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Question Club: What does Spider-Man: Homecoming bring to the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Question Club: What does Spider-Man: Homecoming bring to the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

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Image: Sony Pictures

The latest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t just continuing the story told in films like Iron Man, The Avengers, and Captain America: Civil War. Those movies are all Disney productions, but the new Spider-Man: Homecoming is part of a sideline of films produced by Sony, as part of a complicated deal that will let the studio produce Spider-Man movies that could be considered inside the MCU canon, yet outside of its narrative line. Confusing? It doesn’t have to be. Just as Disney keeps making MCU movies that don’t include the entire set of Avengers (or often even take them into account), Sony can keep making Spider-Man movies that don’t bring in Iron Man or Captain America. And if the studio continues to hire the right talent and keep the right tone, casual viewers may not even notice a significant difference between Sony’s Marvel movies and Disney’s. At least, that’s the impression Spider-Man: Homecoming brings across. It nails the mix of humor and intense action that has made the MCU movies such hits, but while recent MCU movies have been increasingly grandiose and cosmic, building up to the big Infinity Wars crossovers, Homecoming moves in the opposite direction. It’s a comparatively light heroic drama that focuses as much on Spider-Man’s crush on a classmate as it does on his superhero battles. Here, our staff looks into what that comparatively minor scale does to the film’s scope and story, and we address other group questions about how Homecoming operates, and how we reacted to it.

Spoilers ahead.

What did you think about the film feeling so small and personal?

Kwame: Homecoming does an excellent job of balancing what we already know about the previous films with its smaller, more personal stakes. This is a world where superheroes just exist and are out in the world, either saving people or causing problems. But everything still goes on as normal. Kids have exams. Adults have bills to pay.

What’s great about all that for me is that those smaller stories were always the best Spider-Man stories. Peter Parker is and has always been this gawky teenager from Queens who’s unlucky in love and life, but striving hard to be better. Given the context, of course he looks up to Tony and wants to be like him. Of course he’s playing at being a superhero, but also thinking about his friend Liz, and how he’ll get her to finally notice him.

Chaim: After years of escalating stakes in MCU movies, which have gone from Iron Man fighting a member of his company board on an LA freeway and Thor saving a Midwestern town to globe-hopping adventures against armies with the fate of the entire world at stake, Homecoming was a breath of fresh air for me in telling a more personal story that focused on Peter Parker just being the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.”

‘Homecoming’ was a breath of fresh air

And like Kwame said, Spider-Man is perfectly suited to this kind of story, because aside from the great power (and great responsibility) of being a superhero, he’s an ordinary high schooler. He’s instantly more relatable than Tony Stark’s “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist,” or Captain America’s star-spangled super soldier. Getting to see him navigate the problems of regular, everyday New York City life as a teenager was really enjoyable.

Tasha: Yeah, retrenching the scale down to a more human size is so important for these movies. It helps explain why the rest of the Avengers aren’t involved in this story, and don’t need to be. It gets us away from the repetitive “madman with Infinity Gem-powered hoobajoob tries to blow up a planet” plots. And it feels more realistic for a 15-year-old to be struggling to manage crime in his own borough rather than taking on planet-smashers. I absolutely love the idea of Spider-Man dedicating himself to giving people directions. That seems like something that might actually happen in the real world, among the “real-life superhero” movement. And it says so much about Peter’s humility and his eagerness to help people.

How did you think the references to the rest of the MCU were handled?

Tasha: I’m down for pretty much any acknowledgement that the Chitauri invasion fundamentally changed society in the MCU continuity. I’m happy all over again every time Tony Stark references it to remind The Avengers of how bad things can get, or Agents of SHIELD builds an episode around a recovered weapon, or Jessica Jones makes an offhand reference to aliens falling out of the sky. It’s all a tacit reminder that while MCU stories tend to focus on a few exceptional individuals, the things that happen in this world affect everyone else, too, in dramatic, ongoing ways. So I was really pleased with the Vulture’s backstory, the whole setting around his schemes, and the degree to which the aliens turning up has complicated even basic street crime in the MCU.

Also, the use of Tony Stark as a distant, neglectful, problematic father figure couldn’t be more perfect. Homecoming is yet another film about Tony Stark being a rich, arrogant, out-of-touch jerk whose behavior has serious consequences. I think it’s fundamentally interesting that he keeps fighting these same battles over and over — the high-handed way his people deal with Adrian Toomes produces an instant supervillain, which takes us right back to how his offhanded rejection of Aldrich Killian came back to bite him on the ass in Iron Man 3, and how his father’s offhanded rejection of Anton Vanko produced Whiplash in Iron Man 2. The Starks just can’t stop making supervillains by being arrogant, apparently!

Chaim: I was just thinking that same thing. You’d think that maybe after the whole Ultron fiasco, Tony would maybe just take a step back from things a bit, given that almost everything he does creates a supervillain…

As for the MCU references, there were definitely a lot of them, between Toomes’ weapons and characters referencing events from previous movies, but it felt true to the world. These were huge, cataclysmic events that affected millions of people’s lives. Of course people are still talking about the time New York City was ravaged by an alien horde! And getting to see the fallout of that from a relatable perspective was a good reminder that these events have an impact on people besides the Avengers.

Plus, considering the popularity that Iron Man and Captain America have in our world, where they’re entirely works of fiction, the almost pervasive celebrity status of the Avengers in the MCU makes even more sense in a world where they’re real heroes.

Kwame: Polygon’s Susana Polo and I had a brief conversation about Spider-Man’s place in the larger MCU, and what he represents for this coterie of avenging superheroes. We came away thinking Homecoming feels like a sidekick movie. That’s pretty groundbreaking. Peter Parker is something like Robin to Tony Stark’s Batman, though without the cave and the “Dynamic Duo” relationship.

Peter Parker is the MCU’s first kid sidekick

Just think about it. As we’ve already discussed, the Avengers’ actions have real weight in their world. People talk about the incident in New York or the horrors that went down in Sokovia as serious geopolitical calamities that created lasting change. But Peter Parker is the first character we’ve encountered in that entire sweep who wants to be a superhero because of the superheroics he’s seen. The entirety of Homecoming is about Peter struggling to balance being an ordinary kid with his dream of being as great a hero as Iron Man. He’s every kid who threw on a towel and pretended it was a cape — only he actually has superpowers, and has a real chance at greatness.

That aspect of the film and Peter’s character makes Homecoming easily the most refreshing MCU movie in a long time, because it gets at the heart of why superheroes exist. It’s this idea that kids want and often need figures to look up to. And it hints at the idea that there’s a mantle to be passed onto the generation of superheroes Spider-Man is now the face of.

Image: Sony Pictures

Is Vulture a compelling villain for you?

Kwame: I loved the Vulture. I wasn’t expecting to, since I’m a diehard “Green Goblin is the quintessential Spider-Man nemesis” guy, but I did. First of all, Michael Keaton is perfect in the role. He manages to make an embittered and dangerous man sympathetic by giving Adrian Toomes this almost palpable sense of exhaustion. This is a guy who’s seen not only Tony Stark get one over the little guy, but has seen it happen over and over with guys like Tony Stark. He’s been boxed into a corner and pushed just a little too far, and it resonates because he really was wronged.

But more than that, I think the Vulture works because he has principles. It’s the same reason villains like the Kingpin and Baron Mordo work. Adrian is trying to feed his family in a world where his livelihood was cut off by Tony’s arrogance. He’ll do anything to support his family, and hitting Tony where it hurts is an added bonus. But that doesn’t mean he’s completely amoral. Given the chance to sell Peter out to a fellow small-time villain, he chooses not to. I’m really interested in seeing where this character goes from here.

Chaim: Vulture worked really well for me, too. I think Marvel hit the balance between “big enough to be a supervillain” and “small enough that the entire Avengers aren’t descending on a warehouse in Brooklyn.” Making Toomes an underdog fighting back against the unfeeling forces of Tony Stark and the government to provide for his family made it weirdly hard to root against him at times, which is a good thing in a villain. It’s clear that Adrian views himself as the hero of his own story, and compared to the universe-conquering aliens and gods that Marvel movies usually throw out for our heroes to face, Vulture’s grounding makes him one of the better villains in the MCU so far.

Smart villains are the best villains

Tasha: That said, I would have liked to have seen a little more of him between “Eh, let’s keep this technology and go evil,” and him turning up in a creepy articulated wing-suit. I enjoyed how distinctive that suit is — those bladed, flexible, fast-moving wings are a well-done update that turn “dude in a bird suit” into something authentically menacing, and the way they move guarantees that Vulture doesn’t feel too much like Falcon, who’s also at heart a dude in a bird suit. But I’m not sure we spend enough time with Toomes out of costume. The confrontation between him and Peter in the car on the way to homecoming is a highlight of the film, especially watching Toomes visibly put the pieces together. (Smart villains are the best villains.) And the moment where he’s alone with his henchmen is so telling — he’s not yet ruthless enough to flat-out murder an underling for failure, but he also isn’t empathetic enough to be sorry when he accidentally kills a guy. I wanted more of those telling details, and more time to figure out who Toomes really is, beyond a grudge and a family mandate.

This is a film about small details. What are some of your favorites?

Tasha: I enjoyed the proof that even though Happy Hogan and Tony Stark aren’t answering Peter’s calls, Tony at least is still listening to them and taking them to heart — he knows about the churro business, for instance. That seems so true to Tony: he’s smart enough to assimilate all available data, yet oblivious enough that he doesn’t realize he can’t solve the problem of Peter by ignoring him. Oh, and I was really pleased that the costume designer figured out a way to give Vulture the poofy neck-fur that’s part of his usual comics costume, without making him look ridiculous.

Chaim: I really, really liked the moment where Peter was forced to run across a field in the suburbs due to the lack of buildings to swing from. It’s a small thing, but it perfectly captured a lot about the character and how much New York City as a location is a part of Spider-Man. And it also shows that the team behind the movie actually put some thought into how Spider-Man’s powers would work in the real world, which I always appreciate. (On a similar vein, every time that Peter spectacularly fails at web-slinging — he’s still new to this! There’s a learning curve before he’s an amazing Spider-Man).

Kwame: I loved the entire sequence where Peter has to lift that collapsed building off of him. It references this classic moment in early Amazing Spider-Man where Doctor Octopus has trapped him in this impossible situation, and only by sheer force of will can he save himself in order to save his loved ones. It’s one of Spidey’s defining moments, and the film pulls it off pretty much perfectly.

In the comics, artist Steve Ditko stretched out the agony of that scene to hammer home how hard Peter had to push himself and expose what’s driving him. In the comics, he thinks of his Aunt May and Uncle Ben and his friends to drive him, but here, he thinks of Tony. It’s a big change, but it shows how committed Marvel is to planting this new Spidey firmly into the MCU. This is the moment where Peter truly earns his stripes as a superhero. It’s not the climactic battle over Coney Island (which is also a great set piece, by the way.) It’s Peter summoning up the will to never give up that makes him the Amazing Spider-Man and not just a kid with powers doing what he can.

Tasha: At the same time, these new MCU movies are having a fun time over him being a kid with powers — specifically, a smartass who finds the mask gives him the confidence to mouth off to crooks in a way he can’t mouth off to other people in his life. The ATM robbers in Avengers Halloween masks was a super cute detail, but what really got me about that fight was the way the script gets how Spider-Man fights mooks, half with acrobatics and webs, and half by goading and joking his opponents into a clumsy fury.

Did anything about the film fundamentally not work for you?

Tasha: Am I the only one who found it hard to appreciate the Peter / Liz plotline? It bothers me that the movie puts her through so much in the background, including near death and the eventual destruction of her family, and we only really see it through how it affects Peter’s chances to hang with her. She’s a little too saintly (why, again, is this gorgeous, brilliant high school senior so willing to hang with a shy, awkward younger kid who keeps ditching her at key moments?), and she’s suffering a little too hard. And then right after her tearful, miserable departure, we get the MJ reveal, as if to say “Meh, whatever, Peter! Liz was just a momentary distraction anyway!”

Kwame: I agree completely with that. I think Liz was underserved, and I wish the movie did more with her to make her a three-dimensional character beyond “Peter Parker’s smart and pretty high school crush.” Her only saving grace for me was the fact that I have no doubt she’ll be back in some capacity, since her comic book counterpart is a major supporting character in Peter’s life. But that hardly helps her in this film.

But the biggest problem for me was definitely Aunt May. Don’t get me wrong. Marisa Tomei is great, and I think she and Tom Holland shared some sweet moments as aunt and nephew. And even though Uncle Ben is never mentioned, Tomei definitely lets you know that May is hiding some deep pain about that loss and her fear for Peter. But the film plays up the fact that she’s Peter’s “hot aunt” a little too much, to the point that when it’s referenced in the credits I was like, “Okay. Enough already.” And it hurts that much more when you stand back and realize that the movie fails the Bechdel test pretty spectacularly. The women in the movie really do not get enough to do.

Chaim: I’m still on the fence about whether this didn’t work for me, but the movie has an almost pathological fear of rehashing anything about Spider-Man’s overall mythos. Like Kwame mentioned, Uncle Ben — a formative part of Peter’s heroic journey — doesn’t even get a mention. But where The Amazing Spider-Man from 2012 bent over backward to avoid repeating the “with great power comes great responsibility” line, Homecoming seems content to pretend that slice of the lore isn’t worth mentioning. And while I agree that we definitely didn’t need to see Peter Parker’s origin story for a third time in recent history on-screen, there probably could have been a better balance somewhere between repeating and ignoring it.

Is there an Uncle Ben-shaped hole in the movie?

Tasha: Oh, I’m going to straight-up disagree with you on that one, Chaim. I’m so happy we aren’t getting Peter’s origin story again, except in a lampshaded sort of way, with Peter’s friend Ned trying to figure out whether he also wants to be bitten by that radioactive spider. (“The spider’s dead, Ned.”) And I’m perfectly fine with a Spider-Man continuity where he didn’t cause the death of his kindly Uncle Ben. In fact, I keep wondering if there never was an Uncle Ben in this story, and he’ll be someone we meet later down the line, in a completely new characterization.

Does this film rev you up for a series of Sony Spider-verse movies, possibly without Spider-Man in them?

Chaim: I’ve got mixed feelings about that. More smaller stories in the MCU would be great, and Spider-Man — with his fantastic rogues gallery — is a great place to start with that. But Holland’s web-slinging, wisecracking hero was so crucial to the charm of Homecoming that a Sony Spider-verse without him would feel weirdly empty. That said, I seriously doubt that Sony is going to pass up the opportunity created by Homecoming’s success, so I expect we’ll see them anyway, Spider-Man or not.

Kwame: I have serious doubts, too. I think it’s possible to have characters from Peter Parker’s life strike out on their own in separate movies, since they’re collectively some of the richest and most fascinating characters in all of superhero comics. (Imagine a Mysterio movie that tackles VFX in Hollywood.) But not having Spider-Man around for them to butt heads with means Sony will have to find ways to justify them existing on their own. And that makes me really nervous.

Tasha: I’ve had plenty of doubts about the MCU before now — whether Guardians of the Galaxy is a workable film property, whether The Avengers could possibly respect that many distinctive characters at once, whether Doctor Strange would make any sense on film — and for the most part, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I’m all for bringing on the Spider-verse. And if, as it’s been hinted, the Venom movie largely leaves out Spider-Man to focus on setting up a bad guy in full, rich detail, I’m down for that. It’ll just make the eventual crossover, where everyone comes together for a battle royale, that much more satisfying.