The new Spider-Man movie is a breath of fresh air, featuring a young version of the character who’s still figuring out his place in a world of colorful heroes. Even after so many Spidey films, and a slew of other superhero movies, Marvel Studios’ first Spider-Man film still feels like something special. Without giving any spoilers, this movie is light, funny and heartfelt.
But Spider-Man: Homecoming also feels unusual because of the way it manages to settle some of the most contentious debates over the nature of superhero movies, and heroic narratives generally. These include arguments about wholesale destruction, dark storytelling—and who, exactly, these movies are really for.
As superheroes have become the dominant force in pop culture over the past decade or so, they’ve eclipsed and contained other genres, from heist movies to spy thrillers. And critics and fans have argued about the simplistic worldview and cut-and-dried morality of many of these stories, which frequently feature cookie-cutter conflicts and repetitive boss fights. But at their best, superhero stories, including movies, provide a great venue for questioning the nature of heroism and sacrifice. And even a merely okay superhero film provides some awesome catharsis.
But Spider-Man: Homecoming makes the web-slinger fresh again, just as it makes superhero films feel full of possibility again, by confronting some of the cracks that have opened up in the genre. (It doesn’t hurt that Homecoming features the most likable Spidey yet in Tom Holland, playing the kind of sweet underdog who’s almost impossible not to root for.)
Mass Destruction, with Heart
Take the issue of property damage. Not too long ago, fans and movie critics were talking about the carnage in movies like Man of Steel and Avengers among others, which featured final smackdowns that brought down buildings right and left—with apparently stupendous off-screen body counts. More recently, films like Batman v. Superman and Captain America: Civil War went out of their way to showcase the collateral damage of these fights, and the high cost in human life. Which, honestly, is kind of a downer.
So it’s refreshing to see a movie like Spider-Man: Homecoming, which has a somewhat unique approach to demolishing New York City. In part, Homecoming takes its cue from every Spider-Man movie since Spider-Man 2’s famous train scene in 2004: the emphasis in some key sequences is on Spidey getting torn to shreds, trying to save innocent civilians.
But there’s also the nature of the destruction that we witness in the sixth Spider-Man film. Instead of massive explosions and computer-generated debris flying everywhere in bewildering gouts, Spider-Man: Homecoming features a lot of destruction that feels a bit more human-scale. Even the big sequences you’ve probably seen in the trailers with the Staten Island Ferry and the Washington Monument feel somewhat personal and intimate, with a clear focal point instead of just buildings coming down everywhere. There’s still plenty of CG smashy-breaky, but it feels more contained and easier to parse.
A big part of Homecoming’s plot revolves around the destruction caused by superhero battles, and what happens to the junk that’s left behind. (In fact, this movie finally answers one of the biggest questions in superhero-dom: Who, exactly, cleans up after those big smackdowns? The answer is a lovely shout-out to one of comics’ greatest innovators, the late Dwayne McDuffie.)
Plus one of the things I admire about Homecoming is the way it uses its carnage to illuminate Peter Parker’s growth as a character, with every sequence giving us fresh insights into his progression. A lot of the worst destruction in this film is, at least in part, Spidey’s fault, and a lot of the personal stakes come from Spidey trying to save regular people from the disastrous results of his own recklessness. And then there’s the amazing blend of slapstick and brutal, bone-cracking action, two modes that director Jon Watts seems to slip between effortlessly.
Instead of giving us urban destruction so vast that it becomes abstract, Homecoming keeps its damage specific and emotionally powerful.
Dark and Gritty vs. Light and Shiny
Another huge debate that’s been dividing superhero fans for years is the schism between dark, portentous tales (like every Batman film for the past dozen years) and more light-hearted, even goofy storytelling (like Deadpool, or Guardians of the Galaxy). This dichotomy, which started in the comics a few decades ago, was always a bit simplistic and silly—but Spider-Man: Homecoming proves it’s possible to be sunny and yet include some pretty huge shadows.
This is the Spider-Man I always loved in the comics: the one who goes through hell and suffers almost intolerable misery. The Spidey who gives up his chance at happiness, again and again, in order to do the right thing. And yet, he’s also a hero who remains optimistic, funny and generous, even after emerging from the darkest depths.
That’s the Spider-Man I’ve always wanted to see on the big screen, and I’ve definitely seen glimpses of him in the previous five films. But something about the culmination of the “dark-and-gritty” trend with Batman v. Superman seems to have given Spidey access to a greater, nastier darkness to travel through, particularly in the final reel.
You don’t have to choose between stygian darkness and technicolor light: heroic tales can paint in chiaroscuro, something that Homecoming manages to do with a surprising deftness. Its most horrible scenes only push its embrace of dorktastic optimism further to the front.
Who Owns Superheroes?
And finally, there’s the ongoing debate about just who these movies and comics are for. Are they for kids or adults? Just boys, or boys and girls? Are we all supposed to pretend we’re bored with superhero flicks, or give up our “sophisticated adult moviegoer” cards? (Alas, I already lost all of my “sophististicated adult” cards in the wash.)
There’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in the fact that Homecoming’s villain, the Vulture, is played by Michael Keaton. Keaton helped to deconstruct and dismiss the grandiose power fantasy of superhero movies in 2014’s Birdman, where he played an ex-superhero actor who tries to go legit. He also helped launch the “not just for kids” wave of cape films with his two Batman films. Homecoming embraces this legacy, giving Keaton a costume that’s reminiscent of Birdman’s, and letting Keaton show his lip-curling disdain for the underoo-clad messiah complex of big heroes like Iron Man (who turns up a fair bit in this one).
It’s a gutsy move to remind audiences of Birdman’s anti-superhero message in a mainstream, huge-budget superhero film. And the message seems to be that Spider-Man’s new movie isn’t so worried about being taken seriously, or finding the proper audience. Add a crackerjack supporting cast, especially the deadpan Zendaya and the goofy Jacob Batalon, and Homecoming winds up making a credible bid to appeal to absolutely everybody.
This Spider-Man feels more youthful and impulsive than earlier versions. Both the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield Spider-Men felt like neurotic grown-ups, but Holland’s version feels more unfiltered and full of the pure love of adventure. This dovetails with the way that Homecoming mixes comic beats with dark drama, and treats action as character development, to create something that lives up to the promise of superheroes in a whole new way. It’s a superhero movie that doesn’t just bring comic-book mayhem to life, but also captures the mixture of innocence and seriousness that made us fall in love with superheroes in the first place.
Before writing fiction full-time, Charlie Jane Anders was for many years an editor of the extraordinarily popular science fiction and fantasy site io9.com. Her debut novel, the mainstream Choir Boy, won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Edmund White Award. Her Tor.com story “Six Months, Three Days” won the 2013 Hugo Award and was optioned for television. Her debut SFF novel All the Birds in the Sky, recently won the 2016 Nebula Award in the Novel category and earned praise from, among others, Michael Chabon, Lev Grossman, and Karen Joy Fowler. She has also had fiction published by McSweeney’s, Lightspeed, and ZYZZYVA. Her journalism has appeared in Salon, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.