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This is Spider-Man.

I once wrote a blog post singing the praises of casting Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. He had something I liked for it (one of my very first blog posts, so be gentle) that Tobey Maguire did not. I also really dug the first Amazing Spider-man movie (don’t know what happened to the second one that it was so very bad) and have always been pretty lukewarm about the Sam Raimi trilogy. I think I’ve cooled on TASM and am considering a reappraisal of the Raimi trilogy, but even back when they came out, I liked them but I was never into them. I feel like after five tries, though, it’s kind of reasonable to expect that basically everyone and their uncle understands how to make a decent Spider-man movie. One that will please just about everyone by getting all the most fundamental parts of the character right while changing things up just enough to be fresh and exciting. And so, now we have one.

That may sound like I’m underselling here, and I don’t mean to. Spider-man: Homecoming is a greatly entertaining movie and it has a little bit of depth even though a lot of people are talking about how shallow it is. How formulaic. How Marvel. I have some issues with a few choices they made with the movie and with how muddled its messages are, but I don’t think any of it hampers the enjoyment of the movie itself. I think at most you could say my misgivings are a direct result of the MCU’s usual insistence on playing it safe even when they’ve definitely earned the right to take larger risks. Not so much with big game-changing events like character deaths as I don’t really agree with the people clamoring for that and I’m comfortable with the incremental storytelling the MCU specializes in. More like I think there’s a little too much here that’s on the nose, that shows a lack of trust in the audiences to “get it”. I chose the title quote not only because it’s a good line, but because it is brought in twice and the second time is definitely one of those moments where we don’t need it. It’s this movie’s “with greater power comes greater responsibility” and it’s probably not a great idea to remind the audience how much weaker a statement it really is. To say nothing of the fact that, in the end, the “suit” cake is had and eaten too.

I think if you are one of those folks who is tired of the MCU or superhero movies in general, Homecoming is unlikely to sway you. It’s easy to see many of the exact same problems in it that are well-documented par for course with the franchise overall (less for female characters to do, underdeveloped romance), but it’s also true that Homecoming sidesteps one or two of them (bad villains, clunky greater universe connections). Still, it’s a breezy fun time and it’s delightfully confident even when it sort of stumbles.

FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD SPOILER WARNING

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Stark is all over this movie, but he’s well-used if a little toothless.

Homecoming has a prologue sequence that tells us all about Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and why he and his salvage crew (including the likes of Bokeem Woodbine, Michael Chernus and Logan Marshall-Green) became villains. This is good stuff, especially because it does a lot to help make Keaton’s Vulture one of the better developed MCU villains, it also provides a joint origin story, over the course of this movie, for several more of Spidey’s rogue’s gallery. But the  true opening is on Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and is so clever it may be a bit overlooked in the appraisal of the film. Peter made little video diaries of his Civil War adventure, an anarchic and self-absorbed little slice of youth culture that is at once affectionate and knowing, bringing in both the kids and the adults in the audience. “That is so you,” a dad will say to a daughter and that daughter will think “that is so me!”. It speaks to the growing divide between the MCU fans who grew up on the comics, and the MCU fans who grew up on the movies. In a way, they are very much like Peter growing up in the shadow of all these characters and all the things they have done and the stories that have been told about them. Peter wants to be a superhero so bad. Most kids do. So it also sets the groundwork for Peter’s major challenge as a character: he needs to get over himself a bit.

After Berlin, he goes back to Queens where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) puts him on the bench and under the supervision of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) who is also supervising the packing and moving of Avengers Tower to the Upstate New York campus they created at the end of Age of Ultron. While Peter is raring to go as a sort of junior Avenger, he does superhero stuff on a pretty small scale in hopes that Tony will notice and he’ll eventually be called up for the big show.

One of the major themes of the movie is the rush to adulthood that many young people experience. There’s something of the classic and somewhat condescending position of “wait for your time/know your place” as it is consistently experienced by young people in our society. I feel like there’s enough of Peter (if indirectly) challenging the adult status quo as he experiences it through Tony Stark for it to be really a sticking point, but I do think some kids attuned to this will understand that this is a movie that at least partially reinforces some stereotypes about millennials, if not youth in general.

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This is a movie that feels curiously stuck between affection and annoyance for youth culture.

There’s a bit of that “millennials want to be important before they properly serve their time/pay their dues/await their turns” in here to be sure. At the same time, there is a tendency for kids to want really bad to not be kids and get a seat at the grown-up table before they’ve developed the maturity and self-awareness to really act like adults. Going so far as to invalidate their experiences (wait til you get out in the real world, kid) is not something this movie really does, so there’s that. But still, think about the messaging is off in the scene where Peter, who has needed helping hands (and hand-outs) all through the movie, is finally left alone and in serious trouble. That moment of drawing strength from himself and from Tony’s admonishing words about the suit is really on the nose and maybe a bit off the mark in terms of empowering youth, if that’s a goal this movie actually has.

When no one comes to help him, and he has to completely rely only on himself, that’s the pivotal moment of heroism and self-definition. It’s rousing stuff, and I get why it’s a great moment in spite of the messaging behind it. I get why relying on oneself first is desirable and even heroic, but it’s still pretending that adulthood is all about rugged individualism and that’s a pretty archaic myth. Peter is abandoned because he misbehaved, his toys are taken away and he is put in a corner and ignored. More than that, he thinks he deserves it and so does the movie. Hell, maybe he does since it’s true that he’s been reckless and self-involved, but I wonder how powerful it could have been if Tony had actually acted like a mentor and friend rather than like an angry dad. If the movie’s attitude toward child-rearing was more clearly progressive.

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And anyway, Peter definitely lacks maturity and self-awareness.

A sidenote: this movie’s timeline is a little muddled seeming, by the way. It says it takes place eight years after The Avengers, but since the MCU happens in real-time, that means Homecoming is happening in 2019 or 2020 which is both in our future and the MCU’s. This is the closest it comes to clumsily setting up future MCU movies. Mostly it is self-contained and bridges itself to the MCU organically or in a focused way through the inclusion of Stark.

My theory about the timeline, which I think is the most obvious possibility so I’m not trying to take much credit for it, is that this is so Infinity War will happen much closer to Homecoming‘s position in the well-established MCU timeline. There is some other evidence that there’s a bigger time jump between the events of Civil War and Homecoming than we might have expected, since in Civil War it is mentioned that Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) left Tony but now they are back together. However, it complicates things that there’s explicit mentioning of how much time passed between Civil War and Homecoming (less than a year for sure, but I can’t remember exactly). It suggests that Civil War happened off the “real-time” mark as well, doesn’t it? This is immensely minor, by the way. Minutiae for superfans and detail oriented fools like me to pick over. It’s little more than an interesting footnote as far as this movie goes, but I’m sure Marvel will clarify as the Infinity War movie comes closer. They know what the fuck they’re doing at this point.

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Keaton kills it, by the way. Has to be one of the weirdest backstories for any actor in any role ever. From Batman to Birdman to The Vulture. Yeesh.

Peter’s adventures set him on a collision course with Toomes and his crew, who have been salvaging and stealing pieces of Chitauri technology ever since they were thrown off the original salvage job by a group called the Department of Damage Control, a joint venture of Stark and the government to try and mitigate some of the collateral damage caused by superheroes and their enemies. The weapons Toomes makes are sold to whoever, and they are starting to show up in the streets of New York, particularly the Queens neighborhood where Peter spends most of his time. Donald Glover, who once campaigned for the role of Spider-Man, shows up briefly as a slightly aloof gangster with a nephew “out there”. This would be Miles Morales, the famous black/Hispanic Spider-man of recent Marvel comics continuity. This movie is actually full of soft little touches and winks at Spider-man and MCU fans, by the way. It’s done really well, too. As opposed to something like, say, Rogue One where the callbacks to the broader Star Wars universe where just about all distracting and obnoxious.

Anyway,  a lot of Homecoming plays out almost like a kid detective story as Peter tries first to figure out what’s going on, and then convince the grown-ups to pay attention, and then takes matters into his own hands when they won’t. He goes through a surprising amount of ups and downs along the way, some big and some small, but all of which are infused with personal stakes and feel fully realized.

This flirtation with doing the big superhero stuff on his own causes Peter a lot of trouble and creates the necessity for him to make some sacrifices. That’s another key theme of the movie: what you have to give up. Unlike the other MCU characters, Peter has a legitimate secret identity to protect. He goes to school, he has friends like Ned (Jacob Batalon), Liz (Laura Harrier), rivals like Flash (Tony Revolori), and even weirdos that seem to be into him like Michelle/MJ (Zendaya). He also has Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and a variety of teachers (played by people like Hannibal Burress, Martin Starr, and Kenneth Choi). There’s a lot of people in Peter’s life, most of whom aren’t wrapped up in the larger than life world of superheroics that have been established in the MCU. There’s a familiarity to the story of trying to juggle a secret superhero identity and the other half of your life. We’ve seen it many times before by now, but never in an MCU movie, where the superhero identities are seldom secret and seldom at a far remove from who these people are as people. The duality is a theme that Raimi’s trilogy made heavy use of, and there’s a breezy if not exactly fresh use of it in Homecoming too. It tries and I think succeeds in committing to a realness of that by staying grounded with Peter’s two lives, only getting really arch and over the top when it’s trying for a big metaphor about classic teenager problems.

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Which works best with the big Homecoming Dance and what it means for Peter and Liz.

Just as Peter’s “overstepping” gets him and others just about killed, gets Tony mad at him and taking back his big super suit, and really damages his self-confidence. He pours himself into the things he’s been neglecting in his life. His friends, his crush, his school presence. Things start to go okay. And then the biggest twist in the movie arrives: Adrian Toomes is Liz’s dad, a genius move that they wisely hid all through production and marketing. Here the real life stuff and the superhero stuff collide in a wonderful metaphor for the angst of having to impress a girl’s dad, the pressure of being a worthwhile young person at all. The approval of the older generation. All that shit.

The ways superheroing and teenagering intersect was always a strong part of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other genre-heavy teen stories. Homecoming puts itself right there among them with this and it dovetails with all the character development they do with Toomes so that his arc and the resolution of his villainy (and Peter finally stopping him) make sense both thematically and narratively. I loved that the end of it isn’t Peter beating him, but saving him after he basically beats himself. Before that, there’s a real threat to their fighting since Vulture seems so much bigger and more powerful and Peter is wearing pajamas. It also helps that Vulture is a very well-designed villain, when he’s rocking the full regalia, and feels like an evil version of Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, just with bigger and scarier wings. He’s very impressive and intimidating, contrasting wonderfully with Peter’s stripped down appearance.

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There are tons of wonderful details in the suit.

Beyond looks, Toomes’s motives at first feel like one of those eye-rollingly conservative viewpoints about anti-rich “class warriors”. Toomes professes to be fighting for little guys like he and Peter, against the rich and powerful who toy with their lives. Hollywood movies regularly position such viewpoints and characters as naive, dangerous, and wrong. However, there’s a lot of sympathy for Toomes’s point of view, even though he becomes a hypocrite when he spends money on the trappings of wealth and the illusion of being this great provider all the while using dangerous, illicit, and anti-social methods to go out for himself. That contradiction is really interesting and is presented somewhat subtly in the movie. He compares himself to Stark, a man who became more. It’s ironic and sort of tragic, especially since Toomes seems to maintain a code even if it is wrapped up in his delusions and hypocrisies.

There’s been some debate about whether Peter’s choice to abandon Liz at the dance and chase her dad means that Peter hasn’t learned shit. The debate seems to be centered on whether the motivations for Peter to do anything he does actually matter as much as what he does. It’s an interesting question, one that spotlights peoples’ very different perceptions of what matters more: intentions or actions? To me, the movie hangs off whether or not Peter’s actions mean more if he does them so he can be cool, heroic, or famous (out of self-interest) as opposed to doing them because they are right. So there’s the third big theme in the movie many are saying isn’t about anything. It seems to me that this is a big difference, and something that makes him closer to the real superhero he wants to be and someday probably will be. Even if he’s never an Avenger, and I doubt he will be unless he counts as one when Thanos shows up, because I think they are setting up a different ethos for Peter and Spider-man than the one that seems to mostly guide the other MCU heroes. I don’t know what that looks like yet, but I think this movie strongly suggests that the intention is to make Spider-man his own thing for the most part, a discrete entity in a universe of interwoven stories and characters. We’ll see though.

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The Vulture costume is as successful an updating/grounding of a superhero/villain outfit as has yet been accomplished. Too bad there aren’t more and better pictures of it.

Speaking of costumes and where things are going, I gotta say that the only element of Homecoming that I really disliked was that Peter keeps Stark’s suit at the end, especially when he’s shown he can do his thing without it. I really wanted him to get away from Karen (sorry Jenniffer Connely) and the weird flirtation Homecoming has with Spider-man being Junior Iron Man. The tech is cool and there are some great gags with it and the subtle philosophical points raised by Peter’s rejection of Tony’s “instant kill mode” and other feature creep design elements in the suit is also a nice touch. However, we don’t need a Peter Parker who has his own AI voice in his head and a bunch of high-tech gadgets made by a different super-scientist/inventor dude. The way they seem to be developing an idea that Peter will have his own “neighborhood” team of support personnel, like Ned the “guy in the chair” recalls the successful model of the DC CW shows (where every hero has a supporting team) and also works really nicely with the idea of a Spider-man that morphs from Junior Avenger to Friendly Neighborhood Spider-man, which is where I strongly suspect this is all going.

Peter may eventually create his own versions of things and break more fully away from Tony, but I think it should have happened here a little more definitely. There should have been a clearer “you do you” cap to their relationship at the end of Homecoming, rather than the weirdly half-baked “welcome to the Avengers” bit which Peter (thankfully) turns down. That Tony was serious is kind of funny, but it’s a pretty muddled scene where Tony is basically rewarding the kid for actions that, for all Tony knows, were the same thing he’d punished him for earlier. The point, I think, is that at least Peter knows the difference now (as does the audience). To Stark, results matter more. I just wish articulating this stuff was higher on the movie’s list of priorities, especially at the end. It’s possible that these choices were in service to Infinity War where it might have been deemed as too much work reconciling these two characters when Spidey is inevitably called on for help dealing with Thanos. I feel like there was another version of Homecoming where there was slightly more antagonism, especially when you consider the seemingly harsher/angrier line readings in the trailer versions of key scenes of Stark giving Peter a dressing down.

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This version of MJ is a nice touch, but revealed in a bafflingly stupid way.

 I guess if I can indulge myself one last criticism it’s the clumsy “aren’t I clever?” way that “Michelle” reveals that she may or may not be Mary-Jane Watson. Marvel probably wants to hold their cards a bit longer on this, but it all seems tiresome to me. Why not just let Zendaya play Mary-Jane and stop trying to be all George “He’s not playing Khan” Harrison or John “My other name is Robin” Blake about it? Some might think this is a fun wink to the “fans” but I don’t know who thinks this kind of shit is fun, clever, or for the fans. It’s annoying when these movies insist on hiding or messing with the identities of major characters in an effort to be surprising. It’s never really surprising.

All in all, these are certainly minor criticisms and not structural ones. I think Homecoming works just fine as a story and offers quite a lot more depth than I think it is generally being given credit for. And even if it is halfway another “those darn millennials” narratives, I can’t really hate on a movie just for having a point of view I disagree with. Homecoming relies a lot on the safe and cozy MCU formula, but manages to improve on a few long-standing weaknesses along the way. It feels confident, fun and definitive as a Spider-man movie. While it’s important to address its problems in the interest of analysis, it’s also good to note that this movie does everything anyone could really want from it and more. It also leaves out the schmaltzy, smarmy ‘Murica/NYC jingoism that was so cringey in the Raimi and TASM movies. This New York feels real, lived in, and contemporary in a way that doesn’t need be mythologized. It’s much better for it.

It’s the best version of Spider-man and I’m looking forward to what they do next, especially if it retroactively addresses the criticisms I’ve made here!

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