Sometimes we need to put our differences aside and admit when we’re wrong. Sony did this last year, when they swallowed their pride after their (disastrous) attempt to reboot the crown jewel in the Marvel empire. The frantic attempt to maintain control of the “Spider-Man” license before it could revert to Marvel Studios resulted in a pair of frankly terrible films that squandered all previous goodwill and stained the brand for critics and audiences alike. Credit where credit’s due, as they did the sensible thing: they came to an agreement with the people who know and love the character best – namely, the company that created him – and allowed Marvel Studios the opportunity to reintroduce their most popular superhero in the cinematic universe in which he rightly belongs. On the one hand, there’s a commendable amount of hubris in this act; it’s a real-world example of two mighty forces banding together and bringing its most powerful men and women together, Avengers-style, for the greater (commercial) good. On the other hand, the very public Sony Pictures email hack of 2014 – the one allegedly perpetrated by Kim Jong-Un, in which confidential data was released about the state of the company’s future, including its frantic in-fighting and finger-pointing over a certain costumed superhero’s plunge in revenue and popularity — certainly forced Sony’s hand a bit. Flash forward, and now Sony gets to keep the license, and Marvel handles the creative stuff.
As such, everyone wins. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is joyously fun and funny, and easily the most entertaining Marvel movie yet. It manages to reintroduce a character who has been introduced a staggering three times in fifteen years, and does so in a way that’s all-new, all-different, and yet never contradicts what we already know and like about him. If anything, Peter Parker and his amazing alter-ego expand the established Marvel cinematic universe, and are likewise enhanced by virtue of cohabitation.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is dramatically different from earlier adaptations, whether compared to Sam Raimi’s earnest, old-fashioned, and wonderfully corny trilogy, or the partial birth abortion that was Marc Webb’s two-part reboot. In director Jon Watts’ 2017 take, the Greek tragedy elements (i.e., Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility,” etc.) are mostly jettisoned for the time being; our new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) isn’t so much an albatross-bearing Everyman beaten down by life and suffocated by responsibility; he’s a teenager who desperately wants the approval of the older, cooler crowd – in this case, The Avengers. His attempts to intimidate, or to impress, are the painful teenage failures any kid experiences walking into homeroom on Monday morning with a bold and unsuccessful new hairstyle. The heroic posing and effortless skyscraper webslinging? He’s not there yet, figuratively or literally: he’s a teenager living in Queens with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), perpetually at the mercy of both public transportation and buildings too low to swing from.
This Spider-Man is every bit an insecure teen in a dorky, albeit tricked-out, spandex outfit. He looks goofy, and isn’t yet comfortable in his second skin. When he confronts villains (and heroes), he can’t figure out how or where to stand without checking and double-checking himself. He’s like a socially awkward sixteen year-old whose parents just bought him a Lamborghini that he drives in circles around the school parking lot, hoping to appear natural and failing spectacularly. Unbeknownst to Peter Parker, he’s all the more endearing for that failure.
The Everyman aspect is extended to the new batch of villains lurking here on the ground level of the Marvel Universe. Instead of scientists driven insane by their chemical and biological creations, we meet blue collar Bad Guys who are just out to make a living, or thugs looking for ways to up the criminal ante in this new world of gods and monsters. The plight of demolition foreman Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is one familiar to working class stiffs: his construction crew loses major contracts to bigger companies — in this case, Damage Control, the organization tasked with cleaning up after superpowered conflicts. We can’t really fault Toomes when he and his men are pissed off, with families at home and mouths to feed; we can sympathize when they blame Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), who, as Iron Man, is responsible for these high-stakes dust-ups, while simultaneously profiting from the clean-up as the billionaire owner of Damage Control. We can maybe even kinda-sorta see his side of things when Toomes decides to keep some of the alien technology left behind during the climactic battle from “The Avengers” and use it to enable high-tech thievery, since layoffs are a bitch. Using said tech to create a flight suit, calling himself the Vulture, and then stealing more weapons to sell to terrorists isn’t quite as forgivable, but that mortgage ain’t gonna pay itself, guys. If nothing else, Toomes has an agenda we can relate to, even if the ends don’t always justify the means.
Along the way, we meet new villains like the repulsor-throwing Shocker (Bokeem Wodbine), and Mac Gargan (Michael Mano), a goon destined for a super-powered scorpion outfit. Long-time comic nerds will recognize Phineas Mason, aka the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus) as the guy street thugs will henceforth go to for black market weapons and gear built from discarded super-junk. The most important Bad Guy cameo of all is the seemingly insignificant appearance of street punk Aaron Davis (Donald Glover), one that all but announces the ultimate direction Marvel intends once this particular iteration of Spider-Man has ended.
Yet for all the superheroics, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a movie about that awkward high school period of adolescence: that time when you’re too young to drive a car and too old to be building LEGO Death Stars with your friends. The cast of teens (notably Jacob Batalon as Ned Leeds, Zendaya as Michelle, and Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson) solidify this take on the Spider-mythos as a “Breakfast Club” in tights, in which social castes are as impregnable as the Damage Control headquarters, and beautiful, popular girls like Liz Allen (Laura Harrier) are as great a challenge to obtain as stolen alien weaponry. While this could easily be called “The Millennial Spider-Man,” it’s an 80s movie through and through, and wears its aesthetic like a badge of earned credibility. It’s never afraid to be irreverent when dealing with its characters, and yet never devalues their importance, either. As such, we not only get the best closing shot of a Marvel movie to date, but the best post-credits sequence, too.
While this new iteration of “Spider-Man” may feel too different for those weaned on Sam Raimi, it’s a palette cleanser, with the remixed elements justifying the endeavor. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is as likeable as Peter Parker, only more effortless and self-confident. So if you’re reading this, North Korea: thanks. We all owe you a beer.