Over the last decade, we’ve watched as Marvel Studios built its cinematic universe brick by brick – from the pleasant surprise of the original Iron Man to terrifyingly ambitious team-ups like Captain America: Civil War and the Avengers movies. We’ve met gods and thieves and scientists, mystical superheroes and intergalactic ones.
Now, with Spider-Man: Homecoming, the MCU offers something genuinely unexpected. This, it turns out, is a film about what it’s been like to watch the MCU for the past ten years.
Homecoming is the third reboot of Spider-Man in the past 15 years, which makes it all the more remarkable that it feels so fresh. If you’ve seen the Raimi and Webb Spider-Man movies, you know the basics: geeky teen, dead uncle, spider bite. If you caught last year’s Captain America: Civil War, you’re all caught up on the specifics of this version: young, quippy, limber, sponsored by Tony Stark.
But in its opening moments, Homecoming reframes that familiar narrative so we’re seeing it through fresh eyes. The very first scene is set in the aftermath of The Avengers, as a salvage crew cleans up after the Battle of New York. It’s literally a ground-level perspective of an event we previously witnessed from on high, soaring through the Manhattan skyline with the superheroes and the aliens. A worker looks down at a child’s crayon drawing of the event. To him and his family, the characters are icons – just as they were to us and our families, watching from theaters here in the real world.
Spider-Man himself doesn’t appear until the next scene, which is set eight years later. Again, director Jon Watts and his team show a different side of a story we already know. This time, we get to see Spidey’s Civil War sojourn through his lens. Literally. We see it as shot and narrated by Peter Parker himself, on his own smartphone.
Homecoming jumps to a more straightforward narrative after that, but the entire film is littered with details reminding us that these are ordinary people existing in a world where the freakin’ Avengers exist, and isn’t that cool? Captain America cameos in educational videos. Costume stores sell cheap plastic Thor masks. Teenagers idly discuss which Avengers they’d kiss, marry, or kill. (Bad luck, Hulk.)
While most of these Easter eggs aren’t plot-crucial, strictly speaking, they do everything to change the context in which this story is being told. This Spider-Man is more us in some ways than the last two Spider-Men (Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire) have been, because this Spider-Man grew up idolizing Marvel superheroes the way we did. He’s every kid who was inspired to become a scientist because he picked up an Iron Man comic at the right time, or every adult who’s cheered on Chris Evans (the real-life Captain America) when he battles Nazis on Twitter.
And Homecoming is hugely hopeful about the impact such role models might have on a growing boy, or at least one specific growing boy. This is a Peter Parker who wholeheartedly embraces the great responsibilities that come with great power. He’s just plain good in the way that Captain America is good, the way that Wonder Woman is good, and Tom Holland is so endearingly sincere in the role that it’s easy to forget he’s acting at all.
Unlike those larger-than-life heroes, though, Peter Parker comes off as relatable, rather than aspirational. A huge part of Homecoming‘s appeal is that it lets Peter be – and feel – 15. When he’s not out saving the day, he’s stressing over a party hosted by the coolest girl in school, or building Lego Death Stars with his best friend, Ned (the lovable Jacob Batalon). I’ll leave it to actual kids to judge whether Watts gets the details right. (If Mashable trend pieces are any indication, there aren’t nearly enough fidget spinners in this movie.) But having once been that young myself, I can say with confidence that Watts nails the timeless cornerstones of adolescence: the crippling anxiety mixed with brash confidence, the life-or-death dimensions of a crush, the impatience to grow up.
What really gives Homecoming an edge, though, is its specificity. Watts sets his film in a New York City that actually feels like New York City (there are even bodega cats!), and then fills his cast with big talents who can make the most of tiny roles. You could argue that these stars are being wasted – sequel possibilities aside, why cast Zendaya or Tony Revolori to do that little? – but Homecoming gives them the room to breathe and come alive. Even a boring debate teacher played by Martin Starr will get a line or two that suggests a complicated history and hidden depths. Were Homecoming just another coming-of-age comedy, it’d be a very solid one. You could almost mistake it for one, if it weren’t for repeat appearances by the likes of Iron Man as Peter’s mentor and Vulture as Peter’s nemesis.
Right, about that. In the same way that Spider-Man is a street-level hero, the Vulture is a street-level villain. He resents that the one percent seems to be colluding with the government to screw over the little guy – it’s just that in his universe, the one percent have supersuits to go with their billions, and the government really is covering up some shady supernatural shit. His motivations may not be righteous, but they’re chillingly recognizable, and Michael Keaton brings an unpredictability that makes him feel real. His Vulture is the best MCU movie villain since Loki.
Which isn’t to say you need to know the MCU front and back to appreciate him – or anything else about Homecoming, for that matter. Diehard fans might find more Easter eggs to enjoy, but by this point even casual viewers have likely absorbed enough of the MCU mythology to get what’s going on. Know who Iron Man is? Captain America? Spider-Man? Get the concept of shared universes? You’re pretty much good.
And that’s the brilliance of Homecoming‘s approach. This film leans hard into its MCU connections, which is probably smart from a marketing standpoint since it’s the most obvious thing separating this Spider-Man from the previous versions. But it does so by simply folding the Avengers into the fabric of everyday life. Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t frame the MCU as some alternate universe where superheroes walk among us. It brings Spidey home by showing us that he, and we, have been living in it all along.