Reel Geek Girl On Spider-Man: Homecoming
Jon Watts (dir),
Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Zendaya, and Jon Favreau, with Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr.
Spider-Man: Homecoming marks the first film co-created by Sony and Marvel together to bring the character (who has thus far appeared in his own unconnected separate universe in five other films) to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I saw the film in 3D, and rather than give my usual “feh, gimmicky” or “worth it,” I will go so far as to say that Spider-Man should always be viewed in 3D if not 3D IMAX. Marvel knows how to use visuals of this medium for their flagship character’s world, and it works better here than in most of their other films, in my opinion.
It is Marvel, by the way. Industrial Light and Magic are doing the visual effects, rather than Sony. For what it’s worth, a sequel has been announced already and the headlines are speaking of Spider-Man saving the summer box office.
If you’re new to the MCU, the film provides a quick recap to bring viewers up to speed. Spider-Man (Holland) entered the Marvel Universe via Tony Stark (Downey) blackmailing him into helping fight in Captain America: Civil War. Despite the amazing agility, the spectacular speed, and the other gifts Spider-Man brought to the fight, he was only a 14-year-old boy, and the grownups were playing for keeps. He finished his part of the fight battered and bruised, though still with unbridled enthusiasm to keep going. Tony sent him home for his own safety and with no small amount of guilt for sending a kid into an adult conflict involving super powers.
This film picks up some months after Peter Parker’s adventure in Berlin. He’s back in New York, web-swinging on his own and waiting with a teenager’s impatient desperation for a call from Happy Hogan, who’s the middleman between Tony and him, since Tony is doing his usual “avoid emotions he’s not prepared to deal with” distancing maneuver. Peter Parker is so worked up about the idea of working with the Avengers again that he can barely focus on anything else in his life, including things such as school or explaining to his Aunt May why he’s lost his backpack five times in a short period of time.
Warning: This review contains spoilers after this point. Please proceed at your own risk.
The Fangirl Says…
They didn’t rehash the origin again! We were not forcibly subjected to yet another spider bite and yet another heartstrings-yanking scene of Ben Parker dying in the arms of a deeply remorseful Peter!
They got Peter Parker right while still updating him. Now he’s a nerd boy of the 21st Century. They included tips of the hat to the comics on multiple levels. Peter had to pretend in gym class to still be a spindly little 98-pound weakling. He’s still awkward and bookish, nervous around girls even with the enthusiastic encouragement of his best friend. We got a fantastic half-Spidey, half-Peter shot. They amplified his genius up to the point where he could effortlessly answer questions his rival Flash struggles with. Oh yes, Flash isn’t a jock anymore. The filmmakers took him out of the jock zone, because the jocks versus nerds thing is really cliché and old hat by now. So they made Flash a fellow science guy who barely manages to hold his own among the truly gifted kids, his father’s money making up the difference.
They kept Peter emotionally at the level of a just-turned-15 boy. His genius doesn’t give him common sense. His youth comes with typical impatience. His enthusiasm doesn’t come with tact or enough self-awareness to realize he has annoyed Hogan so much the man went from tolerating him to actively disliking him. His eagerness doesn’t come with emotional maturity. His brilliant superpowers don’t mean he has much in the way of foresight. His clever quips and teenage obsession with looking cool disguises his fear, but only to a point. Beyond that, all facades fail and he really is just a terrified boy.
The villain of the piece, Vulture (Keaton), never actively goes by the nom de spandex; it’s more of a referential. The filmmakers went a different direction here, and I’m pleased to say it worked well. Instead of creepy, crotchety, ancient Adrian Toomes, they spun him off as a decent, likeable, hard-working New Yorker who was screwed over by the ascension of Damage Control under Tony Stark’s post-Ultron guilt. Keaton plays that double-edged sword of “just another New Yorker” and “anger pushed over the edge” with his usual fluidity. He makes it look effortless.
Tony’s decision that Peter needed a cool down that the kid obviously didn’t want is what drives the plot: Peter dutifully reports in about the crime-stopping he does in and around Queens, much to Happy’s annoyance. But Peter feels the need to step up his heroics in a showy way because obviously, to his mind, they’re not big enough to be worthy of the attention of an Avenger!
The more Parker tries to do more and get a big score to get Stark’s attention, the higher the stakes get. His first go against the Vulture ends up with Tony having to make a save. His second ends up nearly killing a few hundred New Yorkers (who are still grateful Spidey tried to save them and don’t realize he caused the problem in the first place). Iron Man has to make another save, and Peter ends up on Stark’s bad side, costing him much.
The film has a peculiar, but not bad, meta-affection for the ’80s. The Homecoming dance’s theme is from the ’80s, but the first time we get to see web-swinging, it’s to the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a meta-joke and an in-film joke at the same time, highlighting Spidey’s comedic bent and the fact that he has always been the “hard luck hero” of the comics. So they got Spider-Man right too.
The Stark suit, I thought, would really throw off the film’s vibe, but it doesn’t. The glider wings are straight out of the comics, and it’s not really that far a stone’s throw from the Iron Spider suit Stark made for Parker in the comics, things that Peter had the genius to conceive of, but never the funding. It felt organic and not forced, which was really important.
I’ve seen discourse about the absence or presence of the Spider Sense power. The power is not present in the meta sense. There’s no weird ripple of the screen or odd noise to alert the viewer. Peter doesn’t once say “Spider sense tingling.” But it looked like it was there to me. It’s just that by the time Peter has a chance to react to the danger, it’s already in progress, without enough time for him to have escaped it. On one glaring occasion he outright ignores it with teenage bravado, much to his immediate regret.
Also impressive to me was the complexity of conflict in the film. Peter wanted to prove himself to his mentor (possibly his new father figure without Uncle Ben, whose death we were thankfully spared except as a passing reference to what May has gone through), and step up to the big leagues. His frustration with being treated like a kid caused him to act out. Tony wanted Peter safe on the small scale fights he could handle and wanted to do better as a mentor than his own father had, even catching himself when he started to behave like his own father.
Finally, the Toomes/Stark conflict was about how the big guy can crush the little guy without even realizing or noticing and making the little guy feel like only drastic measures will help him pull himself up by those proverbial bootstraps. Toomes’ business, with the help of the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus), only became big when he went criminal, and he only went criminal because he wanted to provide for his family, but the way he had done so honestly had been yanked out from under him.
The finale is tense and powerful, with proper laughs provided for a break in the suspense at just the right moments. The Captain America PSAs that play for Peter in gym and detention (yes, detention!) are bright spots of hilarity.
The Intersectional Critique
Diversity! The student body of Midtown Science High School was all multiracial. The co-anchors of the in-school news show, Betty and Jason, are interracial. Michelle is portrayed by Zendaya. The entire athletic decathlon team is multiracial. The principal is Japanese, grandson of the Japanese Howling Commando from Captain America: The First Avenger.
The film prides itself on its diversity a little too much, maybe. Michelle gets to make a crack to their teacher-chaperone about refusing to celebrate a monument built by slaves. The teacher gives her a disbelieving look only to turn to a Washington Monument employee who gives them both a “well, yeah, what did you expect?” kind of gesture.
Peter’s best friend Ned is portrayed by Filipino actor Jacob Batalon. My inner fangirl is annoyed. The character is pretty much in appearance and behavior Ganke, the best friend of Spider-Man Miles Morales, but given the name of Peter Parker’s canonical best friend. Did the filmmakers think of themselves as throwing a bone to Miles’ fans? It came off more as a self-satisfied smirk at the fans to me, as if they were saying, “We know you want Miles. We’re not gonna give him to you but we’re gonna stir his supporting cast into Peter’s.”
They tried again with Spidey’s scene with Aaron (portrayed by Donald Glover). As it turns out, Aaron is this Universe’s Prowler. The Prowler, in turn, is Miles Morales’ uncle. So twice the filmmakers acknowledge Miles’ presence in the ‘verse, but don’t give him to us. Thankfully the film’s diversity was respectful. Ganke—I mean Ned—is fat, but there were no jokes at his expense other than those that go with the nerdy stereotype of not being physically fit. Peter was the butt of the same joke.
There were no racial slurs, and no gratuitous cleavage shots. So thumbs up to the studios for their awareness and care here.
Amusingly, the film also acknowledged the rich cultural population of New York. Mr. Delmar, the owner of Peter’s bodega, starts riffing on what a hot Italian woman Peter’s aunt is in another language since he figures a white kid of Peter’s age wouldn’t understand. Peter asks Mr. Delmar how his daughter is in the same language, proving some white kids are multilingual.
The adults know best, kids know nothing trope is present, but that’s only to give it a good kick in the pants. Adults keeping things from Peter for his own good is what spurred him into bigger and more dangerous action as Spider-Man. Refusing to listen to him because he’s only a kid, and because they want to discourage his clueless and reckless behavior, despite them knowing rationally he’s also a genius comes back to bite Tony and Happy hard.
The Bechdel-Wallace Test
Does the film pass? Only if you use the most generous possible criteria for allowing a pass. Liz (Laura Harrier) and her mother Doris (Garcelle Beauvais) briefly discuss having fun at the Homecoming dance without mentioning Peter or Liz’s overprotective father. But that conversation lasts less than five seconds.
This is an example of how well the film treated women all the way through. Though there are quite a few, they’re all minor and make only brief appearances. Karen, the Spider-Man suit’s AI, gets more lines than many of the other girls and women in the film. Tyne Daly as Ms. Hoag, the new figurehead for Damage Control, is on screen for maybe a minute.
Other than a quick game of Fuck/Marry/Kill shortened for PG-13 audiences to FMK, Liz is mostly either screaming or crying since Spider-Man has to prioritize either the academic decathlon or the school dance.
Michelle (Zendaya) is an admitted friendless loner who goes out of her way to keep it that way with rude words and gestures to Peter and everyone else. We learn more about her at the film’s end, but the character was not, in my mind, likeable. Zendaya still did a great job with the role nonetheless.
Worst of all, Oscar winning Marisa Tomei is reduced to making weak “Dad joke” type comments about Thai food, and being the object of the male gaze for every man in her age group. Repeatedly. Ad nauseum.
On the one hand, that’s great; to see a woman older than 29, 11 months, and 29 days old being treated as desirable. On the other, it is really, really annoying to see that that’s almost all she gets to be. We get one– ONE–line about how she’s more aware of Peter’s sneaky comings and goings than he thought she was, alluding to her being on the ball and that the Parker smarts aren’t solely his. But that’s it.
There’s one thing near the end that sits oddly with me, that Happy has been carrying something around for Tony that he only asks for because life came at him faster than expected. Spoilery to say more, true believers.
Toxic Masculinity? Present!
Sadly, yes, two studios working together couldn’t leave the gross tropes out. Keaton’s Toomes takes the news that he’s been replaced on his biggest contract ever with chagrin, but still within the limits of respectability. But then Agent Foster (Gary Weeks) has to pull the alpha male card and smirkingly mock him for overextending himself. Toomes does a visible count to ten, but doesn’t make it and explodes into violent rage against the other man.
There’s also the fact that Toomes is turning to crime because he feels like he can’t fulfill his role as the man of the house. He can’t take care of his wife and child without his job, and he “reduces himself” to coming hat-in-hand to Hoag to ask her if she can’t find some room in her crew for him or otherwise not take his job.
The rivalry between Parker and Flash is big brain versus little brain, so the film has Flash take shots at Peter’s attractiveness to girls and his uncoolness. He takes it so far as to turn Liz’s party into a call and response that goes “When I say penis, you say Parker.” It comes off as Flash bullying Peter out of jealousy, which is really petty considering Flash is rich, affords nice things, has a car, and Peter is only a few months out from Uncle Ben’s death.
Credit where credit is due, though: Peter doesn’t bother fighting tears after a crushing setback. He also has a borderline creeper moment when he considers naming his suit’s AI “Liz.” Thankfully, he thinks better of it and goes with something else. Before this, he politely refers to the AI as “Suit Lady.” Peter also gets a couple of shirtless scenes for those in the audience who like looking at guys. Also, when Peter scores a date with Liz, he races unabashedly to May for help getting ready for the dance. An adorable montage ensues as she shows him dance moves, how to dress, and what to say.
There’s no nudity other than Peter’s shirtless scenes. There’s one of him in his boxers as well. There’s no gratuitous cleavage on any of the women. The film is PG-13, so there is no visible blood. There’s a fair amount of suspense though, and that might be tough on younger viewers.
As mean people go, Flash’s bullying is kind of jerky, but never makes it all the way to mean. Genuinely scary though is the moment Toomes turns from jovial figure to terrifying threat while Peter is stuck completely aware he’s in danger, but unable to act on it. It’s all in Keaton’s delivery, though, so it might not affect small children.
The film has a smattering of adult language. Peter says “hell” quite a bit, and there’s at least one instance of “shit.” There’s Flash’s running nickname of “Penis Parker,” which gets shouted over a mic at Liz’s party. There’s a cut-off F-bomb as well, which was perfectly placed for viewers old enough to not have little ones to worry about it.
The film’s run time is 133 minutes, which might be long for small children under six.
My fangirl heart would say this movie deserves all five stars, because the plot is well thought-out, has only one glaring hole (the timeline spanning from Iron Man to the Chitauri Invasion to Berlin to Peter’s movie is all out of whack), and mostly made good use of its cast. But the intersectional critique has to prevail. If you don’t call them out, they’ll never do better.
3.5/5: Loses half a star for the toxic masculinity. Loses half a star for the sneering Miles Morales references. Loses a whole star for how badly most of the women in the film are used. Gains one half a star for a cameo near the end. I’m already looking forward to the sequel. Marvel’s influence on Sony’s methods of filmmaking is a distinct improvement. Finally, yes, this is a Marvel movie, even though it’s going halfsies with Sony, so stay to the end of the credits.