Live-Action Spider-Man Retrospective Review: SPIDER-MAN – HOMECOMING (2017)

( INTRODUCTION, SPIDER-MAN 1, SPIDER-MAN 2, SPIDER-MAN 3,
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 1, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2,
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME)

Our Live-Action Retrospective Review proceeds to 2017 with the first solo Spider-Man film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Spider-Man: Homecoming. The following is my review of this film. I am making my own observations and subjective impressions here. I am not remotely commenting on everything inside the film or making any final word here.

Covering Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a little tricky. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker first appeared in Captain America: Civil War (2016). After Homecoming, he appeared in the two-part diptych of Infinity War/Endgame before his sequel. If I was covering all of his Live-Action film appearances I might have done posts on Civil War and the Thanos movies, but there’s not enough to cover in whole there. They are brief enough that I can cover them when I write about the solo films. The other thing with the MCU is that by its nature it has generated wikis, official timelines, and various other paratexts. My principle for this review series is that what counts is what’s in the final film at the time of the film’s release. So I am going to be looking at the film as film, and not stuff outside it.

MASTERS OF THE GAME

MCU Storylines That Are Still Unresolved - Big Picture Film Club

The MCU has solved the “economies of scale” of franchise film-making that otherwise beguiled the producers of Spider-Man 3, Fox X-Men films, DC/WB, Sony’s Spider-Man films, to say nothing of the myriad other failed attempts at shared universes. The issues of constantly needing to expand with each entry, sequels needing to be bigger than the previous film while the use of rogues gallery reducing the toolbox with each use; the logistics of maintaining a cast and crew, the need for aesthetic realignment to break out of the limitations of an original interpretation. All of these were problems that I covered in my focus on the Raimi films and the Marc Webb films. And the MCU hasn’t solved them so much as it has mastered them. As a logistics and personnel management achievement, it’s remarkable.

I generally believe that limitations of various kinds is a good thing, limitations drive artists to make choices and take a stand. So for me the MCU ending the problem of limitations is a double-edged sword because when everything is possible, is anything really at stake? Originally Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) was introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron as a HYDRA experiment who got her powers from an Infinity Stone. Then the 2021 Disney Plus series WandaVision retconned her to make her far more similar to her comics version. Rather than be locked down an interpretation the way that the Bryan Singer X-Men films were locked down with the vision of the 2000 film, the MCU effectively made a reboot and update in canon and compliant with continuity. The result is certainly a fun and entertaining show. I like the new Wanda more than the version originally introduced. But subsuming multiple interpretations inside one version means that there’s no real governing vision for that character outside of the needs and demands of the given project.

The MCU built itself off novelty because at the outset it had sold off the rights of Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man to various movie studios. They had to deal with characters which lacked depth and texture. Iron Man has a weak rogues gallery, and a solo IM series, or for that matter a solo Captain America and Thor series; that was standalone without a shared universe, would likely not have lasted very long. By combining together and bridging them towards the Avengers, the MCU solved their individual weaknesses. In doing so they introduced novelties that hadn’t been seen in movies of that scale and by doing so they realigned the way we see movies and appreciate stories.

THE SHARED UNIVERSE AS ASPIRATION

The Simpsons Assemblers Assemble 🦸‍♀️ POST CREDIT Disney Marvel Avengers  @Harry Piano Kid - YouTube

In literature, comics and TV, the shared universe isn’t anything new. In cinema it’s a novelty. Fans now see the elements that tie a story into a “larger universe”, the cameos from extra heroes in a story and so on, as things to value.

Time was, a comics title that was standalone and self-sustaining was of greater eminence than a character who was in the Avengers only because they can’t carry a book. For them appearances by other superheroes were mostly cringe moments to tune out rather than attractions. By the time of 2012-2015 though, fans wanted to see Spider-Man join the Avengers and team up with those characters, in sharp contrast to the judgments and tastes of general comics readers for decades.

So the Shared Universe went from being irritants — the equivalent of spam folders in the email, ignored by general readers — to becoming the central attraction. The X-Men comics were once proudly boasted by its fans for being so successful and teeming with concepts that it constituted the third largest publication after Marvel and DC were it to be siloed into a separate universe. By the time of the MCU, the X-Men were deprecated for being too self-contained and not crossing over enough with the wider Marvel Universe. The MCU realigned the tastes, flavors, appetites, thoughts, values of the audience to an extent not seen since George Lucas made a bunch of B-movie space opera on a David Lean scale and polish.

In my opinion, that’s the main secret sauce for the MCU’s dominance more than the actual serialized nature that it now typifies. In terms of serialization, before the MCU there was Christopher Nolan’s Batman films which set the ball rolling (as mentioned before in my TASM reviews). Outside the genre the 2000s were full of serialized multi-part entries such as The Lord of the Rings released once a year, the Harry Potter films, 2-Part sequels shot together (2nd and 3rd Pirates of the Caribbean, 2nd and 3rd Matrix, even independent director Quentin Tarantino released a serialized Kill Bill in two parts shot together). All these movies retained actors, technicians, aesthetics and subplots carried from movie to movie and provided a model and frame of reference for the MCU in organizing its behind the line personnel.

SPIDER-MAN AND THE SHARED UNIVERSE

Secret Wars (1984) #8 | Comic Issues | Marvel

In 616 Comics, Spider-Man has had a complex relationship with the shared universe, and its original creative team fundamentally disagreed on that issue (among others). Steve Ditko preferred Spider-Man by himself and his supporting cast. Stan Lee, keen on promotion, wanted Spider-Man encountering other heroes. Ditko wasn’t opposed to the occasional team-up, such as Amazing Spider-Man Annual#2 which was the only time Ditko had both his major creations (Spider-Man, Doctor Strange) crossover but he certainly was opposed to Stan Lee’s frequent attempts to shoehorn Johnny Storm cameos in his comic, which led him to sabotage one team-up attempt [1].

So that’s the dichotomy of Spider-Man and the Shared Universe. On the one hand, yes he did exist in the shared universe but on the other hand, his major co-creator, preferred that his stories read as if they didn’t. If you were to read what’s considered the greatest story of the Lee-Ditko era: the Master Planner Saga (ASM#31-33), there’s not one mention or reference to a superhero other than Spider-Man in that story. You could read it on the presumption that Spider-Man was the only hero in that world. That also applies to most of the great Spider-Man stories. In fact, given the nature of comics newsstands in the 1960s to mid-1980s where one had a ‘casual readership’ (i.e. people who never read comics regularly, but pick one off the stacks because they like the cover), the truth is that Spider-Man comics were in fact read by most of its original readership the way Steve Ditko intended. As the flagship character he was the first, and often the only, Marvel character people read.

Amazing Spider-Man #230 Very Fine (8.0) [Marvel Comic] –  Dreamlandcomics.com Online Store

To give equal time to the opposing view, Spider-Man did have major moments and crossover with the wider universe. In the 1980s, Roger Stern wrote a run that pitted Spider-Man against enemies out of his rogues gallery, most famously battling the Juggernaut, an X-Men villain. In 1984, Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck launched the first crossover event called Secret Wars (the first story with that title) and it featured Spider-Man, Doctor Octopus, Lizard. In that story, Spider-Man came into contact with a black goo that covered his body and gave him a snazzy costume. In five years time that would develop into Venom, a major villain and anti-hero. Then in 2004, Bendis inaugurated Spider-Man into the New Avengers with the character playing a major role in the crossover event Civil War. So there is material with Spider-Man as part of the wider shared universe.

On paper it’s as valid to view Spider-Man intrinsically tied to the Shared Universe as it is to view him as standalone and self-contained. Sam Raimi’s standalone interpretation reflected the common reading experience of audiences of 2002, the last period before social media and internet; when analog experiences had a more prominent place than today. The MCU Spider-Man isn’t more faithful than previous iterations solely for having the character in a shared universe like the comics. The question is if the MCU movies thread the needle, i.e. making Spider-Man films feel as self-contained as Ditko intended, while also showing up in wider MCU versions in the manner echoing the fun and zest of his Marvel Team-Up appearances.

SELECTIVE ADAPTATION:
SPIDER-MAN AND THE AVENGERS

Avengers02
Avengers #236, Words by Roger Stern, Milgrom/Sinnott Art.

In publication history, Spider-Man is senior to The Avengers. This fact was alluded in Roger Stern’s The Avengers #236. In that comic, Spider-Man decides to see if he wants to join the Avengers (not the first time). The Avengers offer to put him in a trainee program and in reply Spider-Man points out: “I was sticking to walls when you guys were still looking for a clubhouse. I’m no green rookie.”

The Avengers for most of its publication history had a dichotomy of being a big deal inside the confines of the Marvel Universe, but extra-diegetically less prominent to the wider public. DC Comics’ Justice League was formed by combining its pre-existing famous heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) but the big thee Avengers (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor) were in no way close to the fame of their DC counterparts. As time passed, Avengers were largely filled with characters that were B-C listers, who couldn’t command their title and yet by being in the Avengers had higher in-universe status than Spider-Man did:

[Why] should someone with the credentials of Spider-Man have to audition to be an Avenger – in training no less?! This guy has been taking on the likes of Green Goblin, Doctor Doom, the Red Skull and Doctor Octopus for years and you’re telling me he needs to kiss the rings of heroes on the level of She Hulk and Captain Marvel II in order to be graciously invited to train with the team alongside of Starfox, an alien who’s calling card is that he’s Thanos’ brother?

Mark Ginocchio [2]
New Avengers (2010) #1 | Comic Issues | Marvel

In the 2000s, Brian Michael Bendis was asked to take over 616 Avengers titles after his success on Ultimate Marvel. Feeling that the Avengers ought to feel more like the Justice League, he incorporated Spider-Man and Wolverine into the team as active members for the first time. Bendis because he favored grounded character interactions, had Spider-Man’s identity revealed to his new team-mates. In the main ASM titles, J. Michael Straczynski aligned himself with Bendis, and had Spider-Man move into the Stark tower and live there with his aunt and his wife. In effect between 2004-2008, the Spider-Man books were effectively an Avengers satellite title. Spider-Man and his supporting cast interacted on first name basis with other Avengers.

ASM#536, Art b Ron Garney

Spider-Man and Iron Man historically never had a great deal of interaction in-continuity. David Michelinie wrote the major defining run on Iron Man before writing another major run on Amazing Spider-Man. Usually, a writer who works on multiple titles is allowed to indulge in linkages across titles, but Michelinie didn’t exercise his privilege. Even when the major writer of Iron Man wrote Spider-Man, there was little interest or enthusiasm in crossing the two characters. That changed in 2004, with Iron Man/Tony Stark framed as a mentor and team leader in the Avengers with whom Peter was written to have ambiguous feelings towards. On one hand personal respect coupled with gratitude for Stark helping his family, but on the other hand a degree of uncertainty over losing control of his life to Stark. That came to a head in the Marvel crossover Civil War in 2006, where Spider-Man initially backed Tony Stark but subsequently turned on him and sided with Captain America, only for Cap’s faction to “lose” and Spider-Man to enter a personal crisis.

I said before that Raimi’s Spider-Man by no means reflect a “classic Spider-Man” and the same is true of the MCU. It’s an interpretation no less selective. We see this in Captain America: Civil War where we have Tom Holland’s Peter is recruited to serving Iron Man’s faction but ends the film in Stark’s camp rather than part ways violently. In the comics, Spider-Man defeated Iron Man in a fight during that period. So the narrative of CW is removed but the status-quo leading up to it is borrowed instead. In the solo film, Spider-Man Homecoming, we see that Iron Man and his supporting cast cross over into MCU Spider-Man with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) taking the role of Jarvis the Butler who in the New Avengers title developed a friendship and attraction for May Parker, much like Happy would with May Parker (Marisa Tomei). Civil War in the comics was a major defining event whereas in the MCU it’s merely a melodramatic spanner on the “Road to Thanos”. So it makes sense for the version they have.

The major issue with incorporating a mid-2000s status-quo with a version of Spider-Man who’s a teenager is that rather than being introduced as an independent superhero, Spider-Man in the MCU is introduced as an adjunct to Tony Stark/Iron Man and his films, with Iron Man’s supporting cast, props, and story assets (Happy Hogan, AI companions, Stark Tower) filtered into the story, has the effect of making MCU Spider-Man into an Iron Man sub-franchise much in the the ASM comics became an Avengers satellite in the mid-2000s. Are those valid choices? Yes. Does it have foundation in the source? Yes. But as with the previous films, there are consequences.

SELECTIVE ADAPTATION: THE VULTURE

The MCU Spider-Man was made extra-diegetically with the awareness that it was the third reboot of a character in close proximity to the previous visions. So until the third film, they drew a line separating them from the previous versions. TASM-1 featured three characters who appeared in SM3 (Gwen, George, Lizard). Homecoming features none so that makes it a lot closer to Batman Begins than TASM-1.

Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #2 (Story 1) [in Comics & Books > From The  Beginning] @ SpiderFan.org
ASM#2 – Art by Ditko

The Vulture is the second villain introduced in the Lee-Ditko run (Chameleon was the first). In the comics, Vulture/Adrian Toomes is a Ditko-chimera, a large green vulture with a man’s head. Toomes’ bald tome and clean shaven face looks especially bird-like. Vulture was a pure crook. He liked to rob people more than take over the world or kill people for fun, though he was capable of violence. As a character, the Vulture could fly so that meant that his fights with Spider-Man had a flair for aerial combat and action that really showed the web-swinger in action.

As mentioned previously, the Vulture is a character who never had an origin story at the outset. This was introduced much later, though with Toomes a decade before Doctor Octopus. Roger Stern (who I’ve mentioned a few times above) wrote the origins of the Vulture who he considered his favorite of the Lee-Ditko rogues:

The Vulture was really the only major established Spider-Man villain that I used a lot. And that was mainly because I thought of the Vulture as the perfect enemy for Spider-Man. You can have your Doctor Octopus and your Kraven the Hunter. Give me the Vulture anytime. It’s old age and sneakiness versus youth and determination.

Roger Stern, [3]
8 Vulture Stories That Could Inspire "Spider-Man: Homecoming" - Amazing  Spider-Talk
ASM#241

Roger Stern wrote the Vulture in a few issues spaced serially among other subplots and ideas. In Amazing Spider-Man #240-241 he revealed the origin of the Vulture. Toomes was a technician who started an electronic company with Gregory Bestman. Bestman was the frontman and suit, Toomes was the electronics genius and it was a great partnership at first. Through his work on the company Toomes acquired the expertise, resources, and knowhow to create the Vulture costume and harness, which gave him flight and super-strength (added by Stern as an explanation for why he could fight Spider-Man). Eventually it turned out Bestman had embezzled the company and sold it, leaving Toomes out to dry and effectively deprived of claiming the fruits of his labor and profiting by it. This is the spark that embittered the old Toomes and turned him to a life of crime. In ASM#240-241, Spider-Man tails Toomes after he kidnaps Bestman and eavesdrops on their conversation and on hearing it, and Bestman’s confession, he acknowledges feeling sorry for Toomes.

ASM#241 – Art by JRJR
ASM#241 – Spider-Man fights crime, but capitalism is his true enemy

Vulture though fights Spider-Man and eventually Spider-Man wins and webs him to the police and saves Bestman, but both the police and Spider-Man promise Toomes that Bestman will face justice for his actions. A number of people who have seen and praised Homecoming often assume that Vulture’s sympathetic motivations were a new element added to the film but in fact its basic idea of Vulture – a hardworking old technician who lived a honest life without a criminal record, turning to a life of crime out of having his life’s work taken away – is sourced from Roger Stern’s backstory.

The main crucial difference, which I will get to later, is that in favor of Bestman, an original throwaway character relevant to Vulture’s story and experience, the movie imposes Damage Control and Iron Man on to that role, which alters the context of the story. More on that later.

CASTING AND CHARACTERIZATION:
HOMECOMING

Captain America: Civil War cast Peter Parker and Aunt May. That meant that Homecoming had to introduce and cast the supporting players and the villains.

Michael Keaton in 'Spider-Man: Homecoming' Gives One of the Best Superhero  Villain Performances Ever
  • Michael Keaton obviously brings a lot of history to his performance as Vulture, whether as Batman or Birdman. There’s a wonderful irony in that in the 1989 Batman film, Jack Nicholson’s Joker was the senior established star while Keaton was a comparatively new guy muscling in, whereas in Homecoming, Keaton gets to pull that rank over Tom Holland. It’s his turn to be cool. Keaton’s Toomes has real menace which wasn’t the case with the villains of SM3 and TASM 1-2, so that helps explain why he became the most popular Live-Action Spider-Man villain after Dafoe and Molina. Visually, Toomes with his close cropped hair looks the part even if he’s not fully bald. Keaton’s Toomes is full of resentment and self-righteousness and Keaton infuses enough in that even if he does nasty things you can’t entirely dismiss him.
Marvel Always Wanted Donald Glover to Make the 'Spider-Man: Homecoming'  Miles Morales Reference | Geeks
Donald Glover: The most influential of all Peter Parkers’ never cast.
  • In addition to the Vulture, the film introduces around him a crew who are mostly minor Spider-Man villains such as the Tinkerer/Phineas Mason (Michael Chernus) who featured in a bizarre second story of ASM#2 (which had Vulture’s first appearance) as well as two versions of the Shocker who use the Vibro-Shock gloves harvested from Chitauri technology. In addition we have Aaron Davis (Donald Glover) in a scene-stealing cameo alluding to his nephew, a character who owes his existence in part to a failed campaign by his actor to play Peter Parker. There is a meta-sadness watching a scene of Glover confront a white Spider-Man whose interpretation is in part a composite of the African-American nephew that Glover alludes to in that scene.

  • Homecoming attracted notices for its diverse updates of Spider-Man’s supporting cast. In place of the all-white schools of the previous films, as well as the original comics and Bendis-Bagley’s early-USM, we have a Midtown Magnet school that is mixed. This follows in the footsteps of Weisman’s The Spectacular Spider-Man which was the first version of Spider-Man’s high school cast to alter the character’s ethnicities. So we have Flash played by a Guatemalan-American Tony Revolori (best known for his performance in The Grand Budapest Hotel). Liz Toomes (Laura Harrier) and MJ (Zendaya) are played by African-Americans. All the actors are younger significantly than any of the previous films and there’s not much to argue against their performance and interpretation. It’s quite entertaining as a pastiche of any number of regular high school movie stuff.

Amazing Spider-Man on Twitter: "@CadenBraylen Here is a 101 on the Original Ned  Leeds. He was a Daily Bugle reporter who despised Peter Parker and was set  up and framed as the
  • Spider-Man Homecoming and its high school cast looks a lot more like the version of high school in Miles Morales‘ time as Ultimate Spider-Man than the 2000s era Ultimate Peter Parker. Miles Morales far more than any Peter Parker before him was conceived to inhabit a more realistic high-school milieu. Since Homecoming wanted its version of Peter Parker to resemble a teenager in the 2010s, by essence it draws more from Miles than the original Peter. This is most apparent in the character of Ned Leeds, in no previous version an especially close of Peter Parker, who’s transparently based on Ganke, Miles Morales’ best friend.

ASM#259 – Ron Frenz
  • Zendaya is cast as “Michelle” only to reveal her nickname as MJ by the end, and she’s exclusively called and addressed MJ in FFH by everyone. As such the confusing thing for me is why they didn’t call her Mary Jane. It feels like a redo of The Dark Knight Rises where Marion Cotillard was cast as Miranda Tate but most fans guessed she was Talia Al Ghul, which was only confirmed in the film’s finale but which everyone involved lied about during promotion. As soon as Zendaya was announced many guessed she was MJ. Zendaya’s MJ is close to the character in some ways, drawing from Defalco-Frenz’s interpretation than the original version. MJ was never introduced in high school in continuity but in college. Bendis’ USM reinterpreting a Teenage MJ based her personality on a teenage echo of her future married self . In 616, the flashbacks in ASM#259 of Mary Jane’s youth reveal her to be a bit of a “class clown” and comedian in her high school days. And Zendaya channels that impression of her well. Zendaya is also easily the most charismatic person in the film’s high school cast, and that’s absolutely MJ. Her interest in social activism and protests (pointing out facts about the history of the Washington Monument) has grounding in 616 Mary Jane’s interest in the plight of undocumented immigrants and association with radical fashion designers such as LGBTQ icon Willi Smith who designed her wedding dress in ASM Annual #21. It’s a wider spectrum of Mary Jane in her interpretation than one afforded to Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane (not that I feel the two should be compared).

  • Liz Allan is a little odd because in the comics she and Peter Parker never really dated or had a relationship. She was a spanner in a love-triangle between Peter and Betty, and they had crushes on each other but it was always missing cues (Peter liked her when she didn’t, and vice versa). Then after their graduation she disappeared from continuity for 100 issues after ASM#30. In adaptations, the focus on Peter as a high school student keeping him away from the Daily Bugle has made his first romance Liz rather than Betty Brant, this concept was introduced in The Spectacular Spider-Man animated series and continues with Homecoming. That said in Homecoming, Peter and Liz go on a brief date for the dance before dropping out, so they don’t get into a relationship here. In the comics, Liz had a brother who became a criminal. So having her be Vulture’s daughter isn’t a stretch.

  • Homecoming also draws out small cameos and quick presences from characters who do comic bits with a few moments of screentime but make an impression. The teaching staff includes Martin Starr’s Mr. Harrington (who’s apparently reprising a character from The Incredible Hulk film from 2008). There’s also the Bodega owner Mr. Delmer (Hemky Madera) who hits on Marisa Tomei’s May Parker. This shows the influence of Spider-Man 2 which added such textures and details to populate its world.

CASTING AND CHARACTERIZATION:
AUNT MAY

Why Spider-Man Star Marisa Tomei Regrets Playing Mom Roles Like Aunt May |  Cinemablend

In the case of Aunt May, I mentioned that the original age difference between May and Ben, and Peter Parker was likely a result of the adolescent experiences of its creators stemming from the Great Depression and World War II. May and Ben were originally “Greatest Generation”. Ultimate Spider-Man comics made them hippie survivors of the 1960s. Marisa Tomei (born in 1964) cast as May Parker is older Generation X. So it’s a valid choice in terms of changes in generation and social class.

🐣 25+ Best Memes About Cousin Vinny | Cousin Vinny Memes

Marisa Tomei is an actress with a good dramatic and comedic repertoire, with a certain grit. I often disagree with Dan Slott but I do agree that ideally they should cast Joe Pesci as Uncle Ben to retroactively make My Cousin Vinny a quasi-prequel. Marisa Tomei is also Italian-American whereas originally May Reilly was implied to be Scots-Irish. That’s an ethnicity update that didn’t get talked about as much as the diversification of the supporting cast. May Parker isn’t biologically related to Peter, she’s the wife of the brother of Peter’s father so she could in theory be any ethnicity.

What I object to with Aunt May in the MCU Spider-Man films are three things:

  • Practically every scene when she’s not alone with Peter, she’s ogled and objectified by men at every turn. RDJ’s Iron Man flirts with her during a break from Pepper (would’ve loved to have seen Peter hold that as blackmail on Tony), then Delmar refers to her in Spanish as a “hot Italian woman” in earshot of Peter (who speaks Spanish), a waiter ogles her, and then there’s Happy Hogan (sigh). Casting Aunt May goes from a basic sociological update that makes sense to a self-congratulatory joke about making May from an old crone into a beautiful woman. Doing it once may have been okay, doing it constantly is tiresome and sexist. This essentially amounts to a waste of Marisa Tomei’s time since she hardly gets many scenes to play a dramatic character.

  • I fully accept and support the film-makers decision to avoiding showing Peter’s origin. SM1’s first half is a nigh-definitive rendition, TASM-1 was so obviously bored that it fast-forwarded and half-baked it. What I object to is not mentioning Ben Parker’s name at all. Screenwriters have defended this decision about not wanting to revisit the origin but there’s a difference between a cast-and-lit flashback, and actual verbal references and the latter isn’t much big of an ask. All it would need is a single scene. Without mentioning Ben or discussing her relationship, there’s not much dramatic center for this version of May and Peter’s relationship, aside from her being the Aunt who gets worried. This is a woman raising a kid who isn’t related to her by blood, and treating her as her own special boy, a situation that exists because of Ben. It cant be ignored without consequences.

  • Likewise the film’s last scene has May stumbling on Peter’s secret identity and it’s treated as a gag but the emotional consequences and the logic (Peter confessing his involvement with his Uncle’s death) is left offscreen and it’s resolved by FFH because it gets in the way of making a constant joke of the casting.

CASTING AND CHARACTERIZATION:
PETER PARKER

Spider-Man "Hey Everyone" - Airport Argument Scene - Captain America: Civil  War - Movie CLIP HD - YouTube

I mentioned before that “directing is 90% casting”. The director of Spider-Man:Homecoming did not cast Peter Parker and Aunt May. Those choices were made by Kevin Feige, in consultation with Sony’s producers, with the input of the Russo Brothers, the film-makers of Captain America: Civil War. So with MCU Spider-Man, the question about the casting is “whose” 90% directing does Tom Holland represent? In Captain America:Civil War, the Russos cast Spider-Man in screentests with actors to have scenes with RDJ. Tom Holland’s audition was his scene in Civil War where he walks in to find Iron Man talking to his Aunt in his living room:

Holland’s audition for the MCU was his first scene in Captain America: Civil War, where Peter Parker walks into his apartment to find Tony Stark sitting on the couch with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

[…]

Downey continued, “Remember, I’d been testing with a bunch of kids that day. They shall remain unnamed, but they all did well and any one of them would have brought something else to the part of Spider-Man. But why Holland? That’s your question, right? Gravitas. Gravitas and the confidence to be able to take on the mantle.”

[4]

This description of the casting suggests that the main criteria for Spider-Man was their interaction and presence with the Franchise Protagonist.

The MCU was built on Marvel properties that either had never been adapted before and so had to be introduced on-screen for the first time (Iron Man, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy), or had polarizing adaptations of the kind that cast no shadows (Ang Lee’s Hulk, the cheap Captain America movies). That meant that the producers could plan each film carefully with world and time. Spider-Man was incorporated hastily into the middle of production of Captain America: Civil War when the Sony/Disney deal to have Spider-Man in the MCU was written down. That meant that Spider-Man’s recasting and second reboot wasn’t done with quite the same freedom that the MCU otherwise had, and will have for their upcoming Fantastic Four and X-Men reboots. So the Russos obviously cast an actor in Captain America: Civil War who could interact with and show a bond with Iron Man because that’s what suited their pressing needs at the moment.

The Lost City of Z (2016) - IMDb
The Lost City of Z (2016) Charlie Hunnam (Left) and Tom Holland (Right) as Father and Son

But that also raises open questions as to whether the actor cast as Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is in fact a proper leading man or if he was cast to reflect Iron Man’s story-arc first and foremost? Movies are made by people of people, comics are made by people of material. In comics, Spider-Man is more popular than Iron Man even after the MCU, in the movies, you have Robert Downer Jr. an established actor well before his later career movie stardom and next to him Tom Holland, a young British actor who just made a notable appearance in The Lost City of Z (whose finale echoes his big emotional scene in Infinity War). It’s easy to make Tom Holland’s Peter into an Iron Man sidekick and fan based on the disproportionate star power alone, the only way to counter it would have been to cast the next Leonardo DiCaprio.

Visually Tom Holland looks more like Tobey Maguire than Andrew Garfield in having a boxy and square head, most like the Peter of Amazing Fantasy #15 rather than who the character grew into becoming. On the other hand, Holland is like Garfield, British. As such, he affects an accent rooted in a place and the result is a performance that’s often overtly emotive because at least part of it is spent displaying his mastery of an American accent. The greater physicality of Tom Holland and especially his mastery of a bug-eyed shocked expression is more like Garfield’s whereas Tobey Maguire affected a Buster Keaton-like steadfastness. Holland’s eyes are much smaller than Maguire’s and Garfield’s so visually that’s not enough of a match for Peter who has medium shaped eyes that’s neither too big nor small.

Holland’s Peter Parker is also extremely chatty. That’s an MCU thing (on which more later). Both Maguire and Garfield’s films had moments of great non-verbal acting where their actual presence, alone and quiet, was enough to communicate a great deal of internal drama. Whereas Holland’s Peter is a non-stop chatterbox. Most of the film has him in two-handers, i.e. scenes where’s he talking with another character usually Ganke, sometimes Happy Hogan. The director Jon Watts and writers admitted to feature a Stark AI called Karen the Suit Lady (Jennifer Connelly) to give their version of Peter someone to talk to. They said this was their approach of conveying Peter Parker’s internal monologue usually featured in thought bubbles and captions in comics. Why a voiceover wasn’t suggested is one, among many of the film’s puzzles. The result is a Peter Parker far more extroverted than any version of Peter Parker. Certainly moreso than the comics.

Holland was actually 20 years old at his casting in Civil War and he’s spent the last five years as a teenage Spider-Man who hasn’t yet left high school by his last appearance in Far From Home. He’s far younger than Maguire (circa SM1) and a near decade younger than Garfield around the time of TASM1, so as casting it certainly does align better with a slower paced focus on Peter’s growth. The question is that having been locked in one interpretation of Spider-Man, as IM subfranchise at the outset, can Holland subsequently provide a new interpretation similar to Olsen in WandaVision? In either case the answer to that question is years away, well past No Way Home it seems.

VISUAL DESIGN: INSIDE THE MCU

Farewell, Bro: How Matt Fraction and David Aja's 'Hawkeye' changed Marvel  Comics | EW.com
Art by David Aja. Hawkeye (2012)

A number of people have noted that the MCU is like the 616 Comics Continuity. I would say it’s close in many respects. But there’s a difference. Steve Ditko working in the shared universe pushed for Spider-Man to be treated as standalone as much as possible and crafted stories like “The Master Planner Saga” which could be read as if Spider-Man was the only hero. It’s very hard to think of many MCU movies that could work that way (Black Panther comes close, barring its post-credits credits, there’s no mention/scene/reference of any MCU character pre-credits). The comics shared universe because of changing art styles, printer techniques, new talent, and also new (and often mercurial) editorial regimes, were able to provide new interpretations and changes that provided individual interpretations that work both in continuity and as standalone. Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye looked and read like no other superhero title (Marvel or DC) but the current Disney Plus show is a pastiche of any number of crime comedies. The equivalent visual style to the comics would be if Hawkeye was directed by Wes Anderson with his hyper-visual inserts, formal staging, deadpan comedy and unexpected but earned schmaltz.

Spider-Man: Homecoming Trailer 3 Breakdown - 25 New Things You Must See –  Page 21

In the case of Homecoming, Jon Watts, who had previously made two independent genre films (Clown, Cop Car), said that his model was John Hughes high school films of the 1980s (the 2010s was the decade of ’80s nostalgia’). As a referent it’s not bad though it does feel odd to do a contemporary teen movie based on comedies three decades back. The comedy high school pastiches are entertaining and Watts does well enough, but the action suffers by comparison. The distinct nature of the Vulture and the potential for aerial combat he offers is generally wasted in a movie that’s mostly set in Queens suburbs and borrows the jokey premise of PAD’s “The Commuter Commuteth” which is all about Spider-Man’s swinging and webbing not really working so well in areas without tall buildings.

Fighting a bird-suit wearing bad guy on dry land is truly what one envisions with The Vulture

What that means is that the Vulture fight sequences are distinctly lacking in invention, style and tension and we get little of the great aerial duels that we saw in the Ditko run and later stories. All the action is set in night barring the Ferry scene. Spider-Man comes across Vulture only once in costume and doesn’t interact with him and then the second fight happens when both know each other’s identities. This means we don’t get Spider-Man interacting with Vulture or any of the hero trash-talking him as in the comics, because the less one emphasizes the double life, the less the chance to do that.

When the party has a bard : r/dndmemes

The MCU was made in 2008 and its house style was influenced by Joss Whedon and his imitators on TV. The result is that MCU movies are known for their dialogue and “quippage”. The result is movies where often the dialogue seems to be the main mode of storytelling rather than dialogue in line with performance and staging. This often creates issues, so for instance in Captain America: Civil War, we see Falcon and Winter Soldier engaging Spider-Man and Spider-Man does color commentary throughout the fight leading Falcon to remark, “usually, there’s not this much talking” but in fact across the MCU we see characters banter and snark all the time. So it feels a little hollow.

As such the talky nature of Homecoming didn’t come out of anywhere but it does reach a point where essentially nothing is communicated that’s not put into words. This emphasis on dialogues makes the characters thin. They become an accumulation of vocal deliveries than a complex cinematic performance. There’s one exception.

STORY STRUCTURE:
“CAN’T YOU HEAR ME KNOCKING?”

Maintaining the Shame of Peter Parker in 'Spider-Man: Homecoming'
“You either die a hero, or live long enough to become the villain”

I said before that while one can make a Batman movie centered on a villain, a Spider-Man movie where the villain is of more interest than the hero would likely be at odds with the material’s main intent. Michael Keaton was at the other end of this in his Batman films but here it’s turnaround. He’s by far the most interesting character in the film. A lot of people have pushed back on the idea of Vulture being sympathetic in Spider-Man Homecoming and that his grudge on Iron Man is misplaced. In terms of lore and background information inferred by combing over elsewhere, they might be right. But visually and aurally, I don’t think one can watch Homecoming, and see Keaton’s performance, and not feel for Toomes or feel that he completely deserves his lot.

Stream The Rolling Stones - Can't You Hear Me Knocking (HUDSON Live Cover)  by HUDSON | Listen online for free on SoundCloud

When Vulture decides at the start of the film to keep the Chitauri tech they salvaged from Damage Control, the movie cuts to him starting out scored to a Rolling Stones’ track “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” (a song about ’60s protests where the desperate people excluded from society are knocking on doors of the apathetic). I can’t think of another example of a superhero movie where the bad guy’s antics are extra-diegetically scored to theme music. Heroes certainly, but never the bad guy. Joker dancing to Prince in Batman (1989) comes close but that’s music Joker’s blaring in speakers, not music chosen by the film-makers to accompany his scene externally. So it’s not that audiences are wrong to see things from Vulture’s perspective when you use cultural signifiers like that.

In the comics, Toomes’ backstory invited open sympathy on the part of Spider-Man. It didn’t change Toomes as a person or character but it was acknowledged that wrongs were done to him. And generally speaking, superhero stories in different media have invoked sympathy for the criminals without condoning their actions. Batman: The Animated Series and its famous Mr. Freeze episode: Heart of Ice had the most vengeful of heroes openly commiserate for the villain’s bad lot and ensure that the crooked businessman who drove him (Ferris Boyle) goes to jail. Toomes has real grievances, and the film ends essentially by never holding the people who caused those grievances to account, or even acknowledging their validity. It’s as if the Mr. Freeze episode ends with Batman coldly throwing him in the slammer and calling him a bad guy and locking the door and then accepting the gratitude of Ferris Boyle.

  • In place of Gregory Bestman, the movie places Damage Control and Tony Stark. This creates this odd tension where the movie is constantly asking the viewer to feel bad about Iron Man but also ends the movie with Peter’s relationship with Iron Man unchanged, and that puts the audience away from Peter, the ostensible protagonist of this movie.

  • Michael Keaton’s performance has too much integrity for us to entirely dismiss him. He’s a rational man, and as Karen the AI notes has no prior criminal record. For a law abiding citizen who’s happily married and a caring father to become a gangster and crook as a result of having his legal trade nullified by Iron Man’s negligence, it’s simply not possible to see that and cleanly say that Toomes is some villain who’s talking nonsense. The Stern story made it clear that Bestman was a villain in Toomes story and you can’t hijack that story and have the guy not be a villain just because you put another character to be that person in the story.

  • Connecting Iron Man into Spider-Man and his villains isn’t necessary because Tony had no connection with Vulture in the comics. So the fact is that the MCU Spider-Man movies makes us dislike Iron Man for no reason. And then it asks us to pretend that it didn’t show Iron Man as a blinkered self-absorbed man who is heedless about his great power and influence giving license to unethical actions by the US government.

Homecoming starts and ends with the same status-quo. The relationship between Peter and Iron Man at the start is the same at the end. People have argued that Peter turning down the Avengers is a sign of him internalizing Toomes’ words but the end still has him gleefully accepting the Spider-Man suit from Tony rather than, I dunno, make his own suit like the previous Peters did. The issue of Vulture and his grievances is unaddressed and unacknowledged. There’s no sign of say Toomes wife and kids getting compensation due for his lost contracts or Iron Man promising that his family will be provided for.

MISC. OBSERVATIONS

The realest part of Captain America Civil War was when Cap and Spidey  couldn't get through a fight without letting everyone know they're from New  York : r/thanosdidnothingwrong
  • Captain America: Civil War was made in an odd situation, where the Russos needed to feature in the MCU in short notice mid-production and generate money-shots and “wow” moments for the big scenes of Spider-Man and the Avengers. The result is that the Spider-Man in action in that scene is a good deal more capable and competent than the dialogue suggests with his swinging and punching more than holding his own against “Team Cap” and coming up with the plan to take down Giant-Man. The Spider-Man in action there isn’t the 15-year teenage Spider-Man but a platonic Spider-Man across continuity who’s a major superhero.

  • As such, Jon Watts walks-back that scene with the Vlog opening which imposes in retrospect a more incompetent showing than what we had seen before. On one hand I appreciate Watts taking ownership of his interpretation, on the other hand it’s subtractive of the MCU project: to cohesively follow tracks laid down and add to continuity: instead telling viewers to not believe their eyes and ears.

I'm nothing without this suit… - theQuotes.me
  • The big dramatic idea is “If you’re nothing without the suit, you shouldn’t have it”. That’s a Tony Stark line that makes sense for him but it doesn’t apply to a character who has superpowers from a spider-bite and whose abilities don’t come from a suit with gadgets. The movie presents a character thesis not based on something intrinsic but essentially manufactured.

  • The entire optics of the Spider-Man costume and the politicization of it is too big to cover here, and is worth a separate post. I find it very odd why the final fight with the Vulture has to happen in an ugly costume that neither Ditko, nor Romita, nor Andru, nor JRJR, nor McFarlane ever drew. Still the fight is ugly enough on a visual level that it’s no loss, in the same way seeing Garfield skulk around maskless in a hallway in TASM1 is tolerable because at least I have to see less of that design. I don’t accept that it’s believable that a 40 year old playboy who didn’t seem to have done hard labor up to that point, can make a suit in a cave with a box of scraps, while it’s unbelievable that a precocious 15 year old with free time and ambition can’t pick up the skills to make a decent no-gadgets suit.

  • Spider-Man Homecoming isn’t the first to quote the machine lifting scene, Spider-Man 2 did it. But Homecoming got a lot more press for it. In terms of borrowings, the comic managed to convey emotion with a masked expressiveless Spider-Man. That’s replaced with over-emotive close-ups of Tom Holland’s face which artistically is less impressive an adaptation. My feeling is that the scene comes too early in continuity and it’s a little unearned for the character, and it feels premature. The scene in the comics featured Spider-Man in college and was intended as a valedictory moment, alongside the character’s commitment to the memory of his Aunt and Uncle. Drawing that emotional energy while substituting it with “nothing without the suit” hollows out the power of the allusion.

CONCLUSION OF SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING

Spider-Man Homecoming would perhaps have been a more entertaining film if it hadn’t been incorporated into the MCU as an extension of Iron Man’s story. Iron Man is the film’s emotional center the way Richard Parker is in the TASM movies, while the Stark name and corporation takes the place of Oscorp. So in a certain sense one can see the MCU Spider-Man films as an extension of the TASM movies. The same flaws and mistakes in those films, the same overplot causing problems over the individual organic narrative, persist with the MCU films but it’s papered over by a surface-level competence and a cast that does its best.

The film-makers had a vision of Spider-Man and they brought it across and that’s to be credited. It’s a distinct idea that everyone seemed to agree and brought it across even if there’s clunkers along the way. Michael Keaton’s Vulture is absolutely worth watching for this film and it’s the most compelling incarnation and adaptation of Adrian Toomes, true to Roger Stern’s interpretation of “old age and sneakiness versus youth and determination”. Visually the film isn’t true of Ditko’s design and fails him as an action character but that’s not Keaton’s fault.

Next we’ll be all caught up with Spider-Man: Far From Home

REFERENCES

  1. How Steve Ditko Protested Spider-Man Teaming Up With Other Heroes. Brian Cronin Published Dec 12, 2018. CBR.

    https://www.cbr.com/spider-man-team-up-steve-ditko-protest/1/

  2. “Spider-Man “Joins” the Avengers, Roger Stern Edition” By Mark Ginocchio September 18, 2013. Chasing Amazing.
    https://www.chasingamazingblog.com/2013/09/18/spider-man-joins-the-avengers-roger-stern-edition/

  3. Interview with George Khoury.
    http://www.marvelessentials.com/features/int_stern_1006_2.html

  4. Emily Zogbi. “Robert Downey Jr. Tried to Trip Tom Holland Up During His Spider-Man Audition”. CBR. Mar 06, 2021
    https://www.cbr.com/robert-downey-jr-tom-holland-spider-man-audition/

 

2 thoughts on “Live-Action Spider-Man Retrospective Review: SPIDER-MAN – HOMECOMING (2017)

  1. Interesting post, I overall agree a lot with your retrospective. One thing I wish the retrospective could’ve done was go further into Homecoming as a movie. I understand there was a lot more essential stuff surrounding the movie that had to be covered, but I enjoyed the critiques of previous movies such as Spider-Man 2, which lent a different perspective. What do you think of the quality of the movie?

    Your remark that this Peter is much more extroverted than any conversation made me think, while this Peter is much more talkative, I don’t really see the air of confidence the Russo’s casted for. Tom certainly has a presence, but his chatterbox personality as you mentioned makes him come off as a nerve-wrack who needs to get a lot off his chest. It does make me think, how intro / extroverted would you consider 616 Peter to be? When I think of 616 Peter, I feel like pre-OMD, he had a self-assured level of confidence, and so he comes off extroverted a lot of times.

    Overall, good retrospective, I was most excited for this one because there’s so much context surrounding this movie. It’s hard to talk about this movie without talking about the MCU and Spider-Man as a franchise, due to it being intrinsically tied to the MCU and being the third reboot fresh off the heels of TASM2.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ultimately I didn’t want to be overly negative. I look at the film in context of what went before and how it was put together. I much rather compress and focus on the things I like in this case Michael Keaton’s performance and focus on that while scanting the rest.In Homecoming, Vulture was far more interesting than the hero. The MCU solo movies generally don’t go too far in depth of Peter as a character, he doesn’t really have any character arc or growth.

      Yeah the difficulty of reviewing the MCU films or any MCU films is looking at them as standalone entries. Because if you do that, then you realize that a lot of the stuff that is entertaining is the things connecting to stuff outside the film rather than the things generated within. The major standalone element in HOMECOMING is Vulture, it’s his movie and I think I reviewed him well.

      Like

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