By Bryan Miller
The last fifteen years have brought us an equal number of Spider-Men and presidents. Although none of the Spider-Men held secret meetings to collude with Doctor Doom so they could achieve their ultimate goal of lowering the Green Goblin’s income taxes, so: advantage Spider-Man.
Perhaps more significantly, during the fifteen or so years since the release of Sam Raimi’s record-smashing Spider-Man, which helped launch the superhero-movie craze, the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler has gotten a lot of company. Even by the most conservative definition of what qualifies as a major comic-book movie adaptation, more than 50 superhero movies have been released since then.
To relaunch Spider-Man as part of the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, the filmmakers simultaneously must take a leap forward and a step back. They skip past the tedious, twice-told origin story, having already introduced a spider-powered Peter Parker (Tom Holland) in Captain America: Civil War. They also de-age him back into high-school as a sophomore, where he’s a dateless twerp mooning over a would-be homecoming.
Both decisions pay off and help differentiate Spider-Man from the bottomless roster of often-interchangeable Avengers, even though the character himself desperately wants into the group.
This latest incarnation of Spider-Man is mentored by Iron Man himself, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). He makes Peter a high-tech Spider-Man suit and assigns him a handler, his sidekick Happy Hogan (former Iron Man director Jon Favreau). Peter tries to impress his new friends by stopping a gang of criminals who design super-weapons developed from scrap parts left over from the Avengers’ battle with aliens. His semi-pro superheroing only gets him entangled with ringleader Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who leads a cadre of goons recognizable as a slew of second-tier Spider-Man foes.
It’s a pleasantly low-stakes storyline. For once, no giant beam of light shoots into the sky, no cosmoses are threatened. Spider-Man: Homecoming is as interested in Peter’s high-school foibles as it is his costumed crimefighting. (The movie strains so hard for John Hughes comparisons that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off literally plays in the background of one scene.)
That means much time spent with Peter’s crush (Laura Harrier), his cynical quiz-bowl teammate (Zendaya), his omnipresent bully (Tony Revolori), and his goofball comic sidekick (Jacob Batalon). It’s not exactly cinéma vérité, but it’s more relatable than stories about hanging out with your mega-rich best friend whose dad is a mad scientist, and that contrast helps make Peter’s secret gig as a superhero seem much more... well, amazing.
Alas, the actual Spider-Man scenes themselves are a mixed bag, with some competent but uninspired action sequences set, oddly, on a beach, on a plane, and on the Washington monument. Often the fight scenes feel arbitrary, but perhaps that’s the price to be paid for a somewhat more character-driven movie originally drafted by comedy writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, and directed by Jon Watts, whose most prominent previous feature was the languid chase-thriller Cop Car.
Despite Holland’s charming performance and some fast-talking fun from Downey Jr., the movie would ultimately be fairly limp without Michael Keaton. His take on the alien-powered hang-gliding supervillain the Vulture is impressively— and a bit ironically— grounded. He’s a blue-collar bad guy with no delusions of grandeur. He’s not quite sympathetic, but his motivations are understandable, and he even gets the rare speech that makes the hero reconsider his actions.
The Mighty Marvel Homogenizer remains in full effect. These corporate-committee-generated shared-universe storylines prioritize cohesion over artistic vision, which maintains quality control by employing a kind of oppressive sameness. Even as the new bosses struggle to differentiate this Spider-Man from the other Spider-Men, they’re trying to shoehorn him into the Iron Man mold, complete with a tubby tagalong and a high-tech suit that talks him through fights.
After the moderate ups and dizzying downs of Spider-Man III, The Amazing Spider-Man, and its sequel, Spider-Man: Homecoming’s modest consistency looks like a real virtue. It’s a solid cast moving in the right direction. Here’s hoping we have a new president before we have a new Spider-Man.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@RealBryanMiller.