People are going to love Spider-Man: Homecoming. And that’s kind of a problem.
So much hay has been made of Sony’s handling and mishandling of the Spider-Man franchise since things flew off the rails with Spider-Man 3 in 2007. It’s been ten years, and we’ve seen three films with two full reboots and two different leads, with Sony finally giving in and letting Marvel Studios take the reigns of the character, folding him into the MCU mega-giant with a cameo appearance in Captain America: Civil War. Sony still gets their name up front and Marvel gets creative control. Seems like a match made in heaven, right?
And for the short appearance in Civil War, at least, it seemed so. Relative newcomer Tom Holland seemed to be the Spider-Man that the comic fans wanted, not the sullen smolder of Andrew Garfield or the gee-whiz wide-eyed silver age-ness of Tobey Maguire, and his role in the airport conflict helped spice up a movie that was in danger of starting to wear out its welcome. In an enjoyable conceit, Spider-Man: Homecoming opens (after a quick establishment of its villain) with that fight from Civil War from the perspective of Peter Parker. He’s so amped up about the whole thing that he’s decided to vlog it all (this is a true blue millennial Spider-Man), and the change of perspective is engaging. But nothing lasts forever, and the film soon settles into its comfortable, superhero movie formula, with Parker following Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) around to try to become an Avenger, looking to prove his mettle by taking on Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a supervillain below the Avengers radar selling alien tech weapons and staging daring heists with the help of his flying Vulture rig. But this is still Peter Parker we’re dealing with, so he has to hide his true identity from Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), antagonist Flash (Tony Revolori) and his crush Liz (Laura Harrier), all while still trying to attend school and juggle his social calendar with the prospect of one day getting the call to suit up with the big boys.
Spider-Man’s always been portrayed as more of a comedic, light-hearted hero, and that trend continues with bright colors and nonstop jokes. There are definitely laughs to be had; Martin Starr (I’m still having difficulty watching him make the transition from slacker burnout to responsible teacher-man) has what might be the laugh line of the year, and Chris Evans delights in a series of tongue-in-cheek PSAs that play into his milquetoast goody-goody persona. Small cameos from the likes of Hannibal Burress and Donald Glover get some good lines as well. So it’s pretty easy to remain entertained throughout. That is, until Downey Jr. shows up on screen, wielding the same shtick we’ve seen for 9 years now, nary a sign of the turmoil of Iron Man 3 or Captain America: Civil War to be found. Tony Stark can still be an interesting character despite being foisted on us so omnipresently for so long, but here, we see none of that depth. He’s supposed to be the father figure Peter doesn’t have in his own life, an absentee father of a different variety (note that the words “Uncle Ben” are never uttered in this movie), but Downey is so smug and self-satisfied and cocky that you can’t break through the veneer and find any heart. He’s a cardboard cutout of a man.
Keaton doesn’t help matters either, though that’s not entirely his fault. Trotting out his rough, Birdman grumble, he succeeds in giving Toomes menace, but his character doesn’t make any particular sense. He’s a disgruntled everyman city contractor, spurned from the goldmine of being booted off the job to clean up New York after the events of The Avengers and holding a grudge, and somehow turns his outfit into a multi-million dollar generating alien weapons depot. We see scenes of him and his goons soldering all sorts of alien tech together, with no sense of how they figured out how any of this works. It’s just there. You’d think that with 130 or so minutes of movie to unfurl, at least some amount of time would be spent establishing how this man of the people (the 99% versus 1% aspect of his crusade is handled like a sledgehammer, not a rapier) became a super genius capable of whipping up an admittedly terrifying jetpack rig with all sorts of nasty weaponry. You’re expected to just go along with it.
It’s a symptom of the script by committee process these films have become (the film has six script-writing credits) that Spider-Man: Homecoming never finds its voice. It wants to be a John Hughes high school awkward comedy and a thrilling superhero beat-em-up, and the two can’t quite mesh together in a satisfying way. The story beats are the same as they’ve been since Maguire was under the hood, with Peter breaking all sorts of promises and standing up friends and family to fight crime surreptitiously. It’s good that this isn’t an origin story; we’ve seen more than enough of those for one lifetime, but it doesn’t do enough with the character to make him interesting beyond a pop culture surface level. Holland works as a hyperactive kid trying to juggle a life way too complex for his age, and for his part, he feels the most at home walking the hallways of a high school compared to previous Peters Parker, but there’s a spark that’s missing. It’s the same story we’ve been watching for fifteen years. The Raimi films worked as well as they did because they had an identity. But identity has been stomped out of these films as the money rolls in (which is silly, considering that those Raimi Spider-Man films broke all sorts of box office records back in the day). It doesn’t feel like anything, just another case of a promising indie director (Jon Watts of the pretty good Cop Car) brought into a system that makes these movies on autopilot.
And it works. Spider-Man: Homecoming is entertaining. That’s impossible to deny. But that entertainment is fleeting and paper-thin, unable to hold up to scrutiny. It’s a fine, disposable trip to the movies with laughs and thrills, but never even considers the possibility of trying to be even a little bit more than that. Superhero movies could skate by with that for a while, simply due to the pure novelty of it all, the excitement of seeing these characters blossom in a new medium. But it’s been seventeen years since X-Men, and Spider-Man: Homecoming is more old hat than shiny new toy.