Thoughts on ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ant-Man
Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

After his scene-stealing introduction in Captain America: Civil War, the next step would be to give Spider-Man, Marvel’s premier superhero, his own solo adventure. With an ideal casting choice in Tom Holland, and a strong ground work done by the Russo Brothers and writers Marcus and McFeely, the stage seemed set to give the webslinger his ultimate big-screen adventure.

We open shortly after the events of The Avengers, with blue-collar contractor Adrian Toomes and his crew hard at work cleaning up the destruction from the Chitauri invasion. But just as they’re getting started, they receive word that the government, funded by Tony Stark, is taking over all clean-up operations with its new Department of Damage Control. Since Toomes has just invested considerable capital in the venture, this threatens to ruin him and his men, so they decide that, rather than turning over the stuff they’ve already gathered, they’ll use it for a new venture; making high-tech weapons and gadgets for the black market.

Eight years later, we find Peter Parker returning from his adventure in Berlin with with his high-tech new suit from Tony Stark and eager for his next mission. But, as the months go by, he receives no word, even though he’s cleared his schedule and quit every extra-curricular activity just in case. Meanwhile, he spends his days after school patrolling for crime in his extremely peaceful Queens neighborhood, more often than not losing his clothes and backpack in the process. Then one night he encounters some bank robbers operating one of Toomes’s weapons and starts trying to track down where they came from, thinking this might be his chance to really impress Tony Stark and finally get to move up to some real action.

I think Spider-Man: Homecoming is probably the most severely mixed bag of the entire MCU: when it is good, it’s really good. And when it is bad, it’s really very bad. It has absolutely perfect casting on both Spider-Man and Vulture, the latter of whom is one of the best villains thus far, but with the exception of Aunt May it completely fails when it comes to Peter’s supporting cast, life, and even botches much of his superheroics.

Part of the issue is that Spider-Man is in a different position from the rest of the MCU. For the other characters, they’ve mostly been on their first or least first major adaptation. They may have had cartoons or low-budget, half-hearted feature films before, but for the most part the MCU was their introduction to the film going public. The one exception was the Hulk, whose film went out of its way to include the influence of the TV show.

This touches on the whole issue of adaptations. Stories accumulate ‘influences’ as they continue in the public mind to the extent that the affect the audience and are affected by them. For instance, if you’re adapting a little-seen stage play called “Everybody Goes to Rick’s,” you can more or less adjust the story as you like, and when the result is Casablanca, this then transforms the play and any future performances of it have to take the film into account, or else they risk alienating the audience. On the other hand, if you’re adapting “Macbeth,” you are much more limited in how much you can alter it, not only because any alterations are almost certain to be defects, but because everyone going in knows more or less what to expect and has an idea of the story. Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, the Weird Sisters, Duncan, and so on are ‘fixed’ as it were, and you can’t alter them severely without people saying “that isn’t Macbeth!”

To take a nearer example, the early adaptations of Superman had some leeway in his powers; they gave him flight because it looked better in animation than merely jumping would. But now that Superman’s ability to fly has become fixed in the public mind, you couldn’t do an adaptation based on the early comics where he couldn’t fly because it would be a jarring experience for the audience, not to mention being a bit of an insult to the character by not taking his history and development into account (that development being part of the character).

Now, Spider-Man has been adapted a lot; five previous live-action films, multiple animated TV shows, many video games, and he’s one of the most famous and recognizable superheroes in modern culture. His story, character, and supporting cast are fairly well known. So, making a new adaptation of Spider-Man is not like making, say, a Captain America adaptation; the general audience goes in knowing a good deal about him and his world.

This means that if you are going to make drastic, fundamental changes to his story and supporting cast, they had better be improvements, because even those who don’t know the comics have something to compare this to and they’ll start to ask why? Why is Peter’s best friend a fat idiot named ‘Ned Leeds’ rather than Harry Osborne, or failing that, someone like Robbie Robinson or even Eddie Brock (that is, someone actually from his school supporting cast rather than from the Daily Bugle)? Why is Flash Thompson a pathetic nerd? And what in God’s name have you done to Mary Jane?

Now, making Ned Leeds Peter’s best friend isn’t itself a huge deal: it’s kind of odd, especially since they don’t even make an allusion to his original character (this despite giving Betty Brant a cameo as a student reporter: just have Ned be her fellow reporter who tries to ask her out on air. It wouldn’t have been difficult and it would have provided him a bit of independent development), but assuming they didn’t want to bring the Osborne family in, it’s…fine, though again they might have taken any other random name from Peter’s supporting cast.

The real problem is that Ned is a pretty one-note character; he’s just the loser comic-relief best friend, who is kind of an idiot and…that’s it. He cautions Peter on some of his more impulsive decisions – despite himself impulsively making terrible choices relative to Peter’s superheroics at several points – and he gets a laugh now and then, but otherwise he’s just your standard loser best friend.

Contrast this with, for instance, Morgan from the show Chuck, who played basically the same character type, except that Chuck took the time to establish why Chuck and Morgan are best friends and to show that Chuck cherishes their relationship even as his secret identity puts increasing strain on it. Moreover, Morgan was made out to be an actual character, with his own goals and interests, who got frustrated, angry, and hurt by Chuck’s behavior, and who grows and develops over the course of the series. Now, Chuck obviously was a show, so they had more time to work with, but there were ways to bring something like that into the film, and…they don’t. Ned discovers Peter’s secret identity in the first act, so that kills that potential avenue of development, and he remains a largely flat character throughout, which is a problem because he has kind of a lot of screen time.

Meanwhile, the film’s revisionist versions of Flash and especially ‘MJ’ are both huge mistakes. For one thing, I can’t really figure out why Flash has the clout to bully Peter at all; he’s shown to be pretty incompetent himself, and he’s no longer an athlete, so why do people follow his lead in laughing at Peter instead of laughing at him in turn? Especially since Peter’s skill with wordplay ought to give him an edge here (which is one reason Flash has to be an athlete and a physical bully, by the way; it means that Peter can’t push back without revealing his secret identity and / or becoming a bully himself by picking on someone who doesn’t stand a chance against him. Having it be a battle of words and wit means that Peter has no reason to hold back and ought to be able to mop the floor with Flash).

Worse, Flash’s fundamental decency and heroism under his loudmouth, bullying persona are explicitly removed (e.g. during the crisis on the Washington Monument, he shoves Liz out of the way to get out first).

The issue here is less that this is different from the original character than that it’s considerably less interesting, rendering a complex character simplistic largely for the sake of a few cheap jokes. Having a swaggering bully who torments our hero while being himself heroic in a crisis and holding to a strict, though imperfect code of honor is interesting. Having a swaggering bully who cracks at the first sign of pressure, never one-ups the hero, and has no visible redeeming qualities is not.

But worst of all is the film’s take on ‘MJ,’ which amounts to taking one of the most famous and well-establish superhero love interests in all of comics and…basically changing everything about her except her nickname (she’s called ‘Michelle’ here. Why?). Gone is her chipper, outgoing, party-girl personality masking emotional trauma, gone is her confidence and charisma, gone even is her basic likability (and gone too is her trademark red hair. Again, why?). She’s continually sullen, belligerent, self-righteous, and scowling. The way she follows Peter around while denying it’s what she’s doing is a good idea, or would be if she were a more sympathetic character and if they actually had any kind of payoff to it. But they don’t, apart from the mere reveal that she is meant to be ‘MJ.’ Her presence doesn’t affect the story or the characters at all; you could cut her out and the film would function almost exactly the same.

Now what they could have done is have a scene where she actually pitches in to help Peter somehow. Like, she could use her knowledge of him to perk him up when he’s at his lowest point, reaching out to him and, for once, actually being sincere and offering some kind of support or comfort. It would be something like the scene in Naruto, where the title character is feeling doubtful about an upcoming fight and Hinata perks him up by revealing how much he inspires her (this being the first time they’ve really spoken to each other and hinting at a deeper connection than with his other friends), or like the scene in the fifth Harry Potter book where Ginny is the one to snap Harry out of his black depression by reminding him that she’s been through the same thing he’s worrying about. That would have given us some reason to want to see these two get together, establish some kind of positive side to her character, given them just some kind of relationship. But, no; she just glowers, snarks, and makes ‘woke’ comments throughout the film, meaning that their relationship is basically non-existence, and the only reason we have for even caring about her is that they slapped the nickname of a beloved character onto her at the last second to let us know this is supposed to be that character, so we should be invested in her.

All this is compounded by the fact that the film takes Peter’s inexperience at crime-fighting way too far, in my view. Yes, it’s funny to see him awkwardly fail to intimidate a thug, and the underlying theme that he really isn’t used to dealing with people who legitimately want to kill him is interesting. But they seem to forget that Spider-Man, even lacking experience, is an extremely dangerous foe. Civil War showed him tackling seasoned Avengers with relative ease and casually overpowering the Winter Soldier while quipping up a storm. Here, Shocker is basically able to knock him around with impunity simply because he lost his web-shooters. Earlier he struggles to keep up with and stop and ordinary van, even with his high-tech suit, and in the climax he ultimately fails to overpower or defeat Vulture in single combat. Granted they wanted to keep the drama level high, this is still too much and, again, too one-note. Spidey gets his heroic and impressive moments – the Washington Monument, the ferry battle, etc. – but he’s never allowed to be as powerful as even a rookie Spider-Man ought to be. In particular, the film seems to forget about his spider-sense and his incredible agility quite a lot. When he’s forced to run across an open golf-course, for instance, he just runs as fast as a normal, athletic kid. He ought to be able to cover the distance in a few moments. It would have been a good chance to remind us that he can move very fast even without web-slinging, but, again, they have to go for the joke.

Contrast this with, say, the show Spectacular Spider-Man, which also showed us a rookie Spidey as a sometimes-thoughtless teenager. But there, Peter’s lack of experience showed in making believable mistakes, jumping the gun and making the situation worse, and that sort of thing; not simply being unable to use his powers effectively.

Which brings us to another problem; the high-tech suit. I really have a problem with this, because giving Spider-Man a computer-powered, gadget-laden suit, complete with targeting systems and an on-board AI seems to me to be missing the point. Spider-Man is supposed to be the kind of hero with a relatively limited and fixed set of abilities; wall-crawling, agility, leaping, strength, spider-sense, etc. the challenge being to use his ingenuity and cunning to come up with creative applications to solve whatever problem he faces. Here he can just tell the suit what kind of webbing he wants to use (which half the time is the wrong type) rather than coming up with the idea himself, while the targeting system seems to render the whole spider-sense redundant. During the ferry disaster, the computer calculates where he ought to put his web to save the ship for him; how much more interesting would it have been if Peter had had to work it out himself using his own intelligence, super-senses, and knowledge?

Granted, part of the theme of the film is that Peter needs to learn to do without the suit, but the trouble is that, again, he really doesn’t do very well without it, and anyway the whole concept of it seems unnecessary and, well, not very Spider-Man (though I do like the AI, Karen, and Peter’s ‘relationship’ with her, which is perfectly in character for him).

But on the positive side, Peter’s relationship with Tony is excellent. It’s interesting to see Tony trying to be a mentor to an up-and-coming young super hero, and his stern, but affectionate treatment (which, continuing Tony’s own character arc, he comments reminds him of his own father) is perfect. The scene after the ferry disaster is excellent, as Tony lays into Peter for his mistake while letting him know that he actually was listening to him, and that things would have worked out if Peter hadn’t jumped the gun and gone behind his back. That’s the kind of mistake Peter ought to be making, and Tony’s rebuke is right on the money.

(I also really like Tony’s earlier comment: “Trust me; if Cap had wanted to lay you out, he would have,” not only neatly showing the difference between fighting other heroes who don’t want to hurt you and criminals who do, but also allowing Tony to show respect to his now-estranged friend).

This version of Aunt May is also pretty much perfect, despite the decision to cast her as much younger than usual (which, to be honest, makes a good deal of sense; if Peter’s this young, his aunt ought to be of an age with his parents and hence about forty or fifty). Though she doesn’t have as much screen time as I would have liked, their extremely close, loving, and trustful relationship is captured very well, and she gets to show all the stern, loving concern that she ought to in these circumstances. There are also good bits where she helps him prepare for the homecoming dance, and where they just go out to eat together. I also like that Peter doesn’t tell her about being Spider-Man because “she’s been through enough lately,” making another oblique reference to Uncle Ben.

I will also say that this version of Liz Allen is at least likable. She doesn’t have much personality, and Peter’s pursuit of her kind of just fizzles out, but she’s pleasant and good-natured enough (much more so than just about anyone else at the school), and Spidey actually gets to rescue her, so that’s good.

We also do get some good scenes of Spider-Man in action, including a recreation of the famous panel where Spidey finds the strength to lift a huge pile of debris off of himself. The final assault and battle on the plane is also extremely cool, while serving as a nice showcase of the difference between Peter and Toomes (one is trying to prevent as many deaths as possible, the other is only concerned about not leaving empty handed).

But the best part of the film, by far, is Vulture. This is an example of changing an established character and making him better. The Vulture of the comics and earlier adaptations was always something of a B or C list villain; not bad, but conceptually not very interesting. This one is not only a much more imposing threat, but they take the ‘vulture’ motif in a different direction, with him stealing the ‘scraps’ from the Avengers’ various missions, making them into weapons (Phineas Mason, AKA the Tinkerer is another supporting villain), and selling them for profit. Which, as Toomes tells Peter in a late-game speech, is what they, the working class, have to do any way; the rich and powerful run everything, and the little guys pick up the scraps.

Toomes is a really interesting character, played perfectly by the great Michael Keaton; a blue-collar, but hypocritical and ever-resentful bad guy who turns to crime out of a combination of desperation and resentment, grabbing at the rich lifestyle he nevertheless sneers at (listen to the way he says “that school,” describing the upscale high school Peter goes to). He’s sympathetic in that he really was treated unfairly, and he has his own particular code of honor, giving Peter a chance to walk away out of gratitude for saving his daughter’s life (the end credits scene reveals that this carries on past his defeat). That and he isn’t really looking to hurt anyone; he just doesn’t care whether anyone does get hurt by his actions. He and Schultz (Shocker) even have a brief exchange where they lament having to work with a man named Gargan (the future Scorpion), who is a legitimate psychopath. And all the while he has this strong, working-class, good-natured personality that would be likable under any other circumstances.

I also really like the design on his costume; the huge, imposing wings, green-eyed helmet, and even the feathered ruff of his bomber jacket, referencing the original design while updating it.

Really, Vulture is such a good villain and so well-conceived that he makes the film worth seeing just for his sake.

We also get two versions of the Shocker, another C-list Spider-Man villain, one of whom is a slacker on Toomes’s team whom he eventually kills for threatening to rat on them, the other is Schultz (Shocker’s original name), who doesn’t get much personality, but is able to more or less match the aesthetic of Shocker, including the padded yellow suit, and at least gives Spidey a hard time (The fact that at one point we have Shocker making his escape by riding Vulture had me momentarily in a state of pure comic-book bliss).

The humor in general is, again, a mixed bag. I laughed a fair amount; Peter’s quips are generally good, some of his mistakes are genuinely funny (I like his reaction when ‘Karen’ turns on the ‘instant kill’ mode), and Tony Stark gets some good jokes in. Again, I like Peter’s interactions with ‘Karen,’ and some of the awkward moments do work pretty well – such as when Happy Hogan summons Peter to a secret meeting in the men’s room, only to discover partway through than one of the stalls was occupied. But then again a lot the low-brow humor falls flat; such as the pathetic teacher saying he couldn’t lose a student on a school trip…again, and most of the antics of Ned and the rest of the high schoolers. Spidey’s pratfalls also get old very quickly.

I looked up the director and main writers of this film, and found that they had previously mostly worked on mid-level comedies. That’s kind of the problem with the film as a whole; it is too broad, too one note, and too crude. Far too much of the film’s potential is sacrificed in the name of making a cheap joke. The high schoolers apart from Peter and Liz Allen, his crush, are pretty unpleasant for the most part, the teachers are ‘comically’ pathetic, there’s a deal of crude humor sprinkled throughout (though thankfully not too much), and of course Spidey’s many, many pratfalls and mishaps. We passed on from a group of expert storytellers in Civil War, to…well, frankly, a bunch of hacks. What they produce is more or less serviceable, and again has some very strong elements, but is noticeably clumsier, cruder, and over all lesser than their predecessors (and I can’t resist: no, you idiots, the Washington Monument wasn’t built by slaves. How hard would that have been to look up?).

Speaking of which, I like Peter’s ‘home-video’ of the trip, but the continuity really doesn’t match up with Civil War. When does Tony take Peter back to New York? Either it’s right after the airport battle, or after coming back from Siberia, and he is way too chipper and cheerful for either of those. Not to mention both Peter and Tony are missing their bruises from the battle. We get a bit of a sense of what the public have been told about Cap going vigilante (a bored gym teacher comments “I think this guy’s supposed to be a war criminal now or something”), but not much. On the other hand, having the bank robbers wearing ‘Avengers’ masks was a great touch, and some of the ‘series continuity,’ such as Toomes explicitly stating that they’ve spent all this time trying to keep off the Avengers’ radar and that they’re done the moment that changes, or reference to the fact that they’re still cleaning up the ‘Triskelion mess’ from Winter Soldier, are very clever. And at the very end, Pepper Potts herself makes a triumphant return to the franchise, ending the film on a high note.

So, in summary, I really can’t say I like Spider-Man: Homecoming that much. The highs are great – Vulture, Tom Holland’s performance, Aunt May, Peter’s relationship with Tony Stark – but the lows are painful – Spider-Man’s incompetence, the desecration of the supporting cast, and the general clumsiness of the characterization and storytelling. It’s frustrating; they have probably the best live action Spider-Man yet, but they dropped the ball on building his story and his world. It’s still worth seeing, especially for Vulture, but for a series that has been doing such great work with almost every other Marvel hero, it’s a real disappointment to see them fumbling the Big One so badly.

1 thought on “Thoughts on ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

  1. I’m with you again on your conclusions about this movie:

    “I really can’t say I like Spider-Man: Homecoming that much. The highs are great . . . but the lows are painful.”

    So much potential wasted! Spider-Man is one of my favorite heroes, so I was bummed. The new, animated Spider-Man movie was so much better! Would love to see a review on that when you’re done with the MCU.

    Liked by 1 person

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