Does the Marvel Universe Help or Hurt 'Spider-Man: Homecoming'?

The latest Spidey reboot finally gives fans what they've been begging for, but is it what they really needed?
Chuck Zlotnick/CTMG
'Spider-Man: Homecoming'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Sony/Marvel's Spider-Man: Homecoming.]

One of the better running gags in the new film Spider-Man: Homecoming is how 15-year-old Peter Parker, in an attempt to hide his superheroic alter ego from his friends and family, says that he’s in an internship program for Stark Industries. Better that than revealing that he’s the viral-video sensation Spider-Man, enabled by Tony Stark as a possible future recruit for the Avengers. The Stark connection makes this new Spider-Man a good deal different than earlier cinematic iterations of the character — which isn’t always in the film’s favor.

The newest version of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man (Tom Holland) was introduced in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, when Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man brought him into the fold to fight against Captain America and his half of the Avengers. As Spider-Man: Homecoming unfolds, Peter is antsy and impatient to get back into the fray, but constantly told to wait by Tony and his chauffeur/right-hand man Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Whatever rebellious streak previous Peter Parkers displayed onscreen, it’s amplified in Homecoming, as Peter investigates an underground criminal ring that’s using alien technology to nasty ends, eventually causing a near-catastrophe on the Staten Island Ferry where only Iron Man is able to prevent human lives from being lost. This leads Stark to take Peter’s tricked-out Spidey suit away from the kid, à la a father taking his son’s favorite toy away from him as punishment.

The surrogate father-son relationship between Tony and Peter is an interesting dynamic that isn’t explored as much as it should be. (Whether it’s for storytelling reasons or because Downey was only available briefly, Tony is only in a few scenes of the film. At one point, he’s literally phoning it in: Tony calls Peter via an Iron Man suit to scold him briefly.) But it also speaks to something that slightly drags on the overall effect of Spider-Man: Homecoming. Earlier this summer, Marvel released the delightfully entertaining Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which managed to pull off a near-impossible feat: feel totally separate from the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Star-Lord and friends occupy space within the MCU, it’s possible to watch both Guardians movies without knowing much about Tony Stark, Thor, Steve Rogers or the other Avengers. Spider-Man: Homecoming, like basically every other MCU movie, operates in a much different reality. The pre-title scene, where we’re introduced to bad guy Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), takes place immediately after the climactic battle of 2012’s The Avengers; later, we see an iPhone-shot video from the deserted airport hangar where the big hero vs. hero fight in Captain America: Civil War takes place. Guardians of the Galaxy, to its credit, doesn’t require past MCU knowledge for you to enjoy it. Spider-Man: Homecoming expects you to come prepared.

The moments when Spider-Man: Homecoming work best, largely, have nothing to do with the grander MCU. (Of the MCU regulars, the one who generates the most laughs is Chris Evans as Captain America, showing up via public service announcements played at Peter’s high school.) Peter Parker, in each of three cinematic incarnations over 15 years, has always been grounded by starting as a high-school student, but Homecoming is the first time where it feels like more than lip service. Peter is very much a nerd — he and his buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon) plan on spending time building a Lego version of the Death Star — but director and co-writer Jon Watts, along with the other five credited writers, manage to make the other kids in Peter’s circle seem like actual teenagers. Even a throwaway gag featuring the cheesy production quality of the school’s student-run news show makes the teen-movie chunk of Homecoming feel at home with forebears like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (the latter of which gets visually called out in a good joke).

In the second half, especially, Homecoming becomes more about Spider-Man’s place in the MCU, if he has one. Though the film tries to keep a decent balance between the superhero and teen-angst sides of the story, specifically by revealing an unexpected connection that Keaton’s character has to Peter’s home life, it still leans too hard on the former. The explanation is easy: even after Peter, when offered an official place among the Avengers at the end, decides to “stay close to the ground” in New York and help out the little guy, we all know he’s going to show up in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War, and may be one of the new focal points of the MCU like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange and Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. So he has to become a bigger part of the MCU and move past his realistic roots.

Being beholden to the established rules of the MCU doesn’t mean that Homecoming is any better for it. Holland’s a winning Peter Parker, and Spider-Man remains one of the most entertaining of all movie superheroes; when Peter says he wants to fight for the little guy, it’s believable because Spider-Man has always felt blue-collar. Spider-Man: Homecoming, like most of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is bright, colorful and largely enjoyable. But also like most of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it drags the most when it has to build up the future of the franchise instead of staying in the present.