Third time is rarely the charm, but turning high-school-centric angst on its head helps Tom Holland’s wallcrawler rise above.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Sony/Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.]
Though the last decade has seen a massive proliferation of superhero movies, only a few powerful characters have stuck in the pop-culture consciousness for more than a couple years. For DC, Superman and Batman have been standard-bearers for decades. For Marvel, few superheroes have been as popular and enduring as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. If nothing else, each of these characters has been depicted in multiple cinematic versions, from animation to live-action, in film and TV. Batman, over the past 30 years, has been portrayed by five different actors in live-action and a couple in animation. But Spider-Man, now played by Tom Holland in the new Spider-Man: Homecoming, has gotten three different live-action takes over six films in just 15 years.
How could another reboot of Peter Parker, just three years after Andrew Garfield donned the suit in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, be satisfying? The latest version of Batman, played by Ben Affleck, for example, was criticized for echoing the same story beats, like watching Bruce Wayne’s parents get killed again. Largely, as depicted both in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming, this Spider-Man doesn’t feel like a familiar retread because it sidesteps a few obvious and overly familiar elements.
First, when we met Holland’s Peter Parker in last year’s Civil War, his origin story had essentially already happened. Though there can be pathos in watching Peter struggle through high school and lose his beloved Uncle Ben to a thoughtless robber, most anyone who’s interested in watching a Spider-Man movie knows the notes to that song now. So it’s to Marvel’s credit that the studio correctly assumes that we don’t need to know how this Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man. Homecoming briefly references the fateful spider-bite, when Peter is talking to his curious friend Ned (the delightful Jacob Batalon), who’s inadvertently learned Peter’s alter ego. Otherwise, the movie hits the ground running.
Moreover, while Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield both played Peter Parker as a high-school student in their first Spider-Man films, it didn’t feel as genuine. Maguire was generally very good in the first three films, but he was 27 when the first Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man opened, making him not quite believable as a high-school student. The same can be said of Garfield, who was 28 when The Amazing Spider-Man opened in 2012. Tom Holland, granted, is also playing younger than his age: He’s just turned 21, and playing Parker as a 15-year old. But Holland looks younger than his age, and Homecoming spends a great deal more time in the high-school environment, allowing him to feel like a teenager. The film is at its best when it’s focused less on Peter Parker as a possible inductee to the Avengers, and more on Peter Parker trying to balance his superheroic abilities with his desire to fit in with his classmates and date the prettiest girl in his school.
The best scene of the film turns high-school-centric angst on its head. Peter, after a couple false starts, has asked said pretty girl, Liz (Laura Harrier), to homecoming and she’s said yes. He heads to her house to pick her up, and is shocked to learn that her father, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), is the same criminal with alien technology that he’s been pursuing as Spider-Man throughout the film. Within a couple minutes, Toomes figures out that his daughter’s date is the costumed hero. What starts as a tweaked version of the intense-looking dad scaring off the new boyfriend from doing anything untoward with his daughter turns into an intense showdown between super-powered characters. Though this eventually leads to Spider-Man and Toomes, referred to as the Vulture, fighting each other as the latter tries to raid Tony Stark’s cache of technology for further alien devices, the high point is when they face off under the guise of nerdy teenager and imposing dad.
Even the elements of a Spider-Man movie that might seem overly familiar, such as Peter’s antagonistic relationship with Flash Thompson or his tender ties to Aunt May, feel fresh and unexpected in Homecoming. Flash, now played by the diminutive Tony Revolori, is still a jerk to Peter (calling him an impolite, genitalia-themed moniker), but he’s also part of the school’s Academic Decathlon team, suggesting Flash as a less physically imposing bully, but a bully nonetheless. Marisa Tomei, as Aunt May, represents a much younger take on Peter’s guardian, feeling more motherly than grandmotherly (and hipper, as well, as when she teases Peter playfully at a Thai restaurant).
Spider-Man: Homecoming is not a perfect film, and certainly a lot less self-consciously goofy and weird than Sam Raimi’s final Spider-Man film, now a decade old. But director and co-writer Jon Watts, as well as Marvel’s producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal, are perceptive enough to know that Homecoming shouldn’t dwell on the now-tired origin of Peter Parker. People love Spider-Man, but they know how he became Spider-Man. So Homecoming instead focuses more on Peter as a high-school student and being Spider-Man, allowing for much of the film to feel fresh and exciting in ways that haven’t been the case since 2002.
For more from Spider-Man: Homecoming, check out what the screenwriters have to say about that big Vulture twist, or take a look at the under-the-radar villains of the film.