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‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’: How to Improve a Superhero Franchise the Marvel Way

This weekend's big winner breathes new life into a classic superhero. Here's what other films can learn from that (somewhat surprising) success.

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

It turns there are still some momentum in the Spider-Man franchise, as the third modern iteration of the wall-crawling superhero did big business at this weekend’s box office, with the Tom Holland-starring “Spider-Man: Homecoming” walking away with the top spot at the box office and over $117 million in domestic returns alone. Now aligned with Marvel and its cinematic universe, the Jon Watts film has effectively re-introduced both Peter Parker and his web-slinging alter ego to a moviegoing public who might have felt a little burnt out on the iconic hero after sitting through five other movies and two different series in less than two decades.

Spidey is back, and based on his blockbuster first weekend and plans for a sequel, he’s not going anywhere. So how did Sony and Marvel re-re-boot the comic book kid into something fresh and new? And what can other superhero movies learn from the success of the franchise that just wouldn’t quit? We’ve got some ideas.

Some spoilers for “Spider-Man: Homecoming” ahead. 

1. No More Origin Stories

While Watts’ film is focused on a young — and very much still green — Spider-Man, “Homecoming” picks up after he’s already gotten his powers, skipping over stories involving the traditional radioactive spider bite, the tragedy of Uncle Ben, and Peter’s earliest days grappling with his newfound powers and responsibilities. Even the young Peter we meet in “Captain America: Civil War” has already been working out his friendly neighborhood Spider-Man bit for awhile, at least long enough to have his own suit and to catch the eye of Tony Stark.

READ MORE: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’: How a Sundance Breakout Landed the Superhero Gig of a Lifetime and Didn’t Sell Out

The Spider-Man origin story framed up the first entries in both previous versions of the character, with “The Amazing Spider-Man” leaning hard on uncovering more and more secrets about the Parker family’s past. The decision to avoid that path was a deliberate one on Watts’ part, and one that he recently explained to IndieWire came with the complete support of both Sony and Marvel. It’s one way to set the film apart from its predecessors, but it’s also a smart way to jump right into the action and fun of a Spidey film without piling on a story that everyone already knows.

Jacob Batalon (left) and Tom Holland in Columbia Pictures' SPIDER-MAN™: HOMECOMING.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Chuck Zlotnick

More superhero movies could stand to do away with the origin story element, especially when it comes to origins that are as iconic as Spider-Man’s. DC seems to already be taking the hint, opting to introduce a fully-formed Batman in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” instead of piling on yet another origin story. But even that film couldn’t fully escape the desire to show the murder of young Bruce’s parents on-screen — the most recognizable element of his own origin story, to be sure — though it was used only as a part of an info-heavy opening sequence. Take a cue from “Homecoming”: ditch it, and trust audiences to do the legwork.

2. Cast Age-Appropriate Stars

Tobey Maguire was 26 when he starred in the first “Spider-Man” film in 2002, ultimately ending his run as the webslinger when he was past 30, portraying a “teen” superhero when he was at least a decade too old for the part. Andrew Garfield was 28 when he was first cast in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” It’s no wonder that both series shifted away from the high school setting so swiftly, robbing Spidey fans of teen high jinks at Midtown High and a Spider-Man undergoing familiar coming-of-age struggles.

Tom Holland is 21, but he’s able to believably pass as a teenager (the actor did, after all, even attend a few days of high school to prep for the role). Much of the “Homecoming” cast is filled with young actors, from Jacob Batalon to Laura Harrier, who are either actual teenagers or look young enough for the parts. Such casting will allow this arm of the Spider-Man franchise to continue to mine the stories of the teenage superhero — a rarity in the MCU these days — in ways the previous series never could, while injecting plenty of young blood into a franchise that seems destined to begin aging out some of its biggest stars soon enough (rumors of Robert Downey, Jr.’s retirement do abound, after all).

3. Build Believable Villains

One of the most compelling elements of “Homecoming” is its primary villain, Michael Keaton’s The Vulture, who ranks as one of the most grounded and believable baddies in recent superhero memory. We meet him early on, thanks to a nifty bit of retconning that places him squarely in the midst of the early days of The Avengers, as a desperate contractor eager to clean up after the messy Battle of New York. He’s the epitome of a regular Joe, a blue collar guy just trying to make some money and get his job done, but when the gig is taken away from him, he snaps…and turns into one hell of an angry villain — with understandable motives.

READ MORE: ‘Wonder Woman’: 4 Ways Director Patty Jenkins Broke D.C.’s Losing Streak

While the stakes of The Vulture’s villainy aren’t in the same league as other MCU baddies (the guy is basically a small-time crook who just so happens to be dealing in dangerous alien weaponry) and there’s never any possibility that his bad deeds will lead to the end of the whole world (a common refrain in superhero films), his battles with Peter work because he comes from a legitimate place. He’s not some crazy anti-hero with a chip on his shoulder and firepower to spare; he’s a guy pulled to unfortunate ends who still thinks he’s doing the right thing. And that’s the key, because even when The Vulture (notably never referred to as such within the film itself) is going all-in on his illegal activities and gunning for Peter in the process, we can still see the regular guy underneath.

(l to r) Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland in Columbia Pictures' SPIDER-MAN™: HOMECOMING.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Chuck Zlotnick

Watts’ film ultimately builds in a big twist involving the character, and while it does seem a touch too tidy, it leads to the film’s most intense standoffs — most of which don’t actually include any hand-to-hand combat. The Vulture’s final appearances smack of the kind of emotion and sympathy rarely afforded to the kind of villains that populate superhero features.

4. The Bigger Picture Still Matters

“Homecoming” is, of course, part of the wide-ranging Marvel Cinematic Universe, and as unique as Spider-Man’s adventures feel, they are still beholden to the franchise itself. The film builds in some neat workarounds that happily marry Peter’s experiences with the world of The Avengers, mostly through his relationship with Downey’s Tony Stark and Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan. It’s always clear that Spider-Man exists in a post-Avengers world — the film does open with that Battle of New York throwback, followed immediately by a glimpse at “Civil War” through Peter’s eyes — but it retains the sense that the young superhero is working his way through uncharted territory, by sticking close to his own experiences.

Standalone superhero stories simply don’t exist in our franchise-mad world anymore, and “Homecoming” is as close to one as the MCU will likely ever allow, but it finds plenty of time to lean on its main character while also setting up the pieces for a larger story. The bigger picture — the kind that sees sequels announced years ahead of time as part of a calendar that’s filled for the next decade — will always matter in franchise-centric filmmaking, but “Homecoming” is proof that superhero films can stand out on their own while not giving short shrift to a wider world.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is in theaters now.

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