May 28, 2020
Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Previously: Doctor Strange was hyped as a major departure for the Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks to its supernatural elements, but of course, other than a few mind-bending visuals, it was pretty much every other Marvel origin story told so far. Likewise, the Guardians of the Galaxy films were lauded as a huge breakthrough, expanding the scope of the Marvel movie-verse to cosmic proportions, but in the end, Vol. 2 was yet another disappointing sequel that only exists because the first one was a hit.
Also previously: Sam Raimi made two highly regarded Spider-Man films for Sony starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, and one irredeemable dud. This inspired Sony to immediately reboot the franchise starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone just to hold onto their rights to the character, and the second time around it only took director Marc Webb two movies to crash and burn. With interest in another Garfield-led Spider-Man film at an all-time low, Sony struck an agreement to co-produce the next movie with Marvel, who actually stood a chance of doing the character some justice. And thus begat the second Spider-Man reboot in a little over five years.
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To be sure, the Marvel-Sony announcement saw plenty of griping and grousing about the swift turnaround on Spider-Man reimaginings, but I’d say fans were mostly thrilled to see Spidey finally brought into the Marvel Cinematic Universe fold. This was also the reason for the ungainly title of Spider-Man’s MCU debut: the dual meaning being that it not only features Peter Parker getting ready for a homecoming dance, but it’s also Spider-Man’s “homecoming” to Marvel Studios. It’s clever, but only if you know about the whole Marvel-Sony deal; otherwise, you’d think this movie was named after a scene that lasts maybe five minutes and isn’t even pivotal to the story. And what will the sequel be called? Spider-Man: Winter Formal? Spider-Man: Ditch Day?
It’s generally agreed that Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spider-Man 2 are the worst of the Spider-Man films, but to me, the first Amazing Spider-Man was perfunctory at best, and even Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies, while much revered, have plenty of lapses in logic and silly moments that now make me cringe. At the time of its release, many (including Roger Ebert) hailed Spider-Man 2 as the best superhero movie of all time, but nowadays, it wouldn’t even crack my top ten.
Which is why I’m inclined to declare that Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best Spider-Man movie to date. It has its share of flaws, which I’ll get into shortly, but certainly nothing here comes close to being as clumsy and embarrassing as the worst moments of the previous five entries.
The plot: Peter Parker is a high school student living in Queens, New York who just happens to have super-strength and the ability to climb up walls. As documented via cell phone video recorded by Peter himself, he was recently taken on a private jet from JFK to Leipzig/Halle at the request of Iron Man/Tony Stark (and escorted by Tony’s right-hand man, Happy Hogan), where he was given a high-tech Spider-Suit and asked to back up Tony’s side in the big fight scene of Captain America: Civil War. We revisit some of the memorable parts of the airport super-battle in vlog/Periscope style, including Spider-Man snatching away Cap’s shield, and Ant-Man becoming Giant-Man.
Peter then returns to the drudgery of his normal life in Queens, and months later is restless to jump into action again as Spider-Man, and we see him constantly leaving voice mails and texts for Happy Hogan wondering when he’ll be called up again.
With no response forthcoming, Peter kills time by donning the Spider-Suit and taking down petty criminals and preventing traffic accidents, while his exploits rack up the YouTube views. At school, Peter hangs out with his nerdy best friend Ned…
…and pines away for star pupil Liz, who captains the school’s Academic Decathlon team, which Peter quits so he can spend more time being Spider-Man.
One night, he gets in over his head as he attempts to stop a group of ATM robbers (each one wearing a mask of one of the four original Avengers)…
…who are using high-tech levitation devices and laser guns that cause the destruction of the bank and a nearby local deli. Peter rescues the deli owner (and his cat) and returns home and crawls in through his bedroom window, oblivious to the fact that Ned has been waiting here to work on a school project, and now Ned knows Peter is Spider-Man.
Also here, we see Peter’s Aunt May again, who we previously met in Civil War, and let’s just say she’s a whole lot less frail in this telling. And frankly, it makes more sense. Why are Uncle Ben and Aunt May so much older than Peter in the comics? Wouldn’t it follow that they’d be relatively close to his parents’ ages?
In gym class, Peter and classmates are forced to watch “Captain America’s Fitness Challenge”, a series of educational videos starring Steve Rogers himself (even though, as gym coach Hannibal Buress points out, Rogers is a war criminal at this point)…
…after which Peter learns Liz is having a party, and Ned convinces Peter to pretend he’s good friends with Spider-Man and can get him to show up, thus earning invites for both of them.
Peter puts on the Spider-Suit but bails on the party when he sees an explosion at a nearby park. There he spies a petty criminal (Donald Glover, playing Aaron Davis, who in the comics is the uncle of Miles Morales) who’s looking to buy some of that high-tech weaponry seen earlier.
We learned earlier in the film that all of these weapons were developed by men working for Adrian Toomes, better known in the comics as the Vulture. As revealed in a flashback at the start of the movie, Toomes was a contractor helping to clean up the mess in Manhattan following the Chitauri invasion in the first Avengers, but was quickly fired from the project so the federal government and Tony Stark could take over via the newly formed “Department of Damage Control” (a shout-out to another Marvel property).
Robbed of his livelihood, Toomes and his employees decided to take the alien technology they’d already salvaged and turn it into weapons they can sell on the black market. (And far be it for me to suggest this isn’t the most original idea ever, but didn’t they spend about half of the first season of Agents of SHIELD on random joes getting their hands on Chitauri technology?) Of course, in keeping with his comics alter-ego, Toomes has created a robotic wing suit, complete with green glowing eyes.
And since it wouldn’t be one of these Countdown to Infinity War articles without complaining about the MCU’s screwed up chronology, I should mention that this prelude only creates more confusion when it ends with an “8 years later” caption, indicating the movie is set eight years after the events of 2012’s The Avengers, even though a caption following Peter’s cell phone video tells us it’s two months after 2016’s Civil War. But Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has already gone on record to admit they done goofed. Personally, it never really bothered me; I’ve always assumed these movies unfold in Comic Book Time where it’s useless to peg events to actual years because the timeline is a constantly moving target.
Back in the present, Spider-Man tries to follow the criminals back to their hideout, but he’s suddenly grabbed by Toomes himself, who flies him high into the sky. Peter is dropped into a river and nearly drowns, but he’s saved by Iron Man, or rather, Tony Stark remotely operating a suit of armor while visiting India. Tony warns Peter to stop getting mixed up in situations he’s not ready for yet.
But Peter continues to track Toomes’ gang and learns they’re headed to Maryland, so he rejoins the Academic Decathlon team just so he can tag along on their field trip to nearby Washington DC. He’s also found a sample of alien technology left behind by Toomes’ men, and Ned decides to bring it with them to DC.
While there, Peter and Ned discover that the Spider-Suit is in a “training wheels” mode that prevents Peter from fully accessing its functionality. He switches off the safety and the costume basically becomes a spandex Iron Man suit, complete with a heads-up display and an AI which he names “Karen” (voiced by Jennifer Connelly, former Betty Ross and wife of Paul Bettany, the voice of Iron Man’s Jarvis).
Using the suit’s new abilities, Peter locates Toomes and his men as they attempt to hijack a shipment of alien tech bound for a Department of Damage Control facility. Spider-Man and Toomes fight, which ends with Spider-Man trapped inside a semi’s trailer and stuck in a warehouse all night. He ends up missing the decathlon completely, as well as the trip his classmates take afterwards to the Washington Monument.
While in the warehouse, Peter realizes that the alien technology he found is actually a Chitauri bomb, which Ned currently happens to have in his backpack. Peter races to the Washington Monument just as the thing explodes in an elevator, leaving all his classmates in mortal peril until Spider-Man shows up to save the day. This leads to the inevitable moment where Spider-Man uses his webs to pluck Liz out of the elevator as it plummets around her.
Back in NYC, Spider-Man tracks down Donald Glover and gets a tip about another weapons sale happening on the Staten Island Ferry. Spider-Man encounters Toomes on the ferry and inadvertently causes an alien weapon to explode and shoot lasers that slice the entire boat in half. Spidey tries his hardest to keep the ship together using his webs and his own strength, but is saved at the last minute by an Iron Man suit and a fleet of Stark-designed rocket-powered drones that seem expressly created for the purpose of keeping a boat from splitting in half.
Peter gets lectured to by what he thinks is another empty Iron Man suit, but is stunned to see that Tony Stark has showed up in the flesh to personally chew him out for nearly getting a whole bunch of people killed. Tony has decided to take away Peter’s Spider-Suit until he’s learned how to use it responsibly, so I guess Peter in this version hasn’t yet learned the lesson about what comes with great power.
Eventually, the homecoming dance comes around, and Peter actually works up the nerve to ask Liz. But when he goes to her house, he’s stunned to see Toomes answer the door. It turns out Toomes is actually Liz’s father, and on the drive over to the dance, Toomes recognizes Peter’s voice and realizes he’s Spider-Man. They then get into a much more sinister version of a girl’s father having the “talk” with a potential suitor, as Toomes pulls a gun out of his glove compartment and warns Peter to keep quiet about what he knows.
Earlier, Peter finally got in touch with Happy and learned it’s “moving day” at Avengers Tower, and all their technology and weaponry is being transferred via cargo plane to a facility in upstate New York. Peter realizes Toomes is planning to hijack that plane, so he bails on homecoming and puts on his original homemade suit and goes after him. Outside the school, Spider-Man takes on and defeats one of Toomes’ men, who’s using Chitauri technology to briefly become the old school Spider-Man villain Shocker. Eventually, both Spider-Man and Vulture end up high in the skies over New York as they fight on, inside, and around the cloaked plane carrying the shipment from Avengers Tower.
It ends with the cargo plane crashing on Coney Island. Toomes picks up a cache of weapons and tries to fly away, but the weapons explode and Toomes basically defeats himself, and Spider-Man leaves him wrapped up in webbing for Happy and other Stark security personnel to find.
This leads to Peter being summoned upstate to the new Avengers HQ, where Tony Stark personally invites him to join the Avengers, and he’s even got a new Spider-Suit ready for him (and from the trailers, we already know Peter will be wearing this in Infinity War). Tony is about to hold a press conference to announce the news, but in an echo of a plotline or two from the comics, Peter turns him down, because he would much rather go it alone.
After he leaves, Tony realizes he has to come up with something else to announce to the gathered reporters, so he decides to tell them that he and Pepper Potts (cue the surprise Gwyneth Paltrow cameo) are getting engaged. Happy even has a ring in his pocket ready to go, saying he’s been holding onto it since 2008. Wait, was there a scene in the first Iron Man where Tony was thinking about proposing to Pepper? I’m not sure I totally get it, and why are major bombshells about Tony and Pepper’s relationship being dropped in a Spider-Man movie, anyway?
Peter returns home to find Stark has gifted him the original super Spidey-Suit. And then Aunt May catches him putting it on, end movie.
Of course, there’s a mid-credits scene: Toomes in jail meets up with another criminal named Gargan (better known as the Scorpion in the comics) and Toomes hints he knows Spider-Man’s true identity.
And the post-credits bit is another one of those Captain America’s Fitness Challenge videos, wherein Steve Rogers pretty much tells us we’re all idiots for sticking around after the credits just for this dumb scene. It seems like these post-credits sequences are slowly becoming a middle finger to those patient enough to wait around for them, but I guess they’re “ironically” funny enough that Marvel fans continue to eat them up.
Tom Holland first appeared as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, and it’s obvious he was shoehorned into that film somewhat late in the game after Marvel and Sony came to an agreement on sharing the character. There, Tony Stark decides he needs to shore up his side of the fight against Cap, and then the movie grinds to a halt as Tony travels to Queens to recruit Peter Parker. And if you didn’t know about the Marvel-Sony deal, you were surely wondering why Tony felt the need to bring aboard some random 15-year-old kid who didn’t even seem all that powerful compared to several of the other, much more experienced heroes Tony already had on his team.
Regardless, I have to say that compared to Maguire and Garfield, Holland is probably the closest any actor has come to feeling like the Spider-Man of the comics, though I don’t know if even this adaptation gets it exactly right. In the comic books I read as a kid, Spidey came off as someone with the self-effacing comedic sensibilities of a middle-aged Borscht Belt standup, which most likely reflected the comedic sensibilities of his middle-aged creator Stan Lee. But Holland makes a better go of it than Maguire, who I don’t recall ever making a single joke, or Garfield, who attempted to be a wisecracking smartass but mostly came off as a hipster asshole.
And this version of Peter Parker also lacks the whole aspect of getting bullied for being a nerd, but we’re living in different times now, and kids these days aren’t quite as ostracized and tormented as they used to be just for being smart. At the very least, Tom Holland is the first Spider-Man actor who’s actually a teenager, or at least was a teenager at the time of his casting. He’s certainly a far cry from Andrew Garfield portraying a recent high school grad in Amazing Spider-Man 2 at the tender age of 30.
But Holland’s youth means that the much older Robert Downey, Jr. acts as his mentor in this film, which feels a bit weird. Again, in the comics I read way back when, Tony and Peter always seemed like peers and equals, though I’m sure the equation has changed a lot in more recent comics, with Marvel hell-bent on keeping Peter Parker an arrested adolescent forever, even if it involves a deal with the devil. And given the setup seen in Civil War, it only follows that Stark should be Peter Parker’s superhero guidance counselor, but with Tony already having an overbearing presence in far too many Marvel films, I would have preferred he not have such a crucial role here.
Like a lot of moviegoers, I’m mostly fed up with superhero origin stories, particularly when it comes to Spider-Man, but I’m pleased to report that despite being a reboot, Homecoming wastes not a single scene revisiting Spider-Man’s well-trod origin story. In fact, the movie might err too far in that direction; I obviously have no interest in the film spending 20 minutes on how Spider-Man came to be, but a quick flashback to him being bitten by a radioactive spider, or even Aunt May briefly mentioning her late husband Ben would have gone a long way to giving this version of Spider-Man a bit more context.
Michael Keaton does a good job as the Vulture, but this is obviously not his first comic book movie rodeo, so did anyone expect any less? However, like most (or, well, pretty much all) Marvel villains, he wasn’t given a whole lot to work with, and his power-set basically amounts to “is able to fly”, which doesn’t do much to distinguish him from numerous other flying characters we’ve already seen in these movies.
As mentioned above, it makes sense that Marisa Tomei appears as a MILF-y Aunt May, given this movie’s teenage Peter Parker, but I’m still amused at how Aunt May is getting drastically younger with each cinematic iteration. From the 74-year-old Rosemary Harris, to the 65-year-old Sally Field, to the 52-year-old Tomei, you have to wonder if Aunt May in the next reboot will be played by Katie Holmes or Mary Elizabeth Winstead or Anna Kendrick. I enjoyed seeing Tomei in the film, but like Keaton, she’s not given a whole lot to do and seems to be here mostly to add another recognizable name to the cast.
Jacob Batalon does fine as Ned. Does Peter really need a nerdy best friend clued into his secret identity? I can’t say for sure, but newcomer Batalon does a perfectly acceptable job in the role. And I liked Laura Harrier as Liz, but let’s be honest; she’s not really here to do anything other than be Peter’s object of desire and look incredible in a swimsuit.
Former Disney Channel star Zendaya plays one of Peter’s classmates named Michelle Jones, who’s mostly a minor character and a caricature of those overly “woke” Gen-Z post-Millenials, until a scene late in the movie where she reveals that her friends call her “MJ”. This really just comes off as the movie raising a trial balloon, opening the door for Zendaya to return in the sequel as the MCU’s answer to Mary Jane Watson (I’m guessing they made her look dumpy here so they can glam her up in the next one for the inevitable “face it, tiger, you just hit the jackpot” scene), while still giving them plenty of wiggle room to say, “just kidding!” in the face of any potential fan backlash and then cast someone else as MJ.
Director Jon Watts has nothing of note on his filmography prior to this, lending further credence to the notion that it’s really Kevin Feige and the Marvel production team running the show on almost all of these films, and the actual title of director is only an honorific. Seriously, how does the director of the sixth highest grossing film of 2017 only warrant a three-sentence bio on Wikipedia? Though I guess it’s to be expected, when Marvel decided who would be playing Spider-Man before they decided who would direct his movie. Marvel clearly has little interest in bringing on directors who seek to put their own personal stamp on these films, which is probably why a lot of Spider-Man: Homecoming feels a bit too similar to previous entries.
Like almost every Marvel movie, Homecoming is obliged to be as big and as extravagant as humanly possible, and is always operating at a level of constantly delivering more action, more special effects, and more jokes and gags and quips, like the filmmakers are living in absolute terror that the audience will get bored if asked to endure more than a minute or two of silence or seriousness. Marvel movies have become the cinematic equivalent of four-camera sitcoms that seem legally required to include a laugh line every ten seconds.
In the case of Spider-Man: Homecoming, the lighthearted approach works, but I was sorely disappointed to watch the feature film debut of a mystical/spiritual character like Stephen Strange only to find his movie was just as much of a superhero comedy as Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel movies would leave much more of a lasting impression if they were allowed to embrace different tones and emotions, highs and lows, slow moments and dark moments and difficult moments instead of what we’re getting, which is constant mindless fun, fun, fun until the movie ends. But these films still rake in gobs of cash, so what do I know?
In short, I liked the film, but that’s mostly in spite of, and not because of, its slavish adherence to the MCU formula. At least in this case, most of the humor arises organically from the characters and the situations they’re in, and not, like too many other superhero movies, as a result of Joss Whedon (or a Whedon wannabe) being called in to “punch things up”.
As for Spider-Man in the comics at the time, I once again must confess that I haven’t picked up a recent comic in decades, so just like before, I had to turn to my fellow writer Thomas Stockel for help, and here’s what he told me:
Writer Dan Slott has had a long run on Amazing Spider-Man and will be wrapping things up in a couple of months, just in time for the comic book’s 800th issue. Slott has worked on the series for ten years, and he’s proven to be a pretty polarizing writer. For example, it was Slott who briefly replaced Peter Parker with Doctor Octopus and gave us the Superior Spider-Man.
In the wake of that storyline, we had Parker in charge of a major corporation, much like Tony Stark. But as Slott winds down his run following last year’s big crossover event Secret Empire, he’s returned Peter to the status quo: He now works at the Daily Bugle again and is broke, and is living with his current girlfriend Mockingbird/Bobby Morse.
Honestly, this is nothing new; writers returning a character to some semblance of the way they were when they found them is a pretty common occurrence in comics. But in this case, it’s a sad event, as it throws out years of character growth to put Parker in almost the exact same place he was before. Parker being the head of his own company was an interesting development; it had the potential of generating years worth of storylines, and it would have been nice to see what other writers could have done with it.
Next up: The God of Thunder is back. Can he redeem himself after the deeply mediocre The Dark World?