The film rights history for Spider-Man could best be described as complicated and a bit messy. Throughout the 80’s and early 90’s production woes, bankruptcies, and lawsuits all factored into the rights being shuffled from one studio to another. In 1999 Spider-Man was licensed to Columbia Pictures and parent company Sony and their first film landed in 2002. There was no sign of a Marvel Cinematic Universe in the works but surely the deals for Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic 4 helped make it happen.
But then you get to the bad side of the deal. The MCU took off and has become a gold mine for Marvel Studios/Disney. The problem is those old deals are still in place meaning some of Marvel’s biggest properties couldn’t be a part of their shared world. But it’s amazing how a few missteps can change perpsectives. After their original series ran out of steam and they misfired on an attempted reboot, Sony has now partnered with Marvel Studios to allow Spider-Man into the MCU while Sony maintains their rights to the character.
That brings us to “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, the webslinger’s first solo foray into the MCU. Well, sort of. It’s a solo Spider-Man movie in that Spidey is the main focus. At the same time “Homecoming” goes to great lengths to show off and stress its connection to the MCU. Watching it juggle these two ambitions is often exhilerating while at other times simply frustrating. In one sequence it feels like a Spider-Man story. Then the next scene has them telling us “Hey, remember this an MCU movie!”
The brightest spot in the entire film is Tom Holland who offers up the best Spider-Man to date. Writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Dale ask him to navigate through a lot of material, but they wisely skip putting us through yet another origin story. Instead we join Holland’s Peter Parker fresh off of his sample size of Avengers fame (as seen in “Captain America: Civil War”). He impatiently awaits another call to action from Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). Tony doesn’t feel Peter is ready for the big stage but that doesn’t stop Peter’s incessant youthful badgering.
So in the meantime he spends his nights fighting neighborhood crime and his days making his way through his sophmore year of high school. Getting back to a younger Peter Parker is a welcome change and Holland is a fun fit. His best moments are inside the suit. He’s no highly polished professional superhero. He sometimes flubs up and makes a mess of things which feeds some of the film’s funniest moments. There are genuine emotions of fear and uncertainty as well. But there is also the boyish wisecracking which Holland and the screenwriters handle better than anyone from the past films.
Outside of the suit things get a little murkier but at no fault of Holland. Instead it’s the hit-or-miss mishmash of expanded characters particularly his schoolmates. Take Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), a one-dimensional character with some funny lines but who is never allowed outside of his role as nonstop comic relief. Then there is Liz, a senior and Peter’s love interest. She’s played by 27 year-old Laura Harrier who not only looks older than the other students but barely musters a spark of chemistry with Peter. There are also re-imagining choices that are sure to drive some Spidey fans nuts – Tony Revolori as an utterly unconvincing Flash Thompson and Marisa Tomei plays a more modern, sexier May Parker. Not certain why we needed that.
But those aren’t the only areas “Homecoming” attempts to rewrite. Gone is the simple Spider-Man suit of the past secretly made by a smart, innovative kid from Queens. This is the MCU therefore Tony Stark has a hand in everything. That means a Spidey suit with an advanced holographic interface, drone technology, and the most jarring addition, a built-in AI companion (voiced by Jennifer Connelly). Another example of the film stripping the character from the intimacy of his world for the sake of the franchise.
But it doesn’t stop there. There is yet another story thread featuring the film’s antagonist Adrian Toomes. He’s played by the always entertaining Michael Keaton. Toomes is no psychopath intent on taking over New York. He has a down-to-earth complexity which Keaton handles with ease. He disappears for chunks at a time which is a shame. Keaton is really good and I would have loved to have spent more time with him than with some of the mandatory franchise stuff.
“Homecoming” has been met with some high praise but I’m still unsure where I land on it. It gets a lot right most importantly Tom Holland and a perfect tone for a young budding Spider-Man. Keaton is fantastic, Downey, Jr. is as quick-witted as ever, the humor often lands, and many of the franchise connections work. But those same franchise connections constantly yank the film away from its more intimate story. A handful of creative choices do the same. Pulling a movie away from its roots for the sake of modernization and in service to a franchise isn’t always a good thing. Thankfully the strengths of “Homecoming” outweigh the weaknesses, but just barely.
VERDICT – 3 STARS