Spider-Man: Homecoming ★★★★

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Three is, to my eyes, an unprecedented success. Still the only expanded universe in town that works, with Phase Three (ANT-MAN, CIVIL WAR, DOCTOR STRANGE, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL 2 and now SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING) Marvel has truly hit its stride. These films have transcended most of the usual complaints about Marvel movies (at which I always scoffed anyway) and have become fantastica joys, each with a unique point of view behind them. What’s more, they’ve left behind the ‘realistic’ quality of Phase One and fully embraced the wacky, sci-fi riddled world of Marvel. Gone are the days when every last thing had to be grounded in some way, replaced with a world where anything can happen at any time; Spider-Man is not shocked to discover ATM robbers with laser weapons, he’s just shocked that they’ve shown up deep in his home boro of Queens.

If each film in Phase Three has had its own sub-genre within the larger superhero world (heists, psychological thrillers, the occult, space opera), SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING blazes a brand new sub-genre for Marvel, as director Jon Watts has made a straight up comedy. Most of the other Marvel films are funny in some way or another, but HOMECOMING is the first Marvel film that is a comedy at heart. Previously you’ve seen characters like Tony Stark be funny, but the usual modus operandi for comedy in a Marvel movie is the characters being witty - ie, within the world of the movie other characters would recognize each other making jokes. HOMECOMING transcends that; while characters are funny themselves there are also jokes that arise out of the situations and scenarios that would not read as ‘funny’ to people in-universe. These moments are presented as funny to us, the audience, but Peter Parker wouldn’t recognize it as a joke.

I know that’s sort of dissecting the butterfly of comedy, but it feels important to explain why HOMECOMING is so fresh in a Marvel Cinematic Universe well known for its one liners. It also explains why HOMECOMING is, at its heart, a high-wire act of tone, one that Watts maneuvers so adeptly you don’t even realize he was two hundred feet off the ground without a net the whole time. See, HOMECOMING is a comedy but it also has deeply dramatic elements and it also has serious action scenes (as well as comedic action scenes), and none of these tonal changes undercut one another. In fact the tonal changes - especially as the third act gets more serious at the same time that a wonderful running gag pays off - only complement one another. I don’t mean to get too effusive here, but I think Watts’ handling of this movie is some of the most extraordinary filmmaking you’ll see this year. While it isn’t always represented visually (although I think Watts does try to make even scenes where characters sit in a room and talk feel interesting, and not like TV), HOMECOMING is the direct result of having a director who is in absolute control.

With all of that gushing out of the way let’s address the elephant in the room: did we really need another Spider-Man? I’d argue that not only did we desperately need to move past Marc Webb’s ponderous iteration, HOMECOMING makes a strong case for itself and this reboot of Peter Parker. This film exists squarely in what was basically the first 20 minutes of Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN, and rather than rush through the high school escapades HOMECOMING finds its meaning in them. This is a take on Spider-Man that could only be accomplished by starting over; revisiting his earliest days as a hero offers up dividends for a character whose history is so familiar at this point that Marvel opted to just skip his origin altogether; there isn’t even a mention of Uncle Ben in the whole film, a first for this franchise. This is also a take that could only be accomplished in a shared universe.

In the comics Peter Parker was in high school for only 28 issues - two years in both comics and real time - but those earliest stories set the tone for all that would follow. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko understood what made their wall-crawler different from their other heroes, and it was the fact that Peter’s life was a soap opera. He had his Aunt May at home and he had his revolving cast of recurring villains, but most importantly he had his continuing cast of supporting characters. Watching Peter navigate these three worlds - home, school and Spider-Man - were why we loved him. True Spidey fans have always gravitated to this early run on the comic not only for its purity of vision but also because it’s one of the periods where Pete’s supporting cast is best delineated and where that soap operatic quality most flourishes (just about every decade of Spidey comics has a period like this, where the writers realize that it isn’t the foes who make Spider-Man but rather his supporting cast. Current AMAZING SPIDER-MAN writer Dan Slott truly understands this, and it’s why his run is one of the best in Spidey history).

By setting all of HOMECOMING in high school (and by keeping almost all of the story centered on high school, as opposed to using high school as a starting point from which to free Peter), the writers (credited as Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (three Jo(h)ns, two Chrises and one Erik)) make the most of that soap operatic element. But they don’t play it like a soap - heavy, sad, angsty - as the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN films did. They play it like a teen movie, which is the exact right tone.

It’s the right tone because, like so many teen movies, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is about our hero figuring out who he truly is. When the movie opens Peter Parker has just returned from his first ever trip overseas, where he fought Captain America and Giant-Man. He’s had a taste of the big life, but now he’s back in Queens, waiting for another call from Tony Stark that will lift him out of his humdrum life as a low-level loser. Watts and his writing army understand why Peter Parker lives in Queens, something that I think escaped all previous directors - Queens is close to the action of Manhattan yet always, fundamentally distant and secondary to it. Only Staten Island is less part of “New York City.” This distance mirrors Spidey’s place in the Marvel universe - on the periphery, not quite central, always discounted and looking in from outside.

That’s where Peter is. He’s got some serious Dorothy Gale business going on - he just wants to get away from home and find his destiny out there among the colorful brawlers of the MCU. For most of the film he’s got his head in the future and he’s itching to get past the final bell at school, and he’s quit all his extracurriculars and he’s got no time to consider something as mundane as college. He has a vision of himself, but it’s unclear how realistic that vision is, and how much of it is supported by the hi-tech suit Tony Stark gave him in CIVIL WAR. Peter is ignoring who he really is and pretending to be some kind of hero he simply isn’t.

That’s where the expanded universe comes into play. Previous Spider-Man movies couldn’t do this - Spidey was the only hero in town in those movies. But in the comics Spidey’s second or third tier status was always key. In AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1 he attempts - and fails - to join the Fantastic Four. This Queens boy has always had dreams of fitting in with the big kids in the city, and he’s always fallen short or been rebuffed. Raimi and Webb couldn’t do that, but Watts is given the ability to let us understand that Spider-Man, despite his real world popularity, is a minor figure in his own superhero universe. And so we end up with the great tragedy of Peter Parker - a maligned nerd by day who becomes a maligned and undervalued superhero by night.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is set smack dab in the middle of the MCU - an Ultron head appears at one point - but it also feels like it is at the periphery. You don’t need to actually know much about what has come before, but the expanded universe adds a richness to everything and to the sense that the world itself has changed drastically in the last eight or nine years. That expanded universe allows Peter Parker to calmly futz around with alien tech. Remember when the Venom symbiote falling to Earth felt kind of plausibility-shattering in SPIDER-MAN 3? It would fit right in to this world.

If HOMECOMING is set deeply in the MCU that means Peter’s Dorothy isn’t living in Kansas but rather just over the river from Oz. After years of Netflix promising it to us, HOMECOMING actually gives us the street-level view of the MCU, a view that gives us a sense of what the regular people in that world are up to. It’s not quite MARVELS, but it has a different perspective on that whole world, one where the Avengers Tower is in the background and references to Black Widow and the Hulk are peppered through your daily banter. In this context Spider-Man offers us something not unlike Scott Lang’s Ant-Man - that outsider point of view - but unlike Ant-Man, Spider-Man desperately wants in.

Tom Holland plays that masterfully. Peter Parker has always been a complex and difficult character; in his earliest appearances he has the sort of bullied anger that fuels many school shooters. Andrew Garfield’s Parker went too far in that direction, while Tobey Maguire’s had almost none of it (which is why, I think, so many people find his evil persona in SPIDER-MAN 3 so jarring, even though it’s perfect), Holland has just a dash of it. Instead Holland relies on the almost desperate sense of excitement and misplaced self-confidence that led Spidey to try and join the Fantastic Four back in 1963. Previous cinematic Parkers have struggled with their motivation, but Holland’s does not - he wants to be a hero, very very badly.

Holland is a delight; to say he’s the best Peter Parker ever is actually underselling him. He has a bright joy to him that keeps Parker’s bummer moments - that Old Parker Luck plays a major role in HOMECOMING - from feeling like real bummers. After the dirge of the AMAZING films, Watts needed to make his movie positive and fun, and Holland is the exact correct guy to do that. But he’s not relentlessly upbeat; when Peter gets chewed out by Tony Stark for putting lives in danger Holland brings the simmering anger and resentment that fuels Peter, and in other scenes he quietly plays the guilt that motivates Spider-Man. Uncle Ben is never mentioned but when Peter watches his friends frolic in a pool as he prepares to swing off as Spider-Man Holland makes you feel the deceased patriarch’s presence.

As in CIVIL WAR Holland has an almost perfect outer-boro accent, and I loved listening to him trade quips and banter with his supporting cast. Marisa Tomei may not have much to do as Aunt May (I suspect she’ll have a bigger role in the sequel), but hiring a great actress like her means those small moments - May taking Peter to a high school party, May teaching him how to dance - carries a lot. Also carrying a lot: May’s hotness, which gets remarked upon a number of times. This version of Spider-Man is leaning into their all-new, all-different Aunt May.

In the past Peter Parker has been alone, keeping his secret to himself and struggling quietly with his dual life. In this film, inspired by the Miles Morales ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN run, Peter has a best friend named Ned (played by Jacob Batalan, and for the nerds: it is not revealed whether or not his last name is Leeds), and Ned’s presence allows Peter to be a little less angsty than he might otherwise have been. Batalan is wonderful as Ned, a guy whose own enthusiasm is ratcheted up to 11. He’s one of those nerds who knows he’s a nerd but either doesn’t understand why or doesn’t care, and so he just does his own thing, regardless of the reactions he gets.

Ned is the best pal, but Peter is surrounded by high school characters. The Raimi films gave Peter a reasonable supporting cast, but HOMECOMING is the first Spidey film to feel like it has a REAL supporting cast. These aren’t characters who show up in a scene, they’re characters who are woven throughout and many have their own arcs and storylines. Tony Revolori reinvents classic jock Flash Thompson as a rich kid dweeb who DJs (poorly) at parties and drives his daddy’s expensive car. BEASTS OF NO NATION’s Abraham Atta is Abe, a wise-ass on the Academic Decathalon team. Angourie Rice (THE NICE GUYS) is young Betty Brant, hosting Midtown Science High’s in-class new telecast. Zendaya is Michelle, the snarky, politically-minded loner and weirdo who clearly will have a huge role to play in the sequel (some people will complain that the pop star gets very little to do here, but this is the clearest and most obvious example of someone being set up that I’ve seen in a long time. Be patient). As you can see even these small roles are filled with good actors, which means that Watts is looking to give all of these supporting parts weight and meaning. By the end of the movie you will wish there was a TV show set at Midtown Science High with this wonderful group.

Then there’s Liz Allan. Laura Harrier plays her, and I can already see the complaints coming. I don’t want to spoil anything or give anything away, but I think this version of Liz Allan is truly interesting for a few reasons - one of which is that in this iteration she’s being set up as a very classic damsel-in-distress (check out the iconic moment when Spidey is saving her in an elevator in the Washington Monument) with the specific intention of subverting that later. And not necessarily in an empowering way, to be fair, but I don’t think that’s a transgression - it’s interesting storytelling, and it allows the third act of this film to become truly meaningful on a personal level.

Spider-Man has one of the great rogue’s galleries in comics, maybe second only to Batman. You can see this in the movies; six films in and Watts still has all-timers to choose from. Sure, if you didn’t grow up reading Spidey comics you might not recognize the Shocker and Vulture (and the Tinkerer, to a lesser extent) as great villains, but they’re among my favorites, and HOMECOMING treats them right.

The meme is that the MCU has a villain problem (this meme, it turns out, is correct), and HOMECOMING goes a long way towards correcting that. The answer is simple - give your villain a good story and then also have a good actor playing him. There’s no need to take away screen time or attention from the hero to do this, as HOMECOMING proves. This time the villain is something of a Bernie Bro, the oppressed white working class guy who has a big house who complains about the richer and more successful people keeping him down. It’s great, and I’m not sure that the filmmakers knew they would be tapping into the zeitgeist so hard with this one - setting up Spidey and the Vulture as semi-working class heroes (with Spidey as the true working class guy, Vulture as the guy who holds on to his working class resentments) only adds to the thematic texture of Peter living in Queens and Spidey being outside the world of gods, spies and billionaires who make up the Avengers.

Keaton is extraordinary in the role. He doesn’t overplay it, he doesn’t go broad or arch. There are some scenes in the third act - he and Peter talking in a car - that I think are all-time great villain/hero moments. The key to a good villain is having that villain believe he’s right, and Keaton sells us that. He sells us the idea that he will go to extraordinary - and fatal - lengths to protect his business and his family. A grounded Spider-Man needs a grounded villain, and while the Vulture flies, he’s just that villain.

One of the smart things the movie does is establish the Vulture’s origin quickly and early. We get it out of the way so that Spidey and the Vulture can have an escalating series of conflicts that finally climax at the climax - as it should be. Too many films keep hero and villain apart, or have the villain doing things away from the hero, so there’s no sense of rivalry between them The idea of an oncoming collision between hero and villain can be cool, but I like the old fashioned plot of having the hero and villain tangle in a series of battles that keep raising the stakes.

Those battles are great, and all are smartly designed to test - and reveal - the limits of Spider-Man’s powers. As Peter dreams of being a globe-trotting Avenger he has to deal with the fact that web-slinging doesn’t work in the suburbs. As Peter dreams of soaring high with the Avengers he has to climb the Washington Monument, going further up than he ever has before and discovering he’s a little afraid of heights. And in the end Peter has to figure out what he’s fighting for, and why, and what kind of a hero he is. There are a lot of action scenes in HOMECOMING but they don’t overwhelm or dominate the film. You never feel like you’re waiting to get to the next action scene… but conversely the action isn’t disturbing the fun stuff you’ve been enjoying. They’re melded together seamlessly, with the action and the comedy and the character beats all working together.

You want the old ranking, don’t you? You want to know how this film stacks up against what came before. Here’s what I’ll say: this is the best Peter Parker. This is also the best Spider-Man (he’s doing corny jokes the whole time, I loved it). I think it’s also the best Spider-Man movie… but SPIDER-MAN 2 is still better than this one. And that’s just because SPIDER-MAN 2 is more than a Spider-Man movie; it’s the ultimate superhero movie, and it’ll be tough for any film to top its elegant exploration of heroism and sacrifice. But when it comes to pure Spidey-ness, HOMECOMING wins.

It’s worth noting that HOMECOMING is very Spidey in that it’s very small. The Vulture is the first Marvel villain who is just stealing shit. He isn’t looking to take over the world or destroy it, he just wants to make some money and keep up his house payments. Spider-Man, thanks to the Old Parker Luck, actually causes more trouble than he stops, but it’s mostly localized. There are a couple of events that would be the top of the local news, but nothing in HOMECOMING is earth-shattering; nothing would lead the nightly news (unless it was a slow day, in which case the Staten Island Ferry bit might be the top story). I wonder if some people will walk out disappointed in the slighter stakes, or if they will subconsciously discount this film because the stakes aren’t quite high enough (everything that happens in this movie is, as Tony Stark says, under the Avengers’ pay grade). To me it’s refreshing, and the stakes are huge - it’s just that they’re incredibly personal. Marvel Earth will keep spinning no matter what happens in HOMECOMING, but there are so many places in this movie where the life of 15 year old Peter Parker can be ruined - and that’s not even counting the moments when it could be lost.

The stakes are emotional, and they’re all about Peter figuring out who he is, and who Spider-Man is. They’re all about Peter wrestling with the combination of guilt and lust for glory that motivates him. They’re all about Peter just trying to find something that makes him feel like he matters, and then compensating when he realizes that nothing on the outside - no trip to Berlin, no hi-tech suit, no date to the Homecoming dance - can do that for him. It’s all about Peter figuring out that his strength isn’t about stopping buses with his bare hands but about being strong enough to do the right thing, and to keep trying when he fucks up (which he does a lot). In the end the stakes of HOMECOMING couldn’t be higher - they’re all about the future of a boy named Peter Parker.