In an age dominated by antiheroes, Spider-Man: Homecoming shines bright, with its colorful optimism and truly heroic sensibilities.
The Spider-Man films have a history of being somewhat confused and muddled, thematically. While the first two Sam Raimi films settled into some remarkable themes of responsibility, redemption, and persecution, the three films that ultimately followed were too wrapped up in the comic mythology for its own sake to give us any meaningful thoughts worth pondering. It’s noteworthy, then, that the film begins not with Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, but with Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes.
It’s no secret that Marvel has had a villain problem, but Toomes doesn’t fit the typical Marvel mold. A working class construction manager, Toomes is pushed over the edge when his government contract for cleaning up after The Avengers gets taken away by a conglomeration of the government itself and Stark Industries. He turns to a life of crime afterwards, but this inciting incident must be kept in mind. The crux of Toomes’ persona is class warfare – the big guy crushes the little guy, so the little guy has to go outside of the rules just to survive. The fact that Stark’s company led to his failure as a business owner is significant – he’s a superhero, but he’s a ludicrously rich and famous one, who took Toomes’s livelihood away from him. As he tells the bureaucrats, “we’ve got families!”
Then we meet Peter Parker, a 15-year old kid who moonlights as a superhero fighting street crime. He’s not famous. He’s certainly not rich. And in that way, despite the fact that he’s being mentored by Tony, he’s in many ways the very antithesis to Iron Man. If Toomes approaches things as “us versus them,” with “us” being the working class, Peter is more squarely in the former category. The key appeal to Spider-Man has always been that, despite being a superhero, he has the same kinds of problems that we do. In the comics, depending on his stage in life, we could see him stressed about a test, struggling to pay rent, or hating himself for constantly having to let down his friends. Peter has similar problems here. This is a much more light-hearted affair than previous Spidey films, but we still see him worrying about typical high school things, like being a victim of bullying, asking a girl to Homecoming, and competing with his Decathlon team. By his very life, and his consistent reach for the good and the honorable, Peter proves the idea that the working class must cheat to survive to be false.
The film is best when this conflict is on full display, most notably in the third act. But for much of Peter’s side of the story, we’re met with more common themes, some of them almost cliche in their familiarity. These high school elements (which are, to be fair, engaging and amusing) turn to typical “coming of age” territory, with Peter’s desire to be treated as an adult, to prove himself, and his subsequent decisions that put him in over his head. This also comes out in some of the content choices of the film, which feel intentionally chosen to be more “edgy” (for a Spider-Man film, that is) and appeal to more of the high school crowd. This is why a reference to looking at pornography is treated as a joke, a would-be f-word is played for laughs, and one of Peter’s classmates flips the bird. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a blend of the superhero and high school genres, and we get both the positive and negative impacts of that.
As a whole, Peter’s story contains nothing we haven’t seen before, and isn’t quite as interesting as the arc that Toomes himself goes through. The execution of this idea is excellent, however, and there’s a nice layer of depth to Tony’s and Peter’s relationship, especially given the fact that Tony isn’t on the screen for very long. And aside from the previously mentioned content issues, the film is a riot of a good time, and really embraces the fun of the Spider-Man mythos, something that previous Spidey director Marc Webb seemed to leave behind. But most importantly, in the context of the fun and color is an unrelenting optimism and virtue. Peter never questions what the right thing to do is. He has a consistent no-kill ethic, always chooses saving people over saving himself trouble, and, mostly, has a great time doing it. The conflict here is not so much in doing the right thing, but in having the right attitude towards it. Is Peter doing this to help people, or is he doing it because he wants a spot in the Avengers Tower?
These ideas, packaged in a story that’s very grounded and focused (there is no Earth-ending vertical light beam from space) is a great formula for success with this newest iteration of the character. That, combined with great performances from Holland and Keaton solidify this film as another example of what Marvel does best. It’s by no means perfect. I would have preferred more connection between the themes of Peter and Adrian’s arcs, and the more “edgy” content in a Spidey film was a tad disappointing. But all said and done, it’s a solid film that embodies what I like best about Spider-Man: a guy with ordinary problems who always strives to do the right thing.