My GBT cohorts requested I open this review by saying I’m half the Spider-Man fan they are. This is (questionably) true – when I was a boy, I may have pawed through a hundred or so Amazing Spider-Man comics that my Dad had stuffed up in the garage loft (and Marvel’s landmark Secret Wars series, which features the introduction of the symbiote and black-suited Spidey), but I was never much of a superhero fan. Yet Spider-Man was always the exception to the rule. Here sits that inevitable chip on my shoulder, but it bears repeating; I was a too-skinny nerd growing up friendless in Queens with higher placement scores than 99% of my class and no notable social skills. Even after I moved to Jersey cir. age 8, I held tightly to that backbrain hope of getting bitten by something radioactive. Young boys (and I mean boys, this is important) have been able to connect with Spider-Man for all those oft-spoken reasons; he’s an everyman, he’s a nerd, he’s a teenager, etc… for the last 50 years, Spider-Man has been all at once the most popular American superhero, and the most relatable.
There is a responsibility to faithfully adapting a character. Not just a responsibility to the spirit and the tone of the character, but a responsibility to their behaviors, their priorities, and their fundamental motivations. Homecoming scores a 10/10 on the former, but seems to forget about the latter halfway through.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fine Marvel movie. It’s got action, it’s got heart, it’s got satire, it’s got self-effacing jokes about well-documented blockbuster tropes – Tony Stark to Peter: “I think that was a really good ‘tough love’ learning moment for you, don’t you? Let’s just say it was,” – and much like any well-crafted studio blockbuster, it’s impossible not to have at least a little fun. The film is as formulaic and corporate as a theme park ride. It’s perfect commoditization.
Hey though, every Spider-Man adaptation has been about commoditization! They carefully harvest and repurpose the myriad storylines from the source comics to build saleable two-and-a-half hour thrill rides. Spider-Man movies have always been about vicariousness – about relating to and living through the character.
Fully embracing audiences’ reboot exhaustion, Marvel casts its Spider-Man as a young talent desperately searching for his place in the world. Spider-Man the character is Spider-Man: Homecoming, the movie. Get it? Hell, the trailer tagline is “Find your place in the Universe!” – re: ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe.’ Homecoming knows the audience knows exactly what kind of movie it’s trying to be. This gives it the power to embody the colorful adventurous spirit of Spider-Man. Then, they cast a funny and charming lead (Tom Holland stands out from among a large population of quippy dyspeptics), and garner a safety net of critical praise. After all, how can you criticize a movie that just wants to have a good time?!
Well, you can. These two issues did not prevent me from enjoying the film, but they are far from insignificant:
- Homecoming is just another No Girls Allowed superhero flick.
- Homecoming forgets who the f**k Spider-Man is halfway through the movie.
1) Actually this is twofold. Sorry.
1a) Here’s a great article on fridging, the male writer mainstay of hurting women for the sake of causing the male protagonist to suffer. Homecoming doesn’t explicitly fridge its female characters – Tom Holland’s Spider-Man doesn’t come home to his Aunt’s head in a box – but it sure as hell does not treat them as real people. One of my favorite things about The Amazing Spider Man 2, which is the best Spider-Man movie of all time, is the care given to developing Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Gwen is portrayed from the outset as a brilliant student with a promising career, torn between her opportunities abroad and her love for Peter Parker. She makes choices independent of his actions and seeks to save the day without his instruction. When [SPOILERS] Gwen dies, her loss is tragic not just because we see Peter suffer for it, but also because we have been given time to connect with Gwen as a self-actualizing character and a real fucking person. In Homecoming, the women in Peter Parker’s world either serve to provide him with sassy commentary (Zendaya) or act as one-dimensional red herrings (Laura Harrier) for his real goals. Even Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is relegated to providing Peter with the usual vague pep-talks, although this time her character isn’t even given the courtesy of a true emotional response to her nephew’s estrangement.
This same fault applies to the diverse people-of-color who comprise the bulk of the secondary and tertiary characters in the script. There’s nothing wrong with casting PoC as supporting characters to a white protagonist only if those PoC are fleshed out and developed. Homecoming only cares about two of its minority cast; Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Aaron Davis (Donald Glover), if only because Glover is talented enough to do much with little.
1b) This refers back to the point above about Spider-Man being a role model for young boys, specifically. This is not so much a failing of Homecoming in particular as it is a sad adherence to the status quo. Women do not exist as people in these stories. They exist as goals, as goods, as obstacles and sacrifices. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 did its absolute best to step out of that misogynistic shadow. Even Raimi’s misguided Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004 + not as good as everyone says) try to give Mary Jane the bare minimum of a personality. Homecoming, ostensibly offering a panacea with its diverse cast and well-intentioned anti-capitalist villain (Michael Keaton), actually regresses almost a decade. Marvel fronts that only boys buy tickets, and the women in these stories cannot last outside their pigeon-holes.
2) I feel inescapably wronged by Homecoming’s stubborn refusal to remember who the fuck Spider-Man is.
At the climax of the film, Vulture buries Spider-Man under tons of rubble. The framing and mis en scene calls directly back to The Amazing Spider-Man #33. In #32, after receiving a blood transfusion from Peter, May begins suffering from radiation poisoning. Still blaming himself for his Uncle’s murder, Peter is consumed by guilt and rage at the thought of being responsible for his Aunt’s death as well. The search for the cure leads him to Doctor Octopus’s lair, and in the ensuing battle he is buried under tons of iron and rubble. The cover of #33 is iconic:
The scene in Homecoming, out of context, is very well done. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man loses his trademark wit and bravado in a moment of pure desperation and sounds more like a fifteen-year-old kid than he ever does at any other point in the film. After seeing the reflection of his torn mask in a puddle, Peter digs deep and finds the strength to lift the debris. He pumps himself up with shouts of, “Come on Peter! Come on Spider-Man! Come on Spider-Man!” Michael Giacchino’s score kicks in and the camera dollies up and Tom Holland’s baby-face gets all ‘Tobey-Maguire-stopping-the-train.’ It’s a great movie moment!
And it’s totally fucking wrong.
In Amazing #33, thinking of Uncle Ben’s words, of his Aunt dying across the city, of the cure sitting just inches in front of him, Spider-Man is able to lift the rubble off his back. In other words, Peter Parker doesn’t save the day because he’s finally able to prove to himself that he’s Spider-Man. He saves the day because his family is counting on him. His friends are counting on him. Spider-Man: Homecoming casts Spider-Man as a plucky young hero (Right!) trying to prove to himself that he can be a hero (Wrong!). Spider-Man is all about a young kid being thrust into an extraordinary position of power and learning to use that power not for himself, but to help his friends and his community. There’s a reason Spider-Man is a NYC staple. He’s the ultimate community superhero – he’s dedicated to sticking small-time and helping the little guy. Weirdly, Homecoming addresses this aspect of the character only in the beginning and at the end.
The opening of the movie features Parker swinging around Queens, dipping below the 7 train to help bodega owners and stop bike thieves. He’s the embodiment of the friendly neighborhood. These moments are amazing, and feel like more of a genuine Spider-Man origin story than anything we’ve seen on screen before. Holland is witty and affable and the film does a great job of building up that ‘80s-nostalgia-Ferris Bueller whimsy. Homecoming attempts to deliver this sort of Spider-Man again at the conclusion, but it’s ineffectual because Peter spends the middle chunk of the movie trying to prove to himself that he’s worth superheroism. The Tony Stark-as-a-father-substitute feels like a bizarre ‘impress daddy’ subplot and Peter seeking membership in the Avengers places Parker in a position overly dependent on the MCU. Marvel does not allow Spider-Man to have a Spider-Man story at the risk of retreading familiar ground, but the consequences of that decision fundamentally change the best part of the hero. Spider-Man has always rather defined himself by his value to his friends and family than by his power as a hero. I’m all for low-stakes storytelling, and having the ticking clock of Homecoming be a simple robbery is a welcome change of pace from the usual world-ending laser beams in Marvel movies, but wasting something as poignant as the #33 rubble lift on Spider-Man’s hero insecurity is a painful misreading of the character.
Homecoming nails Peter Parker as everyone’s most relatable hero. That said, it completely forgets about the OTHER quality – the one that actually makes Spider-Man Amazing. It’s almost ironic but… Marvel actually does forget that with great power comes great responsibility.
Even though it’s better than pretty much any other Marvel Studios’ movie, Homecoming, much like the Spider-Man himself, often forgets what it is and what it needs to be.