I’m certain most nerds have a special place in their hearts for Spiderman. I’m certain of that because I was a nerdy kid who used to love watching Spiderman cartoons on TV. Imagine being able to climb a New York City skyscraper or, even better, having the ability to shoot out a spider web and swing from building to building. Such imagining is possible because Spiderman is really Peter Parker, a nerdy high schooler who gains his powers when he is bitten by a mutant spider during a class trip. A nerd has little chance of becoming Superman. But Spiderman? Now that change seems possible, in the imagination at least.
After comics, cartoons, and live-action TV shows, Spiderman was portrayed in feature-length movies starring Tobey Maguire (2002, 2004, 2007) and Andrew Garfield, (2012, 2014). Last year, the British actor Tom Holland took on the role for a fairly brief appearance in the Marvel film Captain America: Civil War. This summer Holland returns to the role in a full-length feature, Spiderman: Homecoming.
You may wonder why the world needs a third incarnation of Spiderman in only 15 years. I suspect the main reason is commercial, with the goal of fitting a popular character into the Marvel “cinematic universe” and then churning out summer sequels. Aside from such cynical considerations, it is clear that Jon Watts and the film’s screenwriters wanted to update the Peter Parker/Spiderman story. Overall, it’s a successful update.
Peter is younger, a high school sophomore, and less isolated than Spidermen past. He has a group of nerdy friends, all preparing for the Academic Decathlon. He calls his best friend “Dude” and has his cell phone always at hand. His guardian, Aunt Mae (Marisa Tomei), is young and fiery. And in contrast to most Marvel films, the cast is strikingly diverse, adding to its contemporary tone. While my son argued that the portrayal of high school social dynamics is a bit “cringey” at times (like the homecoming dance of the title) and may soon date itself, I felt it made the film less comic-book like.
The plot boldly dispenses with the oft-told origin story of how Peter discovered his powers. Instead, we see Peter’s attempts to become a recognized superhero while he struggles with high school’s social demands.
In another change, the film’s villain is not some science experiment gone wrong but a regular guy. Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) has been robbed of a demolition contract and now steals to support his family, earning the nickname The Vulture. The character taps into the spirit of contemporary politics as he chides the elite for trampling over the working class. Keaton clearly enjoys his turn as a villain and brings depth to the cast.
Most importantly, the film succeeds by pairing up Spiderman with another very popular superhero, the billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), also known as Ironman. Stark acts as a rough-edged mentor to Peter and teaches him to grow up. This pairing also allows Spiderman to get his own high-tech suit, which is shown off in multiple scenes.
Aside from the starpower of Keaton and Downey, newcomer Tom Holland is a very likeable Peter Parker and is at home with the numerous acrobatic stunts. I particularly liked the supporting roles, such as Jacob Batalon as Peter’s friend Ned and the singer Zendaya as the enigmatic Michelle. Both are sure to return to future Spiderman films.
Other than as a summer distraction, the question remains: do we need another version of Spiderman? When you strip away the fight scenes and the fancy technology, Spiderman: Homecoming is really a coming-of-age film. Unlike previous Spiderman films, the emphasis is not so much on becoming a responsible adult (“with great power comes great responsibility”). Spiderman: Homecoming highlights instead the rewards of being a nerdy kid caught up in learning, surrounded by friends and family, and being part of a neighborhood. In other words, the film points to the joy of having a home in its broadest sense. (Sony)