I’ve talked about Homecoming as just a movie, but what about as an adaptation?
So…here’s the thing.
An adaptation has to and is entitled to change things from its source material. There are some things that might have worked in a 1960s comic book that wouldn’t work in a modern day live action movie.
However all adaptations should at the very least respect the spirit of the source material it is adapting, the essence of the story, in particular when it comes to the lead character(s) in question.
A prime example would be the film that in fact introduced Spider-Man to the MCU, Captain America: Civil War. The spirit of the comic book story boils down to Iron Man championing regulation and security compared to Captain America who champions freedom and autonomy dividing the super hero community and pitting them against one another. Fundamentally this spirit is retained in the film. But it also makes countless changes to said source material in order to make things work for the MCU (and for the better might I add).
When it comes to this movie there isn’t exactly one specific storyline that the film draws upon as an adaptation throughout the movie. Spider-Man 2002 for example was clearly basing itself upon Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #39, Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine #2, ASM #121-122 and other sources.
Off the top of my head the only specific stories this movie could be said to draw direct inspiration from are Straczynski’s Mr. Parker Goes to Washington arc (due to the Parker/Stark relationship and the high tech suit Peter has) and the Master Planner Trilogy (for that rubble lifting scene). Beyond that it takes more general inspiration from the concepts present in Miles Morales’ stories and the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon. Yes I am dead serious about that last one.
This film of course features several classic characters such as the Vulture and the Shocker but the plot isn’t really derived from either of their debuts or any given stories about them. It’s mostly just the idea of some bad guys called Adrian Toomes and Herman Schultz with flying wing tech and super science gauntlets. And the latter doesn’t even really ‘shock’ or vibrate anybody. In fact both villains’ powers and the visual spectacle they could provide are really underutilized. They’re cool for what they are but you could do way more with say the Shocker than they did.
Now such changes aren’t necessarily unforgivable. After all Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 was not featured in a storyline specific to any cut from the comics, sans perhaps his origin in ASM #3. The movie simply took the idea of Doc Ock as a character, did their own thing with it and then built its own original plot around his role. And it was hardly an uninteresting character they created. In fact when he was out-and-out villainous he was most certainly recognizable as the Doc Ock of the 616 comic books.
The same cannot be said of the Vulture or Shocker here. That being said both characters are comparatively far thinner than Doc Ock and more or less operate as career criminals out for wealth or revenge most of the time; they just have cool gimmicks is all.
So changing them up in order to tie more into the wider MCU, serve the needs of the movie and make them more interesting as villains is hardly a betrayal of the characters. In fact this is arguably the most compelling rendition of the Vulture ever. He is a bad guy but a working class bad guy in it to support his family above all else after Tony Stark puts him out of business. He’s not particularly vindictive; he just takes people out as needed because he’s just trying to do right by his family. He’s a bad guy for sure but not unsympathetic. Keaton really brings it all together for the character and his performance is possibly the strongest in the entire movie. In fact Vulture by rights is perhaps the strongest MCU movie villain in a long time, possibly since Loki.
To an extent changes to the supporting cast can even be forgivable; especially since this is the first movie where it really feels like Peter even has a true supporting cast.
After all Liz Allan is such a minor character in the grand scheme of the Spider-Man mythology and the hearts of the fandom that she amounts to little more than Peter’s high school crush, the Veronica to Betty Brant’s Betty, Harry Osborn’s eventual wife and Normie Osborn’s eventual mother. That was kind of it. So it’s not exactly a sin to change her role, relationships and general character so that she’s now more academically inclined and the daughter of the Vulture; even if the latter was more to serve the plot than her character. It does not however justify casting her with an actress who was not Caucasian…because that was justified by virtue of it being the 21st century and there is nothing about Liz’s character requiring her to be white.
When it comes to ‘Ned’ well…that is a weird case. He is an immeasurably bad adaptation of Ned Leeds from the comics…but that’s because he is obviously not Ned Leeds at all. He’s Ganke from Miles Morales’ adventures as Spider-Man. And as an adaptation of that character he isn’t all that bad. He is however arguably less vitally important to this movie than he is to Miles’ adventures. Among other things, in the comics Ganke is vital to Miles’ decision to become Spider-Man and even recommends he study footage of superhero fights in order to prepare himself. Here such relevance is grossly diminished because Peter was operating alone as Spider-Man before confiding in him and had tech gifted to him from Stark. But it still isn’t a bad adaptation of Ganke besides his name.
Even Betty Brant isn’t really unforgivable in this movie because the character is a bit player at most. The filmmakers simply had a character in mind and named her Betty Brant as some fan service.
But then…you get into other characters.
I never had a problem with Marisa Tomei playing Aunt May, nor the idea of de-aging Aunt May in general. But it is at the very least going a little bit too far when ‘the joke’ surrounding the character is that she is Peter’s yummy Mummy that people are giving freebies to because she is just that attractive. I’m 90% sure those who value political correctness would have more than a few words to say about the character being used this way in the movie and I’m not sure I’d disagree with them.
May learning his secret this early on doesn’t bother me either. The way she learns it though is played for light laughs when in the Raimi movies, ASM #400 and JMS’ run that moment was so dramatic and powerful. This is because those moments were treated with respect and not played as a joke. After all Spider-Man’s mother learning his greatest secret and thereby his role in her husband’s death should be a big deal. But then again, the movie treats the character less like Peter’s mother and more like his cool big sister, even opting to have Peter refer to her as just ‘May’.
Moving on, Flash Thompson in this movie is incredibly frustrating because half of his character is very much on point. He is the arrogant, bullying jerk rival to Peter with a certain amount of clout within the school. But the other half of his character is not because he isn’t a meathead jock which is very much vital to who he is and his overall character arc as someone who peaked in high school and matured away from athletics in later life. It really is a case of if he bulks up, drops the books and takes up some sports he’d make a solid Flash Thompson.
And then there is Michelle ‘my friends call me MJ’ Jones…God…Michelle is a quiet, studious, cynical, politically minded character who’s mostly just in the background of events not drawing much attention to herself. In other words whether you are going Ultimate or 616 Michelle is unbelievably wrong as an adaptation of Mary Jane. And that is really not okay to do when you are handling one of Spider-Man’s equivalent of Lois Lane.
But here is the thing…is she even Mary Jane is the question? She’s in the movie, she has comments and looks in Peter’s direction that indicate she knows or suspects something about him (so kind of like Parallel Lives) and she’s obviously going to be featured in future films. But is she honestly the MCU’s version of Mary Jane or is it just a cute reference? Kevin Feige has claimed she really isn’t Mary Jane it was just a reference but is she going to effectively be the equivalent of Mary Jane for this version of Spider-Man? It all depends upon the sequels. If she isn’t then that’s fine. If she is then that’s a huge blight upon the MCU Spider-Man franchise.
This Schrödinger’s cat situation with MJ is actually pretty evocative of various elements of the film.
The movie has within it the potential to move forward telling great Spider-Man movies that make use of the character’s rich history and classic stories.
But that’s the thing. Right now it’s all just potential. We didn’t see any of that in this movie. We in effect didn’t see much of Spider-Man.
Oh, I do not mean there was little screen time where the character was in costume. There was plenty of that and whenever he was just swinging around and addressing regular crime in Queens (like during the start of the movie) the film looked and felt great.
No what I mean was there was precious little screen time in this movie where the character you could see on the screen acted or felt much like Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man.
I said in part 1 this movie was inspired by Miles Morales and the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon. That are the biggest sins this film commits, although in fairness I don’t want that to sound perhaps as harsh as it does.
Peter’s journey and personality in this movie is honestly not Miles’, not exactly anyway. Holland’s Peter Parker is this find of blend of Ultimate cartoon Peter Parker with Miles’ desire to live up to the older established heroes. But mostly it’s more like he has elements surrounding him that belong to Miles. Ganke is the biggest of course and there his attendance of a STEM school that is not dissimilar to Miles’ Brooklyn Visions Academy. Although the latter does have the unfortunate and unnecessary effect of making Peter seem far less intelligent than he is as he is now a smart kid amidst a whole school of smart kids, including Flash whose whole point is supposed to be that he is a jock.
These elements from Miles are discourteous to both characters as Peter is swiping Miles’ stuff thus undermining future film projects starring him and all unnecessarily. After all Peter has had 55 years of continuous publication as the greatest Marvel character of all time. He really doesn’t need to borrow stuff from a spin-off Spider-Man.
But honestly beyond that I cannot myself honestly call this a Miles Morales movie that substitutes in Peter Parker.
It would be far more accurate to say this is the best movie adaptation of the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon anyone could ever ask for, regardless of how nobody was. Don’t get me wrong this was an enjoyable and likable movie whilst the cartoon is painfully insufferable…But that makes it no less forgivable that this movie take cues from that show. And no, I’m not just talking about giving Spidey merchandisable toys to play with like voice activated taser webbing.
I mentioned in part 1 about how Spider-Man spends a lot of the movie bumbling about and how the core idea presented is he’s young, inexperienced and eager to join the big leagues.
This is essentially what the character is like in the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon. In that show the core idea of Spider-Man is a ‘hero in training’ who has to learn lessons on how to be a hero and so someday ascend to the Avengers’ ranks. He is almost always cocky and in over his head, stumbling around and routinely humiliated in his efforts, learning his lesson the hard way, alongside team ups of course.
Holland’s Spider-Man is a toned down rendition of this albeit he has no teammates and is trying to specifically impress one particular hero Iron Man who lectures him, saves him when he is in over his head and reprimands him as a parental/teacher figure would, teaching him a lesson about himself when he removes his gadget laden suit (or his ‘toys’ as it were).
All this…is very much a massive betrayal of Spider-Man’s character. And not even a betrayal of what he was specifically like in the comics, but of the guiding philosophies Ditko and Lee had when creating him.
An enormously important aspect of Spider-Man’s early creation was that he was the anti-Robin. He was the teen hero who was nobody’s sidekick, junior team mate or had an adult overseer of his superheroic activites. Though a student and under Aunt May’s care as a superhero Peter Parker was self made, self taught and truly independent. He made his own costume, he learned how to fight on his own, he learned from his mistakes on his own and he did things his own way. This is especially poignant in the context of the times he was created in. The 1960s were after all the era of the counter culture, a time where young people rejected the authority represented by their elders.
Oh and he was also cash strapped to the point where his equipment was typically homespun.
Whilst Iron Man’s involvement in Peter’s life, Peter’s fancy gadget suit and his desire to become an Avenger and impress Stark makes sense in the context of the MCU it wasn’t strictly demanded by the ongoing narrative of the MCU. It was not unavoidable that the film series take Spider-Man down this particular direction. Nor was it justified by virtue of needing to do something novel with the film or showcase what can be done with Spider-Man now as a part of the MCU.
I said above that adaptations are ultimately obliged to respect the spirit of the things they are adapting if nothing else. The reason for that is after all because whilst it might be fresh and original to go in such a drastically different direction the price for the novelty is the selling out of the very thing you are adapting (undermining the point of adapting the thing in the first place).
If Spider-Man can only be fresh and original by becoming far less recognizable then it’s not a price worth paying. Essentially I am saying the spirit of Spider-Man as a character is honestly more important when you are doing a Spider-Man movie than anything else.
If that would be compromised because the reality of the character’s existence in the MCU makes something more realistic then audiences should be asked to suspend their disbelief.
If strengthening Spider-Man’s ties to the wider MCU requires making his whole motivation a desire to join the Avengers then another way to integrate the wider MCU should be dreamed up.
If there is an idea to generate novelty by emphasising the character as ‘young and inexperienced’ (read over eager, stupid and bumbling) and give him lots of cool high tech gadgets then dear God dump that idea hard and come up with something else!
There are three key scenes that quintessentially embody this approach to the character and the problems therein.
The first is the opening scene where he is recording a video diary on his phone and is hyper excited and exclaiming at how cool everything is…even during battle!
I’m sorry, but even if Spider-Man was a 15 year old in the modern day I don’t believe for a solitary second that Peter Parker would be like that.
Granted the film never gets worse than that when it comes to characterizing Spider-Man but it also rarely gets too close to a viable rendition of the character. Ignoring how Garfield and Maguire’ s Spideys were clearly more competent in their initial use of their powers, even Josh Keaton’s Peter Parker in the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon was more together, reigned in and capable than Holland’s comes across in this movie. And his Spidey had been in action for far less time.
The second scene is when Ned/Ganke debates unlocking the suit’s full features with Peter. Ned isn’t supportive of the idea but Peter bounces up and down on the bed claiming he wants to prove that he isn’t a kid to Tony Stark. The moment is meant for humour and taken on its own it is funny.
Taken in the context of who Spider-Man is supposed to be as a character it is frankly insultingly infantilizing. And the scene of course leads to Peter further bumbling about with the new unlocked features of his suit (including getting into embarrassing discussions with Karen) clearly showcasing how ‘he isn’t ready for the big leagues’ because he isn’t really ‘grown up enough’ to play with his Big Boy toys properly.
Finally the scene where Stark takes away his suit is possibly the single most infuriatingly insulting moment for anyone who knows the Spider-Man of the comics. It further emphasizes the infantilization of the character by literally having his allegorical teacher/father (did I mention Uncle Ben isn’t mentioned once in this movie) come to bail him out of the trouble he caused and consequently scold him, take away his toys and basically ground him.
To make matter worse Peter says that line I’m sure we’ve all seen from the trailers about how he’s nothing without the suit Stark gave him. Firstly as I mentioned in part 1 it makes little sense for Peter to say this given how he had been operating as a hero on his own before Civil War and how before unlocking his suit’s special features the suit was just a fancy pair of spandex and long Johns. Before Karen and all his other gadgets Peter still had all of his super powers and was still helping people. Second of all again this is so, so, so, so wrong for who Spider-Man is and is supposed to be for reasons I hope I don’t have to explain to anyone who knows much about Spider-Man.
The scene is also representative of a fundamental problem with the movie over all. The destruction from the ATM robbery. The chase scene following Peter’s departure from Liz’s party. The truck robbery in Washington. The elevator crisis at the Washington Monument. The destruction of the ferry. If you watch the movie…Spider-Man pretty much either made these situations worse or outright caused them.
Even if you were to argue that had he not intervened Toomes (who’s never called the Vulture to my recollection by the way) would have gotten or distributed more dangerous technology, Spidey’s efforts actually prompted him to attempt a far more daring crime that would have resulted in far worse consequences.
Now my problem isn’t that the movie fails to show us Peter feeling guilty about these things (I think we’ve all seen enough Parker guilt to last a lifetime) it’s that the movie is using these instances to show Spider-Man’s incompetence/inexperience and how ‘he’s not ready’ to do the stuff we’ve seen him do in the other five Spider-Man movies basically. This is a Spider-Man who is not really operating on the same level of competence as he was in the previous two origin movies!
I doubt most critics or viewers will pick up on that though because it is often played for chuckles. Which actually brings up yet another major problem with the movie.
Whilst there are quips to be found from Spider-Man’s mouth it’s really not nearly as much as you would think. Most of the humour is to be derived from laughing at Spider-Man’s slapstick antics or stumbles in life. This wasn’t devoid from previous films but it was never laid on this thick. And it is also not how humour in Spider-Man traditionally operates.
In good Spider-Man stories humour in regards to Spider-Man himself is derived from his witty banter as well as the misfortunes he goes through in life (often as a result of being a superhero). However the humour whilst derived from Peter’s problems tends to be ironic and laughing at the character whilst also feeling sorry and solidarity with him. It’s almost as though you chuckle at Peter’s misfortunes but then want to pat him on the shoulder and say ‘There there dude’.
It wasn’t a case of pointing and laughing at him for being a clown or incompetent. This is in fact a major problem with modern comics’ depictions of Peter Parker too. There like in this movie Peter’s incompetence causes or exacerbates crises rather than resolving them at the cost of his personal life.
Now in the interests of fairness the final third of the movie where Peter dons the costume he made himself, is no longer under Stark’s eye and does things for himself is where I really began to see Spider-Man on screen. That was where Holland really sold himself to me and I felt that yeah, this kid is Peter Parker.
Too bad the final third has its own problems.
I mention in part 1 how Spidey doesn’t beat the Vulture so much as he survives him and that in and of itself is a legitimate flaw. But perhaps the single biggest problem and the moment that shows how colossally Marvel Studios dropped the ball when characterizing Spider-Man, is the rubble lifting scene.
Now of course this is taken from the Master Planner Trilogy. It is the most classic of classic Spider-Man moments. It is the climax of a three part story where everything has been thrown at Peter, everything has piled on top of him and gone wrong and now he’s buried under tons of metal debris under water in a room that’s quickly flooding, all with Aunt May’s life running out fast. So he digs deep and draws upon his own will power to free himself.
It is for many people THE definitive moment for Spider-Man, as proven by the endless homage and references it’s had over the years. But in Homecoming, as in the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon, the moment is mishandled. It happens too quickly, it fails to build up to the moment throughout the film and makes it about proving Peter is more than just a suit (which he should already know) as motivated by Tony Stark rather than Peter motivating himself (through Uncle Ben’s memory) to never give up and ultimately come of age. It essentially wastes the only moment the film drew from classic Spider-Man lore, and unfortunately it happened to be maybe the greatest moment of all Spider-Man lore.
So yeah…Peter Parker’s characterization and depiction in this movie suck hard. I don’t care if you want to try and defend it on the grounds that in the context of the MCU Spider-Man’s admiration of the Avengers would make sense. Because in 616 he sure as Hell wasn’t gushing over Cap or the Fantastic Four despite them also being big names that preceded him in the universe.
Even the argument that his awe over the Avengers is a result of him growing up in a universe where they are the biggest celebrities in the world doesn’t really add up. We do not see Spider-Man’s origin but it’s presumed to be essentially the same story it always is. Which is to say, in the MCU 15 year old Peter Parker got super powers and obviously didn’t immediately try out for the Avengers, contact them or otherwise try to emulate other superheroes. He still resolved to use his powers to help people solely because his Uncle died and he blamed himself for it. Which egregiously undermines the awe he feels over Iron Man and the other heroes because they never really factored into his dedication to heroism.
Regardless though, his awe over the Avengers cannot justify the bumbling nature of this version of the character.
I mean honestly what does it say about a Spider-Man movie when the most competent protagonist wasn’t Spider-Man himself but Ned/Ganke, a character who doesn’t even belong in Peter’s story?! Putting aside how it robs Miles of his most vital supporting character, Ned’s inclusion here gives Peter a friend and confidant which is also not part of his story in his early days. I don’t even oppose him as a friend for Peter, just not someone in on the secret, let alone Peter’s own version of Microchip.
Now there is a possible silver lining to all this though.
My own personal biggest concern with the film is that Marvel Studios’ fundamental defining idea of Spider-Man is guided by the notion of youth. This would be very much in line with the utterly misguided and toxic philosophy that has shaped Spider-Man’s comics since at the very least 2008 and probably guides him in television too (hence the USM cartoon).
However it may well be the case that actually the characterization they went with resulted more from the mere fact that they opted to begin Spider-Man as a kid to provide something fresh for him and the MCU at large and that going forward they will write him in a way appropriate to his age. That is to say he will not necessarily be like this in future instalments and will develop into a more appropriate interpretation of Spider-Man. In fact all that bumbling might not be a case of Marvel Studios believing Spider-Man should be like this definitively but rather it just being (as I said in part 1) a general MCU thing.
Heck most things in this movie could transition into a more traditional interpretation of Spider-Man or else (like Michelle) be ignored in favour of going with tradition.
But then again…they did give him back his stupid gadget laden suit at the end of the film.
Some final points.
- I find it weird that Feige would claim Peter Parker is just a kid from Queens in criticism of ASM 2 but allow him to be granted a super gadget laden tech suit in this movie.
- Spider-Man said ‘Whoa awesome!’ or ‘This is so cool!’ or something along those lines way too often in this movie.
- Pepper and Tony’s reunion was weirdly tacked on for this movie and kind of undermines Civil War.
- Cap’s scenes were hilarious and stole the show.
- This is easily the Spider-Man movie with the least dramatic heft or power to it.
So overall from an adaptation point of view this movie gets a great big fat D.
But it’s a probationary D because it may well be the case that they did what they did out of necessity and going forward things will be okay. In which case I will retroactively amend this.
Author: Alex Evangeli
I’ve loved Spider-Man, Spider-Girl and the Clone Saga since I were but a wee lad living in the United Kingdom. Glad to be here!