With Spider-Man: Homecoming, we finally welcome Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a Spider-Man film many were demanding, but it’s also a character in Marvel that many feel was already done very well. Despite the fact that some now seem to disregard Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films (which is foolish), they still hold a special place in so many of our hearts. Spider-Man: Homecoming had to carve its own path while showing that it had a reason to exists to the general movie-going public beyond “Oh, cool Spider-Man is on screen with Iron Man.”
So how is it?
It’s good! Spider-Man: Homecoming is good. It’s very good.
But it’s not great. And I’ll get into why in a bit. But let’s talk about what works.
The casting is pitch perfect. Holland is an amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker, a combo that’s proven hard to pull off but Holland rises to the occasion. He plays Peter as someone with a sense of longing and imbues that with Spider-Man as well. Often, even in the comics, Spider-Man can be portrayed as very cool and smooth while the alter ego Peter is either just a cypher or an obvious stab at the polar opposite of cool. He can be a hard nut to crack, but Holland and the writers cracked this nut masterfully.
Michael Keaton as The Vulture is great. I’ll own up to being a big-time Keaton fan boy, so I was in the bag with him from the start, but he truly is great, and the script gives him a lot to chew on. Marvel has a problems with their villains—something even the hardest of hardcore fans can admit. But Keaton breaks through and really stands out. It might be because his motivation isn’t about destroying New York or taking over the world or harnessing the Infinity Stones. Keaton’s Vulture was simply interested in profit to provide for his family and dealing with anyone who got in his way. We get to see this simple, stripped down motivation and storytelling with a great actor, and it paid off in a big way.
The rest of the cast was also fantastic, and the diversity in the film (from people with actual lines to people populating the background) was awesome. It never called attention to itself, but this New York—Peter’s New York—was filled to the brim with people of different backgrounds, skin color, and sexual preferences. You know, kind of like how big cities actually are in America. It made this cinematic Spider-Man feel like he lived in a world we recognize.
The action is a lot of fun. There are scenes that are pure, stand-out Spider-Man scenes. The heroic moments in D.C. and the fight on the Staten Island Ferry are great. It was also nice to see a Spider-Man film where the third act didn’t involve the villain attempting to kidnap and kill the female lead to lure out Peter. We’ve seen that five times now—didn’t need it a sixth.
And this is also Spider-Man’s movie. There was concern going in about how much Iron Man would be in the film or take over the film. RDJ is a commanding screen presence, so it’s understandable why, from a studio standpoint, you’d want him in the movie as much a possible. But luckily we don’t see that. He comes in, does the things he needs to do, pushes the story and plot forward, and gives the movie back to Spider-Man. This is exactly what needed to happen.
The movie is also very funny. It provided the right amount of laughs, giving us comedy that led us to the dramatic moments and dramatic moments that were eased by the comedy.
So it’s a very good movie.
But it’s not a great one.
What holds it back from being great? Well that’s going to take a bit of explaining so buckle up.
Before I dive into this stuff, I want to talk about the idea of the necessity for preexisting knowledge of the source. If you’re familiar with outside sources (the comics, other movies, etc.), is that knowledge one must have in order to enjoy a new piece of work in a different medium? For example, “I know everything about the Harry Potter books, so therefore this character that had one line in the film is actually a great film character because I know the books.” The outside knowledge will help inform your enjoyment of the new piece of work. Personally, I am of the mind that a movie needs to stand on its own two feet—the text of the film is key over outside sources. Outside knowledge is great, but at the end of the day, the movie needs to be able to be a great movie; not hoping people will bring with them their prior knowledge.
I bring this up because outside of Peter, the Vulture, and Ned, the character work in this film is very surface-level.
Let me ask you a question: Ignoring the comics or what you remember from the 90s cartoon, what do we know about Liz Allen?
Other than what she looks like? We know she’s a senior, and is in some of the same clubs as Peter and… that’s about it.
In this film, what do we know about Aunt May Parker? Other people find her attractive and she’s been through a lot recently.
The people on Vulture’s crew? One’s an inventor and the other is a villain reveal, but we don’t really know anything about them. Do they have families? Why are they following the Vulture? Is it just money?
I ask these questions because surrounding your main character with people we know and grow to either like or dislike help inform the film and the main character’s journey. For all the talk of this being a high school John Hughes movie, I’d argue John Hugues imbued his characters with a lot more depth and understanding of who they are. High school movies only truly work when you know about the people in that high school, and again, beyond what they look like, we don’t know much about the people Peter is in school with. We know how Peter feels about them, but how do they feel about Peter?
A big part of the Spider-Man mythos is Peter being late and unreliable with lame excuses for both because he can’t let people know the real reasons for his tardiness. We see that in this film, but it helps to deepen those moments if we know the people he’s letting down—if we understand why they’re disappointed. We want Peter to get to where he said he would be because we like him and we like the people he made the promise to. I’m not saying every character needed monologues or giant moments to spoonfeed to us exactly their story. It can be small things. We get a nice moment with Liz, seeing she has an adventurous or rebellious personality when she tries to talk Peter into swimming at the hotel pool. We needed a little more of those moments.
An example of someone in the movie we do get to know through his actions and moments is Flash Thompson. Flash was the bully, but we also see him trying to answer questions in class, vying for Peter’s spot on the academic decathlon team, and weaseling his way out of danger with the trophy. Little small character moments and beats like that totally informed me of who this Flash Thompson was. He didn’t need a speech or a one on one scene with Peter; small beats said a ton. A few more character could have used that.
“Why does this matter? If the villain works and the main character works, isn’t that enough?”
Depending on the film, yes. But Spider-Man is so much about making sacrifices for other people that I think we need to know more about those people. I question his motivation, and that’s a thing that keeps a good movie from being a great movie.
On top of the surface supporting cast, Spider-Man: Homecoming lacks some emotional depth. That’s not to say it has no emotional depth. The basic story is Peter learning that he’s already Spider-Man and that he doesn’t need the fancy gadgets to be who he already is—a very simple idea and one that would work for people of high school age. And it does work, there’s not a lack of depth there.
What I’m talking about is a more of an overall deepness. There’s a thing holding this film back from reaching the levels of greatness that many other superhero films have: the other character. In this case, “the other character” is Uncle Ben (or lack thereof).
Before anyone sends me any outraged Tweets, I’m not saying they needed to do the origin again. No, no, no. I didn’t need to see Peter get bitten by the spider, I didn’t need to see the wrestling match, hell, I didn’t even need to see Ben be cast and get shot just to say the line. This film as it is works perfectly fine without casting someone in the role of Uncle Ben. But to never mention him at all is… odd. They make very vague reference to him (a line about May being through a lot lately), but again, I take the film text to be king above all outside knowledge. Ben’s name is never said, and all we get is that vague moment. Judging by what we saw in the film, we could believe that Ben just went off to Vegas, we could believe Ben never existed and May just lost her job, we could believe that Ben was abducted by the aliens from Avengers and will return in a future film.
You may say “Cameron, of course that didn’t happen.” But my point is that the film—ignoring all the history of the comics and knowledge of past films—doesn’t prove any of those silly theories wrong. Frankly, it just feels like a studio move to avoid an audience yelling “Oh, not another origin!” It doesn’t feel natural, mainly because there are very natural moments Ben could have come up and not derailed or changed the film. Here’s a few:
- When Tony tells Peter to “let this one go,” Peter could argue why he can’t just let one go—letting one go means something bad happens.
- When The Vulture explains why he does what he does for his family, Peter could mention his family or reflect on the family he just lost.
- When The Vulture talks about the virtues of blue collar work and the little people versus the big people, Peter could slightly understand after growing up with his blue collar aunt and uncle.
- And perhaps the easiest missed opportunity, when Iron Man tells Peter to worry about street crime (something that killed Uncle Ben), Peter seemed more concerned about becoming an Avenger. He could have had a moment of realization—he could save people like Uncle Ben.
These are all actual scenes in the movie that missed an opportunity, and that’s where the frustration lies. Very natural moments for Peter to either connect or understand or add some depth by talking about Uncle Ben were completely avoided.
Heroes work, not just because of their ability, but because of their motivator. Superman isn’t Superman just because he’s an alien that landed on earth. He’s Superman because the Kents found him. Batman isn’t Batman just because his parents died. He’s Batman because he was raised by Alfred. Spider-Man isn’t Spider-Man just because he got bit by a Spider that gave him powers. He’s Spider-man because he was given a great lesson by his Uncle Ben. As it stands, without Uncle Ben truly being a part of this world, we have a Spider-Man that’s Spider-Man because he got bit by a spider that gave him powers and he lives in a world with other heroes, so he might as well be one, too. That’s not bad. It’s good. It’s fine. But it’s not deep. We see a Spider-Man who, when crushed and facing defeat thinks of the words uttered by Tony Stark and not those uttered by May or Ben or Liz or Ned. We see a Spider-Man whose motivated by becoming a hero and not by protecting his friends, his family, and his neighborhood.
Those are my main issues, and they were fairly difficult to talk about. The movie hit on so many levels but missed some key moments. What I’m asking for wouldn’t have altered the story—same structure, same cast, same moments that already exist. It’s just those little things that can ripple and hold a film back.
And that’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Go see this movie The cast is great, it’s colorful and fun, and it has some great Spidey moments.
My final verdict:
But what do you think? Did this movie totally work for you, or were there things you were hoping to see? And where do they go in the sequel? Let me know on twitter @Jurassicalien and tag @Hyper_RPG as well!