As I sat through LOGAN earlier this year, I was thrilled to finally see a superhero movie which made all of its lesser predecessors inherently worth it. For all the issues that have plagued the X-Men movies in the past, seeing an old and grizzled Logan looking after an even older and ill Charles Xavier made every misstep in the X-Men saga worth it. Without the hours spent watching these two characters over the course of a couple decades, I’m not certain the image of a mentally distressed Xavier being cared for by an angry yet sincere Logan would have had such an impact. And somehow, another superhero movie in the same year has managed to elicit those same feelings. Another superhero movie this very year has conjured these very thoughts which were prevalent throughout LOGAN.
Throughout the course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began with IRON MAN nine years ago (yes, nine), Robert Downey Jr. has been the hook. Sure, other notable actors have had their hand in getting audiences into theaters (Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt, Samuel L. Jackson, and even Kurt Russell to name a few), but the face of Downey Jr. is the one which gains the most excitement. And rightly so. He’s terrific in the role and he remains to be one of the best comic-book character actors in the history of these movies. But does the one of the best comic-book character actors need to be in a Spider-Man movie just for the sake of being there?
This was a concerning issue going through my mind as I walked into the web-singer’s first standalone movie in this cinematic universe and the second reboot of the character in less than a decade. Tony Stark’s face was plastered over many of the posters, inserted into all of the trailers, and anchored most of the abysmal marketing. Why, I asked myself, does Tony Stark need to be in this movie? With Spider-Man 2, my favorite superhero movie, Sam Raimi proved that Spider-Man doesn’t need another superhero’s star power to anchor his film. And while Spidey is and has always been among my favorite superheros, I could not get myself excited for this new iteration, no matter how hard I tried. I wasn’t ready for IRON MAN: HOMECOMING.
Then I saw it.
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING would not work without Tony Stark, and it would not work without the countless other films in the past which saw Tony Stark in a leading role. Even better, this movie barely has Tony Stark. Actually, Happy, played by Iron Man-director and fan favorite Jon Favreau, has far more screen time than Stark. But Stark’s presence is felt through the eyes of this young Peter Parker, who lives and breathes for becoming an Avenger and gaining the approval of Tony. And the feelings that were evoked from seeing Logan (who was once mentored by Professor X) helping his former mentor were extracted again as I saw Tony (not the first Avenger but our first Avenger) now taking the place of the mentor in a universe which has seen him before only as the ultimate irresponsible billionaire hero. This is a big step for the characterization of Tony Stark, and it’s an even bigger step toward the initiation of the future of this universe.
To put it bluntly, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is perfect. This is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable and unabashedly lighthearted superhero movies since Superman: The Movie, a film which prides itself in its humble scale, which is about the size of a local high-school in Queens. The script, impressively wielded with unique vision by six writers (something that usually plagues movies like this), finds its characters going from Chemistry to Gym, as well as Queens to Washington D.C., but it never feels like a behemoth in spectacle. This Spider-Man lacks the one-hero-for-all savior of New York in Raimi’s trilogy; in this world, New York has known heroes for years, and the need for a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is prevalent, and that’s what makes this film so special.
Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is perfect, flawlessly encapsulating what has made the character such an icon for decades. Gone are the days of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-MAN (which, by the way, worked perfectly for that trilogy) and even further gone are the days of Andrew Garfield’s dark and gritty Spider-Mad (thank god). Now we have the most hopeful and happy Spider-Man of them all, a sophomore in high-school who wants to be an Avenger, spending his downtime helping old women and stopping bike thieves, all while crushing over the girl in charge of the homecoming dance and helping his best friend build a LEGO Death Star. It is so “Spider-Man” that it almost hurts.
Jon Watts, a young director with a sure future, made this movie with a vision clearly inspired by classic coming-of-age comedies like SIXTEEN CANDLES and FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, the latter of which even gets a nice homage in the film, if a little too on the nose. Watts, who made the impressive horror film CLOWN and the excellent indie thriller COP CAR, here continues in his roots of indie youthful spirit and crafts a movie so mall and intimite it feels like it doesn’t deserve to be in the same universe as the interplanetary battles fought by the Guardians of the Galaxy. Watts’ film is, at its core, a high-school comedy (the “Homecoming” in the title isn’t there to just welcome Spidey home to Marvel Studios), and while the Marvel machine is certainly no stranger to comedy being an integral aspect of their films, this is the first straight-up comedy of the entire franchise, and it works like a charm. If Watts isn’t involved in the sequel, they might as well cancel it right now.
One of the main issues these Marvel movies have had trouble dealing with throughout the past decade is the subject of the villains. Ever since Tom Hiddleston’s Loki brought an army of Chitauri down to destroy New York in The Avengers, the Marvel canon hasn’t been able to provide a villain to match the God of Mischief (save for their Netflix series, which have had a few outstanding villains). In the case of HOMECOMING, it seems less is more, as the series has finally acquired a villain who isn’t hell-bent on destroying the world or the Avengers. In the Vulture, Marvel has produced a villain who doesn’t have an evil end goal; he just wants to steal some stuff to provide for his family and stick it to the man. It’s a revelation for this franchise, and I can’t see it working as well with anyone else inside the suit.
Michael Keaton is fantastic (maybe even more so than Holland) as the scavenger whose motivations seem somewhat unclear for the majority of the film until the big twist, which left me with a smile I couldn’t wipe off either time I saw it. Keaton’s history with comic-book movies alone was enough to hook me from the beginning, but as the film progressed and his character’s intentions unfolded, I became certain that this is truly one of the best Marvel villains, if not the best. Keaton, the best Batman before Ben Affleck came along, layers his performance with sincerity and realness, a term I don’t use here to suggest a “realistic” take on the Vulture, but rather to divulge his characters’ mentality. In a terrific monologue in the film’s third act, Toomes (Vulture’s real name) lays out his opinion of the little guy. “We pave their roads, we fight their wars. But they don’t care about us.” He is someone fighting the system. A working class hero who is fighting a good fight the wrong way. This is an intriguing dynamic which plays into the morality of the film, and it makes it difficult to root for Spidey in the final act.
But regardless of how truthful Toomes may be, Spider-Man has always been a good hero with a good heart, and he’s a kid. In one powerful moment, Toomes says, “You’re a kid. You don’t understand how the world works.” And he’s right. This is a movie about Spider-Man in his truest form. He isn’t swinging from the Empire State Building; sometimes, he has to run through his neighbors’ backyards or swing from trees. He isn’t worried about marrying Mary Jane Watson; he’s worried about asking his crush to the homecoming dance. And he isn’t even going to let a villain who threatened to kill his entire family die. Spider-Man has the biggest heart of all the superheroes, and HOMECOMING gets that so right. This is the truest Spider-Man film of them all. It’s the rare superhero movie that gets mostly everything right, and I couldn’t be more ecstatic about it.