We all know the story of Spider-Man. Boy likes science. Boy gets bitten by radioactive spider. Boy gains superpowers. Boy’s uncle dies tragically due to boy’s negligence. Boy remembers that time he was told that with great power comes great responsibility, and promises to actually listen this time. It’s a story we’ve heard across every medium over the past 50+ years. Marvel has been selling comics ever since by successfully assuming you already know all that. Luckily, the movies now do too.
A lot went wrong the last time around. First, they decided to try to tell us the same origin story again, this time with even more attractive people. The boy also got cooler, and richer. The story got darker, because apparently darkness means things are more meaningful, like when a guy with an acoustic guitar turns on his serious, sad voice to cover of a well-known pop song at an open mic.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is an apology, and a darn good one at that. It’s sorry for the origin stories. It’s sorry for making him old. It’s sorry that he wasn’t funny. It’s sorry he didn’t feel enough like a normal kid. It’s sorry for giving him boring friends. It’s sorry for making him too successful with the ladies. It’s sorry for having so many villains all the time. And most of all, it’s sorry that it kept Spider-Man so far away from the rest of the Marvel universe. And honestly, with the way this apology is delivered—all is forgiven.
Homecoming assumes that you know Spider-Man, but Homecoming’s Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is just getting to know himself. He’s been aged back—15 years old now, and the only major thing he’s done with his powers so far is fight alongside Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in a show-stealing cameo in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. In a way, this is a What-If story—what if Spider-Man was recruited to the big leagues before he figured out he was a superhero to begin with?
Sure, Homecoming’s Spider-Man is a poor kid living in a small apartment with his aunt, but he’s certainly not figuring this out on his own. He’s got a new “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” mentor, who has given him a super-suit with nearly limitless powers on its own. Why would he go out and try to fight crime by himself when the world’s greatest heroes could call him for a mission at any moment?
'A bored kid'
As a 15 year-old with a lack of imagination on how to utilize his powers, Homecoming’s Spider-Man goes to school by day, and spends his evenings swinging around in costume, sometimes getting spotted by people on the street, doing tricks for them at their request. He’s a pretty bored kid. In school, he’s distracted, able to get by on his natural intellect, grounded by his best friend Ned Leeds, played by Jacob Batalon, who brings more warmth to the film than he’s bound to get credit for. He’s got a girl he likes but he’s not sure what to say to her. He’s spinning his wheels, not sure where to go from here.
There is of course, evil afoot. But don’t worry, it’s not the shapeless sort of evil we’re used to—it’s the fun kind where the villain makes a good point, and was driven to do bad things because the people that do worse don’t get held accountable for their own evils.
This villain is a familiar one from the Spider-canon—The Vulture, brought to life by Michael Keaton. He’s a blue-collar working stiff who got screwed over by Tony Stark and company, and instead, is stealing the resources that have been taken away from him and using them to gain money and power. It’s pure class struggle, the kind that resonates even more loudly in 2017, and while Keaton’s able to make his Vulture feel dangerous, it’s hard to ever think of him as the bad guy. As much as we’re supposed to like Iron Man, it’s hard not to see him the way the Vulture sees him, and to be skeptical of his influence on young Peter Parker. At least Marvel let him be a working class hero—maybe eventually they’ll realize, too, that billionaires might not be our friends.
The real story
But while there are action set pieces, and Spidey does slowly get pulled into chasing and fighting the Vulture all the way to the big firey climax, the most wonderful thing about Spider-Man: Homecoming is that until the final battle, it feels more like the background story. The real story here is Peter Parker, the 15-year-old kid, interacting with his peers, stumbling his way through life on the way to becoming the person he’s sure to grow into. At times he’s negligent, hurting those around him by acting impulsively. But the greatest conflict is internal, and the smallest, most human problems are the ones that have the most lasting impact. Spider-Man is allowed to be a person, more than any superhero we’ve seen so far—which is exactly why the character worked in the first place, all those years ago with Lee and Ditko.
Peter Parker feels like an authentic, three-dimensional kid, and the world he lives in does too. The cast is multi-ethnic while never feeling token. Director Jon Watts clearly had the Breakfast Club on repeat, being sure that while each character has a distinct personality and fits into an intricate social structure, they still felt like someone you could have known back in school yourself. And the casting is impeccable—while we never see enough of Zendaya’s Michelle (who, by the time the second film rolls around, is likely to be a Jennifer-Lawrence-in-X-Men-First-Class level early-career contract coup, and pushed to a lead role), no scene with her character is wasted—she’s vivid in every line spoken. The same could be said, to a lesser degree, of the rest of the assorted supporting cast.
None of this works, of course, without the right Spider-Man. After seeing Tom Holland’s take on the character—funny, flawed, earnest, assured and strong-hearted, it’s hard to imagine anyone else having to fill the booties for years to come.
While the film might not deliver iconic moments on par with what Sam Raimi gave us in those first two Spider-Man films—there’s no passion like that upside-down kiss, no pathos like the passengers of the train passing Spider-Man’s limp body down to safety—the film always rings true. And while it feels more like a pilot than any Marvel film to date, what they’ve built feels special, and it feels built to only improve from here.
Welcome back, Spidey.