Updated: Jan 16
For a long while Spiderman has been a character in whom I have had little interest. Like every other kid growing up in the noughties, I adored the first two Sam Raimi/Toby Maguire films, and indeed they were probably my first ever taste of the blockbuster superhero genre that has come to dominate the mainstream cinema of this century. When Spiderman 3 (Raimi, 2007) fluffed its lines and soured the pot, however, the magic of this particular superhero dwindled. And yet it has been constantly rebooted; Hollywood, as it always does, looking for an angle with which to make a cash cow out of a comic book favourite. I tried the Amazing Spiderman films with Andrew Garfield in the title role, but agreed with the common consensus that they were, to put it gently, forgettable. After that I was fed up with the character, and with the superhero boom that followed in the 2010s, I had no need for Spiderman to be added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, nor did I feel compelled to watch the acclaimed animated work Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse (Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey, 2018). For me, Spiderman became the very epitome of the flaws of the superhero explosion, with its repetition of origin stories and focus on action and spectacle over thrilling plotting: an inevitable consequence of their saturation of the cinematic landscape; something that I refer to as ‘superhero fatigue’. Thus, my apathy to Spiderman became such that his two stand-alone films were the only two in the whole run of Marvel releases that I hadn’t bothered to catch. I enjoyed Tom Holland in Captain America: Civil War (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2016) and the two most recent Avengers movies, but his charisma wasn’t enough to persuade me to give Spiderman another chance. That is, until now. With all the plaudits heaped upon them, and with the relentless schedule of superhero releases stalled by the pandemic, I thought it was time to fill in this blank and watch the three Spiderman films I have so far neglected. Thus, starting with this review of Spiderman: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017), and proceeding over the next two days with reviews of Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse and Spiderman: Far From Home (Jon Watts, 2019), I will chronologically plot the course of these films, first by looking back over the glory days of the Marvel universe, then by assessing the validity of alternative superhero movies when we already have a well-established conveyor belt of them, and finally by seeing what the future of Marvel’s universe might be post-Avengers: Endgame (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2019), and post-pandemic.
So, does Homecoming stand up as an excellent film, or does it collapse under the weight of superhero fatigue as I suspected it would? The answer is, emphatically, the former. The film thankfully forgoes the Spiderman origin story, the Marvel universe having already introduced us to Peter Parker, and so we can jump straight into the action and find new ways to explore what makes Spiderman so popular in the comics. This is done primarily by contrasting Parker’s superhero, galaxy-saving responsibilities with his personal life: as a post-pubescent teenager with a large helping of self-consciousness and still-developing desires for the opposite sex. This inner conflict, invoking the legendary phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” without having to speak the words, is done better in this film than in any other iteration of Spiderman, with Parker’s younger age making it more believable and sympathetic. This in turn allows the film to explore more intriguing character dynamics, such as the morally divergent older males that attempt to fill the void Parker has in place of a father figure. Both Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and the villain of the piece Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) influence Parker with their ambitions and differing views on the world, and yet, to add another layer of political and moral ambiguity as the best recent Marvel films do, it is implied that Toomes and Stark may not be so different after all.
The film’s focus on Keaton’s Toomes is actually one of its greatest strengths, breathing life into its baddie and casting an actor great enough to portray both his snarling villainy and his relatable emotion side that illustrates his sense of responsibility to his family. An easily defeated or otherwise uninteresting bad guy has been the biggest weakness of many of Marvel’s films. Think of why we love the main Avengers films – they have unique, captivating baddies, from Loki to Ultron to Thanos. Then recall some of the lesser entries into the series – Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013), Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013), The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008). Can you truly remember much about their boring, anonymous villains? Even some of the potentially better films are let down by the antagonists – Civil War, Thor: Ragnarök (Taika Waititi, 2017), Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015) – they all prove that simply having a strong actor in the role is not enough, but that the villainous character must be well crafted too. Homecoming steps out of all these traps and delivers a villain and an actor worthy of a great movie.[i] In fact, the fact that he is a relatively small-time crook rather than a world-threatening monster only makes him more compelling. Not every superhero movie can hit the same level of intensity. Some have to be scaled-back, or else everything becomes brown: an indistinguishable mix of blandness. Homecoming does this scaling-back expertly, making Toomes a believable everyman villain in a Trumpian world, and yet still convincing us of his threat enough to make him a dangerous adversity. And since he is merely apprehended and imprisoned rather than killed at the movie’s end, it is possible we have not yet seen the last of him in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
If I’m praising Homecoming’s villain, I must also praise its hero. Maguire was always my Spiderman. He was the one I grew up with, and his brooding heroism as Spiderman and nervous charm as Parker struck the perfect balance. But Tom Holland has finally won me over. He is such a fantastic actor with so much going for him: his skill in pulling off just about any accent seamlessly; his ability to appear both youthful and immature, and yet adult and responsible simultaneously; and, of course, his friendly, down-to-earth off-screen persona. He is a remarkable talent, and as Stan Lee once suggested in a Tweet, he makes the perfect Spiderman, and probably the best of all the incarnations. With Holland drawing all of its excellent elements together, then, Homecoming becomes the best Spiderman film of them all. I am not only glad I finally watched it because of this fact, but also because of how much of a treat it is to revisit the Marvel Universe after a bit of a break from it. When set apart from the oversaturation of the market, it really is astonishing to consider just how consistently excellent Marvel’s films are. The ambition they showed in transforming cinema and creating something more akin to a television series over a whole franchise of movies is extraordinary, and for the part Spiderman plays in this ground-breaking journey, it truly deserves the full 5-stars.
Marvel films also allow us one last quandary: where does a film end? What is its final shot? Technically, the end credits are part of the film, but it would be nonsensical in most cases to consider the very last moment of the credits to be the final shot for the purposes of this blog. Instead, I have usually chosen to highlight the last few seconds before the credits roll. However, with Marvel and its post-credits stings, we get treats and, sometimes, essential information after this ‘final shot’. Therefore, while I have stuck with the moment Aunt May (the excellent Marisa Tomei) walks in on Parker in his Spiderman costume that immediately precedes the credits, I will also talk a little here about the mid- and post- credits sequences. The first shows Toomes’s fate, clashing with other prison inmates, suggesting he may return in a future movie, perhaps as part of the Sinister Six. The second, right at the end of the credits, is, in true Marvel fashion, a little joke for the superfans and those patient enough to wait for it. A hidden-in-plain-sight treat that only those in the know will fully appreciate: that’s a sentence that could sum up the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.
At time of writing, Spiderman: Homecoming is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
[i] It only aids matters that Keaton is completing a Batman-Birdman-Falcon trilogy here, the actor bringing plenty of meta-connotations with him, improving this movie by his mere presence, just as his real-life past improved Birdman (Alejandro Iñárritu, 2015), and made it one of the best movies of the 21st century.