The Daily Bugle had a better narrative than this.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is a bad movie. Squandering the fundamentals of storytelling and cowering from character emotion, it is Marvel’s driest, most lifeless and underwhelming cinematic entry in years.
In this spoiler-full review I’m going to explain why, but first a disclaimer of things that this piece will NOT talk about. This review will not contemplate “what Vivek would’ve done.” This review will also not compare or contrast it with previous Spider-Man cinematic sagas (as much fun as that might be). The vibe of Homecoming suggests that as a film it isn’t particularly interested in being considered in relation to its arachnid predecessors. The comparable films are actually the Iron Men (more on that in a bit).
However, Homecoming does heavily rely on its audience’s knowledge of there having been previous films from different places. As a story, it feels like it’s bouncing through a tunnel of invisible meta-walls made of a dense franchise history. It also wants you to appreciate how much work it took for Marvel to re-acquire the IP rights to even make this movie in the first place.
This is the first major problem. It’s one thing to forgo a standard origin story, particularly for a familiar character. But Homecoming’s story is effectively a part two to an unseen origin, and its only anchor is the Marvel franchise itself. I’ll illustrate this with an example. In the final act, shortly before Spider-Man grapples onto Vulture and rides him up to the Stark plane, Vulture brings an empty warehouse down on him. For a moment he gives up, and then, over an excruciating period of maybe seven seconds, Spider-Man lifts the rubble off of him, puts the mask back on, and gets back to it.
It’s one of the flattest, most uninvolving “moments” in this entire cinematic franchise.
It’s the kind of thing that would only work as a 90-second YouTube clip, deprived of any context outside of it. It’s meant to convey the coming of age itself where Peter Parker truly commits to being Spider-Man. What the film apparently forgot, however, was the fact that (1) the previous big action sequence had Spider-Man holding a bisected frigate together in an obvious reference to something I promised I wouldn’t talk about here, and (2) Spider-Man had already made the decision to skip out on the Homecoming dance to stop Vulture, and even car jacked his classmate to get there. Thus, he has already made his choice not to be “nothing” without the fancy spider suit.
The scene, therefore, is not a meaningful decision, or a discovery of resolve, or an impressive show of inspiring capability. It’s shorthand for a conceptual heroic “moment” that has no basic reason to exist.
Now, you might think that the ending makes it pay off, but you’d be wrong. I know I usually hold off discussion of a movie’s ending until way later in a review, but for purposes of this film, I have to address it now. But first, a brief aside for a basic synopsis.
The story is Peter Parker (Tom Holland), now after having gotten a taste of life as an Avenger, struggling to re-acclimate with the status quo of his high school life. Despite still being new to his powers, he skips his schoolwork and extracurricular activities to find problems to solve, and quickly stumbles into a plot by arms dealers of alien weapons to do… something kind of bad (that reveal takes a while). Desperate to impress Tony Stark, Spider-Man gets in over his head by going after these guys, and also alienates his peers and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) all throughout.
Step back for a moment to realize that this movie is basically all about Spider-Man groveling before the most prominent figure in this franchise in an effort to be allowed a role in future films.
Now, to those who know me, I can already hear you saying, “but Vivek, you slobber over Iron Man Three for pulling a similar trick! That movie is also a kind of meta gag immediately following a climactic franchise highlight, and the hero openly wrestling with those implications stands as a metaphor for the franchise doing the same.” To that, I have two answers. First, the pacing and plotting of Homecoming distract from this issue rather than confront it the way Iron Man Three labored intensely to do. The second problem is the ending.
Recall: in a pleasant surprise twist, the Vulture (Michael Keaton), the syndicate leader Peter has been chasing all along, turned out to be the father of Peter’s Homecoming date, academic decathlon colleague, and high school crush Liz Allen. Realizing that he must stand her up at the dance floor, Peter leaves to foil Vulture’s plan to steal all the Avengers tech on the day that Stark officially moves from Avengers Tower in central New York to the new headquarters upstate. Impressed at last, Stark formally invites Spider-Man into the Avengers, but Peter declines. Further impressed by his maturity, Stark returns to him the prototype spider suit he had revoked earlier, only for Aunt May to then walk in on him wearing it as the closing joke.
The sheer flippancy with which Homecoming treats its characters is a feat no Marvel film has done to this degree. For all the John Hughes homages buried in the “stay in school, kid” message, this ending doesn’t work. Nothing indicates a hard-learned lesson because we have no indication of what he’d do differently next time, and it’s impossible to believe that if actually called upon for an urgent mission Peter wouldn’t jump right back into it (just like Stark in Avengers: Age of Ultron). Peter spent the whole movie making idiotic mistakes but it all pretty much works out for him. And if we’re to believe that Spider-Man means something to Peter that’s distinct from his Avengers-related ambitions, what did all his efforts amount to?
Or, to put it another way, what was the driving force of our central character?
Vulture was doing his thing no matter what. So, was Spider-Man trying to hunt and engage him to prove himself, or was Spider-Man responsibly responding to a threat by him? The film has both on its lazy mind, but it treats them separately. For example, his being Spider-Man is, for good reason, a tremendous strain upon his personal life. But to Peter, this will all be worth it once he gets away from all that to be an Avenger. Homecoming initially appeared to solve that problem after the frigate disaster in Act III where Stark took back Peter’s suit and basically said, “You’re done for real this time.” Now his chances of being an Avenger were seemingly dead in the water (pun intended), so what did he put his old suit on for? Remember, the film gave us every indication that Vulture really didn’t care about Spider-Man anymore. He gave Peter a reason to walk away, and even said that he had no plans to make trouble in the neighborhood (“leaving town” and all). Not only that, but no one was in any immediate danger, since the entire plane was automated. Sure, all this endangered the public, but it’s not as though Iron Man and the Avengers couldn’t handle it. And Stark even proven that he took this seriously enough to get the FBI involved, and to personally show up to save the frigate. So again, what compelled Spider-Man to swing to the rescue when he had every reason to know that he wasn’t needed?
The omitted Uncle Ben moral is obviously the subliminal answer to all this, but the film goes the other way from that. The staggering number of mistakes Peter makes as Spider-Man in this film is all meant to show that the responsible thing for him to do is to hang up the suit and figure his priorities out. That’s also what everybody keeps telling him to do, from Ned to Stark to even Captain America on home video. Now, of course we know that that’s just not what people in this genre do, but this is why it’s so damning that the Vulture’s endgame was so minute and lame. Spider-Man’s principal accomplishment in the film amounts to doing the Avengers a personal service.
The ending is thus fitting in that it can’t make sense of this basic character discrepancy any better than the rest of the film. Nor could the committee of writers even make sense of the franchise’s own canon. Moving Day for Stark into the upstate Avengers HQ was the “event” of the final act, but the building has been there since Age of Ultron. During Captain America: Civil War, Stark relocated War Machine to it to personally help him heal from his injuries, and had set himself up there as both an office number for General Ross to reach him and mailing address for Cap to send love letters. Not only that, but the plane with all the stuff had new gear for Cap himself. For a movie that explicitly references the airport battle in Civil War, and the fact that Cap is a fugitive and definitely not still an Avenger, there’s simply no excuse for a loophole this stupid.
But of course, this isn’t really a loophole so much as raw franchise indulgence since we all know that the Avengers will reconcile next year. A base of support as big as this franchise shouldn’t be so wobbly, but Homecoming has nothing else to lean on.
All of this might have worked better if Vulture had something more threatening and urgent to offer than classist platitudes concealing a grudge that makes him an enemy of Iron Man, not Spider-Man.
Alternatively, and, more fitting to Homecoming’s vibe, this might have worked if Peter’s high school life really was as oppressive as it was in, say, literally any ‘80s John Hughes movie that the movie so desperately wants to harken back to. Peter’s life outside of Spider-Man is, all things considered, pretty good. In this film, he’s not a misanthropic wallflower constantly having to swallow the toxic cauldron of adult-like demands and authoritarian condescension. He’s actually mildly popular, and his peers crave his attention if for no other reason than to catch a glimpse of some Aunt May eye candy. Even his bullies can’t get enough of showing him up. So the film doesn’t engage with its environment either.
Again, “Iron Man Three: Spider-Man Edition” isn’t a bad formula from which to make an engaging blockbuster, but the above problems compromise Homecoming’s core in ways that simply didn’t happen to Iron Man Three. In the former, Shane Black fused style with substance and made literally everything function in accordance with the film’s central theme of an exhausted hero coming home to re-embrace his true self. Here, anchored solely to a franchise it doesn’t understand, and recalling a movie genre it has no grasp of, Homecoming is flattened and stretched thin by its own diverging directions. Its ending is no resolution, mirroring the “consultant” type ending of Iron Man 2. For all of Peter’s life struggles that Homecoming wants you to appreciate as a kind of second origin-story maturity arc, there’s no conclusion of any kind.
But what’s even worse is that Homecoming can’t be bothered to leave any impression, let alone a conclusive one. Nearly all the things I noted above as central to its story, the film itself wouldn’t pretend to care about because it’s too busy for its audience. Cackling along from one pointless joke to another, its pacing, while not altogether terrible, is more dizzying than exciting. The film has a bottle episode in the middle of itself, with Spider-Man trapped in a warehouse with the interface of his suit and with the film clumsily passing it off as development. And the action has never been more forgettable. Indeed, I suspect that if a person went into this film without having any knowledge of Spider-Man, he/she would come away wanting more but only because it would feel like something fundamental was missing.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this has everything to do with the film’s admirable-in-theory wish to tread new ground and stand apart from its predecessors. But it’s clear that Marvel and Jon Watts don’t really know how to do that. Style doesn’t connect with substance, and the film doesn’t know which moments are actually supposed to be powerful. Aunt May’s discovery of Spider-Man’s identity is just another joke. Ned, for all his uses, might as well have been the movie’s Jar Jar Binks. And even after the film reveals their connection, a hero/villain relationship simply doesn’t exist between Spider-Man and Vulture.
In fact, apart from Peter, Ned, and, to a lesser extent, Vulture, there isn’t a single character who gets more than an extended cameo. Donald Glover is in the film, and then he isn’t, which by itself is a small travesty. Aunt May has as much screen time as Stark, yet less to do.
And while it was cool that the academic decathlon team won without Peter, the subsequent Washington Monument battle is one of the clumsiest action set pieces in this franchise. Because just like the scene with Spider-Man buried under the rubble, the stakes in D.C. (re: it’s a bomb that’s going off now for no reason other than plot!) were artificial at best, non-existent at worst.
The entire movie suffers from this problem. Without any grasp of character resolution, the play by play just makes for incessant noise. Homecoming is sapped of life from the beginning onwards, making all the more difficult my enjoyment what it’s clearly doing well. It has a fine cast, solid Spider chatter, a compelling lead actor, and the promise of Donald Glover to become more prominent in future movies. Yet none of that undeniable talent can be properly appreciated because of how wasted it is on meandering banality.
I take little pleasure in eviscerating this film, and it’s the closest I’ve come thus far to writing that essay I’ve long had in mind about the diminishing returns of meta narration. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a failure. Not an abysmal, offensive cataclysm of all that’s good and holy; certainly, however, one that deserves far more criticism than it’s currently getting.
Maybe next time, Spidey.