In case this isn’t clear: I do like the Marvel movies. I’ve seen almost all of them, and I continue to see them. I’m very much looking forward to the next Thor and Black Panther. But as I said last week I still want them to be more – they often meet but rarely exceed my expectations, and my expectations aren’t absurdly high. Which is why I felt like Spider-man: Homecoming was just another Marvel movie. In some ways it exceeded the standard fare, and in some ways it was a little below the standard fare, but it landed just about where I thought it would.
Spider-man: Homecoming picks up during the events of Captain America: Civil War with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) picking up Spider-man (Tom Holland) and bringing him to Germany on Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr.’s) behest. Returning to New York Tony Stark tells Spider-man he will be in contact soon, but that doesn’t quite pan out – Stark wants to take things slow while Spider-man is tired of being treated as a kid. He instead goes looking for trouble and finds it in the lowbrow criminal Adrian Toomes (Best Batman Michael Keaton) an arms dealer with a flying metal suit.
One of the things I appreciate about the growing Marvel franchise is their slow but steady commitment to an alternate history (I know there are those who disagree with me here, but I think viewing the movies as episodes of television are smart, and a cause and effect in television is rewarding and worthwhile). Iron Man, set in 2008, was pretty much based in “our world”. But that was eight years ago in the MCU, and it’d be pretty damn weird if the existence of superheroes, aliens, massive robot armies, Nordic Gods, destroyed cities and fictional countries had no impact whatsoever on everyday life. Homecoming builds a story within that universe. Hannibal Buress, after showing his students a PSA recorded by Captain America, remarks that the dude is a war criminal now. A teacher in history class lectures on the Sokovia Accords. Superheroes are common knowledge.
The best use of MCU history is in the creation of one of their most compelling villain to date. Like my other favorite villain, Helmut Zemo, Adrian Toomes is a product of the reckless Avengers. In a prologue set right after the Battle of New York. Adrian Toomes (Best Batman Michael Keaton) has been contracted by the city to clean up the mess The Avengers made. Unfortunately for him the government decides to back Stark Industries for the job. Hanging out with some friends after receiving the bad news (Toomes bought equipment for the job and will be thrust into debt) he notes the same people who made the mess are getting paid to clean it up. Forced with no choice he becomes The Vulture and steals artifacts from other Avenger fights (Chitauri weaponry, Ultron bits) and turns them into weapons he can flip for profit. He’s not out to conquer the world or seek revenge on the Avengers, purposely flying below their radar. He’s just trying to provide for his family. He’s essentially a working class man rebelling against the richy rich Tony Stark who is running him out of business. Thanks to a well-laid backstory and a truly stellar performance by Keaton (who would have doubted that) Toomes has a sense of honor and righteousness along with a sincere menace. This menace is helped along by his truly kick-ass Vulture costume, which fits well with the slightly more “realistic” MCU while remaining visually striking. Keaton is frightening and charismatic and honestly pretty hard to totally root against.
There are a few other ways the movie outpaces many of its siblings. Returning Peter Parker to High School allows us to focus a bit more on his character. The MCU has pretty quickly scrapped the idea of secret identities, but that’s not the case with Spider-man. As such, we have some time to see him be a kid. Iron Man is Iron Man both in and out of the suit. Peter Parker has different challenges when he assumes different identities, and he’s still growing into and learning about both sets of responsibilities. As Spider-man he needs to master his abilities, needs (desperately) to impress Tony Stark, who serves as a father figure, needs to save lives and learn what it means to be a hero. But as Peter Parker he needs to learn how to be a good son to Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), a good friend to Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Michelle (Zendaya), a reliable member of a decathlon team, and how to talk to girls. The two things are different but parallel each other nicely: growth takes time and dedication and there’s no short-cut, and thankfully the movie gives us a chance to watch him grow earnestly on both fronts, spending at least an equal amount of time on his high schooling as superheroing.
The movie embraces colors and locations better than most MCU films as well – we see a healthy amount of New York, a welcome departure from the interior of helicarriers and compounds of various sorts – and New York is more colorful than the standard gray, blues and oranges the Avengers usually live in. The film as a whole is brighter in both tone and voice, and it feels marginally like a step towards the POV I advocated for last week: Spider-man is brighter and more fun than the old stickler Avengers, so it makes sense his movie is the brightest. It’s not a full departure, but at the very least a step in the right direction.
Of course, as much as the MCU seems to once more be on an upswing, Homecoming still falls prey to it’s weaknesses. The fight sequences are confusing at best and yawn-inducing at worst. Though they mainly stick to one on one combat (a smart move) they are so absurdly spatially confusing it’s hard to tell sometimes who has the upperhand. The big set-piece aboard the Staten Island Ferry is about as dull as it can get, alternating between non-action and sheer confusion. If Marvel insists on making their movies action packed (which honestly they don’t even necessarily have to) they should figure out a way to make that action compelling. A late-movie dialogue scene between Keaton and Holland was more exciting and tense than most of their battles. These clunky battles destroy the pace of the movie.
And as much as I praised its world building, Homecoming still feels like too much of a franchise vehicle, throwing in an abundance of characters because they think fans want it or because they’re setting up future flicks. The massive cast does nothing but muddy the waters and cancel each other out. While I’d give this movie props for being probably the most diverse of the MCU thus far the female characters still get the short end of the stick, and Peter’s love interest Liz (Laura Harrier) is strangely constantly punished by the universe of the film for things totally out of her control (not to mention she is essentially just an accessory for two characters). Aunt May is equally underutilized, and even secondary villains such as Shocker (Bokeem Woodbine) doesn’t get a chance for so much as a single character moment. Cutting a few characters and developing the remaining ones would have no doubt made it a more engaging movie.
In the end I give Spider-man: Homecoming 7.5 illegal chitauri weapons out of ten.
- I’m excited for the MCU to acknowledge that Iron Man is essentially a villain. His reckless behavior has motivated a majority of the MCU villains thus far: Ivan Vanko, Justin Hammer, The Mandarin, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Ultron, Zemo, and now Adrian Toomes. That’s a long list.
- Also, Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in this movie seemed mildly “off” to me in regard to how he usually plays the character. Anyone else notice that? I think it was in the voice.
- What do you think Jon Favreau thinks about the MCU at this point?