Recently, it has seemed that blockbusters, including Marvel movies — and especially never-ending Spider-Man reboots — are growing increasingly stale and over-bloated. Leave it to “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the best iteration of the amazing neighborhood web-slinger to remind us all that superhero movies are at their best when the heroes they depict are shown to not be all that super.
The normalcy of Peter Parker (excellently portrayed by bright-eyed Tom Holland) carries this film and helps create a new blueprint for superhero movies — movies more interested in the lives of all of the people, rather than the spectacle of putting those lives at stake.
From the very first sequence, “Homecoming” embraces that guiding principle. Rather than opening on Spider-Man, Iron Man or any of the other Avengers, the film opens with the working-class Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) cleaning up the city in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 destruction of New York during the original “Avengers” film.
While he and his crew are cleaning up, the government steps in and lays them off to facilitate an investigation of the alien technology left behind. Despite Toomes’ passionate explanation of how all these men’s livelihoods are at stake, the government coldly tells him no.
This opening scene not only acts as the origin of why Toomes will become the Vulture — the main villain of the film — but shows that even the bad guys in the new “Spider-Man” have a relative morality.
Further, the characterization of the Vulture, and even Spider-Man, to a degree, as struggling working-class Americans imbues the film with a subtle political message that has been lacking severely from the other, more commodified seeming films.
Refreshingly, the film wastes no time giving the audience the origin of Spider-Man. There’s no mention of the arachnid that would bite Parker, changing his life forever, and outside of a brief reference to Uncle Ben, there is no mention of the oft-repeated “great power comes great responsibility.” Both of these omissions are successes to the story.
Instead of getting bogged down in telling how Parker got his powers, the film spends the extra given time to develop Peter, his friends, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and what it’s like living a double life of a smart, awkward student trying to find a date to homecoming while simultaneously trying to be the hero his city deserves and needs. This dynamic is what gives “Spider-Man: Homecoming” its edge over many other comic-book movies.
Parker and his story work best as a John Hughes-inspired coming-of-age teen dramedy. The film is at its strongest when the entire enterprise doesn’t feel like it has to be tethered to the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe — which, appreciatively, is much of the film. But there are a few times where the snark of Tony Stark pops up to remind everyone this is also a set-up for another Avengers movie.
The references to the MCU never fully capsize the hard-earned immersion and care given to the story of Peter Parker, but they do prevent “Spider-Man: Homecoming” from feeling like an unqualified success as a stand-alone film — which it very well could have been.
Where “Homecoming” truly stands apart from its Marvel counterparts is in a lack of major set pieces. Even with the Avengers phase three overbearing the film’s trajectory at times, the script and direction prize smaller, intimate moments. It is in these very human moments, like Peter asking his crush to homecoming or practicing for academic decathlon, that the film connects most strongly with its viewers. All of Peter’s friends and classmates feel like real people, just as awkward, hormonal and unsure about the world as any regular other teenagers.
This isn’t to say the action sequences in the film aren’t stunners — in fact, they are arguably the best Marvel has done, because the dialed-down style actually allows for a clarity to the action. Rather than indulging in the unnecessarily copious edits that make most blockbusters intelligible, relatively new director Jon Watts places a great importance on the clarity of image and keeps the editing economical.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” might not be the most original Marvel film — that still goes to the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” — but it does represent a new way of telling a blockbuster: focus on the little, yet authentic, characters rather than only the super ones.
This definitely isn’t a small-scale film, but it is a human-scaled one. And, honestly, that makes it a blockbuster worth praising.
Contact Levi Hill at [email protected].