Countdown to Endgame #16: In Spider-Man, the MCU Takes Heroism to High School

As The Avengers: Endgame approaches, Team Midnight has committed to watch all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films released to date in chronological (story) order: 22 films in 8 weeks. Follow along with us.

In the first few minutes of Spider-Man: Homecoming, we get to see what the airport fight in Civil War was like for 15-year-old noob, Peter Parker. Tony kind of takes Peter under his wing, and the nature of their mentor/mentee dynamic gets more deeply explored here. Unbeknownst to everyone – elsewhere in NYC, Doctor Strange is fighting the forces of mystical oblivion, but we’ll get to that next.

Heroes: Peter Parker / Spider-Man

“Just a typical homecoming, on the outside of an invisible jet, fighting my girlfriend’s dad.”

15-year-old superpowered supernerd Peter Parker spends his days in honors classes and his nights keeping the streets of Queens safe with the help of his nifty new Stark Industries suit. Eager to prove himself to his mentor and hero Tony Stark, he bites off a little more than he can chew when he takes on some local purveyors of stolen Chitauri tech.

Other heroes:

  • Tony Stark
  • Captain America

Villain: Adrian Toomes / Vulture

“The rich and the powerful, like Stark, they don’t care about us. We have to pick up after them. We have to eat their table scraps.”

Toomes is the proprietor of a spunky little blackmarket alien weapons outfitter based in Queens. He also moonlights as Vulture, the coincidentally Falcon-like supercrook powered by Chitauri technology.

Villain Complexity Rating: 2/5

Toomes is possessed of an overripe sense of blue collar earnestness that would make him pretty much impossible to be friends with. He drives a Bentley and lives in a stunning concrete and glass modern home but is still inclined to rail on about injustices perpetrated by “the rich”. It’s not meant to be funny, and it isn’t; but it could have been. Anyway Toomes/Vulture is about the business of stacking chips in the alien war trash salvage-cum-future tech arms dealing biz, which is a cool way of connecting Homecoming to the events of earlier films. He’s got a pretty bitchin’ suit, but he’s just not that interesting, even as Michael Keaton.

“What’s at Stake” Rating: 0.5/5

The stakes in Homecoming are small MCU potatoes by design, with Parker cutting his teeth in much the same fashion as he has in previous Spidey films. His “internship” with Stark ratchets things up a bit by way of boosting his britches beyond his limited experience, resulting in our hero making a bigger mess of things than if he’d just let the pros handle Toomes and Co. This downscaling of stakes is a welcome change of pace from the planet-shackling, universe-ending, sentient-robot-creating arcs of other MCU flicks. It’s nice to spend some time on the ground.

What did our hero(es) learn?

Parker’s journey isn’t exactly the stuff of Joseph Campbell essays (yet) because he’s still a goofy ass kid. He’s on a collision course with some heavy truths in his near future, but first he’s got to learn some humility. He’s also got to pass AP chemistry and nurse his feeble social life into something resembling healthy. The kind of hero Spider-Man will become firms up a bit with each choice he makes, which often means being a little hasty but well-intentioned. He’ll always be a smartass and a hot-head, but it’s nice to see the roots of his imperfect altruism. It’s also nice that Marvel Studios recognized no one needed to be dragged through the genesis of his abilities for a 20th time.

Heroism Rating: 4/5

Parker, despite making a real mess of things, really hangs his skinny little ass out there in Homecoming. He takes on Vulture without his suit or web shooters, scales the Washington Monument to save his classmates, goes to a party, and even asks out the girl he likes. Because Peter is the only (future) Avenger to manage a truly secret identity, he faces a double set of challenges unique to his character. Director Jon Watts does a solid job framing up the heroics of surviving high school through the eyes of a teenager, and it’s clear that to Peter, the stakes are just as high as they are to Spider-Man. Ultimately he’s a good hero because he’s a good kid.

Visual Aesthetic/CGI Rating: 4/5

Spider-Man looks so much better here than in Civil War – gummy-body CGI effects are, for the most part, successfully masked. The color palette is thick with bright yellows, reds, and blues without slipping into preschool toy aisle A-B-Cs territory. The direction and editing are sprightly and quick, complementing the script’s fizzy, fast sense of humor…. And I know this is supposed to be about visuals, but the Ramones-heavy soundtrack is just perfectly energizing (and so Queens!). In contrast to the fun, colorful kid stuff, the Toomes’ criminal organization is unfortunately bland and forgettable, and the movie overall loses points for making us spend so much time with fatheaded putz Happy Hogan. Seriously. Go away, Favreau!

Heroic Cinema Saturation Index

Betsy Rating: 3.5/5

It dawned on me while watching Spider-Man this time through that the MCU movies break apart into different genres: the Captain Americas are the political spy thrillers, the Thors are fantasy, the Captain Marvel and The Guardians are sci-fi, the Iron Mans are straight action, Ant-Man is a heist, etc. Maybe I just noticed this now because Spider-Man is the Marvel equivalent of my favorite genre: the high school movie. Bopping around to the Ramones, all nervous and spazzy, getting sweaty-palmed over a pretty girl and stressing about Academic decathlon, this 15-year old Peter Parker is a trademark high school movie hero. So I’m bringing back the rubric I made up back a couple years ago when I wrote this post in order to evaluate how effective Spider-Man is as a high school movie (read more about the criteria here):

A misunderstood protagonist: A. Everyone at school thinks Peter is just a weenus wannabe who is good at math. Little do they know, he’s actually a freaky strong, superpowered crimefighting neighborhood watch vigilante!

Unlikely romance: B. It’s a nice surprise that the superhot, megarich, academically accelerated senior Peter has been pining for actually likes him back, though an unfortunate boner-crusher that her Father is the devious flying alien tech peddler he’s been fighting after school.

Nerds: A. We spend a significant amount of time in Spider-Man with the Academic Decathlon team, a glorious collection of high school nerd and outcast stereotypes, including Peter and his best friend, Ned. Plus, Captain America as straight-laced, follow-the-rules, gym class fitness propaganda spokesperson? So funny!

An Epic Party: C-. There is a party at his crush’s house that Peter barely attends. Too busy fighting crime.

A Super Triumphant Victory: A. Though he does unfortunately ditch his date at the homecoming dance, Peter saves the day by crashing an invisible airplane full of the most advanced technology in the world onto the beach at Coney Island, all while fighting Michael Keaton, who is wearing razor wings and keeps doing alien magic tricks, with just his superbody, common sense, and insistence on doing the right thing to guide him – no fancy suit, no Tony Stark backup. Pretty triumphant.

+4 bonus for: a dreamy girl, a cool teacher, a fist fight, best friends.

So overall, like a B+. Pretty good!

Justin’s Rating: 4/5

I’m inflating my rating of Homecoming by at least half a point for the fresh perspective it brings to the MCU. Tom Holland is the perfect combo of spastic and earnest as Peter Parker, our accidental hero who leads too often with his giant heart because, well because he’s 15. As Betsy pointed out in her review, this is really a high school movie complete with nerds and dickheads and best friends and hot moms (or aunts), but I love that it doesn’t fall into predictable patterns within the genre. He doesn’t embarrass himself in front of the girl he likes or get grounded for staying out all night fighting crime. It’s a nice movie to hang out with when you realize the writers aren’t looking to drum up some cheap drama from tired old tropes. Parker’s biggest challenges in his personal life stem mostly from a lack of confidence and scheduling conflicts between academic decathlon practice and secret crime fighting.

Speaking of fighting crime, there’s a bunch of that in Homecoming. It’s fine, but not great. I’m curious to see the ways future films will find to showcase Spidey’s unique set of abilities. One thing that plays well is the way he interacts with the Iron Spider suit, which appears endlessly capable and hilariously complicated to operate. It’s a clever running gag that dovetails nicely with steady references to Parker’s short attention span and digital nativism, which is refreshingly on display here. This movie was a big hit with young folks because Spidey feels like a young person; full of ambition, energy, and uncertainty about exactly what to do with it all. He’s flawed, but he’s not jaded, in part because he doesn’t know yet what that means. Coming off of Civil War, we needed this guy’s fresh-faced optimism almost as bad as the Avengers.

Homecoming’s list of strengths also includes a brand of idiosyncratic humor that finds inroads seemingly everywhere. It’s full of goofy high schoolers doing delightfully dumb high school kid shit, and features a perfect Hannibal Buress gym teacher cameo. The Captain America PSA bits are high satire alluding to Rogers’ stodgy appearance in the eyes of Spider-Man’s generation. For me, one of the nicest surprises was MCU newcomer Zendaya, whose turn as MJ is an absolute revelation for the character. She’s so much funnier than I have come to expect from Hollywood’s portrayals of young women of color. I’m genuinely excited to see where writers can take this character with this kid behind her.

This review feels like kind of a mess, but this gig doesn’t pay much and it’s Tuesday and I’m tired and it’s time to watch Doctor Strange. I didn’t get to talk about how weird it is that Michael Keaton is Vulture after being Birdman and Batman. I hope he took this role as an inside joke for those of us who will notice this predilection for avian humanoid characters. And the villains are kind of stupid and boring and there’s 1000% too much Jon Favreau. Also, Donald Glover cameo! Fun! Anyway if you can’t tell by now and you’re still reading this I liked it.


If you happen to have a free Starz trial going right now, you can stream Spider-man: Homecoming for free! The rest of us can rent it online through Vudu or the Google Play/iTunes app stores. If you haven’t seen it yet, we definitely recommend putting it on your queue, though it doesn’t play into the overall MCU story too much – so no rush.

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