Byline: A. Spruiell/Black
There are so many things to love about Spider-Man: Homecoming, it’s hard to narrow them down right away. This is the sixteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the first solo movie to feature Marvel’s most famous character – the teenaged, wall-crawling, web head – Spider-Man (RESPECT THE HYPHEN.) You could start with Tom Holland’s earnest, endearing, exuberant, excited and eminently likable performance as Peter Parker. You could talk up Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes a.k.a. the Vulture as one of the most relatable villains Marvel has ever put to screen, with motivations and justifications that almost have you rooting for him to succeed. There is just enough Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. to establish that this movie takes place in the Marvel corner of the film universe without beating you over the head with references and call-backs. Long story short, Homecoming is a delight from start to finish, and had a toothy grin on this fan’s face the entire time.
And the weirdest part is we might have Seth Rogen to thank for all of this.
In the 1990s, Marvel was in trouble. They were quickly approaching bankruptcy, needing quick thinking and creativity to stay liquid. It got so bad that noted comic fan Michael Jackson – yes, that Michael Jackson – was looking to purchase the comic company as part of a misguided attempt to play Spider-Man in a live-action film. [That’s a 100% true story and I like to believe there’s at least one version of Earth in the multiverse where it happened.]
Eschewing that plan, Marvel instead decided to sell off the film and television rights of some of their most popular characters to other studios. Twentieth Century Fox purchased the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Ghost Rider and all of their related side characters and villains including Dr. Doom, Magneto, the Skrulls, the Silver Surfer, Galactus and exclusive use of the term “mutant”. Universal Studios received the film, TV, and animation rights to the Incredible Hulk, while also purchasing the right to use Marvel characters in any of their theme park rides. And, in the most lucrative deal, the film and merchandise rights for Spider-Man were sold to Sony Pictures. Since then, Spider-Man has been the tenth most lucrative movie franchise of all time, earning over $3.9 billion since 2002.
The original Spider-Man (2002) starred Tobey Maguire and was directed by horror aficionado Sam Raimi. It is widely regarded as the harbinger of the modern superhero movie boom. Revolutionary for the time, it was a faithful adaptation of the character to screen while making an obscene amount of money, inflation be damned. This inevitably led to a sequel and any flaws that had been masked by the novelty of the original were smoothed away and refined into near-perfection in Spider-Man 2 (2004). A deft mix of romance, drama, and action, it set box office records and is widely regarded as one of the most complete super-hero films ever. It seemed like Sony would be printing money off of Spider-Man films for years, and Marvel, with no hand, financial or creative, in any of this success, was chomping at the bit to get into the film game.
Then, along came Spider-Man 3 (2007).
Development on the third began right after the second’s release. Raimi’s original vision involved a story of Peter learning that “no good deeds go unpunished” and he is not a “sinless vigilante”. Ben Kingsley was in line to star as The Vulture, alongside Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman, but Sony stepped in and demanded Venom be included instead. The script was re-worked and re-written to include Venom, Gwen Stacy, and Raimi’s desired resolution to Harry Osborn/Son of the Goblin thread that ran through all three movies. The rest is “emo-dancing” history. Fans and critics alike found the movie bloated and directionless, adding too many side-plots and characters without focusing on theme, story, plot or established character development. And that’s glossing over the monumental mistake of casting Topher Grace – Eric Foreman from That 70s Show – as the hulking Eddie Brock/Venom, when he would have been much more at home playing Peter.
That failure led to the first soft reboot – The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) – starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone and directed by 500 Days of Summer’s Marc Webb. It performed just well enough critically to get a sequel greenlit, while still proving the franchise had financial juice, despite a reboot so soon after the original trilogy. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was then released in 2014. However, it fell victim to the same issues as the Maguire trilogy. The sequel was – again – overstuffed with villains and too many plot threads to manage after some Sony-induced meddling. It underperformed as a summer tent-pole, receiving mixed reviews and a tepid box office response, and had executives at Sony wondering if they had reached the end of the road with the Peter Parker.
Simultaneously, Sony Pictures had developed a comedy with Seth Rogen and James Franco called The Interview. In it, Rogen and Franco play a producer and talk-show host, respectively, who manage to score an interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. They are then tasked by the CIA with Kim Jong Un’s covert assassination and hijinks ensue. Taking great issue with the movie’s content and release, Pyongyang and the North Korean government threatened action if the film was not shelved. Sony refused, and in December of 2014, North Korean hackers breached Sony servers and released several thousand private emails to the Internet.
Among the information contained therein were pointed discussions about Spider-Man and how to fix the franchise for the future. The ideas varied from regular bad (a rushed Sinister Six film that WOULDN’T feature Spider-Man, more emphasis on Peter Parker as a “millenial”) to hilariously awful (Aunt May as a spy). The studio had apparently gotten so desperate that Sony head Amy Pascal had reached out to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige for advice on Amazing Spider-Man 2. And even more surprising, Feige responded. His notes went largely ignored, but indicated his deeper adoration for and understanding of fans’ attraction to the character.
Public perception lowering by the day, Sony reeked of desperation, and their parent company, Sony Electronics, demanded action. Marvel smelled blood in the water and pounced, producing a deal that allowed the two studios to collaborate on any and all future Spider-Man projects. Sony would retain the rights to film profits, but Marvel would receive all merchandising funds. And most importantly, Spider-Man and his villains were now eligible to appear in any Marvel Cinematic Universe property, including future Avengers movies.
Which brings us to now and back to Homecoming. Critics and fans alike are in love with the movie, in some cases calling it the best Spider-Man film ever. What managed to work here that didn’t in the Spider-Man movies before it?
It starts with Marvel’s insistence that the character be a teenager and remain that way. They didn’t want him to age up like Tobey Maguire, who only spent the first twenty minutes of his film in high school. This works on two fronts by introducing some much needed youth to the MCU, while also being a more true-to-comic adaptation of the character. Part of Peter Parker’s appeal is that while he’s a superhero, his most daunting task is balancing that fact with his personal life. He flakes on academic decathalon, he quit the band, he quit the robotics club. Peter can’t just jet off to meet the Avengers in Sokovia; he’s got a Spanish quiz. Throughout the movie, Peter is trying to make a decision between being a high-schooler and being Spider-Man, instead of balancing the two. He’s just a kid, and you’re reminded of that both when he is and isn’t wall-crawling, by his desire to be noticed, be special, know his purpose and just feel useful and appreciated. He’s figuring out who he is as a person and a hero. Holland really makes you feel with Peter more than before and part of that is his age. The danger feels more intense because of his youth, inexperience and naïveté. It seems that every time Peter becomes Spider-Man, things start to get worse, and that belies an underlying theme to the movie which is that Peter doesn’t know exactly what he’s fighting for just yet.
Tom Holland captures all of this and more in performance, which is nothing short of brilliant. Having done more of his own stunts and motion-capture than any of his predecessors, this performance feels more complete than the ones that came before it. Maguire always seemed to nail the timid Peter, but couldn’t muster the full acerbic, sarcastic bravado of Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield had the opposite problem: he almost seemed too cool to be Peter Parker, as he skateboarded his way through the city with perfectly coiffed hair, but was a fantastically self-assured and sarcastic Spider-Man. Holland nails the balance between the two. His Spider-Man has an unearned cockiness, that gets him into trouble more often than not, and his Peter is quiet, and unassuming, but not completely downtrodden. He is Spider-Man, after all.
The film’s screenwriters – John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein – really manage to nail the high school environment from awkward AV presentations with glitchy green screens to a modern bully who hurls insults rather than fists. Daley definitely brings some of his experience as a veteran of the cult hit Freaks and Geeks to the script. The characterizations for all of the members of the cast – not just Peter – feel authentic. Jacob Batalon’s Ned – loosely based on Ganke from the Amazing Spider-Man comic series – is the best friend that Maguire and Garfield’s versions Peter Parker never had. Peter is decidedly uncool – even gaining a phallic nickname from his peers – but is not beaten down by that fact, in part, because he has Ned as his “guy in the chair”. Tony Revolori plays a brilliantly douchey Flash Thompson (“I’ve had good branzino and that was NOT good branzino”) to rival Holland’s Parker. Zendaya’s Michelle is clearly the “too cool for school” hipster who just yearns to be accepted, spending most of her time orbiting Peter and Ned, without admitting that she’s doing so.
And while we’re talking characterization, let’s get to Michael Keaton’s Vulture. A literal technology vulture – using his flight suit to steal the extraterrestrial scrap from other government agencies – Keaton’s Toomes has understandable motivations. He’s the small business owner who got stomped on by the little guy when Tony Stark stole a city contract out from underneath him to clean up following the “Battle of New York” in The Avengers. And like most of us, Toomes refuses to take it lying down. He wants to provide for his family and make sure his “guys” are taken care of so they can do the same. Marvel has taken some light criticism – however, warranted – that their villains feel one note and disposable. Fans point to Thor’s adopted brother Loki and Bucky “Winter Soldier” Barnes as successes, while regarding many others as avatars for evil as opposed to fully fleshed out characters. Some of this has to do with limited screen time; you can understand a character better the more time you spend with them, hence why Bucky and Loki feel more fleshed out than others. The Netflix shows get some of the same praise while being afforded hours of screen time to develop a backstory, lists of misdeeds and motivations. It’s harder to do in 30-45 minutes. Some of this also has to do with motivation. It’s harder for audiences to identify with a plan that involves destroying the Earth, but much easier with plans for robbery or compromising your values for a “greater good” or revenge. On top of all that, Keaton is fantastic as Toomes. He’s menacing, but still endearing, and that depth of character gives him staying power. You can see his descent as his desperation leads to more and more compromise of who he is as a man, and what he believes. He’s justified in his anger, but not in his actions, and that’s where he and Spider-Man can’t see eye to eye.
The Staten Island Ferry scene featured in most of the trailers is a fantastic analogy for this franchise. A ship is sinking (Sony Pictures) and one man tries to keep it afloat (Spider-Man) even though he was the one that caused it to torpedo in the first place. Then, out of nowhere, Iron Man swoops down (Kevin Feige and Marvel), and fixes everything with little to no visible effort. Marvel created Peter Parker, they understand what makes him tick, why he’s important and beloved. Much like Peter, they have finally gotten the chance to prove themselves with their own franchises. They wouldn’t possibly screw that up.
All in all, this movie captures Spidey more completely than any of its predecessors. It’s clear that their history with the character gives Marvel an inside track on understanding how the market, write and produce him. It’s no surprise that they believe he’ll be the Iron Man of this generation of Marvel movies, the connective tissue and most popular character.
Welcome back, web-head. Shouts out to Seth Rogen.
EASTER EGGS/SPOILERS AHEAD:
Before the movie’s release, Tom Holland confirmed a long held fan theory that this kid from Iron Man 2 is a young Peter Parker attending the Stark Expo, and this is the reason for his deep adoration of Iron Man/Tony Stark.
During the Marvel Studios fanfare at the start of the movie, an orchestral version of the Spider-Man cartoon theme song plays.
Donald Glover appears as Aaron Davis, the man who would eventually become Spider-Man villain, the Prowler. For those outside of the know, when The Amazing Spider-Man was first in development, Sony briefly considered changing Peter Parker’s race to avoid confusion with the Maguire franchise. This inspired a online fan campaign to cast Glover in the role, which he happily endorsed. It didn’t gain enough steam in Sony’s eyes, but Marvel took note, specifically head writer Brian Michael Bendis. After seeing Glover in an episode of Community, Bendis was inspired to create a new character based on the actor, a half black/half hispanic teen named Miles Morales, the new Spider-Man. Now, Glover not only appears in the film – fan service in and of itself – but mentions an erstwhile nephew, a direct reference to Morales who is Aaron Davis’ nephew in the comics. In addition, Davis’ license plate in the movie is UCS-M01, referring to Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1, Miles Morales first appearance.
Peter’s high school principal is played by Kenneth Choi, who previously played Howling Commando Jim Morita in Captain America: the First Avenger. The principal in this movie is his grandson, as noted by the picture of the Commandos in his office and use of Captain America instructional videos throughout the school, despite the fact that Cap is “a war criminal or something”.
After discovering Peter is Spider-Man, Ned says he would “stand on top of a tall building and shoot [his] webs just to see how far they could go”. This is exactly what Tobey Maguire does when he first becomes Spider-Man in the original trilogy. He also asks if Peter can summon an army of spiders, a reference to this comic scene.
Peter begs Ned not to tell his Aunt May he is Spider-Man after “everything she’s been through”. Later on, during the ferry incident, she is nervous she can’t reach Peter to the point of hysterics. These are both references to the death and murder of her husband and Peter’s uncle, Ben Parker.
The man on the ferry buying weapons from Toomes and Shocker, who also confronts an imprisoned Toomes in the after-credits scene, is Mac Gargan. He eventually becomes the Scorpion, something foreshadowed by his visible scorpion neck tattoo. He, Vulture and Shocker now all hold grudges against Spider-Man, laying the groundwork for “the Sinister Six”, a rotating lineup of Spidey villains who routinely team-up to try and finally end the web-slinger once and for all.
The female high school newscaster is Betty Brant, a Daily Bugle employee and love interest for Peter in the comics. She was played by Elizabeth Banks in the original trilogy.
The harrowing scene near the film’s climax, with Peter trapped under the wreckage of Toomes’ lair, is a direct reference to the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #33.
The mascot of Midtown High is the Tigers, the nickname famously given to Peter by Mary Jane Watson. A tiger mascot also runs by in the scene directly before Zendaya’s Michelle reveals her nickname – “MJ”.
Karen – the A.I. in Peter’s suit – is voiced by Jennifer Connelly. She is married to Paul Bettany, who voiced Jarvis, the original A.I. in Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit.
After saving Liz from the crashing elevator in the Washington Monument, as Peter hangs upside down, Karen remarks “The moment’s perfect! Kiss her now!”, referring back to Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst’s famous MTV Movie Award winning upside-down kiss in the original Spider-Man.
Among the recovered items mentioned or seen throughout the movie, there is “a prototype for Cap’s new shield”, an Ultron drone head, a box of arc reactors, Megingjörð (“Thor’s magic belt”), and black hole bombs from Thor: the Dark World
Howard Stark, Abraham Erskine and Bruce Banner are all featured on the school’s “Wall of Scientists”
Mason “The Tinkerer” Phinneas mentions that Shocker’s gauntlets were recovered from Lagos, Nigeria, indicating they most likely belonged to Crossbones and were later modified. You’ll remember Captain America ripped off and tossed away one of the gauntlets during their fight in Captain America: Civil War.
The design of Peter’s homemade suit is a nod to Ben Reilly, a clone of Peter Parker who briefly assumed the mantle of Spider-Man in the comics, during what is now known as “The Clone Saga”
When Liz, Betty and friends are playing “f*ck, marry, kill” with members of the Avengers, one mentions that Spider-Man “is probably 30 under that mask”, referring to Tobey Maguire’s and Andrew Garfield’s advanced ages while playing a young Peter Parker
Not necessarily an “easter egg” in the traditional sense, but Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, reunited with Tony after a brief breakup during the events of Civil War. It seems he took some of the advice in Cap’s letter to heart regarding not being alone.
In a moment of life imitating art, the Washington monument is actually under construction until 2019 for repairs to the elevator. Way to go, Spider-Man.