutifully runs out every day after school to stop bike thieves and give street directions to people who get lost in Queens. But he’s on the phone every day, leaving voicemail status reports for Stark’s assistant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), and pleading for a chance to be in on the next big Avengers mission. He wants so badly to be big-league. But Stark’s seeming neglect of him means that when Toomes’ weaponry turns up in Spider-Man’s neighborhood, Peter has to deal with the problem on its own.
The best nemesis pairings are heroes and villains who reflect some part of each other, who serve as dark mirrors into each other’s identity. For every character who goes through a personal crisis and comes out determined to save lives and serve the public, there’s another one who faced similar trials, and took the opposite path. That’s part of the strength of the Spider-Man/Vulture pairing here. Both Peter and Toomes see Tony Stark as a looming figure in their lives, and both resent his standoffishness, his power over them, and the perception that he sees them as inferior and dismissible. Both Peter and Toomes are technologically enhanced — Peter with a Stark-built Spider-Man suit that keeps manifesting new abilities, sometimes in the middle of battle, and Toomes with a presumably Tinkerer-built wing-suit that resembles a much more sinister and aggressive version of Falcon’s flying gear. Peter and Toomes both live in New York, and they’re both motivated by the urge to take care of family. They just go about it in radically different ways.
But the Stark connection is clearest, as Peter spends the film trying, with increasingly plaintive frustration, to get Tony Stark’s attention. This is a coming-of-age movie of sorts. Peter has had his powers for less than a year, but when he’s in costume, he’s already the classic version of Marvel Comics’ friendly neighborhood wall-crawler — fast-moving and fast-thinking in a fight, and full of snappy quips that irritate his foes. He doesn’t need Tony Stark’s permission to fight crime. But he does want validation and bigger thrills, and Homecoming is about the steps he takes to get beyond that childish urge.
That said, for a movie about growing up, Homecoming sure is an enjoyable movie about being a kid superhero. Early on, Ned learns Spider-Man’s secret identity, and director Jon Watts and his five co-writers get a lot of comic mileage out of Ned’s hyperactive geeking out about his friend’s secret, and the way Peter keeps getting drawn out of “Nobody can know!” mode and into “Isn’t this so cool?” mode. Holland is the rare Hollywood actor who makes a convincing 15-year-old (he’s currently 21), and as Peter, he makes his dorky excitement over his superpowers and his famous friends infectious. He’s a stand-in for every kid who’s ever played superhero pretend games at recess, or gotten absorbed into a video game or movie, seeing himself as the hero.
But Homecoming draws heavily on the small sacrifices even a small-scale hero needs to make, and the sheer loneliness of having responsibilities no one else has. In that sense, Peter’s also a stand-in for young people who have to work to support themselves while more privileged kids seem to have everything easy, or for young people dealing with abusive home situations they can’t talk about. He’s a wish-fulfillment figure with the snappy smarts and secret powers to deal with his problems, but just being a superhero doesn’t make him less human, less emotionally vulnerable, or less prone to little flights of dorkiness.
It also doesn’t make him entirely confident or capable. Homecoming has its serious side — one sequence with a Staten Island Ferry disaster strongly recalls both the Joker’s ferry social experiment in The Dark Knight, and the agonizing runaway-train scene in 2004’s Spider-Man 2, with a different version of the wall-crawler half-killing himself in an effort to save New Yorkers’ lives. And while Keaton gets surprisingly little screen time outside of his Vulture suit, as a man rather than a special effect, his one most menacing villain turn is intimidating and personal enough to keep even Peter unnerved, pale, and uncharacteristically silent. Facing hapless mooks or the varsity-squad grab-ass competition of an all-hero battle, Peter turns his fights into elaborate games. Faced with deliberate, cold, murderous malice, he’s speechless and helpless. Some levels of villainy are still too new for him to have formed a response, and Homecoming taps into a deep well of fear and anxiety around those moments.
But more often, the film is a riot, a nerdy celebration of the hero fantasy, through the eyes of a hero who hasn’t gotten jaded, grim, and angry yet. Too many American heroes are growling, gravelly, and grim, dealing with gigantic moral crises and planet-shattering threats, and giving up any ability to enjoy the novelty of discovery, or the sheer giddiness of power. The MCU movies have been the decade’s strongest counterbalance against the unrelenting grittiness of superheroes, and Spider-Man is the peak of heroic fantasy fun. He isn’t just a hometown-hero New Yorker, actively in love with his city and the people in it. He isn’t just the kid who gets called up to run with the big dogs, or the moral leader who understands the balance of power and responsibility. He’s the avatar for everyone who’s ever daydreamed about not just being tougher than the threats in their life, but also faster, more flexible, and funnier. Spider-Man: Homecoming brings the character back to his basics. In the process, it shows why he’s always been such a popular draw, and it makes a strong argument for a branch of the MCU/Sony heroverse that operates on a smaller scale than the rest of the world. Here, the small size isn’t just a story necessity, or a franchise strategy. It’s the heart of the story, and an argument for smaller hero stories in general.
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