As a huge fan of all things comic book, I have no problems with the decade-long-plus surge of superhero movies filling up our cinemas. That doesn’t mean though that I discount the criticisms (some more valid than others) directed at the genre. When these movies end up being bad (Suicide Squad, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Thor: The Dark World), the holes are easier to point out and only further suggest that studios are more eager to produce potentially huge cash-grabbing franchises rather than creating quality films. And that problem is the same for all kinds of entertainment. Even the very source of the genre — comic books — knows this all too well. No matter the popularity of a certain superhero, it can rise or fall given the story. The crappier the story, the clearer the faults. The better the story, the more its genius is showcased. With every new superhero movie, the microscope pulls in closer and closer, the critiques become more pointed than the last. This year alone, critics have raved about Logan, had mixed responses to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and applauded Wonder Woman. This week, the latest franchise swinging the bat is Marvel and Sony’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.
There’s a lot riding on this latest incarnation of the iconic web-head. First is that it’s Sony’s third try at their once-proud franchise and to make sure they get it right, they’ve partnered up with Kevin Feige and everyone behind the blockbuster juggernaut that is Marvel Studios. Feige has gambled on bringing one of comic’s most popular characters into his grand and long-running cinematic universe, along with all the baggage that comes with it.
Out of every superhero out there, what makes Spider-Man stand apart from all the rest is that he’s the quintessential everyman, the most relatable character in all of comics. All great Spider-Man stories successfully balance the comic book spectacles with real life drama. And that’s what Homecoming is able to achieve.
Spider-Man was one of the first entries in this superhero blockbuster boom and is now having its third incarnation in less than 10 years. With Spider-Man: Homecoming, the film’s producers were challenged to correct past mistakes, but also reintroduce the character to a much wider cinematic universe, i.e. franchise. I’ve made no qualms about just how much I hated the most recent Spider-Man films from director Marc Webb. While the cast of The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel was an embarrassment of riches, the story veered too far from what made the characters great in the first place. It’s pretty easy to hate on those films; it’s not necessary to go any further than that.
On the other hand, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man — while critically and commercially successful — was, for me, a mixed bag. It honored the character to a “T” but it didn’t have that same pop and joy that the comic books had. And as skilled as Tobey Maguire is as an actor, he never fully sold the idea that he loved being Spider-Man. While the first two films are some of the genre’s best, the third in particular felt like a studio-mandated installment rather than a continuation of Raimi’s own story. It seemed like the more these studios did with Spider-Man, the less it felt true to its source.
So with all that said, Spider-Man: Homecoming had a lot to prove. With an even more jaded audience and years of way too many superhero films, how does the new film set itself apart, not only from past movies but from an overcrowded genre?
After seeing the film last week, I’m happy to say that Spider-Man: Homecoming answers all the concerns and more. It’s a movie all its own and is without a doubt the best depiction of the beloved character ever in film. The movie really brings the franchise back to its roots. From start to finish, the movie feels like an earnest update and modern version of the comic created more than 50 years ago. It’s classic and new at the same time. And nothing makes this clearer than the casting of Tom Holland in the titular role. The youngest actor to play Spider-Man, at age 21, Holland brings an inherent youth and naiveté that both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield failed to portray. For the first time, Peter Parker/Spider-Man acts like his age and is truly at home in a high school setting surrounded by his peers. And speaking of his peers, the students and friends that surround him arguably steal the show. Jacob Batalon, the Fil-Am who plays Peter’s best friend Ned, adds some much-needed personality and freshness to the otherwise familiar Spider-Man mythology. Zendaya’s Michelle and Laura Harrier’s Liz Allen both play crucial roles that make this world all the more believable and also highlight Peter Parker’s role outside of being Spider-Man. We haven’t seen perfect casting such as this since J.K. Simmons was cast as J. Jonah Jameson in the very first Spider-Man film all those years ago. Every time the story shifts to Peter’s school or friends, that’s when the movie truly shines. I’ve been trying to think why these high school scenes worked so well when previous versions couldn’t seem to get it right. For me, much of that credit goes to the writers and to one in particular, John Francis Daley, who clearly brought everything he learned from his time on Freaks and Geeks to make sure that Peter’s teenage years play as authentic as possible.
But this is a superhero movie after all, and the hero is only as good as the villain. And while it’s not a high bar to get over, Michael Keaton’s take on The Vulture is up there with the genre’s best villains. Keaton adds unexpected heart and nuance to the bad guy role and gives what could easily have been a one-note character that has much more depth. By far, the best scene of the movie involves Keaton and Holland alone in a car talking; the two are able to fill the entire scene with a real sense of fear and dread. It’s a truly tense and emotional climax to the film, the kind that’s sadly often lacking in comic book films.
With ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming,’ the character finally shines as the hero he was always meant to be.
Any die-hard fan will tell you that the best Spider-Man stories are when it gets intensely personal, where Peter has to make impossible choices. Thankfully, the film not only knows this but embraces that mantra completely. Homecoming doesn’t have a world-ending crisis that needs to be averted. There’s no mythical force that needs to be stopped. This is a very grounded story that becomes much more important when it decides to go even smaller. In fact, the main criticism most have with the movie is that it loses steam when it decides to do bigger things. Whenever the movie reminds us that this is in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Homecoming quickly turns into an interchangeable franchise flick. As much as we love Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man, sometimes less really is more.
Out of every superhero out there, what makes Spider-Man stand apart from all the rest is that he’s the quintessential everyman, the most relatable character in all of comics. All great Spider-Man stories successfully balance the comic book spectacles with real life drama. And that’s what Homecoming is able to achieve. It’s with this incarnation of Spider-Man that audiences will finally be able to relate to Peter Parker and the struggles facing him as a teenager. Sure, it’s not the best comic book movie ever, but it succeeds in convincing us that there is still a place for Spider-Man in today’s superhero fare.
While many argue about the effect comic book movies have had on the industry, when done right, the genre shows why superheroes have been so popular for so long. Marvel Studios knows this all too well and have produced some of the best blockbusters ever. With Spider-Man: Homecoming, they finally get to tell a terrific story about their most popular character. It might have taken a while, but Spider-Man is finally where he belongs.