Spider-Man: Homecoming is an encapsulation of the oft-used phrase that claims committing an act twice before will yield the sweetest results on the third attempt.
Sam Raimi’s original trilogy, led by an actor whose unassuming skill leaves him criminally underrated, and barring the mind-boggling final installment, was a steady first outing, and it accomplished nearly everything a superhero’s induction into the cinema-scape should: a fleshed-out tale of origin that hinged on being a pourquoi story—delivering the audience the “why” answers without a “just because” quip—bolstered by big action and even bigger emotion; a hell of a lot of villains, most of which had logical reason to hate Spider-Man’s spindly guts, given their personal ties to him; and character and narrative arcs that take off on a smooth trajectory and land on the opposite side of the proverbial rainbow generally without a hitch.
But in the Andrew Garfield-led refresh—which came less than a decade after viewers were gifted with a “dark” Peter Parker dancing through the streets of New York, gelled-down black hair and all—Spidey’s strength faded fast. The pair of Amazing films were markedly oxymoronic, going against (or perhaps simply failing to reach despite clear efforts) the incredulity their moniker so promised. Garfield’s performance as the web-slinger was well-rounded and believable, the fruit of his stage training background and his extensive filmography that reads like a Rolodex of award nominees. Despite the talent and tenderness behind the Amazing series’ major players, namely Garfield and on-screen love Emma Stone as the doomed Gwen Stacey who shared a palpable chemistry and undeniable zizz, the reboot fell to cliche when it just wasn’t as good as the original. By the time another re-up was in order (a “need” many questioned the basis of), Spidey-related skepticism was red-hot and reaching: How could a third actor do the character justice? What good does delving into the story once more do for the character’s canon? Won’t this taint the legacy left by Maguire? Are Sony and Marvel beating a dead horse?
A single man, who so often looks like a boy in soft light, silenced this noise. Tom Holland demolished the doubt with a performance so careful and kind, the bounds between fact and fiction blurred. He switched up the game in Homecoming by pulling a Don Draper of sorts: If audiences didn’t like the current conversation surrounding Spider-Man, and they definitely didn’t, they needed to change it. Appointing Holland, and placing all of their comic book-loving faith into the then-newcomer, changed it. The perma-grinning 21-year-old, who was just 19 when he grabbed the web-covered torch from Garfield, changed it. But Holland isn’t just the fast-talking, quick-witted, and believably naive talismen of the aforementioned idiom. He proves the near supernatural power of rousing admiration and inciting delight. Holland is a charm. Holland is Spider-Man.
He’s also best kept the final Spider-Man, the bookend that declares, “No more reboots. And we mean it this time.”
Homecoming, a patchwork quilt stitched together by a writing team so massive it teetered into “this is a Marvel marketing ploy” territory, subverts character tropes of the superheroic kind and steers clear of the bodily standards thrust upon comic book do-gooders, particularly of the male orientation. Holland’s Peter Parker isn’t a hulking demigod with diamond-cut abs and thighs so muscular they could crush a car like a Coke can. He isn’t a boy whose newfound powers turn him into an unstoppable force and his nose up at “normies.” He’s an intelligent dork whose strength is hidden under a goofy exterior mostly made up of navy hoodies, misplaced LEGO pieces, and nerve-wracking conversations with his crush (Laura Harrier), beneath an “internship” that excludes him from the popular kids’ circle. This version of Peter looks like so many of us—the general public isn’t shredded like taco cheese, and their sweat doesn’t roll down neatly-packed blocks of five-percent-body-fat abs—but more than that, he behaves much the same.
Homecoming Spidey was brought up amongst the rubble left by the attack on New York that took place in The Avengers, an environment that fosters a fanboy-level admiration of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes that grows into a hunger for validation from his mentor. Granted, Peter’s guiding light is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who fits him with a J.A.R.V.I.S.-equipped Spidey suit and brushes his calls for attention aside until the film’s third act, but it’s the premise that’s important here. In the webbing found between classmates’ discussions over the fittest Avenger (Spidey gets a nod from Liz) and Captain America’s slightly awkward videos on sex ed and the importance of exercise is Peter’s desire to become a member of the illustrious team.
Doe-eyed and easily excitable, this Spidey is unwaveringly optimistic, even in the face of adversity of which there is an abundance, but not inhuman. He nestles between Maguire’s outcast and Garfield’s hyper-confident, silver-tongued hero that seemed almost too polished in his less-than-shiny world as a 15-year-old boy coming of age. The surveillance he does in the wee hours of the night doesn’t result in multiple felony arrests, opponent slayings, or even a sweet dishing-up of just desserts. Finding crooks to bust is difficult this time around, and it’s refreshing to never see crime delivered to Peter on a silver platter. Like Tony Stark said, this Spider-Man is a boots-on-the-ground hero—and that’s exactly what he should be.
When foes to appear, Peter isn’t all swift motions, sharp jabs, and clean kills. He’s fumbly and always underpowered in comparison to those he’s fighting, mainly because, well, he’s freshly 15 years old and is still finding his footing as a hero. Where his predecessors leapt from buildings with grace, cut villains down to size, and seamlessly captured ne’er-do-wells with a flick of the wrist, Holland’s Spider-Man does what teenagers do best: banks big promises that he sometimes can’t live up to. And that’s OK—more than OK, even. It’s what grounds Peter’s tribulations in reality and makes his ultimate character arc so satisfying, especially when he’s pushed to the breaking point and still carries on.
Even small moments, like his conversation with Aaron Davis (Donald Glover), help serve the effortlessness of Holland’s character. “You need to get better at this part,” Davis tells Spidey, whose interrogation tactics included web-trapping Davis’ hand to the trunk of his car and nearly walking away, in a moment of excitement, before getting all the information he needed. Peter’s pursuit to prove himself to Mr. Stark ends up proving that he doesn’t have all the right answers, doesn’t have the footnotes of being a hero figured out just yet. But it also, and perhaps most importantly, proves that Peter only has to prove to himself that he’s worthy of recognition and capable of greatness.
Beyond Holland’s infinitely nuanced performance is a cornucopia of evidence to back up the claim that Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best Spider-Man film yet, eclipsing even the holy Spider-Man 2, and might just be the greatest Marvel outing to date.
Homecoming shifts away from the classic origin story we’ve now seen twice played out on screen. There’s no visit to Osborne Labs, no radioactive spider bite, no death of Uncle Ben. Instead, it finds emotionality in the relationships Peter has with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), Iron Man, and even the Vulture.
Peter and the cockiest Avenger share a bond not unlike that of a father and son: the more hands-off Tony’s hero-parenting gets, the more frequent Peter’s pleas for an opportunity to wow him become. And despite what the film’s promotional posters seemed to indicate, Homecoming isn’t Iron Man featuring Spidey. The red-armored hero is dialed back, the weight of his influence felt even more in the moments when he’s not on-screen allowing the focus to remain on Peter, and Peter alone. (The way it bloody should be.)
Similarly, the new May is a maternal figure that doesn’t dote on Peter, but doesn’t turn her cheek to him when he’s done wrong. She, too, lingers in the background, reminding the viewer that Peter is still a child in the care of adults, not a man incapable of feeling pain, guilt, or heartbreak. The time Tomei and Holland do spend together is delightfully dynamic, with special mention to the post-boat attack scene in which May both spills her worries over Peter’s well-being and tells him he smells like garbage as he kisses his forehead. While much younger than past movie Mays, Tomei’s is the caretaker and keeper of Peter, not the other way around—further emphasising that Peter, tough as he may try to be, is still in need of TLC.
Keaton as the Vulture is much like Holland as Peter: he isn’t some otherworldly entity, and he certainly isn’t the hellish result of a science experiment gone wrong (looking at you, Dr. “Croc” Connors) or the final product of a man-child’s narcissism (eyes are on Doc Ock this time). He’s simply a man whose desires got the best of him, whose want to give his family a better life turned him to darkness—a simple backstory that makes the Vulture one of Marvel’s best villains. In the up-close-and-personal scenes between Keaton and Holland, the Vulture’s narrative shines. The pre-homecoming car scene oozes with tension, and the final encounter solidifies the antagonist as one whose malevolence threatens to be outweighed by his sympathetic core and the kindness Peter so naturally possesses.
Spider-Man: Homecoming brings back to us a Spider-Man whose tender heart, genuine naïveté, and longing to belong seep into the fabric of the hero’s cinematic pantheon, staining it with a brilliant truth that for now, Peter’s high school struggles are more pressing than global superhero stardom.
As he works toward being the hero the Avengers need, Holland’s Spider-Man becomes his own hero. He rises not as the newest member of the Avengers, but as the Prince of Queens, the hero fit to protect New York today and the world in a distant tomorrow. Right after he finishes his chemistry homework.