“Spider-Man: Homecoming”: Marvel’s universal sophomore knows his place in Queens
directed by Jon Watts
written by: Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley, and Jon Watts & Christopher Ford, and Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
based on the Marvel Comic Book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
acted by Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Edward Leeds, Zendaya, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Marisa Tomei, Chris Evans
released by Sony Pictures Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, Marvel Studios
rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
by Bill Stamets
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” pleases as an action adventure about growing up. In a deciding moment of self-making, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) will scale his future as a superhero. Jon Watts directs this summery PG-13 diversion based on the Marvel Comic series launched by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in August 1962. In April 1999 Los Angeles Superior Court judge granted rights for the Spider-Man character and television distribution of films to Marvel Enterprises and Sony Pictures Entertainment. A screen franchise ensued.
A newfound maturity lets Parker know himself as a 15-year-old sophomore at Midtown School of Science and Technology. Apart from his chimera arachnid characteristics, the title character is at the age to go to a homecoming dance, take a Spanish quiz and resolve a linear acceleration equation. He shows up for the academic decathlon nationals. Instead of competing alongside his teammates, however, this costumed web-spinner saves them from peril atop the Washington Monument. Full-time world-saving can come later.
Parker is on his own for guidance. Grown-ups are not around for this teen from Queens. His legal guardian is Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). She’s concerned by how much time he spends in his room. And why is he always losing his knapsacks? Five and counting. Quick changes in alleys mean Parker forgets where he cached his street clothes when changing for crime-fighting errands.
Parker looks up to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), a mostly absent mentor renowned for his exploits as Iron Man. This CEO of Stark Industries, headquartered in Manhattan, is Parker’s corporate sponsor of sorts. On their irregular get-togethers Stark brings him upgraded Spider-Man outfits. The latest beta comes with a Siri-like A.I. assistant. No one knows who Spider-Man is behind his mask. Iron Man, on the other hand, is out as an international celebrity.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” opens with Parker shooting a selfie video about jetting to Berlin. Aunt May is told he was on a Stark internship retreat. The truth is that Stark beckoned Parker to join forces with the Avengers, a consortium of adult superheroes lead by super-industrialist Stark. We do not see the battle in question detailed in “Captain America: Civil War” last year.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” presumes we saw that film, along with others in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The press notes quote director Jon Watts explaining why he and his co-writers Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers dispensed with backstory: “[W]e… didn’t have to spend any time explaining why this 16-year-old kid [Parker says he’s 15 in the film] would come up with the idea of becoming a superhero. He’s grown up in the MCU; when Peter Parker was eight years old, he saw Tony Stark say ‘I am Iron Man’ on TV.”
An Iron Man animated series aired from 1994 to 1996, but there’s no flashback to seven- or eight-year-old Peter watching reruns on television, reading comics, or playing with action figures in the 2017 film. Nor do we learn what happened to his parents. And there’s nothing about the radioactive spider bite that enhanced him with spidery powers. Aunt May is off the mark about the “changes your body is going through.”
So fanboy Parker first met Stark on the screen. Fans of Spider-Man met him there too: “Spider-Man” (2002), “Spider-Man 2” (2004), “Spider-Man 3” (2007) and “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012). Tobey Maguire played the title character in the first three films; Andrew Garfield in the fourth. Fans got to know Stark in “Iron Man” (2008), “Iron Man 2” (2010) and “Iron Man 3” (2013)– all starring Downey. For an otherwise calculated effort, Watts’ film offers no guide for unversed viewers.
The notion of guiding neophytes is teased in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Captain America (Chris Evans), a Marvel character introduced in a 1941 comic book, turns up in videos at Parker’s high school. “Hi, I’m Captain America… Today my good friend _______ , your gym teacher, …” This upstanding superhero imparts one-liners to kids in detention: “The only way to really be cool is to follow the rules.” Apparently public schools outsource both calisthenics and counseling to Captain America.
To do your homework, watch “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), “Captain America: Civil War” (2016) and the two Avengers films without his name in their titles. When Spider-Man interrupts a crew of ATM thieves, note they’re wearing masks of various Avengers. An Identity Theft poster is on the wall.
If the 2017 screenwriters skip essentials in Spider-Man’s origin story, they introduce a new supporting character deserving more screen time, if not a spin-off of her own. Michelle (Zendaya) is a quirky academic decathlete. Off to the side, she speaks out of the corner of her mouth in her handful of scenes. Classmates wonder why she knows so much about Parker, like his dropping marching band and robotics lab. “I’m not obsessed with him, just very observant,” she deflects. She lurks in detention: “I just like coming here to sketch people in crisis.”
Parker’s best pal Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) marvels at a theory Parker devises to explain a local crime trend under Stark’s radar: “Whoever’s making these weapons is obviously combining alien tech with ours.” Leeds goes meta-nerd: “That is literally the coolest sentence anyone has ever said.”
The self-radicalized entrepreneur making and selling those weird weapons is Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). His resentment against east coast elites drives the narrative of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”– not Parker’s path to Spider-Manhood. Toomes’ criminal activity furnishes Parker with a case to solve. He hopes to impress Stark and attain Avengers status.
Toomes gets a backstory in the opening scene, set eight years before the storyline of “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” His hardhat crew processes debris in a sort of ground zero in New York City. Suddenly a contingent of federal suits come on site. They brandish executive order 3960 per “exotic alien technology” that overrides his contract. This will ruin his business and put his people out of work, he pleads.
A television newscaster adds context: “A joint venture between Stark Industries and the federal government, the Department of Damage Control, oversees the collection and storage of all alien and other exotic material. Experts estimate there are over 1500 tons of exotic materials scattered throughout the tri-state area.” What you may have missed in a prior Marvel film was the Avengers defending New York City from aliens. Extraterrestial war materiel was left on the field of battle.
Stark and Washington, D.C. collude to disempower Toomes, who identifies with forgotten men and women. He makes a hard turn to a darker side: stealing alien tech and selling a new generation of hardware to criminals– and terrorists? “The world’s changing,” Toomes tells his employees. “It’s time we changed too.”
Alongside a rebooted career, the changing Toomes adapts that “exotic” tech to fashion himself a superhero-style outfit. Enter the Vulture, a villainous version of Iron Man. This befits Keaton after starring in “Batman” (1989) and “Batman Returns” (1992), and later in “Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence” (2014) where he played an over-the-hill winged action hero. A paunchy middle-aged man in a Spider-Man outfit appears briefly as a background character with no lines. In the current film a Toomes employee adopts an alien tech-enhanced persona of Shocker on sales calls.
Watts may not waste screen time with Parker’s angst of adolescence, yet Toomes takes the floor to speechify: “How do you think your buddy Stark paid for that power? Or any of his little toys? Those people, Pete, those people up there, the rich and the powerful, they do whatever they want. Guys like us, you and me. They don’t care about us. We build their roads and fight their wars and everything. They don’t care about us… That’s how it is. I know you know what I’m talking about.”
That’s it for political philosophizing. Even that much talk strikes Parker as out of place. He asks the question few characters actually do ask in these circumstances: “Why are you telling me all this?” Toomes admits it’s in part to buy time to get “airborne” as Vulture. As another Keaton character once insisted, channeling his Birdman persona: “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” And so the fight begins: Spider-Man versus Vulture.
Earlier, Toomes schooled Parker: “You’re young. You don’t understand how the world works.” True enough, though Parker is more worldly than his sidekick who guesses that after high school this is what a boss tells an employee: “Good job on those spreadsheets. Here’s a gold coin.”
Watts’ film snarks about the Avengers franchise. The gym teacher who had to play the Captain America video cracks: “I’m pretty sure this guy’s a war criminal now but whatever.” Iron Man– Tony Stark is called “hypercapitalist” in the press notes– has drawn a heavy critique or two. Exhibit A: the 2014 Cineaction article titled “How to Read Iron Man: The Economics, Geopolitics and Ideology of an Imperial Film Commodity.” There Tanner Mirrlees proposes: “Iron Man supports the economic power of the U.S. Empire by sustaining the global market dominance of Hollywood and its cross-border trade in blockbuster films, synergistically cross-promoting itself and other U.S. commodities through itself and other derivative goods, and generating revenue for the Walt Disney Company and its U.S. ruler and owner, [CEO, Robert A.] Iger.”
A glance at the historical record yields no web so nefarious, although on March 9, 1942 the Motion Picture Daily reported a new book titled “Himmler, Nazi Spider Man.” Another wartime allusion can be spotted in Time Magazine on June 6, 1944: “The strong, fine strands of spider webs have been very helpful in the wartime manufacture of optical instruments and range finders.” Headlined “Spider Man,” the article credited “Pete” Petrunkevitch, “the world’s foremost authority on spiders,” with that very spidey innovation. Captain America and Iron Man plots foreground on U.S. research and development for overseas war efforts.
So far I found no evidence that Peter Parker owes his name to the above-mentioned Yale professor from Russia, one Alexander Ivanovich (“Pete”) Petrunkevitch. Spiderman creator Stan Lee, who has a fleeting cameo in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” originally heralded his comic book hero with no ideological baggage at all: ‘‘the world’s most amazing teen-ager– Spider-Man– the superhero who could be– you.’’
Fans– that’s “you”– identifying with Lee’s character could read the fine print, after Wikileaks posted hacked emails exchanged between Sony Pictures Entertainment and Marvel Characters, Inc. A Confidential Non-Binding Discussion Document and a Second Amended and Restated License Agreement state that Peter Parker and Spider-Man “must always strictly conform to the following Mandatory Character Traits.”
The Caucasian heterosexual male character “does not deliberately torture… deliberately kill humans other than in defense of self or others… use foul language beyond what is permitted in a PG-13 rated film… smoke tobacco… abuse alcohol… use or sell/distribute illegal drugs… engage in sexual relations before the age of 16 or with anyone below the age of 16.”
Core Powers and Abilities are specified too. “Spider-Man has the proportionate strength of a spider. This means he can lift or press approximately 10 tons. Spider-Man has the proportionate jumping ability of a spider. This means he can jump vertically approximately 5 stories (approximately 50 feet) and/or horizontally approximately the length of a city block (approximately 264 feet).” His exceptional “flexibility” exceeds that of a “contortionist.” He “can evade bullets– even from automatic weapons… His accelerated metabolism increases his tolerance to toxins.” He “can maintain his equilibrium better than an Olympic level gymnast.” Sony Pictures Entertainment “shall have the right to depict any of Spider-Man’s Approved Powers in any particular Picture at up to full strength and/or as having any lesser strength… Spider-Man’s powers apply to Spider-Man’s civilian identity, Peter Parker, as well.”
Oblivious or not to limits on his freedom, Parker ultimately makes a self-knowing choice. Spider-Man– “Queens’ own local colorful crime-stopper,” to quote an admiring local TV news talent– is staying home. He never left, really.