For many years, the thought of a ‘Spider-Man’ movie was little more than a beautiful dream for all the nerdy boys and girls who loved comic books. During the last decade and a half, the property has been somewhat of a nightmare of convoluted franchise reboots and awkward product tie-ins. Then along came ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’, a movie that welcomed the wall-crawler not just into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but back into all of our hearts.
The film was a massive global success last weekend. That wasn’t particularly shocking since releasing any movie with ‘Spider-Man’ in the title is a guaranteed way to make roughly $1 billion. The pleasant surprise was that the film works beautifully. Director Jon Watts, his six screenwriters, and the folks at Sony and Marvel Studios scored big by playing the story’s stakes small. That was always a huge part of Spider-Man’s appeal. We just lost sight of that because he’s also one of the most popular superheroes on the planet.
Way back in the 1960s when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spidey, the Marvel Comics Universe was already in full swing (zing with the puns!). Spider-Man wasn’t created to be a building block for the franchise, but a new twist on an old formula. What Lee and Ditko envisioned was essentially Archie as a superhero, a reflection of the nerdy and socially ostracized comic book reader given superpowers and forced to deal with the responsibility of being a hero. He was an awkward elbowed teen entering a world of giants, and didn’t know how to handle it. It was the birth of the neurotic superhero, a character who didn’t instantly take to the iconic status thrust upon him. He wasn’t initially New York’s #1 super-savior, but a hero on training wheels learning to take care of his slice of the pie as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
That’s certainly not the Spider-Man we saw in the recent failed film series with Andrew Garfield. That Peter Parker was already cool despite his occasional stutter. He instantly became the bigshot hero on campus and beat the crap out a variety of overpowered villains. The two Marc Webb-directed failures were beset with problems as Sony desperately attempted to jumpstart its marquee comic book franchise before losing the rights, but the biggest failing was simply that the folks in charge didn’t seem to understand the core appeal of the character. They were taking cues from later comic book runs and cartoons when Spider-Man was already an established pop culture icon who had long grown past his humble origins. It was an attempt to start a Spider-Man tale midstream, which missed the point of what made the character so appealing for so long.
The new Tom Holland Spider-Man is another beast entirely. He’s an overexcited teen who’s just thrilled to get the chance to pop on some spandex and play with the big boys. He doesn’t instantly master his abilities to overpower every villain and criminal who steps into his general direction. He screws up, falls down, makes mistakes, and slowly learns what he can do. When he’s in the suburbs, he doesn’t miraculously swing mightily, but stumbles around on foot. When he fights his first powered foe, he’s overmatched and inexperienced. The big action scenes might make the most of the film’s massive budget, but feel quaint and small compared the usual Avengers planet-threatening battles. This is a Spider-Man struggling to find a place in a larger world, exactly as Lee and Ditko envisioned.
The first two Sam Raimi ‘Spider-Man’ movies captured this as well. Toby Maguire was no one’s idea of a G.I. Joe hero and Raimi brought a sweet innocence in his tone. The problem was that Raimi was almost too faithful. He was making a ’60s comics Spider-Man in the 2000s, so the morality and soap opera of the stories felt dated, especially when thrust through the 2000s blockbuster machine. ‘Spider-Man 2’ remains one of the finest superhero movies ever made because Raimi stuck so close to the original comics (often even mimicking Ditko panels in his framing) and captured a certain romantic majesty of superhero fantasy. It’s a morality play wrapped in a giant superhero machine with stunning set-pieces that still hold up, a perfectly realized Spidey, a visual template matching old comic art that would be copied in the MCU, relatable angst, and a sly camp humor to smooth over the excesses. For anyone who loved the original Lee/Ditko comics, ‘Spider-Man 2’ provided a wistful and faithful adaptation that was a dream come true. There could have been more but studio meddling ruined what Raimi created one sequel later. After that, the genre moved on.
Many folks complain that the Raimi ‘Spider-Man’ movies are too corny and campy these days. Given the flippant tone of the MCU, it’s easy to see why. That Spider-Man wouldn’t work in a world with Robert Downey, Jr. snarking through scenes. Kevin Feige, Jon Watts and company found a new way to tell the old stories. They created a wide-eyed innocent who is still self-aware and tech savvy and plopped him into an ongoing epic of a superhero universe where he’s an awkward kid in a big world. He literally tagged along in ‘Captain America: Civil War’, and now in his first movie, he’s stumbling through a world that Tony Stark created, fighting a villain formed in the wreckage of ‘The Avengers’, and dreaming of one day joining the team. Once again, he’s a hero that the primary audience can see themselves in, who can grow to prominence.
It’s not an accident that it was Tony Stark, the current center of the MCU, who brought Spidey into this world. Chances are that Iron Man won’t be around the MCU much longer, and Spider-Man is an icon built to grow into a new lynchpin for this sprawling franchise. However, it’s nice to see that the Powers That Be are inching towards such goals. Spider-Man grew into the face of Marvel under Stan Lee’s guidance, and now that can slowly happen again under Kevin Feige’s watchful eye. It feels right and natural. More importantly, it’s just nice to feel hopeful and excited about ‘Spider-Man’ movies again. That took way too long. Now let’s hope Sony doesn’t find a way to kill the golden goose again. It’s frighteningly possible.