Back in the '90s, Marvel Comics fells on hard times. Despite Stan Lee's long-standing promise1 to get the company into the movie business, so that Marvel would guide how the non-comix media portrayed their characters, they had to sell movie rights to whichever company offered money. This approach led many fen to fear the inter-connectivity that had been so much a part of the four-color Marvel Universe would never be a part of their cinematic equivalent.
Of course, only their most profitable characters, at the time, sold: X-men, The Fantastic Four, and, of course, their flagship web-slinger, the amazing Spider-man. Their lesser-known characters remained Marvel's. And they, as far as the non-comic-reading public goes, is where the Marvel story begins.
Yet, like Marvel itself, the Marvel Cinematic Univese owes much of its existence to Spider-man.
Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-man, starring Tobey Maguire as the wise-cracking hero, became a hit, a pop-culture phenomenon enjoyed by people who never picked up a comic. It featured an origin story, the most familiar Spidey supporting characters, and a battle with the Green Goblin. Since Sony only had the rights to Spider-man characters, Spider-man appears to be the only superhero in the world, a fact suited to his powers and adventures. The film's success led to two sequels; the third pretty much killed the franchise, but Raimi's films established that movies about superheroes not named Batman could succeed on the big screen.
In 2008 Marvel, in partnership with incoming corporate owners Disney, released Iron Man.2 The film proved an unqualified success, and it became the basis for a Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Of course, it was a universe bereft of Spider-man.
Sony continued with Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-man (2012) starring Andrew Garfield. Instead of James Bonding along and simply continuing with a new actor, they rebooted, giving us yet another take on the origin story. It fared well, but Sony's desire to establish their own Spidey-verse crashed and burned with Amazing's bloated, tonally incoherent sequel. Sony agreed to share film rights with Marvel/Disney. Thus, Spider-man swung his way into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
He got referenced in Ant-man and made his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War (2016). The events of that film get recapped, hilariously, from Peter Parker's (Tom Holland) point of view in the prologue to Spider-man: Homecoming one year later.
Humour has always been a part of the Web-slinger's appeal, and this film provides more laughs than any previous cinematic Spidey. It also has a lot of heart, as it explores a teenage boy who finds himself with abilities far beyond the ken of ordinary men. He's trying to become a superhero. Like the original 1960s comic-book character, he makes some terrible decisions and experiences more than few growing pains.
With Spider-man's origin now as well-known as Batman's and Superman's, we get only a quick reference to the radioactive spider bite. In this version, Peter has been tooling around for a few months as Spider-man. While he had a hand in developing his web-fluid, his alliance with Tony Stark has provided him with technological developments that would be beyond an adolescent's abilities, even a genius adolescent in a reality where superheroes exist. Peter enjoys his friendship with Stark, but chafes under imposed restrictions. Much of the story, indeed, is rooted in some very teenage conceits: our hero wants to break free, but our hero still has much to learn.
The earlier Spider-movies have used Spidey's archenemies, the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus. Likewise, Venom, the Lizard, Electro, and the Rhino have made appearances, and the MCU's Kingpin was clearly established as the Daredevil villain he has long become in the comics. This film decided on the Vulture (Michael Keaton), reimagined as a hardworking joe whose crew was summarily removed from clean-up duty after the Battle of New York, presented back in The Avengers. He turns to theft, selling (and using) salvaged alien and Stark tech. His crew (which includes a couple of lesser Spider-man villains) soon find themselves up against a web-slinging hero determined to prove himself worthy of the Avengers.
By placing Peter in the broader context of the Marvel Universe, we get a decidedly different take on the character, something this film had to do in order to succeed as an original movie. It also results in a film about a loner hero with more characters and plots than a season of Degrassi and more writers than a Katy Perry song. It's a fun, engaging ride, but it feels a little off for Spider-man.
Despite being 21, Holland pulls off a 15-year-old Spider-man, at turns awkward and heroic. Part of the original character's success, of course, lies with Peter Parker, who has always been more than just Spidey's civilian identity. We see a lot of Peter's struggles, too, and his teen social context. It has been framed differently than in the past, however; Parker's school has changed. Far from the generic high school of previous incarnations, Midtown High is now an enriched magnet school for scholastic over-achievers.
Parker's most famous girlfriends do not attend this version of Midtown. Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy came much later in the comics, and they're absent here3 Peter has a girlfriend of sorts, a significantly reimagined Liz (Laura Harrier), whose connection to other characters will complicate the plot. We see more of Peter's relationship with best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who here becomes the "Guy in the Chair" sidekick and geeky comic relief.
Raimi's Spider-man gave us a Flash Thompson who looks like the guy in the comic, but is more of a bully then he'd ever been. Webb's was truer to the source: the popular athlete and bully who reveals a more complex psychology, and eventually becomes Peter's friend. Homecoming's Flash sits alongside Peter in the Academic Decathlon Team, a wise-ass nerd-bully jealous of Peter's genius, and his ties to Stark Industries.
Raimi's Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) looks like the geriatric character from the comic, someone who must surely be Peter's great aunt. Webb's deages her a bit. Watts casts an attractive Marisa Tomei, quite credibly the aunt of a fifteen-year-old. Introduced in Civil War, her character develops in this film-- and she gets the last word4
It's not a perfect movie-- I'm not certain how everyone doesn't know Spider-man's secret identity after the Washington events-- but its tale of earning heroism manages to be an original take on the overexposed superhero, and sets up Marvel's flagship character as a key player in extending their aging movie-verse.
Director: Jon Watts
Writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers.
Tom Holland as Peter Parker / Spider-Man
Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes / The Vulture
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark / Iron Man
Marisa Tomei as May Parker
Jacob Batalon as Ned Leeds
Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan
Zendaya as Michelle
Donald Glover as Aaron Davis
Laura Harrier as Liz
Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson
Bokeem Woodbine as Herman Schultz / The Shocker
Tyne Daly as Anne Marie Hoag
Abraham Attah as Abe
Hannibal Buress as Coach Wilson
Kenneth Choi as Principal Morita
Selenis Leyva as Ms. Warren
Angourie Rice as Betty Brant
Martin Starr as Mr. Harrington
Garcelle Beauvais as Doris Toomes
Michael Chernus as Phineas Mason / The Tinkerer
Jennifer Connelly as Suriesque voice of the suit
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Stan Lee as Gary
1. Discussed decades ago in Stan's Soapbox, partially in response to the disappointing reception to the 1970s Spider-man live-action series and the significant disparities between the popular TV and comic-book incarnations of the Hulk.
2. Hulk came out in 2003, but critics and audiences alike gave mixed responses its ponderous art-house approach to the story of a guy who gets angry and turns into a big green monster. The Incredible Hulk, only loosely a sequel, came out in 2008, and even its star was recast for the Marvel movies.
3. We briefly see Betty Brant and catch a glimpse of someone who could be Gwen Stacey. *SPOILER SORTA* His group of brainy friends also includes a newcomer named Michelle, who will later reveal that she uses the nickname "MJ." Marvel has confirmed, however, that she's not *that* MJ. *SPOILER SORTA*
4. I exclude here the obligatory credit sequences, which include a tied loose end I'm glad they covered (mid-credit) and a gag not everyone will find worth the wait (end-credit).