This was yet another pleasant surprise. Just when I think I’ve finally washed by hands of superhero movies the cineplexes are blessed by two pictures like Wonder Woman and then Spiderman: Homecoming. And they couldn’t be more different. Still, as much as Wonder Woman was invested in its heroine, you get the sense that the crew behind this film care some about Peter Parker too.
Peter (Tom Holland) is living the dream. He got to do battle with the Avengers and Tony Stark has taken him under his wing and he has video proof of it all. He’s expecting great things. He’s expecting to leave the drudgery of high school classes, band, and academic decathlon behind.
Except for most of the film, he is relegated to thwarting small-time crime and he never gets to fight extra-terrestrials or other unearthly beings from outer space. It’s precisely this point that suggests there’s something profound about this character without any of that added white noise.
It’s the very fact that Peter is struggling with his own identity, how to be Spiderman and keep it a secret while simultaneously trying to realize the full extent of his abilities. He’s walking a tightrope because he wants to tell his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and he wants Mr. Stark’s right-hand man Happy (Jon Favreau) to call him up for his next assignment so he can prove himself. And yet nothing happens like he wants. No one takes him quite as seriously as he wants. After all, he is a teenager. As some famous philosopher once noted, “with great power, comes greater responsibility.”
But Tom Holland imbues Peter with a genuine likability that lights up his performance from end to end. This guy isn’t a jerk or a moody loser. He falls somewhere in the middle, making idiotic decisions but always because he believes them to be right in that wayward teenage brain of his; he only gets distraught because in his world Spiderman is all he has. Without it he is nothing. That’s his own insecurity speaking.
In one scene that’s undoubtedly meant to be impactful and which subsequently gets referenced later, Tony Stark takes away Peter’s suit after a debacle with an ocean liner and in so many words he says that if Peter needs his suit to be someone then he doesn’t deserve it. Maybe this and the related scenes are needlessly overt in reflecting our hero’s fall and redemption but if nothing else they cast our protagonist in a positive light. He is one of us.
Another thing that constantly reminds us of this fact, has to do with the world and characters he is surrounded by. First of all, the writers do something fairly refreshing and they give him the honor of fighting a villain who is grounded on earth — a man (Michael Keaton) just trying to provide for his family. He is vengeful when the government (Tyne Daly) cancels his contract in favor of the affluent private corporation of Stark Industries. It’s a very real issue wrapped in a superhero film similar to Civil War’s antagonistic dilemma, part of what made that previous film and this one compelling.
But whereas that was a battle among friends, this picture is understandably a high school story. In fact, I couldn’t help noticing the John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldenstein writing credit not to mention the inclusion of a certain decathlon advisor (Martin Starr) making it hard not to draw up a minor Freaks & Geeks connection.
Honestly, it’s hard to put Spiderman on that level but it does begin to tease out the high school experience as Peter is forced to live a double life while chasing after Adrian Toomes and his clandestine arms operation all across town. Because just as important are his friendship with his Star Wars-loving best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon), teenage crushes, parties, National Decathlon Championships, and, of course, Homecoming.
That’s the beauty of this story. It never tries to take on some epic agenda but far from settling it finds the importance in both the hero’s journey and the growth of someone in the throes of their adolescence. Peter knows that his nighttime activities are hurting his relationship with his aunt and hindering anything that could be between him and his amiable dream girl Liz (Laura Harrier).
The film’s greatest twist (which I’ll consequently omit) is a beautiful bit of storytelling because it links together Peter’s two worlds so openly. Before they were two entities crisscrossed and tied together like chords of his spider webbing. But there comes a point where they are so closely connected he can no longer keep them separate. He must face it all even if it can’t be resolved as he would like.
So as the Marvel Universe rolls ever onward this picture turns out to be a rewarding entry because in some respects it chooses to tell a smaller story. Still, that story has some lovely touches and a rich cast that more than carry our attention.
The fact that the school outcast (Zendaya) wears a Sylvia Plath t-shirt cracked me up as did a bit of shameless Star Wars product placement, not to mention Captain America fitness videos. But there’s also some sentimental nods as well, namely to Ferris Bueller and the war memorabilia in the Principal’s office honoring his relative who fought alongside Cap during WWII (played by Kenneth Choi in both films).
Michael Keaton turns in a surprisingly sympathetic performance as a “villain” and everybody from Marisa Tomei to Donald Glover are enjoyable in their admittedly small parts. Of course, we have the laundry list of cameos from Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Gweneth Paltrow, and Stan Lee too as expected.
I won’t harp on this topic too much but it’s obvious that Spiderman is making a concerted effort to be ethnically diverse with its cast which is awesome and refreshing on so many levels. Whether they’re trying too hard with this perfect spectrum of ethnicity is not something to criticize at this point in time. Still, it does suggest that surrounding your typical characters with a lot of diverse individuals in cameos and supporting roles is good enough. Rather than forcing these smaller roles to meet public outcry, there’s a necessity for a better solution.
If the recent Hawaii Five-O pay equality news is any indication, the current state of affairs often has more to do with how the parts were initially created whether in Spiderman or Hawaii Five-O and not how they are interpreted. What might be more radical still is creating these same types of stories and standalone parts for actors who have normally been relegated. I would love to see a Donald Glover movie (on top of Community of course), a Kenneth Choi movie, or even a Jacob Batalon movie. But while we wait, go enjoy Jon Watt’s film for all it’s worth without an ounce of reluctance.