Spider-Man has had a tumultuous decade, to say the least. Following the controversial 2007 release of director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 and a troubled development process for the fourth film, Sony Pictures rebooted the franchise with Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012. However, backstage controversy and the lukewarm reception to Amazing Spider-Man 2 led Sony to cancel the reboot and finally agree to allow Marvel Studios to include the character in its films. Originally a Marvel Comics character, Spider-Man’s arrival in the Marvel Cinematic Universe marks the superhero’s return to his roots, a long-awaited and momentous event celebrated by the film’s title: “Homecoming.”
Marvel’s childlike glee at finally crafting a film iteration of its own intellectual property is evident in every frame of Homecoming, which sweeps its audience into a breezy action-comedy as giddy and bubbly as its young protagonist: Peter Parker, played with endearing energy by Tom Holland. But ultimately, Homecoming’s preoccupation with throwing a welcome party for the iconic web-slinger results in a great MCU but only decent Spider-Man film.
Homecoming is defined by its intimacy. It tells a story that takes place at the margins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, away from the epic power shows and massive world-ending threats of the Avengers films. After getting a brief taste of Avengers glory in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) recruited him to help take down the rogue team of Steve Rogers (Chris Evan), Peter Parker finds himself back in New York relegated to the mundane tasks of stopping bike robbers and giving directions to old women. To prove to Tony and his “supervisor” Harold Hogan (Jon Favreau) that he is worthy of the Avengers, Peter recklessly involves himself in the illegal weapons sales of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). As his clash with Vulture escalates, Peter struggles to pursue his crush Liz Allan (Laura Harrier), manage his blabber mouth friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), and keep his identity secret from his aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
Perhaps more than any other MCU movie to date, Homecoming showcases to stunning effect the thematic and emotional depth the broader context provided by a cinematic universe can inject into individual films. The movie is stuffed with casual lines, images, and dialogue that acquire far greater significance if the viewer has watched Marvel’s other movies, which in turns enriches their understanding of the thematic underpinnings of Homecoming itself. When Tony tells Peter that “if you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t be wearing it,” his words carry the emotional weight of the entire Iron Man trilogy, which traced Tony’s realization and internalization of that exact lesson. Similarly, when he mutters to himself that “I sound just like my dad” while lecturing Peter, Tony hints that his difficulty in acting as a paternal figure stems from his own troubled relationship with his father. This subtext adds layers of meaning to Tony’s interactions with Peter, elevating them from mere comedy to subtle character studies. Meanwhile, Captain America’s cameo appearance as a gym trainer in educational videos doubles in both hilarity and irony in light of his origins as a World War II propaganda icon. Peter’s smug pride at stealing Captain America’s shield highlights his innocent view of the Avengers when juxtaposed against the sad reality of what the shield now represents to Tony: Steve’s betrayal of their friendship and “theft” of the shield from the man (Howard Stark) whose murderer he knowingly spared.
By grounding Homecoming’s narrative in the intimacy of a local New York setting, Marvel is able to demonstrate with unprecedented vividness the Avenger’s cultural and political impact on their society. The Vulture’s villainy is a result of Stark Industries, in collaboration with the U.S. government, denying his small company the profit of salvaging the alien Chitauri technology left behind by the massive New York battle of the Avengers. High school girls playing Mary, F, Kill with members of the Avengers, Captain America starring in educational videos, Midtown School’s coach wondering aloud whether Captain America is now considered a war criminal (following the events of Civil War), ATM robbers dressing in Avengers costumes, Peter lying about working a Stark Industries internship—these seemingly trivial details inject a concrete sense of realism in an otherwise whimsical setting. Marvel’s world thus feels like a real, breathing entity that evolves in response to major events like the partial destruction of New York City and the failure of the Sokovia Accords. The massive scuffles that Tony, Steve, and all the other Avengers engage thus feel more consequential.
In fact, Homecoming’s small-scale world-building infuses the Avenger’s fantastical adventures with real weight by making concrete the abstract philosophical debate that dominated Civil War. (Are the Avengers a force for good or destruction?). Whereas Civil War framed its debate through the oddly detached machinations of bureaucratic politics and the introduction of thinly-sketched victims, Homecoming personalizes the conflict by extensively developing two “little guys” who epitomize the human costs of the Avenger’s activities. Civil War’s argument plays out across Homecoming’s narrative through the villainy of Vulture (antagonized by the fallout of the Avenger’s New York battle) and the heroism of Spider-Man (inspired by the Avenger’s selfless sacrifice). Homecoming thus retroactively enriches Civil War’s themes and improves upon its execution, strengthening the MCU as a whole while still telling its own particular coming-of-age story. The result is one of the greatest MCU movies ever made, one which finds fresh angles through which to explore the themes, characters, and settings of Marvel Studio’s interconnected films.
But while Homecoming succeeds brilliantly as an MCU film, it does not swing as high when viewed as a Spider-Man film. To be sure, the movie captures certain aspects of Peter’s character, such as his essential youth, far better than did either the original Riami trilogy or the short-lived Webb movies. When Peter desperately calls for help while buried under a massive pile of rubble, the audience’s visceral exposure to his vulnerability forces it to remember that despite his superpowers, Peter is ultimately just a fifteen-year-old child confronting a scary world beyond his control. In keeping with this theme, Homecoming dedicates considerable energy to realizing Peter’s high school life, again with more definition than previous film iterations of the character managed. Spider-Man’s incessant chatter during battle, Peter’s compensation for his usual shyness, finally graces the silver screen after Tobey Maguire’s mostly muted web-slinger and Andrew Garfield’s more-coarse-than-funny take on the character’s wise-cracking banter.
But these successes are overshadowed by the film prioritizing integrating Spider-Man into the MCU rather than telling a stand-alone Spider-Man story; as such, the same plot elements that make it such an effective addition to Marvel Studio’s catalog also undermine its efficacy as a Spidey flick. On the most basic level, Homecoming’s emotional and thematic range cannot be fully appreciated by viewers who have not watched Marvel’s other films; comic-book fans looking for straightforward, independent Spider-Man story will be disappointed. More critically, Tony’s presence threatens the entire thematic construct of the Spider-Man mythology, which is grounded in Peter’s poor socio-economic background and isolation from external sources of assistance. Giving a blue-collar hero like Spider-Man a multi-billionaire superhero as a close mentor renders contrived the entire class-based subtext of his story. Tony’s technological genius also obscures the nerdy intelligence so integral to Peter’s character, a problem crystallized in Peter receiving his Spider-Man suit from Tony rather than designing it himself (as in the original comics). The hyper-sophistication of the suit, which can perform a variety of functions so broad it is essentially an updated Iron Man suit, deprives Peter of opportunities to demonstrate his creative thinking (though this issue is somewhat alleviated in the final act).
Most damagingly, the film’s extensive focus on Peter’s relationship with the broader MCU—his desire to impress Tony to become an official Avenger—severely dilutes to near non-existence central elements of Peter’s story, specifically that of Aunt May’s economic hardships and Uncle Ben’s tragic death. While the filmmakers’ desire to downplay these elements is understandable in light of their thorough exploration in Raimi’s and Webb’s movies, their near-total removal drains Peter of essential bits of his characterization and in the process erases much of what makes Spider-Man such a distinctive superhero. Skipping the murder of Uncle Ben is fine; expunging it from the narrative so that it doesn’t even appear to inform Peter’s characterization is not.
Homecoming is ultimately an enjoyable crowd-pleaser of a film, announcing Spider-Man’s entrance into Marvel’s movie world with appropriate delight. It demonstrates the fantastic storytelling potential of a cinematic universe and essentially justifies the existence of Marvel beyond its monetary benefits. Although it struggles to integrate Spider-Man into the MCU without sacrificing the character’s distinctive identity, Homecoming succeeds in disentangling the franchise from its decade-long web of uncertainty to introduce Spider-Man to a new generation of movie-goers.