The new entry in the Spider Man franchise is a romance—particularly, a coming-of-age tale in which Peter Parker’s maturation engages in trying to have a reasoned relationship to his super powers and, therefore, to his self’s sense.
Spider Man Homecoming film’s subject is demagogy, a teen-age superhero boy’s abuse of his powers to show off—to win celebrity, to win friends, and, above all, to impress a girl in his high school. Certainly, he ultimately learns better—after almost costing many lives, including that girl’s—but the filmmakers nonetheless want to have it both ways. That hedging is the movie’s central creative strategy, and it results in a strangely oblivious film, one that undercuts its story with exactly the sort of praise-hungriness that its hero learns to overcome.
A smart and nerdy Queens second-year boy in a selective science high school, a nerd surrounded by nerds, Peter (Tom Holland) is also socially unformed, with one foot still in childhood and the head in fantasy. (He and his best friend, Ned, played by Jacob Batalon, still play with Legos after school.) Peter Parker is in love with Liz (Laura Harrier), a senior, and he dreams, above all, that by pursuing crimes as Spider Man—ones that he has specifically been forbidden to try by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), his mentor in the Avengers, who knows that Peter is not ready yet—he may win over her heart. The film is directed by Jon Watts, whose previous feature is “Cop Car,” a thriller about children commandeering a police cruiser— playing with powers beyond their grasp.
Peter’s chance to shine in the heroic spotlight is set up by a backstory of white working-class resentment. In the wake of devastation in New York (the aftermath of the ending to Joss Whedon’s film “The Avengers,” from 2012), Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a local contractor, is fulfilling a government deal for the removal of debris.
He and his team are laboring on a rubble-strewn city site when the feds pop out and pull the contract out from under him, making him bankrupted. After a bureaucrat mocks Toomes for placing all his financial eggs in one basket—for becoming a small businessman with no financial cushion—Toomes seeks his vengeance: pilfering some glowing alien junks left over from the clash, he surfaces, eight years pass, as an evil villain who creates weaponry from that salvage and attempts to sell it on the black market and also to use it for heists of his own.
That’s where Peter comes in: the Toomes gang undertakes crimes in his virtual back yard, and Peter dons a scrappy version of his Spider Man suit to attempt to thwart them—and to bask in the publicity for doing so. Instead, he leaves a mess and leaves a friend in a jam.
It’s not much of a spoiler to note that, with his wise and devoted (and technically wondrous) mentorship of Peter, Stark is also the hero of the tale. Tony Stark, of course, isn’t simply Iron Man’s Clark Kent; he’s also the super-C.E.O. of Stark Industries, whose interests set him closely with the forces of order, and it’s he who has the government contract that’s taken from Toomes.
His company, no mere local startup, is a self-perpetuating engine of innovation, built around continuity, development, delegation, and mentorship. It’s also apparently built around a stainless core of incorruptibility, arising from those higher realms of responsibility that discern it from Toomes’s local carting business, which faces the stereotypical traps of gangland corruption. In the guise of its empathy for the abused and beleaguered local striver, Spider Man Homecoming oozes with praise for the military-industrial complex, for the security that’s assured solely by the intersection of big business and government.
Still, Watts works hard to fill touches and tones of urban grit and texture in the film. Scenes filmed on location (even though freeze-dried through use of light, décor, action, and pixel-perfect editing) anchor the drama in the colorful street life of workaday Queens, and a toss-off of Peter’s easy converse with a sandwich-shop owner indicates the emotional ties of a wide neighborhood. Peter’s high school, the Midtown School of Science and Technology, is a similar mosaic of diverse types, with an apparently wide range of ethnicities represented in Peter’s circle of friends. Yet these supporting roles for the most part stay as flat and opaque as tiles.
Peter and his friends have nothing to say about, and nothing to do with, any inner or private aspects of their outward identity, and nothing to say about gender or sexual orientation.
Liz, the focus of Peter’s love, is black (Peter is white), but her ethnic identity is granted no dramatic content. Rather, it’s used solely as the basis for a facile dramatic twist.
It’s something in the air. I’ve seen three films in as many weeks—this one, “Baby Driver,” and “The Beguiled”—in which personal traits are effaced in the interest of describing outward identities that are literally simply skin-deep; a fourth, “The Big Sick,” makes ethnicity its very aim but treats it with a hedging, self-censoring slightness.
It seems that Spider Man Homecoming movie producers, varying from Marvel Studios to high-level Hollywood independents, have planned that wide audiences are ready to see diversity regarding race but none regarding gender, to witness outward signs of visual diversity relating to race but not to contemplate any diversity of ideas or experiences that results.
The one ironic comedic highlight in Spider Man Homecoming features made-for-school Captain America videos that spoofs the efforts of clueless adults who seem superheroes as virtue-preaching. In this way and others, the film promotes its own very modest manner of virtues within the bounds of self-censoring conventions.
The film hedges even on its basic through-line, of Peter’s maturation, his willingness to take his powers slow and advance his skills carefully, under Stark’s instruction and out of the public eye.
Though Peter’s vain overreaching has a hubristic dimension, the innocent genius of his inexperience also weighs heavily in the balance. After all, it’s his intuition and natural inspiration that save the day.
All things to all people, all kinds of people with no real differences, Spider Man Homecoming movie is a pseudo-humanistic coming-of-age movie that melts its components—and, for that matter, the formidable artistry of its cast—into a saccharine goo. The good intentions and authentic values that seemingly motivate some of its essential creative decisions make its effacement of distinctions—in the script and in the characters, behind and in front of the camera—all the more disheartening.