Based on the reviews I see in my social media circles and favorite YouTube critics, Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to be getting a “pretty good, but not great” reception from people. I saw it this Saturday with by brother Dan. Not only did I like it, but I think it’s the best Spider-Man movie. Yes, even better than the Sam Raimi films. Yes, I realize that’s a terribly controversial opinion.
Let me explain where I’m coming from…
I probably got hooked on Spider-Man through the 1967 animated show. You know, the one with the theme song people are always referencingHomecoming actually gives it a nod at the start of the movie, featuring a drastic rearrangement of the famous theme.. Spidey’s first live-action appearanceUnless you want to count the educational bits in the Electric Company. was in the television series that debuted in 1977. I was six, and had just started school.
I remember being really frustrated with the show. I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but I suppose my various child-like complaints could be summed up under the broad heading of “lack of production value”. Spidey didn’t fight anything that could remotely pass as a super villain. The eye holes in his costume looked like swim goggles crossed with horn-rimmed glasses. They didn’t really have the budget to depict his web-swinging, and the whole thing was very, very light on action.
Kids are pretty good at filling in the blanks with their imagination, but the cartoons had already showed me what a Spider-Man show should look like. This was a show with a 27 year old guy who looked 35 and pretend to be a 20 year old while spending 47 of the 50 minute run time wandering around office sets not dressed like Spider-Man. That was not what I expected from my Spider-Man based entertainment. I watched it every week, hoping that this week they would finally focus on the Spider-Man part of Spider-Man stories and not on all the boring “talking” stuff. Adorably, I didn’t understand how television budgets worked. I thought they just didn’t know any better.
Looking back as an adult, the show really was a mess. The writing seemed vaguely embarrassed of the source material, like the writer wanted to make something “for grownups”. At the same time, they took out both Uncle Ben and Aunt May, thus depriving the story of its richest source of drama and personal motivation. If there’s anything an adult audience should be able to sink their teeth into, it seems like “a hero looking for redemption after allowing his father figure to die because he didn’t respect the power that had been given to him” should be the most obvious thing to keep. Without the whole “great power, great responsibility” angle, the character is missing some of his most important building blocks.
So I was a Spider-fan, but I hadn’t fallen in love with the character yet. That didn’t happen until I got this:
This. This is what shaped my entire perception of what Spider-Man was and should be. The idea that getting super powers wouldn’t solve all your problems just gave the story so much… well, I didn’t know the word verisimilitude yet, but that’s what I wanted to explain to people in 1979. It didn’t feel like an empty fantasy. Peter’s struggles to be a hero and also please his friends and family felt so very genuine. Yes, there were a lot of contrivances in play to make sure that his superhero life kept intruding into his personal life, but kids are generally blind to contrivance. The story strung me along for all 127 pages, always leaving me wondering if Peter would ever find peace and stability. He usually won, but always at great cost to himself.
The book was a collection of 6 different stories, mostly from the early 70s. It featured fights with Rhino, Electro, and the Green Goblin. It also featured a fight against John Jameson, son of Peter’s infamous boss. (He was an astronaut that got moon-powers. It wasn’t very interestingIt also wasn’t the last time they would pull this trick. In this book, he gained strength to make him strong enough to jump around on Earth the way he was able to jump around on the moon. At some other point in the Spider-Man timeline, the moon turned him into a werewolf. He was two different supervillains, but was somehow still boring.) It ended with Peter kissing then-girlfriend Gwen Stacey and the author chiding the audience for thinking that Spidey never gets a happy ending. If I’d known that in the regular comic timeline she was already dead it would have broken my heart.
The thing is, I didn’t really buy Spider-Man comics after this point. I loved Spider-Man, but when given the choice between spending my allowance on Spider-Man or videogames, videogames always won. So my perception of the character was sort of frozen in time, forever trapped in the angst and melancholy of those early 70s comics. The next time I visited him, he’d married a supermodel and was swinging around town in a black costume made of space magic. The cultural shift we call “The 90s” actually hit Spider-Man kind of early, and the hipper, edgier, sexier, darker version of the character didn’t really resonate with me. I guess I should be grateful they didn’t have Peter grow a stupid mullet.
I admit it would be totally unreasonable to insist that a character remain hermetically sealed at a single point in their personal history. There’s only so many times you can re-tell the same story and hit the same character beats, and if you’re going to follow a character for decades then that character needs to go through some changes. A story with a fixed status quo will eventually fall into a rut. Worse, having a stable status quo tends to kill the tension and stretch credulity, because in real life people change along with their circumstances. I don’t object to the new versions of the character. I got my Spider-Man in 1979. That’s the one I needed, and the next generation of comic nerds can pick through these newer versions and see what suits them.
Having said that, I connected with Homecoming because it manages to hit that 1979 note for me in a way Sam Raimi never did. Sure, the story is pretty different. Peter is in high school instead of being an adult, his crush isn’t Gwen or MJ, his buddy Ned is from some other version of the character, rival Flash Thompson is a taunting prankster rather than a jock, and lots of other bits of established lore have been moved around. But it hits all the notes I’m looking for in a Spider-story.
Mild thematic spoilers from here on…
The movie does a really good job of merging smart-mouth Spider-Man with stammering Peter Parker, and I know that’s an incredibly hard trick to pull off. No other movie has done such a thorough job of making Peter powerless over his own life. He’s smart and he’s fast and he’s strong, but none of those can help him solve the problems that life keeps throwing his way. In the Raimi stories, I could feel the hand of the writer keeping Peter and MJ from being happy. It felt like they could work things out if the two of them could get their act together. But here in Homecoming the exact nature of the character is perfectly captured at the Homecoming dance: He can have literally everything he wants. All he has to do is give up being Spider-Man.
Sure, the movie doesn’t include his “origin story” in the sense of showing him getting bitten by the spider and watching Uncle Ben die, but it does include the moment where he dedicates himself fully to the job. The moment he walks out of the gymnasium is the moment he truly becomes a superhero.
It was also nice to see him taken down a notch or two, power-wise. Here we see a younger, more inexperienced Spider-Man.
Also, Michael Keaton is wonderful as the Vulture. I know Doctor Octopus was pretty good, but his character arc was “nice guy was suddenly driven evil by computer magic”. That’s not wrong, but it did deprive him of a little depth. The Vulture wasn’t computer-crazy. He was a completely relatable villain with clear motives and some great dialog. I love that his allies weren’t a bunch of dull thugs, but were interesting and funny in their own right.
I do have a few tiny gripes. I dislike how Aunt May is now about 25 years younger and extremely attractive, yet a couple of characters make jokes that only make sense if you know she’s supposed to be old and grey. I realize that it would be stupid to cram in yet ANOTHER rendition of Uncle Ben dying, but the story does feel like there’s a little something missing without at least alluding to it. The reveal that Zendaya‘s character Michelle is supposed to be
Mary Jane Watson makes no sense, since she has literally nothing in common with that character in terms of looks, personality, behavior, or her role in the story. It’s like revealing that the Coach Wilson character is nicknamed “J.J.” and he runs the Daily Bugle. It’s just like the reveal that Benjamin Cumberbatch is actually Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness. It’s a reference that can only be meaningful to core fans, but it can’t work for core fans because it doesn’t make any sense.
But these are small gripes. This is the best movie I’ve seen in a while. I get that it didn’t really ignite the fanbase when it came out, but this is exactly what I wanted from a Spider-Man movie.
Also, the Captain America gags were worth the price of admission alone.
 Homecoming actually gives it a nod at the start of the movie, featuring a drastic rearrangement of the famous theme.
 Unless you want to count the educational bits in the Electric Company.
 It also wasn’t the last time they would pull this trick. In this book, he gained strength to make him strong enough to jump around on Earth the way he was able to jump around on the moon. At some other point in the Spider-Man timeline, the moon turned him into a werewolf. He was two different supervillains, but was somehow still boring.
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