I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Spider-Man: Homecoming. I did really enjoy Tom Holland’s outing as Spidey in Captain America: Civil War, but I was kind of out of the loop for the pre-movie publicity (I barely even remember the trailers) and I felt going in more like I was seeing it out of MCU obligation than genuine hype. Plus, I still had some lingering resentment from the whole “pushing back the entire MCU production schedule to slot another white dude in” thing.
Coming out of Spider-Man: Homecoming, however, I had a big ol’ grin on my face. This movie was fantastically well-crafted and cast, and was loads of fun while also telling a heartfelt and complex story at its core.
Major plot spoilers after the cut! Please don’t read if you are planning to see it; it’s really worth going in unspoiled!
The movie opens with two prologues: first, one set right after the first Avengers movie. A construction crew hired to clean up after the Chitauri invasion is displaced by a well-meaning but unsympathetic government agency co-founded and co-funded by Tony Stark. The crew, led by the future Vulture, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), decides to keep a truckload of alien weaponry in retribution, and Toomes begins a black-market trade in the stuff. Cut to eight years later, and we see Peter’s perspective on the Civil War battle and establish his relationship with Tony and Happy.
Then Peter gets unceremoniously dumped back in Queens, and that’s where the issues start. Having had a taste of the big leagues, he is desperate for another shot at a large-scale mission with the Avengers team, but in the meantime he keeps on keeping on as a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. But when what should be a simple bust of a local robbery goes sideways because when the robbers whip out alien weapons, Peter decides he has to figure out who’s supplying them. The trail leads back to Toomes, whose intense loyalty to his family (the whole reason he’s running this weapons ring is to support them) means he doesn’t have the slightest qualms about beating up on a teenager if that teenager is trying to horn in on his profit margins. Nevertheless, Peter foils Toomes’s plans multiple times before being beaten so badly that Tony intervenes and tells Peter he has to let grown-ups handle it from here on out. Obviously, Peter listens.
Haaaaaaa. Of course he doesn’t. Even though Tony confiscates his suit, Peter is still desperate to stop Toomes, although a wrench is thrown into the works when he discovers that Toomes is the father of the girl he’s been crushing on all movie, Liz. Ultimately, he realizes that he can’t let that hold him back, and he rushes to intercept Toomes as the Vulture seeks to pull off one final heist: robbing a plane leaving Stark Tower en route for the new Avengers Mansion upstate, packed with precious superhero goodies. Their final battle ends with Peter bringing down the plane over Coney Island, the Vulture in jail, and Tony offering Peter a real spot on the Avengers team (which he cheerfully turns down, mistakenly thinking it was a test of his maturity). The post-credits scene offers a glimpse at the future villain, the Scorpion, a character I know less than nothing about.
As I said going into this review, I really enjoyed this movie overall. It had heart, it had emotional drama and conflict, and most importantly for a Spidey movie, it was genuinely funny. Tom Holland plays a much more believable teenager than either of the preceding two Spider-Men, and having a romantic subplot that doesn’t revolve around Mary Jane Watson or Gwen Stacy adds a much needed spontaneity to the plot – that is to say, you don’t spend the movie wondering how their relationship will match up to some event from the comic books.
The movie does pretty brilliantly slot itself into the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe; the villain’s weapons deals started in the aftermath of the Chitauri invasion and we jump into Peter’s perspective on Civil War as soon as we switch to his POV. That said, while it is MCU, it’s also not an ensemble movie. Tony does play a supporting role in the film, appearing here and there to offer his attempts at paternal guidance or to chide Peter for overreaching, but this isn’t Iron Man 5. (Yes, I’m counting Civil War as an Iron Man movie, because come on.) At the same time, his involvement gives certain aspects of the story a bit more realism, for example Peter’s suit: it makes far more sense that it was built by a wealthy billionaire with a penchant for designing shit for his fellow superheroes than by a teenager who probably hasn’t even heard of four-way-stretch spandex.
There are also some delightful Easter eggs: Kenneth Choi, for example, reprises his role as a Morita, although instead of Howling Commando Jim Morita, he instead plays Jim’s grandson, the principal of Peter’s school. (You can see Jim’s medals on the wall in Principal Morita’s office.) Captain America appears in several public-school-PSA videos wearily declaiming the importance of exercise or reprimanding detention-goers. That said, while I’m happy with the lack of involvement from the larger MCU players in the story, I do wish they’d expanded a little bit more – whether through news footage or some other background info – about the state of the larger MCU post-Sokovia Accords battle; we only get a throwaway line that “isn’t Cap a war criminal now?” and another one mentioning that Tony had been working on a new shield for Steve, suggesting that he was maybe moving toward forgiveness.
Another neat blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference is that Donald Glover’s character Aaron Davis has a throwaway line about wanting to keep Queens free of those dangerous alien weapons because he’s got a nephew who lives there. In the Ultimate Marvel canon, Aaron Davis is none other than Miles Morales’s uncle, and given the past push to have Glover play Morales, this is a particularly portentious nod to the fans. Hopefully it turns into something more than a subtle reference. I was bummed that we didn’t find out who was buying Avengers Tower (Tony had sold it since they’d relocated upstate) as it seemed like a bit of a plot hole. It’s unclear what other established MCU billionaires are there that Tony would be willing to sell to. I was hoping the post-credits scene would make it Norman Osborn but… I guess we’ve had enough Spider-Man movies with Green Goblin villains in them for now.
The movie is impressively racially diverse, actually showing a Queens high school that looks like a Queens high school: the classrooms and hallways are filled with people from a variety of races and backgrounds. And while Peter is obviously white, his best friend Ned is Asian-American, his love interest Liz is Black (as is crowd-pleasing comedy relief character Michelle, played by Zendaya); even Flash Thompson’s played by a Guatemalan-American actor. But more than just having ground-level diversity, the movie plays on our ideas of race and class. While it builds Toomes up into the premier example of the working-class white dude, playing cleverly into our perceptions of who and what we expect people who look and act like him to be, the major twist of the movie comes from the reveal that he’s Liz’s dad. We know all along that he is doing the terrible things he does to support his family, but never expect to see or connect with that family. The movie plays on our expectations of what that family would look like based on our assumptions about Toomes; after all, he feels like the quintessential dude-who-voted-for-Trump-because-of-jobs. Add that to the fact that there hasn’t been a single interracial relationship in the established MCU so far, and we never see it coming until he opens that door and introduces himself as her dad. This not only blindsides us, but it also throws a wrench into the easy breakdown of the conflict between the Vulture and Peter. Defeating Toomes is no longer simple, negative-consequence-free; rather than just being harmful to some generic, faceless family, we now see that it will tear apart the family of the girl Peter has spent the movie pining for.
Furthermore, the inclusion of not one but two noteworthy Black girls in the story does so much to dismantle so many typical stereotypes about Black girls. For one thing, just having more than one allows them to be unique characters rather than forcing one person to carry the weight of representation for their entire race and gender. Neither of them has to be everything to everyone, which means they can just be people. Liz is so important as a Black girl who’s the subject of a totally innocent, unsexualized-in-the-narrative high school crush. She’s not portrayed as an adult sexual object, but rather a fully-realized, agency-having romantic subject. And Michelle is delightful because she’s so unapologetically herself. She’s fiercely intelligent (it’s her answer that helps her school’s team win the national Academic Decathlon) and woke (she refuses to go into the Washington Monument on a class trip because it was built by slaves) but also self-deprecating and funny. She’s also (somehow, despite Zendaya being ridiculously gorgeous) an average-looking teenager. With the reveal at the end of the movie that her “friends call her MJ”, she’ll presumably play a bigger role in future films – hopefully she gets to keep her average appearance rather than having the painfully stereotypical smart-girl-turns-cute transformation the instant she becomes a potential love interest.
The only real frustration of the movie is that Marisa Tomei’s much-younger-than-we’re-used-to Aunt May, given the ages of the previous women to play the role. Tomei is actually 52, which is a totally fine age to be raising a teenager at, but because she is portrayed as a sexy, sexual, fun older sister type character rather than the sexless matronly widows of the other Spider-Men, the difference is exacerbated. Because of this, she ends up being pretty much a sexy lamp character. Her role in the movie is mostly to be the object of other people’s attraction, which is frustrating in a script that did so much else well. The revelation that they cut a flashback scene in which she performs a heroic deed that inspires a young Peter to act on his own aspirations to be a hero is all the more frustrating because of this. This would have given her character significantly more depth – establishing what kind of things she does rather than just how other people react to how she looks. It would have also shown Peter as the kind of boy who is secure enough in his masculinity to have female role models who inspire his own heroism. It’s just as important to teach boys that they can look up to and relate with women as it is to provide female role models for little girls.
All in all, though, this movie ended up being a delight. While it’s still a bummer that the diverse headliners got pushed back to make room for it, the casting of this film is more easily more diverse than the rest of the MCU put together. Add that to the lighthearted and generally awesome storytelling, and I’m starting to feel some optimism for the MCU again. Now, to see if that lasts through Thor: Ragnarok.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!