Spider-Man: Homecoming is the breezy tween-oriented Marvel movie promised by its numerous trailers, commercials, posters and other assorted PR campaign spots. Its star, Tom Holland—who took over official web-slinging duties last year, when he cameoed in Captain America: Civil War—is as good a Peter Parker as his predecessors, Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield, bringing an aw-shucks adolescent excitement to the part that helps energize its coming-of-age drama. It’s boasts the usual CGI set pieces, sprinkled amidst its Disney Channel-grade high-school hijinks (replete with Shake It Up’s Zendaya as an Ally Sheedy-esque classmate). It has a villain (Michael Keaton’s Vulture) who acts menacing and winds up posing little genuine threat to our hero. It’s colorful and snappy, moves along at a reasonable clip, and features appearances by a few other comic-book luminaries, including Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America.
It is, almost to a tee, the definition of “fine.”
So it goes for Marvel, which has pioneered a nontoxic house style that’s now mandatory for each entry in its ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)—the designation for the countless franchises existing under the studio’s world-building umbrella (overseen by head honcho Kevin Feige). Spider-Man: Homecoming is merely the latest example of Marvel’s adherence to its formula: bright primary hues; brisk banter; rise-fall-rise narrative arcs; predictable dramatic and comedic beats; and special-effects sequences that substitute coherence for zippiness and flash. The result is that, whether it’s Spidey, Iron Man, Thor, Star-Lord or another wisecracking comic-book icon at the center of the action, a Marvel movie looks and sounds more or less the same.
For better and worse, Marvel has now become the leading proponent of what we might call Risk Aversion Cinema—an approach to 21st century blockbusterdom that’s lucrative precisely because of its unadventurousness.
To be fair, some personality does occasionally sneak into the mix—be it Joss Whedon’s conversational volleys in The Avengers, Shane Black’s Christmastime fixation in Iron Man 3, or James Gunn’s smartass, soundtrack-centric humor in Guardians of the Galaxy. Even then, though, such distinctive touches are relatively minor, and often confined to the jokey writing side of things (a state of affairs probably also true of November’s Taika Waititi-helmed Thor: Ragnarok). As with Jon Watts and Spider-Man: Homecoming (and Jon Favreau and Iron Man, and Kenneth Branagh and Thor, and Peyton Reed and Ant-Man, and also Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and 2019’s Captain Marvel), Marvel hires directors who boast scant auteurist signatures so that all MCU installments will fit together neatly in its larger patchwork quilt. Stylistic anonymity is preferred; assembly-line competence is prized above all else.
This is undoubtedly why the idiosyncratic Edgar Wright (Baby Driver) departed Ant-Man, and why the studio’s biggest tentpoles—the upcoming two Avengers: Infinity War movies, set to feature more than 60 superheroes—are being entrusted to Captain America: Civil War craftsmen Joe and Anthony Russo. As Watts told us last year, Marvel has industry leading technicians and artists manning every available aspect of production. Consequently, the studio not only sees no benefit in enlisting a highly eccentric artist to adapt a beloved character—which could lead to creative conflicts, as well as potential audience backlash—but it also has no need to hire a director with action-blockbuster experience. In fact, it’s probably better if they don’t; that way, they save money on filmmakers who are happy to toe the company line in return for a career-making opportunity, and everyone else involved makes sure the finished product is cookie-cutter uniform.
On the one hand, complaining about Marvel’s strategy seems mildly misplaced, given that its summer spectaculars are by and large passably entertaining, and never god-awful. And to be sure, the flip-side paradigm doesn’t necessarily inspire more confidence, as evidenced by the lukewarm (to put it mildly) responses to Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—both helmed by Zack Snyder, who’s built an entire career on the back of his atmospheric visual flair—as well as Suicide Squad (from Fury’s David Ayer). In light of the tremendous success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Warner Bros. and DC Comics likely assumed that the best way to differentiate their offerings from their Marvel counterparts was to go full-auteur. That such a tack hasn’t fully panned out yet is proof of the enormous pitfalls of making daring decisions with immensely costly properties that have long histories and zealous fanbases.
On the other hand, however, this year’s two best superhero films do exactly that. Logan (a Marvel hero, but from Twentieth Century Fox) and Wonder Woman (a DC heroine, from Warner Bros.) took bold chances with famous characters, to refreshingly novel, winning effect. With the former, director James Mangold and star Hugh Jackman threw the playbook out the window by presenting the clawed Wolverine as a post-mutant-apocalypse loner on one last Western-tinged mission; with the latter, filmmaker Patty Jenkins and headliner Gal Gadot reinvigorated tired genre tropes by giving them a feminist twist, all while wholeheartedly embracing the cornball optimism that had so far been absent from DC’s god-like movie-verse. Following in the tradition of atypical precursors such as Tim Burton’s Batman, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy, and even last year’s Deadpool, they both delivered a potent thrill precisely because they went out on a ledge to give us something we hadn’t seen before—and, just as importantly, to infuse their material with a unique pop-mythology majesty.
That’s, ultimately, what’s lacking from the competent, diverting Spider-Man: Homecoming—a sense of grandeur, of brashness, of peculiarity. Playing it safe is, of course, a precaution against franchise defection, the one thing that (considering the investment required to build and sustain these cinematic monoliths) Hollywood studios fear most. And it’s a tried-and-true approach that will no doubt reap further riches in the case of Homecoming, which is on track to earn upwards of $100 million this weekend. Still, by relegating its movies to functional puzzle pieces to be incorporated into a larger whole, Marvel has made its every release feel smaller and more mundane than the last. It’s the perfection of proficiency, which guarantees that no one will leave the theater furious, but also that no one will leave amazed.
And in the case of Spider-Man, isn’t amazing the entire point?