It’s easy to forget just how important Sam Raimi’s 2002 film Spider-Man was to the development of the superhero genre. When talking about the first superhero boom in the 2000s a lot of people point to Blade and X-Men as the beginning of the trend, and technically that’s true insomuch as they were the first two Marvel movies of the era but their impact wasn’t nearly as momentous. Adjusted for inflation that is to this date the second highest grossing movie based on a Marvel property behind only the first Avengers movie and in 2002 it managed to beat a Star Wars movie, a Lord of the Rings movie, and a Harry Potter movie to be the highest grossing movie of that year and it did it by a lot. It wasn’t just the fact that it made all that money either, it had to do with how it made all that money. Earlier superhero movies like the 1989 Batman had almost played out more like action movies than entrants in a genre unto themselves and movies like X-Men changed their look and tone in order to reach a wider audience that may be put off by something that looks too much like a comic book. Spider-Man looked and felt more like the 1978 Superman but it had modern special effects which would make its success a lot more replicable. I don’t love that movie, I think there are things about it that don’t hold up, but it was an event and it set the stage for an entire generation of blockbusters. That’s why it felt so incredibly wrong for Sony to have just rebooted that whole series exactly ten years later and just do the whole thing over again but worse. Had the Amazing Spider-Man series gone in some radical new direction it might have justified itself but it was just a blatant cash grab and by the second movie audiences rightly rejected the series. Now there’s a new Spider-Man and you’d think I’d be similarly annoyed by this third iteration of the franchise in fifteen years, but unlike that goofy first reboot this one adds something to the equation: Sony has managed to cut a deal with Marvel studios to bring their web-slinger into the red hot Marvel Cinematic Universe and they more than proved that they had a unique take on the character when he appeared in Captain America: Civil War.
Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up almost immediately after the end of Captain America: Civil War with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) arriving home from Germany where he had just fought Captain America on Iron Man’s behalf. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) lets Parker keep the high tech spandex suit he’d made for him and tells him to use Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) as his main contact. From there we begin with the classic Spider-Man set of challenges: Parker must find a balance between living a high schooler’s life with his crime fighting side job all while keeping his secret identity intact. We’re introduced to his peers like his friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Michelle (Zendaya), the school bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), and the girl Parker has a crush on named Liz (Laura Harrier). Parker is going through the usual teenage stuff with all these people but constantly finds himself abandoning social situations and flaking on obligations because he’s tracking down a gang that’s been selling high tech weapons to criminals. Parker doesn’t know yet that this will put him on a collision course with a man named Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) who got his hands on a bunch of alien technology after the invasion depicted in the finale of The Avengers and has been combining them with human technology to make these weapons and to steal more alien technology he’s created a wing suit to take on the persona called “The Vulture.”
It is perhaps fitting that Spider-Man: Homecoming is a Sony production made in affiliation with Marvel rather than a more conventional entrant in the Marvel cannon because Spider-Man has always been a different kind of hero than the Avenger types that we’ve mostly seen populate the MCU. He’s more of a street level costumed vigilante than a flashy world savior. He has a secret identity (something that, curiously, almost none of the previous MCU characters have had), he has to make ends meet, and of course he’s young. The first thing you notice about the new Spider-Man is that he actually looks like a real teenager. Tom Holland would have been about 19 or 20 when he made this movie but compared to Toby Maguire and Andre Garfield, who were 27 and 29 when their first Spider-Man movies came out, he seems practically cherubic. Ignoring all the superhero material this is actually a very solid high school, one that occasionally references John Hughs but isn’t married to some of the dated elements and nostalgia that often drags down movies from this genre. The film has a very post-21 Jump Street view of modern high schools and doesn’t feel bounded to ancient teenage stereotypes like “jocks” and “goths.” Parker is still a “nerd” of sorts but he’s not ostracized for enjoying science and isn’t routinely stuffed in lockers or whatever, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that he’s simply not very popular and isn’t a savant in social situations.
These coming of age elements are extended to the film’s superhero elements and particularly to his relationship to Tony Stark, which I was pleasantly surprised to learn was actually an important part of the film rather than a marketing gimmick. Stark acts as a father figure within the superhero portion of Peter Parker’s life and it quickly becomes apparent that their interactions are an allegory for the struggles between young people who think they’re prepared for greater independence than their parents believe they’re ready for. This time around Spider-Man’s suit has been provided to him by Stark and it comes with an Iron-Man style talking A.I. and various other neat perks and features to assist him in crime fighting, but many of these features have been locked out by Stark’s “training wheels” initiative and he’s also being tracked and coached during many of his superhero outings. Cautious Sokovia Accords advocate Tony Stark clearly wants to make sure that Parker sticks to fighting within his weight class and wants him to stick to being a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” during his youth rather than get himself in battles with super villains and the like, but when Parker believes he’s needed he subverts this surveillance and defies his metaphorical father with mixed results.
The villain that Stark doesn’t want Parker to be messing with is The Vulture, who in his own modest way is probably the best villain to ever grace an MCU film. This is likely a function of the film’s more down to earth nature. To tangle with The Avengers a villain basically needs to be out to destroy the entire world and the kind of people who want to destroy the world tend not to have a lot of nuance; they lack personality and are basically just pure evil. The Vulture AKA Adrian Toomes on the other hand is a guy whose decent into criminality actually makes sense and is rooted in some understandable grievances. It’s explained in the prolog that Toomes’ was financially hit when a contract to salvage the alien wreckage from the battle in The Avengers was snatched from him by Tony Stark and the federal government after he’d already purchased a bunch of equipment for the job. Essentially he’s a representative of the resentful white working class that have been such a fixture of concern in the media since the rise of Trump, a parallel that likely wasn’t intentional when the movie was being produced but which is nonetheless interesting. On top of that The Vulture is just a cool looking and well-conceived villain. The film comes up with a believable-ish costume for him and finds interesting ways to conduct his various heists. There is of course a bit of irony in the idea that Michael Keaton, star of the Hollywood satire Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, is now playing an avian themed masked character in a superhero movie but that dissipates when you realize that Keaton really is kind of perfect for this role and does a good job of making his character relatable and believable.
If there’s anything that holds back Spider-Man: Homecoming from greatness it’s probably the filmmaking. Jon Watts is a newcomer to the world of big budget filmmaking and while he certainly proves himself to be a serviceable filmmaker here he doesn’t really seem to be bringing a unique vision to the table, or perhaps the Marvel machine isn’t letting him. The action scenes here are almost universally good, but few of them really stand out as being truly memorable cinematic moments that rise above what you’d get out of a typical superhero movie. If this movie had come in with the kind auteur prowess that someone like Christopher Nolan was able to bring to The Dark Knight or that Sam Raimi brought to Spider-Man 2 it may well have become a true classic of the genre but as it is it has to settle for merely being one of the best MCU movies, which is kind of like being the best burger at McDonalds. But let’s not overlook how much of an accomplishment it is to bring a noteworthy superhero movie to an oversaturated market like this. Watts has managed to make a movie that should feel overstuffed and bloated, yet movies along at a crisp pace and which fits all the usual expectations of the superhero genre point for point while somehow not feeling formulaic at all. It’s great summer fun and it extends a pretty clear win streak that Marvel has been having the last two years.