In this weekly series, we chronicle the long road undertaken by the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to arrive at Avengers: Infinity War. We introspect and discuss the movies from a critical and commercial standpoint while also considering the development efforts that went behind them. These articles may be occasionally sprinkled with spoilers so please make sure to skip the relevant sections when reading.
This post is about the 2017 movie Spider-Man: Homecoming, the sixteenth chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To check out other entries in our Road to Infinity War series, click here.
Apparently hacks can, in the rarest of occasions, turn out to be a good thing. Back when Sony Pictures Entertainment got hacked resulting in thousands of emails and other documents being released on the web, a bunch of email exchanges between Sony chief Amy Pascal and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige caught the attention of fans. The emails in question strongly hinted at Sony considering the option of sharing or licensing out its Spider-Man rights to Marvel (which had originally licensed it to Sony to begin with) and sparked both, immense hope over the future of the wall-crawler as well as furor over some ridiculous proposals by Sony which stretched as far as making a Spider-Man movie uniting Andrew Garfield’s and Tobey Maguire’s iterations of the web-slinger. Like seriously? Of course the studio would later on relent and agree to share the character with the MCU in a fairly complicated but eventually fruitful deal but who’s to say their final decision wasn’t influenced in the slightest by the tremendous fan-chatter that knowledge of these talks ignited to begin with.
The result then was a deal which, if you ignore the nitty-gritties aside, meant that Spider-Man would finally get to share screen space with the other Avengers. Wasting no time whatsoever, Marvel Studios went to Plan B and began working on the version of Captain America: Civil War that had Spidey written into it. A nationwide hunt commenced in which over 1500 actors auditioned or were considered in some capacity for the role of the masked web-slinger. The final choice boiled down to Asa Butterfield and Tom Holland until both studios eventually agreed on Holland being the right choice for the role after examining and re-examining audition footage of his chemistry with both Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. That Holland had athletic capabilities akin to a professional gymnast was a revelation in hindsight that only helped Marvel sell him as the Ultimate Spider-Man.
Of course Civil War was only a starter, a tease if you will of what we could expect from our friendly neighborhood kid. The real deal was his solo movie Spider-Man: Homecoming. Set in the aftermath of the events of Civil War, Homecoming would see Peter Parker return to his grounded uninteresting high-school life after having fought side-by-side with and against the Avengers. With two incarnations of the character already having been done, and both being memorable enough to garner their own fan-base, it was increasingly difficult for Marvel to pull off a Spider-Man movie and yet make it stand out as a unique interpretation. They thus resorted to breaking many stereotypes that came to be associated with the character by virtue of the movies. That meant doing away with the origin story and Uncle Ben, shunning an old-grandma Aunt May in favor of a more younger one closer in age to Parker’s mother, upgrading the costume from a handmade one to a Stark-made AI-assisted suit, sidestepping both Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy as love interests in favor of the unexplored Liz, introducing a wide-variety of youthful characters from Ned and Michelle to Flash Thompson and lastly but most importantly, presenting Peter Parker as he truly was in the comics – a high-school student.
This last aspect is something a few people took an issue with but it’s vital to the character’s origins. You see, one of the aspects that differentiate Parker from his contemporary superheroes is his high-school lineage. To that end, Marvel cast age-appropriate 19-year old Tom Holland in the role who looks pretty much like a sophomore kid. This Parker then is not your brooding, serious chap burdened by the weight of managing his dual identity and the overbearing guilt of being responsible for the loss of his Uncle. This is a young Parker who’s already gone over that phase in the 6-8 months he’s been operating as Spidey and who now has much more elementary and mundane problems to balance like juggling heroics with homework. In that sense, this incarnation of Spider-Man comes across as a lot more relatable. A brilliant montage set to Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bob (a song I just couldn’t get out of my head after watching the movie) shows how Spidey goes about his day-to-day routine, handling small-time crooks and crimes like catching petty thieves stealing bicycles, helping an old granny with directions (who most would expect Aunt May to actually be) and having plenty of misadventures along the way like falling, bumping into stuff or accidentally apprehending the wrong people. It sells you completely to the idea of who Spidey is and that 2-minute montage is evidence enough of why Sony did the right thing by teaming up with Marvel: They know their stuff.
Chosen to helm the movie is Jon Watts who rightly makes it revolve around high-school culture. Inspired by plenty of John Hughes movies, Homecoming (which represents the year-end dance as much as it signifies Spider-Man returning to Marvel) takes a grounded and more localized approach to storytelling, by looking at the MCU inhabited with superheroes from a student’s perspective. You immediately imagine these high-schoolers would look up to these heroes as Gods and celebrities, developing crushes on them which is precisely what they do. And it’s not just the good guys, even the bad guys here are downright scared of the Avengers and carry out their business under the radar in fear of Stark or Rogers getting wind of their actions. This makes Homecoming a much smaller movie, its stakes relatively low-profile and for once, no one’s hell bent on destroying the world and neither is our hero out there to save it.
So what’s it about then? On a high after his adventures with the Avengers, Peter Parker finds it difficult to return back to his routine high-school life. As he foils an ATM robbery, he becomes aware of the sinister intentions of a gang of hooligans selling weaponized alien tech. He gets obsessed with stopping them, partly because it’s the right thing to do and partly because he wants to impress his mentor-figure Tony Stark. Rather interestingly, the bad-guys lead by Adrian Toomes a.k.a. The Vulture (played with spectacular nuance by Michael Keaton) come across as people on the other side of the fence rather than outright evil. This is particularly true of Toomes who is largely a family-man looking to provide for his home and jumps to the other side after Stark’s joint venture with the government named Department of Damage Control drives his salvage unit out of business. Enraged at the thought of rich men like Stark profiting from cleaning up the very mess they create to being with, he turns to selling weapons in the black market. His motivations are undeniably clear and plausibly balanced even to the point that he barely comes across as an antagonist at all. And Keaton roots him in reality, lending him a verisimilitude that’s so often lacking in Marvel villains or villains in all.
The comics often had Parker talk to himself while in costume to indicate his sudden eruption of a confident personality bursting under the seams. The filmmakers overcome that problem here by having Peter accidentally reveal his dual identity to Ned early on in a hilarious scene. More hilarity ensues as Ned channels his inner fanboy and asks Peter all the weird questions: Can he summon an army of spiders? Can he lay eggs? Can he spit Venom? Does he know the Avengers? Next, Spidey gets to keep Stark’s suit which has its own AI whom Peter names Karen (voiced by Jennifer Connelly) which gives him yet another element to converse to. In this case, the resultant dynamic comes borderline close to imitating Peter talking to himself and is a rather witty page to screen translation. Also, the writing uses Tom Holland well to bring out the masked hero’s talkative blabbing side.
Because of the movie’s low-stakes approach, it isn’t really high on some mind-bending visual effects spectacles. There are sequences though that take your breath away in terms of how expertly they’ve been filmed, the Washington Monument rescue being a case in point. It has a frantic energy to it as implied by the increasingly surging music and quick cuts as well as the sense of urgency displayed by the characters. Spidey climbs the monument and, in a rather surprising display of authenticity, even takes a moment to catch a breath. That this even made it to the film is testament to how much the filmmakers were willing to ground this version of Spider-Man. The entire sequence plays off in an appropriately hurried fashion and is almost vertigo-inducing at certain points. I’d go as far as to say the action in the climax is a lot more generic and pales in comparison to this set-piece.
There is however a beat towards the end that sees Parker caught under the rubble in what is lifted off from an iconic Amazing Spider-Man Panel from Issue #33. With most of the debris collapsed over him, he lies there, helpless, waiting for someone to come and rescue him and cries for help like a kid, only to realize no one’s around. It’s such a powerful moment that lets you sense the raw fear and vulnerability in Holland’s performance as well as the direction of Watts to create a frightening realization: that this could really be it for Spider-Man. And even though your brain tells you otherwise, in that moment you’re sucked into buying it. It’s then that the horror of what it means to be a superhero and go out there saving people by himself becomes clear to Peter Parker. He finally looks at his own reflection in the water and, convinced he’s the only one there for himself, summons the strength to lift the pile up heroically. The fact that Stark had come to his rescue on both occasions when he was trapped before makes Parker believe maybe Stark will help him again. But he doesn’t.
The movie is composed by Michael Giacchino, who previously scored Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Yet again, his score coupled with the chosen songs is among the high-points of the movie. Homecoming starts off with an entertaining orchestral rendition of the classic Spider-Man song and features a heroic titular theme for the masked hero as well. Toomes too gets his own foreboding theme. And finally there’s Ramones, oh Ramones. Blitzkried Bob is unbeatable. Editors Dan Lebenthal and Debbie Berman keep the movie razor-focused, employing mostly quick cuts and short edits to keep things streamlined. It keeps the film moving at a frenetic pace throughout while simultaneously ensuring it’s able to pack quite a lot in its running time.
At this point, a special mention needs to be made about the credits of Spider-Man: Homecoming. Marvel Studios seems to have set a template for its movies that involve the customary pre-credits sequence followed by a mid-credits scene and finally the actual credits. Homecoming‘s pre-credits are presented through cartoonish, childlike drawings done through crayons, brushes and paints. It’s hilarious to the core, packs in plenty of details from the movie itself and is set to Blitzkrieg Bob (that’s the third time I’m bringing it up) and these elements combine seamlessly to give you a credits-sequence that captures the heart of the movie and summarizes how you feel about it in over 2 minutes. Highly artistic work and a lesson in making engaging and involving credits.
Tom Holland and Michael Keaton are the cornerstones of the movie, even more so than Robert Downey Jr. himself. Downey Jr. thankfully plays a smaller role and doesn’t steal all the limelight from the kid, giving him his movie to shine. Might I add it was a genuine delight and surprise to see Tony Stark attend an Indian wedding in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Wow. Holland doesn’t disappoint on that front at all and comes across as the most youthful, exuberant, and boyish incarnation of Spider-Man with a childlike excitement about donning the mask and going on about his struggles and challenges. He brings it all out effortlessly and anyone who was excited by his limited portrayal in Civil War should come out engaged. Michael Keaton lends a vulnerability to Toomes missing in many villains and manages to find the sweet spot in depicting his character as a less-crazed villain and more one who clearly knows what he’s doing and feels justified in doing it. Marisa Tomei as Aunt May may appear too young for the role but she gets moments to display the worried maternal side in a scene or two in which she shines. The ending should also leave plenty of room for her character to progress. Zendaya is quirky and weird as hell and should make for a good match with Peter in a battle of wits in the sequel. And although Donald Glover has an extremely minuscule role in this one, the fact that his character has a “nephew” is enough to send fans into a frenzy over the possibility of seeing Miles Morales in the future.
There’s something to be said when, amidst all the talk of Spider-Man saturation, the sixth Spider-Man movie (seventh featuring Spider-Man) ends up becoming the second highest grossing Spidey flick of all time but that’s what it is. Homecoming cruised along to amass $880 million at the global box office and while a large chunk of that came from outside the US, it made enough of a profit (around $200 million according to Deadline) to justify Sony’s deal with Marvel Studios. It was critically one of the better received Spider-Man installments after the last few movies got less than stellar reviews. And if Sony has any intelligence (which I doubt they do), they’ll let Marvel do their thing with Spider-Man and quietly reap the benefits, staying out of interfering with their dubious and dumb plans and do whatever they wish to do with their other properties.
We’re now just two movies away before the end of the world, or even the universe is near. But before that, we must deal with the end of Asgard, as we know it.