Tom Holland > Andrew Garfield > Tobey Maguire
by Thom Yee
How do you feel about Spider-Man? And I don’t mean “Spider-Man”, the series of movies that’s already gone through three reboots in less than 15 years because Sony, who bought the movie rights to the character from Marvel in 1999, has to rush a Spider-Man movie into production every few years or else the movie rights revert back to Marvel Studios, I mean the character — Spider-Man. If you listened to J. Jonah Jameson, publisher/editor of New York’s most infamous newspaper, The Daily Bugle, you might think he’s a public menace. If you were familiar with the comicbook lore, you’d most likely find him to be a misunderstood but friendly, neighbourhood hero, driven by guilt over the death of his uncle to responsibly use his powers for good. But whenever I hear anyone talk about Spider-Man in real life? They usually say they don’t like him. I’ve never really liked him that much either. And I think it’s all Tobey Maguire’s fault.
After Superman and Batman, Spider-Man is probably the world’s most well-known superhero, at about the same level as Wonder Woman or the Hulk and just a bit more well-known than characters like the Flash or Iron Man. The creation of writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 all, all, aaaaallllll the way back in 1962, which means we’ve had more than fifty years to collect Spider-Man comicbooks, buy Spider-Man lunchboxes, watch Spider-Man on TV, and wear Spider-Man on our “Underoos”, but it wasn’t until 2002’s Spider-Man that fans could see the arachnid hero on the big screen.
Now, back in our review of the first Andrew Garfield Amazing Spider-Man, I made the contention that the world had yet to see a genuinely good Spider-Man movie, and while that’s remained a stance quite easy to stand by here on the other side of Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, a movie so poorly received that it stalled all of Sony’s plans for an expanded Spider-Man universe and made a third Spider-Man reboot necessary, I still think that contention remains true of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies as well. At least with Andrew Garfield I liked and could understand his alter ego, Peter Parker (even if the Spider-Man parts of his movies weren’t very good), but while I’m willing to make concessions for Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man movies as a product of a different time, an age far earlier in the evolution of modern superhero movies, the fact is, I just don’t like Tobey Maguire, and it doesn’t seem like too many of you feel differently judging by the reception to his more recent works (i.e., what recent work?). Nowadays he’s probably best known for chasing whatever tail’s left after his friend Leonardo DiCaprio’s done, but even in his heyday he was an offputtingly weird, mildly creepy but primarily awkward onscreen presence. At the time I thought that was genius casting for Peter Parker, a guy everybody seemed compelled to hate and bully, but the more I’ve thought back on the 2000s-era Spider-Man movies, I just can’t view them objectively as the okay-good movies they mostly are so much as I just want to punch Spider-Man in the face. So yeah, we’re on the third Spider-Man reboot in less than 15 years. But the first two don’t count.
What’s it about?
It was the fight of the century! The greatest conflict of our time! The superhero war to end all superhero wars (at least until the next one). When tragedy struck and the heroes of the MCU were forced to sign the Sokovia Accords that would limit what they could do and when they could do it, battle lines were drawn between Steve Rogers, Captain America (Chris Evans), oldest and most experienced of the Avengers who believed the heroes knew best when and how to act, and Tony Stark, Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), the futurist and technological genius, who, after witnessing the destruction of their previous adventures, believed that heroes needed to be regulated! At their greatest hour of need, Stark enlisted the aid of the mysterious Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to stem the tide of the war, and now that the superhero civil war has reached its end, Spider-Man… has to stop some guy with tech wings (Michael Keaton) from robbing stuff.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is a miracle. Seriously. Before we get anywhere near the movie itself and the contents therein, we have to acknowledge that the existence of Spider-Man: Homecoming is a miraculous feat almost unheard of in Hollywood. When Marvel Studios first launched Iron Man in 2008, the first movie from what was essentially a brand new studio, it was a minor miracle that it was any good at all let alone legitimately good, when Marvel Studios’ years of planning came to fruition, culminating in 2012’s The Avengers, it was miraculous that a movie assembling the greatest heroes of several different movies to fight the foes no single superhero could withstand somehow worked, and now we just kind of take it for granted that gigantic movies with multiple, franchise-leading heroes will show up every two to three years. But last year’s Captain America: Civil War, more than being the first movie with so many heroes fighting each other (for whatever reason), heralded something truly unprecedented: Movie executives getting over their own egos.
You see, there was a time (we’ll call it the early 2000s) when we comicbook fans were lucky merely to receive superhero movies that didn’t suck, a time when corporate entities with almost no respect for the subject matter bought up Marvel’s strongest IPs (Spider-Man, the X-Men, Daredevil, the Punisher, Ghost Rider, etc.) wholesale, splitting them up across legal lines that made dreams of a meaningful, coherent expanded series of films seemingly impossible. But things are different now. It’s today, and thanks to Marvel Studios showing the world what’s possible when you treat these properties right, it now not only makes the fans happier to see those lines dissolved (if only temporarily), it makes a lot of financial sense too. And so there came a day, a day unlike any other, when executives from Sony and Marvel Studios were united, combining their forces and trudging through the necessary paperwork, to let Spider-Man finally become a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If nothing else, I think it’s important to recognize what an age of marvels we nerdy, geeky, sweaty comicbook fans truly are living in right now. And the rest of you seem to like them too.
Is it any good?
Yes, Spider-Man: Homecoming is good.
That shouldn’t really be a surprise; there’s yet to be even a single MCU movie that wasn’t at least a little good, but after the thorough thrashing that Sony put the Spider-Man franchise through with its non-MCU Amazing Spider-Man 2 only three years ago, it is at least a relief to know that the character now seems to be in good hands.
Unlike the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man back in 2002 or the Andrew Garfield Amazing Spider-Man in 2012, Spider-Man: Homecoming skips right over character’s origins, radioactive spider, Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great yadda yadda yadda” and all. The only information we have of Spider-Man’s backstory at this point is vague at best — Aunt May’s been through a lot (which is why Peter doesn’t want to reveal his Spider-Man persona to her) — and not only does it prove to be a canny choice to avoid retreading the ages-old origin (because who out there doesn’t know Spider-Man’s origin at this point), it’s also a surprisingly effective one, the lack of concrete facts creating a sort of vacuum where we really want to learn more but are willing to wait because we trust in Marvel’s screenwriters.
When we first meet Spider-Man in Homecoming, it’s actually at the beginning of his “Stark internship”, shortly after he arrived in Germany to take on Captain America back in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, only now everything’s from Peter’s perspective, and it’s one of the best and most natural uses of the MCU’s pre-existing continuity, effectively using what’s come before to reward fans for paying attention rather than making us feel like we missed something or that we need to catch up by watching a now-dizzying array of previous movies to get the full story. It’s also a sharply more comedic take on the events of the civil war than we got the first time around, one that reminds you how many sides there were to that conflict, and iteffectively sets the tone of the movie as primarily a comedy, landing far more on the Ant-Man side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe scale than the Civil War side.
There are actually a lot of really funny moments in Spider-Man: Homecoming, with jokes that acknowledge how poorly equipped the character is to make his way through the suburbs with no buildings to swing on, a direct subversion of the upside-down kiss from the 2002 Spider-Man, several pokes and jabs at Captain America, first as a lame role model in PSAs about getting dentention and then as being a war criminal (as he technically now is after Civil War), and the frequency and variety of ways that Spider-Man screws things up is more often than not entertaining but also endearing. Almost everything in Homecoming is played for laughs, even some of the movie’s most tense moments, and while it can border on Deadpool-levels of joke-for-the-sake-of-jokes, the humour by and large directly relates to what’s going on. Importantly though, the humour doesn’t outweigh the movie’s more serious themes, and its few dark moments are also really well done, so much so that you may feel some pretty sudden swells of emotion at some of the movie’s key points. It’s that balancing act that makes Homecoming a movie that’s ultimately going to be worth your time.
The movie’s finer points are mostly on point as well, including Michael Keaton’s Vulture, who’s given a very real and relatable motivation for what he’s doing, a believable high school setting with an ethnically varied cast of friends, like Ned, who’s the perfect best friend/assistant/foil for Peter, Liz, Peter’s crush, Flash Thompson, Peter’s bully (whose reinterpretation as a rival science nerd makes a weird sort of sense), and Michelle, a strange girl who haunts the movie’s edges with darkly funny, almost fourth-wall-breaking comments. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is around just enough at the movie’s bigger moments to guide Peter along as a sort of surrogate father figure without dominating the movie or making it feel like a Spider-Man/Iron Man team-up, and Marisa Tomei is oddly perfect as a new-generation Aunt May (though I don’t feel she got quite enough to do overall).
What we have with Spider-Man: Homecoming then is a reboot of the mythos for the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe, streamlining the story by leaving out what we don’t need and reinterpreting elements for a more contemporary feel, and loosening the plot to steer it towards something a little more slice-of-life, and while all of that works and lowers the stakes just enough to give Spider-Man a more down-to-earth story, it eventually struck me, hours after watching it, that there wasn’t a whole lot in Spider-Man: Homecoming that really mattered. For many of us who’ve grown tired of the world-shattering consequences of the bigger superhero movies that’s a good thing and it fits the character, particularly since he still is a teenager and high-school junior, but I also couldn’t help feeling that there was something missing. For all of their faults, the previous Spider-Man movies all reached for a deeper meaning and a more mythic structure, and though I feel that they mostly over-reached and got all sorts of things wrong, there’s a lightness to Spider-Man: Homecoming that, for me, made it slightly inconsequential. The adventure we follow with Spider-Man is full of ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and highs and lows, but he mostly bumbles his way through the whole thing without ever facing consequences that I felt were very dire or severe, and I didn’t detect enough of a difference in the character’s growth and approach to superheroing to distinguish why he failed in the movie’s second act and why he triumphed at the movie’s conclusion (other than that’s how basic storytelling works).
So should I see it?
I don’t think there’s any way to watch Spider-Man: Homecoming and not enjoy it. More than any other superhero movie this year, possibly more any other movie in general, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a real crowd pleaser. It’s fun, it’s quick, it’s generally well directed, it tells a sincere story that’s never too heavy, and I think everybody who’s motivated to see it is going to like it. In a lot of ways, that’s all you need to know about Spider-Man: Homecoming. If all it came down to is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ rating, it would be a ‘yes, thumbs up’. But for me to place it in the upper pantheon alongside the superhero genre’s best movies, it needed to be just a little bit more than what it was. It’s full of action and adventure, classic superheroics and smartly contemporary reimaginings, but where the finest of the superhero movies tell us stories that speak to who we are as humans and what we wish to be someday, Spider-Man: Homecoming is happy enough to be a fun little story and merely a piece of a greater whole. I got the requisite sense of growth from the lesson he’s apparently learned by the movies end, but I’m not sure how much of that growth made it onscreen rather than was just implied by where and how the movie ended.
Maybe it’s ironic that my personal “expanded cinematic universe” sense was only tripped here and now, with Spider-Man: Homecoming, rather than much earlier with one of the other MCU movies that people have been complaining about for so long as feeling more like building blocks for movies to come than satisfying pieces on their own (*cough* Avengers: Age of Ultron *cough*, but that’s how I felt and I can’t change that. It’s mostly well crafted, it’s far and away more good than bad on balance, it even has a twist I didn’t see coming that works shockingly well and makes the hero’s relationship with the villain really compelling and interesting, but it’s just not what I can call a favourite. We’re not there yet. It’s not Amazing, and that’s a good thing, but it’s just a little too unspectacular.
Thom’s Spider-Man: Homecoming final score
On the Edge
- Tyne Daly!
- I am so happy they came up with a workable, reasonable explanation for why the eyes on the Spider-Man mask get bigger and smaller. It adds so much more to the character’s range of expressions without him constantly tearing his mask off mid-fight (à la Captain America).
- C’mon Pete, you’ve gotta come up with a better hiding place for your backpack than webbed up next to a dumpster.
- Was that branzino thing a weird, backhanded Easter egg for Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spider-Man?
- Love, love, looove the Kenneth Choi/principal/Howling Commandos Easter egg. So coy and completely easy to miss unless you were overly paying attention.
- So Spider-Man pretty much ruins Liz’s life, doesn’t he?
- Moment during the bank robbery where I wished Spider-Man just stood there for longer waiting for the robbers to react. They really could’ve strung that out for laughs the same way Peter Griffin hitting his knee and saying “auugh” five times is fun.
- It’s the elephant in the room (or for me it is anyway): Two guys with wing suits? When are we to get a Vulture vs. Falcon fight?
- Not sure how I feel about Tony Stark taking Uncle Ben’s place. On the one hand it’s progressive and maybe more realistically handled, but on the other it kind of takes away from Spider-Man’s essential being.
- Absolutely, and I cannot stress this enough ABSOLUTELY stay till after the credits!
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