By Allen Callaci
The 2017 bumper crop of superhero films continues—a batch of movies that merged their DNA with other cinematic genres in much the same way that Jeff Goldblum’s genes merged with that of a housefly in David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly.
Fox’s latest entry in its mutant movie-verse Logan shot across the silver screen earlier this year like a bullet from the barrel of a Winchester rifle. Bloody and stoic it played like the first superhero western. Hugh Jackman’s grizzled and graying Logan reminder viewers of Clint Eastwood’s weathered and weary gunslinger William Munny from Unforgiven … give or take an adamantium skeleton.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 followed Logan into the multiplexes—playing out like a comedic space opera with a soundtrack that compiled more 70s and 80s AM radio staples than one could shake a vintage KTEL Records compilation at. After Guardians came the defining film of summer 2017: Wonder Woman. The Gal Gadot box-office behemoth gave viewers a World War I epic that combined the earnest soul of Christopher Reeve’s Superman movies with the feminist heart of Norma Rae.
Now the last major superhero film of summer came to town—Spider-Man: Homecoming—a film that answers the question, “What would happen if there were a Marvel Team-Up that paired The Breakfast Club with The Avengers?”
Homecoming—the web-head’s sixth cinematic adventure—returned the character to his roots as an awkward adolescent simultaneously battling super-villains and the never-ending trials of puberty. Spider-Man Homecoming presents viewers with a self-doubting hero far more comfortable engaging in a life-and-death battle with Michael Keaton’s vengeful Vulture than engaging in an actual conversation with his nemesis’ attractive daughter.
Until now, all previous cinematic incarnations of Spider-Man featured actors in their 20s portraying the ubiquitous web-slinger. By doing so, they deprived the character of what makes him unique—the fact that he’s a teen and comes with all the baggage issued at the gates of adolescence. Emotionally conflicted, angst-ridden, and hyper-sensitive to his image, he grasps for social acceptance and hides behind a mask. “I’m nothing without the suit,” he protests when Tony Stark takes back the Spider-suit after Peter starts using it irresponsibly. “If you’re nothing without the suit, than you shouldn’t have it,” Stark tells the pouting Parker in the tone of a disappointed parent taking the car keys away from his reckless teen.
Dealing sympathetically with the peer-pressurized minefield of adolescence makes Spider-Man Homecoming the realistic and adult superhero movie that dreck like last summer’s Hot Topic clothes-horse Suicide Squad marketed itself as.
If Superman occupies the bright center of the superhero universe and Batman lives in its darkest corner, then Spider-Man exists in the vast gray area in between. Neither a Christ-like perfect being sent down to save humanity from itself nor a tortured billionaire pathologically obsessed with justice and vengeance, Spidey is a flawed lower-middle-class high-school kid whose main claim to fame before being bitten by a radioactive spider is being a star on the high-school debate team. He acts the way you would expect a shy awkward, and insecure 15-year-old boy who gained superpowers overnight would act—using his newfound powers to impress his secret crush while trying to prevent Titanian mutant–Eternal super-being Thanos from collecting all the Infinity Stones and seizing control of the universe.
As a 14-year-old comic loving outcast, I daydreamed of being Iron Man or Thor or Wolverine, but the character in whom I saw myself reflected was Spider-Man. Unpopular. Not rich. No ladies’ man. Bad decisions. Victories come at a cost (as when he infamously defeated the Green Goblin but lost his sweetheart Gwen Stacey in the battle).
Spider-Man Homecoming succeeds by reverting to the enduring and endearing appeal of the fallible wall-crawler: the non-airbrushed version of who we are at our best.