One of my biggest problems with the campaign for Spider-Man: Homecoming was the presence of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man/Tony Stark. The inclusion of that character, coming via the corporate agreement between Sony and Marvel that Spider-Man now lived in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, seemed to be the main selling point in the campaign. That wasn’t fair, I felt, to the character of Spider-Man/Peter Parker himself, who seemed to get pushed to the background in his own movie. Turns out it wasn’t fair to the audience, either.
There’s a great Spider-Man story lurking in Homecoming that is only allowed to come out when Iron Man isn’t on-screen. More specifically, there’s a great Peter Parker story here that is exponentially more interesting than either the hangdog version of the character played by Tobey Maguire or the insecure version played by Andrew Garfield. Tom Holland, playing the character in this second attempt at rebooting the franchise, nails what it is that scores of people love about Parker, especially the stories that take place when he’s still a high school student. He’s funny, loyal to his friends, loves his Aunt May (played by Marisa Tomei) without it being either weirdly guilt-ridden (Maguire) or oddly antagonistic (Garfield) and is an exemplary student at an elite New York high school. And all that while donning a costume and taking on crooks and thieves during his every spare moment.
Let’s stop a moment to address two points of contention that have been brought up repeatedly in discussions of this movie:
First, while Tomei is certainly the youngest actress to take on the role of Aunt May to date, that’s fine. She’s approximately 30 years older than Holland’s Peter, which is generationally-appropriate. Rosemary Harris was great as May in the first three movies, but I always had questions about how someone that old could still be Peter’s aunt. Sally Field in the two Garfield-starring movies was also good but still had 40 years on him. I have more issues with that pairing and what it says about how Hollywood wants guys to act way younger and women to act way older than I do with the Holland/Tomei pairing.
Second, Holland is still playing five years younger than he actually is here. The fact that Homecoming works in large part because it takes place in high school but that’s not going to last long. Not only will Holland be aging in real life, but by the time they make a sequel he’s going to be pushing 25, so will Peter still be a senior at Midtown Tech? This is the core problem with making superhero movies: In the comics it can take Dick Grayson 20 of our years to graduate college, but when you’re relying on human actors you have to be a tad more realistic.
While Tony Stark was in the movie more than I believed he would be, the marketing still included snippets from almost every scene he appears in. If his total on-screen time encompasses seven scenes that add up to 15 minutes, the trailers show clips from six of those scenes and seven minutes from those scenes. So on that front, the campaign was pretty accurate in selling the volume of Iron Man they could expect to see.
The consequence of that focus, though, is that Peter’s story was pushed almost completely to the background. There are a few scenes of him interacting with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon, who steals his scenes) and the other students at Midtown Tech and definitely enough to give you the idea that Peter is a brilliant kid who crushes on the cute girls but who’s bored of living his conventional life. That’s the extent of it, though. There’s nothing in the campaign to show anything beyond him wanting to be an Avengers-level superhero.
That’s very different from what’s presented in the movie. The character growth may not be huge, and Peter spends a lot of time talking about wanting to be an Avenger or trying to get in touch with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). But there’s also a much more depth to his relationships with Ned and the rest of the students, as well as with May, who’s barely seen in the marketing. Holland is fun and loose as Parker and that makes the character more appealing than he’s ever been on screen. Also helping is the jettisoning of much of the traditional Spider-Man mythology, including Uncle Ben’s death, the “with great power…” theme and more. All of that suddenly seems like a weight that kept the character down.
Also helping the movie move along is Michael Keaton as the primary bad guy, Adrian Toomes/The Vulture. His character arc through the movie takes him from disgruntled city contractor to all-out super villain in a surprisingly believable way. Keaton brings his own personal brand of gravitas and grit to the performance, helping us to sympathize with the villain even as we hope Spider-Man takes him down. There’s a moment near the end where the Keaton of Mr. Mom and My Life shows up. He’s charming and funny and as welcoming and friendly as can be. Then, when things take a turn, the Keaton of Pacific Heights and The Merry Gentleman appears and we remember that as funny as he can be, Keaton can also be terrifying.
All told, the campaign does nothing to mislead the audience, specifically in this case about how much of Iron Man to expect. But while that might be fine, it does the movie a disservice by not fully showcasing how charming and fun Holland is as Spider-Man/Peter Parker and the compelling story featuring *that* character that is here as well.