The great promise of Agents of Shield and Netflix’s Defenders series was the idea that these shows would examine what happened when The Avengers weren’t around to save the day, in the spaces below their notice. The pitch went that these shows would dig into the meat and potatoes work of facing down threats in a world where aliens attack, as well as the street-level problems that can’t be solved with energy blasts and theater-shaking explosions. But while each of the MCU’s television series have done their share of noble work, they’ve rarely felt connected to their cinematic brethren. Rather than exploring what it means to live in the shadow of Marvel’s biggest heroes, more often than not, these shows feel as though they exist within their own separate worlds.
Enter Spiderman: Homecoming, a film devoted to exploring the lives of people who live under the pedestal that Tony Stark and The Avengers occupy. Despite Spider-Man’s dive into the fray in Civil War, Homecoming spends most of its runtime with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) yearning to be more than a momentary part of that super-team. The nascent web-slinger feels like he’s on the outside looking in and not significant enough to rate much attention from Tony Stark (or his driver, Happy Hogan, who’s the “point man” on the Spider-Man project). But the script, credited to a six-man team, smartly parallels Peter’s sense of being beneath his idols’ notice with a villain who’s motivated by the sense that the Starks of the world don’t care about the little people like him.
Adrian “Don’t Call Me Vulture” Toomes is the working class head of a local clean-up crew. In the film’s opening flashback, Toomes’s contract to clean up after the Battle of New York from The Avengers is stolen out from under him by a combination of the federal government and Stark Industries, much to his consternation. Between then and “the present day” (whenever that is in the MCU timeline), Toomes and his team used the alien wreckage they’ve scavenged to create a sophisticated operation, one with fancy tech that allows them to find yet more alien detritus, build super-powered weapons, and sell enough them on the black market to keep food on their families’ tables.
Parker and Toomes are funhouse mirrors of one another. Peter is a young man, worried that Stark sees him as too green to hang with the big boys. He’s constantly reaching out to Tony and Happy in the hopes that they’ll pluck him from obscurity and let him live the adventurous life of his dreams. By contrast, Toomes (played with a spectacular, unassuming menace by Michael Keaton), is an older man, disdainful of the people who fly above him, literally and figuratively. He seeks no approvals, but simply builds his own wings to take to the sky and get what he views as rightfully his, with a nominal goal of regaining the livelihood that flashy men like Stark have robbed him of.
The film finds creative ways to connect and contrast Spider-Man and Vulture. It ties together the theme of these two men, in very different parts of their lives, each making very different gestures toward the great and the powerful of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it also does a superb job of establishing the everyday world that Peter Parker lives in.
Homecoming is the first Spider-Man movie that truly feels set in and around a high school in Queens. Beyond the admirable diversity of the film, there are oversized hall passes, relatable social dynamics, and the lived-in sense of how a bunch of teenagers would view Iron Man, Captain America, and the rest of The Avengers. Part of what grounds Spider-Man’s aspirations to join the superteam the way he’s defined as of a world where those men and women are gods and rockstars, a world that feels very far away from Sokovia or Berlin or even Manhattan.
It helps that Tom Holland is a revelation as Spider-Man. Again, there is a genuineness to his gee whiz excitement at being a remote part of The Avengers’ world, his struggles to balance his humdrum life with the thrills of fighting crime and saving the day, and the “still figuring this thing out” qualities the character possesses. Whether it’s Peter’s endearing friendship with his best buddy Ned (played with nerdy gusto by Jacob Batalon), his conflicted crush on fellow academic decathlete Liz (Laura Harrier), his bullying at the hands of Flash (Tony Revolori), or the way he gets the business from his sarcastic, oddball classmate Michelle (a delightful performance from Zendaya), this is the first Spider-Man film whose cast of characters come off like real teenagers and not just little adults.
That’s truest for Parker himself. One of the best qualities of Homecoming is how it allows for a Spider-Man who is still new at this and, consequently, not quite as polished at heroing as his avenging counterparts. In the same way that the MCU’s Daredevil was distinct in the throes of combat in how much damage he took from his opponents, the MCU’s Spider-Man stands out for how many mistakes he makes when trying to save the day. That lack of perfection is endearing.
It means an attempt at foiling an ATM robbery can lead to Peter’s favorite bodega getting blasted to kingdom come. It means a big attempt to foil the bad guys may require a great deal of help to avoid turning into a complete disaster. And it can, just as effectively, mean that despite the advantage of spidey powers, Peter Parker still loses his backpack, fumbles considerably when trying to use his Stark-designed supersuit, and even manages to fall flat on his face. The original conception of Spider-Man was as a real teenager, one not nearly as polished or sharp as the Batmen and Supermen of the time. Homecoming vindicates that original notion, with a protagonist who is well-meaning but very raw, giving him a palpably different flavor from the other super-powered pugilists of the MCU and beyond.
To that end, even as director Jon Watts takes care to imbue the film with as much of Robert Downey Jr.’s star wattage as possible, Homecoming is a movie devoted to the notion of its hero as the little guy. The script overdoes the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” line a bit, but takes the time to depict the teenager-in-tights foiling petty thieves, giving churro-brandishing old ladies directions, and above all, seeing as much value in helping the regular people of New York City as in foiling the latest globe-threatening plot.
That’s the cinch of Homecoming. The film stumbles a bit with the usual third act skirmish, and some belabored moments of cheese to cement Peter’s arc. But as a whole, it gives this new Spider-Man a palpable sense of being a little guy in a big world, something that makes him refreshing and different and not just a perfunctory third cinematic wall-crawler in ten years.
It gives him an antagonist theoretically just as devoted to looking after the regular folk, with drastically different methods that expose the differences between them. And most of all, it affirms the worth of the people who live in those unheralded spaces — tackling the everyday problems that are a little too small or prosaic to warrant The Avengers’ attention — with power, responsibility, and a little help from their friends.