To most members of the current generation, Spider-Man holds a special place in their hearts. His movies were their first introductions to superheroes, and he did it in a fun, entertaining way. Spidey has been a fan favorite for years, both because his Rogues Gallery is the best outside of Batman and because, at heart, he was a kid, just like the millions of kids reading his comics and seeing his movies. He went to high school, he dealt with his friends, and he suffered from bullying. He was relatable, and yet still inspired the best in us. While the first two movies made were comic book gold, it’s been several years since a good Spider-Man movie was made (no, The Amazing Spider-Man is not a good movie, and you’re wrong if you think so). Marvel made a promise to fans after the character’s successful return to the franchise in Captain America: Civil War, and that promise is delivered in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and then some. Spider-Man: Homecoming is not only a great superhero movie, and a great high school movie, but it’s a movie that reminds us about why we love comic books in general.
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is on top of the world after he got the chance to team up with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) during the Avengers’ infighting. Given a trial basis to join the team if he does well, Peter spends several months making himself the best Spider-Man he can be. Whenever he’s not stopping petty criminals on the street, he’s trying to keep his private life afloat, including spending time with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), serving as a key member of the Academic Decathalon, keeping himself afloat amidst the bullying of the popular Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and pining after his crush, Liz (Laura Harrier). However, Peter’s yearning for something greater is put to the test when he uncovers a black arms dealing ring led by a disgruntled salvager Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who has been selling recovered Chtauri technology that he’s been weaponizing, including his own Vulture-like suit. Since he’s too small-time for the Avengers to be bothered, it is up to Peter to step up and prove himself as the hero he desperately wants to be.
This movie has been sold to audiences as “a superhero movie directed by John Hughes,” and quite frankly, that’s not a bad analogy. If Hughes were still alive and offered a Marvel movie, this is pretty much exactly the type of film he would make. It gets the sense of high school down to the letter, both in a literal sense and a metaphorical sense. I can’t really get into the metaphorical, because that would get into spoiler territory for a few major plot points (you’ll know them when I see them, it’s a really great scene for everyone involved), but in a literal sense, I simply refer to the way the six (that’s not a typo) screenwriters – Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers – have captured the feeling of high school. The angst of wanting to get out and start your life already. The horrors of being picked on by the popular kid – in a brilliant choice, Flash Thompson is no longer the muscular jock who picks on Peter, but a rick dick who uses his power and class to intimidate. The terror of confessing your feelings to your dream girl. All of these feelings and emotions play out in a perfect balance of charm, nostalgia, and comedic timing. And I haven’t even touched on the little features, like a hysterically awful morning news show, or the hilariously accurate party scene, or the terrible instructional videos the gym teacher makes you watch (as a side note, Chris Evans plays Captain America in these videos, and the best work in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe). If that’s not enough, the film wonderfully gives you allusions to those wonderful films that got you through high school. Off the top of my head, I can clearly remember allusions to The Breakfast Club, Can’t Hardly Wait, Pretty in Pink, and Mean Girls. There’s a brilliant scene where Spidey chases after two villains that had me thinking, “This feels just like Ferris Bueller,” only for Peter to run by a family watching that very scene from Ferris Bueller and declare “Great movie!” All of these small details come together to tell a story of a young boy going through those life-changing four years that bring us all together, even if he does have superpowers while doing so. I’m not sure if main storywriter Daley’s knack here comes from his time on Freaks and Geeks or not, but man, somebody on that team has a real gift.
However, this is a superhero movie first and foremost, and I’m happy to report that they’ve nailed this aspect for three major reasons. The first is the setting. The reason we love Spider-Man is because he’s a kid, just like so many of us, that wants to make his neighborhood a better place. He’s the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, for crying out loud. By making sure they’ve set this universe firmly in Queens, and the main character firmly in high school, it allows us to truly bask in the reasons we love this character. He’s learning his powers at the same rate we learn his powers, and that makes the fight sequences so much more exciting. I won’t say these are the best action sequences in the world. In fact, the final fifteen-minute climax is a bit of a letdown. However, we’re still watching a kid doing flips and clinging to walls, and that’s just plain awesome. The second reason this movie works is the villain. Michael Keaton is absolutely fascinating as Toomes here, working on so many levels. First of all, he’s just plain menacing, and yet in a fun way. Loki may be great because he chews scenery, and Heath Ledger’s Joker may be great because he’s truly pure evil, but Keaton remembers the reason we love comic book villains in the first place: because they can be goofy and menacing at the same time. He’s less Loki and the Joker and more Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin. What’s more, he has a real motivation, which makes him more fascinating than almost any villain we’ve seen in twenty years. You see, Toomes is a man who was wronged by the system, ousted from his job cleaning up New York after The Avengers due to Tony Stark’s team-up with the government, costing men like Toomes everything. He’s watched as the rich and the government have tried to steal his American Dream, and all he wants is to steal it back. It’s so low-key and so understandable, I’m shocked that Hollywood continues to make us suffer through plot after plot of “Take over the world” or “Destroy the world.” Honestly, just give me a glorified thief and arms dealer with some real motivation, and I’m sold. However, the most important reason this movie works is because it’s just plain fun. For the first time since The Avengers, we feel like we’re watching a comic book movie. I’m not talking about a movie where superheroes beat people up and stuff blows up – that’s a superhero movie. I’m talking about a movie where everyone’s having fun, you have something to root for, and you feel like those images you studied as a child are truly coming to life before your eyes. There’s a scene where Spider-Man is grabbed by the Vulture, and honestly I felt a special chill that I haven’t felt since the camera circled the Avengers in 2012, and before that it was when Tobey Maguire perched in front of the American flag shortly after 9/11. These are the types of films I want to see, the ones that make me feel like a little kid again. And the way to do that is to remember that Spider-Man is someone who cracks wise, helps out his community, and just generally has a good time. Oh, and when it comes to nostalgia, it doesn’t hurt that the score to this movie is a dramatic orchestral rearrangement of the famous television theme song that we all know by heart.
Everyone knows that while a good superhero movie may only need a good hero, villain, and sidekick, a great high school movie needs everyone from the top down to be great. You don’t just walk away from Sixteen Candles remembering Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, and Michael Schoeffling (Jake Ryan, for those of you who don’t know the actor). You walk away remembering Ringwald’s friend, and John Cusack, and Gedde Watanabe. The supporting roles are just as important as the leads, and luckily Spider-Man understands this so clearly that it crosses off both checklists quite thoroughly. Starting with the superhero side of things, we obviously need to start with Tom Holland. Holland is, hands down, the best actor to play the role. While Maguire was a great Peter Parker, and Andrew Garfield was a great Spider-Man, Holland is the first one to perfectly nail both aspects of the character. It helps that he’s matched by Keaton, who is absolutely loving his chance to be the snarling villain, while adding layers and layers of dimension to the character. I still say that Marisa Tomei is too young to play Peter’s Aunt May, but the film is aware of this by referencing his “hot aunt” throughout. Plus, I’ll never complain about a movie giving Tomei the chance to be an absolute delight. As the nerdy best friend, Jacob Batalon steals the movie, serving as Spidey’s sidekick and moral support. Almost every line out of his mouth is funny, and if this is the next generation of Anthony Michael Hall-esque nerds, then count me in. Donald Glover shows up in a brief, wonderful role that has come to define his career (his two scenes as a laconic bit criminal are some of the film’s best scenes) that will prove a treat for comic fans. And while their scenes were the most unnecessary, Jon Favreau and Robert Downey, Jr. are both hilarious in the roles they’ve honed for almost eight years. However, the stars of this film are the peope who inhabit Midtown High. If we’re using Hughesian archetypes to describe these people, then Laura Harrier and Zendaya are both wonderfully charming as the Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy, respectively. I’m especially fond of the way Zendaya can turn a phrase. Tony Revolori is truly amazing as Flash, who is the perfect send-up to James Spader in Pretty in Pink, and never fails to get a laugh. Martin Starr and Hannibal Buress are hilariously inept as teachers at the school, while Kenneth Choi is great in a small scene as the school principal. And other students who stand out include Abraham Attah as Abe, Angourie Rice as Bety Brandt, and Tiffany Espersen as Cindy. Each of these students make up a realistic, wonderfully diverse little representation of what high school is like, and I probably would have loved this film even if there weren’t superheroes and it just focused on their interactions. Oh, and if you’re wondering who provides the voice for Peter’s Stark-ified super suit, that would be Academy Award-winner Jennifer Connelly, and she is absolutely charming.
Can Spider-Man: Homecoming be at least twelve minutes shorter? Absolutely. Would it have been better if it had a stronger climax? Sure. However, this is a superhero movie where the hero loves to do the right thing, where the characters look like they’re having fun, and where we are reminded about why we love comic books in the first place. This is the most I’ve loved a comic book movie in five years, and I’m glad that Marvel made something this charming. It may not be Spider-Man 2 good, but it’s at least in that same ballpark. And that’s truly saying something.