Spider-Man: Homecoming Is the Shot in the Arm the Marvel Cinematic Universe Needs Right Now

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Believe it or not, I actually don’t like being hyper-critical of movies, especially when they are part of franchises I’m attached to. But I can’t help but feel like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is collapsing beneath its own weight at this point.

Take last year’s Captain America: Civil War or 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron — both movies suffered from far too many characters and too much setup, all of which was supported by very little actual movie. Thankfully, Civil War dialed it back for its final act, focusing on the tension between Cap and Iron Man, but the airport battle scene showcases a whole lot of what the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing wrong right now. Primarily, the movies treat these heroes like action figures rather than human characters struggling to make sense of their powers.

And really, what made the first phase of Marvel/Disney’s ambitious movie rollout so grand was its characters. We get to see some high-action fight scenes, sure, but these only punctuate the arcs of the characters throwing and receiving the punches.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

But Spider-Man: Homecoming reminds us of what we loved about Marvel’s first batch of movies.

We’re shown a teenager struggling with simply being a teenager, but who also has superpowers and an incredibly expensive suit to play with. The moments when Peter Parker is crushing on girls or building the Death Star out of LEGO bricks or messing with computers are just as entertaining as when he’s fighting bad guys and rescuing civilians from perilous situations.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

It’s the former that too many of Marvel’s movies sacrifice in service of the latter. And with that sacrifice goes so much of the movies’ heart. It’s fun to see these characters whap each other around, but it’s easy to forget that this is only because we’ve actually grown to love them first.

Spider-Man: Homecoming gives us plenty of reasons to relate to yet another version of Peter Parker, and very little of that has to do with his superpowers. He’s a genuinely likeable character because he’s an underdog, because he’s awkward around girls, and because he’s trying — and mostly failing — at living an intense double life. You don’t need to be bitten by a radioactive spider to possess those traits.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

In fact, the movie seems to be self-aware about this, deliberately contrasting Peter against the heroes who have come before him. In the opening scene, we see a contractor disillusioned by the way Tony Stark has been throwing his weight around, leaving the working class behind to eat his proverbial dust. It’s as if to remind us that Stark and the Avengers have grown too big for their colorful britches. People are now suffering because of these heroes and their incredible powers, and some of that suffering turns otherwise good people into villains.

And that brings us to another one of Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s great choices — showing us a villain who we can relate to, who can, at times, be even more sympathetic than many of Marvel’s A-list heroes.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Vulture, portrayed brilliantly by Michael Keaton, is a guy down on his luck — thanks in no small part to Tony Stark — who’s turned to a life of crime because he was tired of being pushed around by the bigger guys. He’s got a family to feed, and he can’t always afford to play it straight.

Of course, he also has loads of stolen alien tech, which he uses to make illegal weapons and perhaps the most badass suit we’ve seen from a Marvel villain yet.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Even Vulture has a compelling story arc in this movie, and there’s one particularly chilling scene in which he becomes an almost Walter White type. While we’re rooting for Peter, there’s a part of us that’s also hoping that Spidey won’t be too hard on Vulture.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is also a return to an era in which Marvel movies can slip in and out of genres — where the first Captain America movie can be a World War II movie and the second can be a spy thriller, where the first Thor movie can feel like a Spielberg film and the second can feel like a fantasy epic. One of the reasons we didn’t grow bored of these movies back then is that they all felt different. Homecoming adds a new genre to that list: the John Hughes-style teen movie.

Is Spider-Man: Homecoming a perfect movie? God no. It’s definitely got its flaws. (Like, how in the hell does the Staten Island Ferry not sink when it’s cut completely in half?)

Spider-Man Homecoming

But it does bring the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in time to where it first lost its way. Let’s hope it can blaze a more interesting trail this time.

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