I’m aware that Spider-Man was a thing well before “Deadpool,” either the comic or the movie, but there’s no denying that this latest reboot owes a great debt to the Merc with a Mouth. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has the same wise-cracking, clumsy superhero in full spandex but with a PG rating. And in both cases, Spider-Man and Deadpool are superheroes on the outside looking into the genre, and that’s a pretty good spot to be in.
If Marvel had their way from the beginning, Spider-Man would’ve been the flagship Marvel Cinematic Universe character from the get-go. But he was a property of Sony who had already gone through one bad reboot, with a 30-something Andrew Garfield trying to pass as a high school student. So Marvel worked around him, and they found a clever way to cross over the character into “Captain America: Civil War.”
“Homecoming” opens with a recap of that epic battle, but all from the perspective of Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) Instagram feed. Director Jon Watts stages a cute and hilarious found footage sequence that takes us behind the scenes with a kid who seemingly won VIP passes and is just happy to be here. The film then picks up with Spider-Man waiting around for the call from Tony Stark, helping little old ladies cross the street and solving petty crime.
The film sidesteps the origin story of how he got his powers but focuses instead on how he learns to use them and how he hopes to become a full-fledged member of The Avengers. That formula puts it at odds with the traditional superhero story. And like “Deadpool,” it toys with genre conventions and winks at them. Holland’s motor-mouth Peter Parker doesn’t just behave like an Avengers fanboy, he really is one. The movie has fun with the genre because Parker is aware of every Easter Egg and character development throughout the MCU franchise.
Watts even inserts references to John Hughes ‘80s comedies both subtly and explicitly, including one sequence where Spider-Man bounds through some backyards in exactly the way Ferris Bueller does, and then Watts immediately shows that exact clip he’s referencing from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Because this movie knows it’s not “The Avengers,” it smartly reduces the stakes from global destruction. It’s villain The Vulture (Michael Keaton), a New York construction worker who goes around stealing and selling alien weapon debris that now litters New York following the final battle in the original “Avengers” film.
Keaton plays the Vulture with a surprising amount of pathos, a man who sees his friends, family and co-workers get injured and lose their jobs because of all the heroics going on above his pay grade. As a blue-collar criminal turned super villain, he’s genuinely scary and relatable because he’s got a New Yorker attitude and he’s got something to lose. And the film weaves Keaton’s character back into Parker’s high school drama in much the way John Hughes might’ve done.
All the better that “Homecoming” can have fun with playing the superhero without having to adhere to the larger narrative thread of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Spider-Man and Deadpool are perfectly comfortable on their own, pestering and being snarky from the sidelines while the real superheroes do their thing. “Homecoming” is no “Avengers;” It’s better than that.