I am, at best, an agnostic towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and that may be generous. I’ve skipped most of the entries in the MCU, and by and large, the ones I’ve seen have been fine, but forgettable – in other words, they’re boring, empty calories. Yes, there have been highlights – the weirdness that James Gunn brought to the original Guardians of the Galaxy, Shane Black’s surprisingly subversive plotting in Iron Man 3 – but for the most part, I haven’t even been able to motivate myself to watch more than a couple of them. And making it all worse is watching interesting, talented directors and actors being sucked into a world where everything comes out as the same generic, homogenized product.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying, I wasn’t that excited about Spider-Man: Homecoming, even before you take into account the needlessness of another reboot. And yet, what I was excited about was the chance to take my son to a superhero movie, because one of the things that the MCU has done is pitch so hard for an older audience that it’s forgotten to be there for kids, who can’t always deal with big, apocalyptic battles or constant double entendres (especially if your kids already get anxious easily). But with its high school setting and wisecracking character, I got the vibe that this might be the perfect one to take a ten-year-old boy to go see in theaters.
And I’m glad I did – not only for him (he loved it), but because I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up really enjoying it.
Spider-Man: Homecoming does a lot right, but one of the most welcome changes is the lowering of stakes and the resulting focus on more personal connections. The film’s villain, played by the always welcome Michael Keaton, isn’t interested in taking over the world, or killing people, or destroying a universe. He wants to provide for his family, and little else matters to him. What that means is a villain without some big, grandiose plot – no giant glowing columns of energy; even more to the point, no attacks on civilians at all – but instead, a human being, and a sympathetic one. Yes, Keaton is the film’s villain, but he’s likable, and more importantly, he’s understandable. He’s terrified for his family and their lives – and those are stakes that can matter to us.
Similarly, with its focus on high-school life and Peter Parker’s inexperience and age, Homecoming makes its themes more interesting than “responsibility” or “power” or “justice”. Instead, it’s the story of a kid who wants to be taken seriously, who wants to figure out his place in the world and to be special. That’s prime material for a superhero story, and Homecoming makes it work, making it echo through every part of the film, from Parker’s high school life to the combat sequences. And when things like “responsibility” do come up in the film, the movie has a way of making them sneak up on you, playing with the risks of super-powers more effectively than most, and reminding us how they can do a lot – and that works in a lot of ways.
But best of all, Homecoming echoes the best lesson from Logan: the best superhero films realize that “superhero” isn’t a genre in of itself, but an element. Where Logan was a Western injected with superhero DNA, Homecoming feels like a high school film – one of those where a nerdy kid gets the chance to prove himself as something more, only using superhero material to elevate it all. And what that results in is something that feels like an actual movie, not just an extended trailer for a film yet to come.
Mind you, there’s still some of my usual Marvel grumbles – for instance, the way that at least two different characters are clearly there only as placeholders for greater roles to come, or a general lack of interesting style of any sort. But by and large, the film overcomes its MCU obligations nicely, handling them with humor and wit (see the clever method of recapping Civil War as the film opens, or even better, the final credits scene), or else making them vague but solid subtext (the villain gets his start cleaning up battle sites from the earlier films). And instead of worrying about spending too much time about what’s to come or what may happen (or, for that matter, on telling a story about Peter’s uncle that we’ve heard too much), the film can focus on being its own satisfying, engaging story. And really, that’s what I wanted from a superhero movie in the first place. Yes, some style would be nice…but in the meantime, I’ll settle for fun with an emphasis on character and world.