How “Spider-Man: Homecoming” Updated the Teen Film for the MCU Era
Alien robots and evil Norse gods may prove a thrill to the multiplex, but here, they're not much more intimidating than adolescence.
April 21, 2020

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, most films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are the same. A villain is introduced, and then the heroes who have to stop them, and funny quips are thrown into the mix. Something is shoe-horned in that ties the movie into the next 50 films that Marvel has already sketched out years in advance. They all end in a climactic battle in some nondescript location where, if the camera just pans a few inches, you’ll see a giant sound stage in Atlanta, where these movies are shot. 

However, like Roger Ebert said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Comic book films are the most popular genre films of this century so far, and like the genres that once dominated pop culture (westerns of the 1940s and ‘50s and sci-fi films from the ‘50s to 60s), these films have evolved into something more nuanced. As long as they play between the lines of the studio-sanctioned guideposts previously mentioned, Marvel films can really be any genre they want. They are grand space operas with throwback soundtracks (Guardians of the Galaxy), action-adventure World War II romps (Captain America: The First Avenger), or powerful statements on the trauma that racism brings to our country (Black Panther). 

What makes 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming stand out in the MCU filmography is not only how it deftly relaunches a popular film franchise for the third time in 15 years. It’s also how it expertly leans into its genre, the teen film. It does it so well, in fact, that it’s more successful as a teen film than a Marvel film, which, in a weird paradox, makes it a better Marvel film. 

On a filmmaking level, director Jon Watts doesn’t give it the visceral thrill of the first two Sam Raimi-directed films, which were more interested in all that responsibility that comes with all that power. Watts has other things on his mind, primarily the miseries of being a teenager, but with Iron Man flying around in the background. It’s not even about saving the world. Okay, maybe a little, but it’s mostly about saving the neighborhood bodega, the Academic Decathlon team, and finding a date for the school dance. It brings intergalactic Marvel action down to a high school reading level. 

Starting with the casting, Homecoming nails the teen genre by picking a diverse, eclectic group of actors who achieve something that is rare in movies that are set in high school—they actually look and act like teenagers. British actor Tom Holland may have been 20 years old when he took over the role of Peter Parker, but he still brings a youthful energy that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield didn’t. Most importantly, Holland brings to the table an element that makes Peter Parker the most relatable of the Avengers: loveable dweebiness.

Holland’s relatability allows you to relive your own teenage traumas through Peter, even if his problems may be more literally life or death. It’s hard to connect with a Thunder God or a tech billionaire on an emotional level, but it’s very easy with a nerdy dude from a working-class Queens family who has trouble talking to girls.

He oozes said dweebiness in every facet of his performance. There’s the way his eyes go puppy dog mode when he’s around his hero, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Then there’s how he hunches his shoulders, trying to be invisible in the school hallways even though he can pick up a car. Even his haphazard web slinging around New York City goes as awkwardly as him asking out his crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), to the homecoming dance.

It’s not a coincidence that one of the (many) co-writers of Spider-Man: Homecoming is John Francis Daley, who played Sam Weir, one of the most loveable dweebs on TV in the immortal Freaks and Geeks. (Another Geeks alum that pops up here is Martin Starr as the students’ Academic Decathlon coach, Mr. Harrington.) Like Weir, this version of Peter Parker is trying to navigate the minefield of being a teenager without any social graces in his toolbelt that would help the process be any less nightmarish. 

[T]his version of Peter Parker is trying to navigate the minefield of being a teenager without any social graces in his toolbelt that would help the process be any less nightmarish.

Peter is surrounded by a cast of friends, enemies, and crushes at Midtown Science and Technology High School that continue the tradition of teen archetypes. However, by setting the film in an urban school for intelligent students, Spider-Man: Homecoming puts a diverse, modern spin on old clichés. Peter’s bully, the fantastically named Flash (Tony Revolori), is also one of the smartest kids in the school. Flash would probably be bullied in any teen movie pre-2015 too, which makes his constant verbal put downs toward Peter that much funnier. 

Ned (Jacob Batalon), meanwhile, is the latest in a long line of comic relief best friends like Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He helps keep the film grounded in high school anxieties by reminding Peter of important things, like asking when he’s gonna come over to build that LEGO Death Star with him. Sure, his character doesn’t get much development as is usually the case with these poor sidekicks, but he does get to wear cool hats!

Then there’s MJ (Zendaya), who takes the dry, acerbic torch from Ally Sheedy’s Allison in The Breakfast Club and Lizzy Caplan’s Janis in Mean Girls. Zendaya doesn’t get much screen time in this installment, but she makes the most of it by having every line feel off putting but still making you want to be BFFs with her at the same time.

The other thing that Homecoming gets right, where most other Marvel films falter, is the villain. Just having Michael Keaton go nuts as a comic book bad guy would be enough to coast on, but it’s how they contextualize the creation of Vulture that works. This, along with finding an ingenious way of fitting him in the teen genre, is what makes it special.

He starts the film as Adrian Toomes, the head of a construction company, picking up the pieces from the catastrophic damage caused by the climax of the first Avengers film. This already makes him more believable and tactile than interdimensional aliens, Trickster Gods, or skeleton Nazi dudes. Toomes is decidedly blue collar, and he feels powerless in a world now run by superheroes. He taps into a truth not often explored in these movies, which is how the less fortunate have to pick up the pieces after cool battles (that also result in the complete destruction of cities and cost countless lives). 

The best move the film makes is a late story twist where Peter comes to pick up his crush, Liz, for the homecoming dance. He rings the doorbell to her home and shockingly, Toomes, who he’s been battling back and forth with the entire movie, opens the door, revealing he’s the father of the girl he loves. Super villains with cosmic weapons of destruction are scary, but not nearly as terrifying your girlfriend’s father.

This culminates in the most intense scene of the movie. It’s not a daring rescue of people trapped on the Staten Island Ferry, or a high-speed chase, but a gentle car ride where a dad drives his daughter and her date to a school dance. Keaton is in fine form here as his questions slowly reveal the identity of who is taking his daughter to this dance, while Holland is giving it right back as he melts through the car seat. It perfectly sums up the joys of Spider-Man: Homecoming by slamming together awkward teenage romance with life-or-death stakes. 

Super villains with cosmic weapons of destruction are scary, but not nearly as terrifying your girlfriend’s father.

Soon after, Peter has to leave the homecoming dance in order to have a final battle with Vulture. It’s a typical Marvel climax—lots of noise, lots of ‘splodies, all numbing and forgettable. It’s unfortunate, because we don’t really care how big of an explosion they can fit on the screen. We care about watching Peter learn how to dance so he doesn’t look stupid in front of the girl he likes. 

Rewatching Spider-Man: Homecoming, it feels like a missed opportunity that Peter didn’t just stay at the dance and be with his friends instead. Yes, these things have to happen. At the end of the day, this is a studio movie with global box office concerns that needs to justify its huge budget, but you’re only young once. Saving the world can wait till after homecoming.

Spider-Man: Homecoming Trailer: