Spider-Man and the Vulture would be nothing without the city around them. Or the cast that brings their new movie to life.
One thing becomes certain after seeing Spider-Man: Homecoming: Tom Holland is a star. The kid slings webs with the best of them and goes tit for every one of Michael Keaton‘s villainous tats. Their conflict is both personal and impersonally idealistic, at times exciting or shocking, providing a backbone to a story ultimately about the desire to grow up far too fast. This is all very enjoyable. But none of it would matter if the world didn’t work. He’d just be another Thor, destined to roam a strange and unfulfilled planet that viewers are frustratingly tantalized with just so he can have pretty, source-appropriate backdrops to his boring struggles. No, this Spider-Man needs Queens. And Spider-Man: Homecoming gives it to him in the form of the best group of cameos, bit supporters, and friends that a Marvel hero has ever had (sorry, all of the Galaxy’s Guardians, but Howard the Duck loses yet again).
First, and most important to the establishment of a believable high schooler, are Peter Parker’s classmates. There’re a handful of recurring ones, showing up and bumping into one another, like what happens in the never ending Six Degrees of Separation that is a teen’s social life. There’s Ned (Jacob Batalon), Peter’s geeky Lego-enthusiast best friend enamored with the superhero life; Liz (Laura Harrier), the senior that’s far too good for Peter’s sad little crush; Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), a bully whose comic book brawn is replaced with smug cool-kid wealth; and Michelle (Zendaya) the quiet one wearing a shield of sarcasm. A handful of others pop in and out, mostly on an academic decathlon team coached with impeccable comedic timing by the deadpan actor of a generation, Martin Starr. Starr’s camera-withering desiccation works perfectly in a film that sometimes threatens to boil over with energy and subplots.
Zendaya’s character, described by director Jon Watts as The Breakfast Club‘s Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) or Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) from Freaks and Geeks in terms of group dynamic, similarly serves as a palate-cleansing intermezzo to the rampant boyish enthusiasm coming from the central super-homies. Her unimpressed gaze rivals that of Aubrey Plaza in Parks and Recreation, chin raised high and eyes dead to the world, and it frequently (though thankfully not romantically) falls upon Peter.
Peter’s problems start small: Ned finds out his alter-ego. Oops. Newcomer Batalon brings every ounce of unashamed sidekickery he can muster to the role, and it’s the little things that work best. He talks of wanting to be Peter’s “guy in the chair,” working as the person on every crime show (often it’s a cool hacker girl) that taps into the mainframe for the main cops and saves the day from their cool techno-lair. That’s great. He also wears a kickass Indiana Jones hat to a house party and homecoming, which is a baller move, especially when he admits that “it gives him confidence.” Endearingly enthusiastic about supporting his friend and self-aware enough about his own social anxieties to compensate with a hat? Yes, this is the kind of figure that can humanize a superhero. They don’t need scientist love interests or soldier jogging buddies. They need friends. Real friends whose strengths and weaknesses compared to their superhero buds only make that hero feel more nuanced. In return, the film receives a great character whose devotion to the protagonist is understandable. Who among us wouldn’t drop everything if we found out our lab partner was moonlighting as a YouTube-famous superhero?
The more tangential characters, Liz and Flash, are tangential because they’re simply out of Peter’s social reach. They’re much cooler than him, a social element this movie does so much better than The Amazing Spider-Man series, in which Spidey is pretty much a 30-year-old pro skateboarder with great hair. Peter’s a nerd again. A small nerd that looks like he belongs in high school, even with his hidden six-pack. With this diminished status, the intimidating Liz and smarmy Flash operate like the popular kids do to the high school rabble: in legend and in passing, with the only memorable snippets our successes or embarrassments in front of them.
Harrier succeeds in the unforgiving role of the person that Peter always disappoints. He’s not only not a great superhero, he’s a terrible teen. He skips out on cool house parties, extracurricular activities, and dances because he wants to “fight crime” or whatever. This is why Revolori leads the amazing chant “I say ‘Penis,’ you say ‘Parker'” through his expensive DJ set-up. The flavor each adds to the social stew only makes Peter’s failures more acute. He’s not just disappointing his aunt. He’s losing popularity and the cute, tall Academic Decathlon president that he finds hard to look in the eye.
Supplementing these kids are a few other figures from the comedy world that drop in for a few moments of spotlight. Hannibal Buress plays a put-upon gym teacher that must show Captain America-saturated canned videos to unamused students, even though Cap recently became, almost certainly, a war criminal. Buress has said he plays the character as “one of the dumbass characters that don’t realize [Peter is] Spider-Man” and boy does he ever. He brings the same sleepy, clever affect seen many times in his role on Broad City to the film, and it’s great every time. Donald Glover shows up and teaches Spidey a lesson in a great scene involving groceries that fleshes out the world’s logical philosophy (it has consequences! minor characters return!) and the conscience of its hero. Peter really does care about being the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, a duty explained in this film by just how many supporting players make New York City feel like…well, a city.
They’re not just the most diverse cast a Marvel movie has ever had, but they’re the biggest one to feel well-served by the script. That’s somehow thanks to a gigantic list of credited writers, but they got it right. Spider-Man feels like a city-dweller shaped by his experiences (and desiring to shape others’ experiences) in the city. He saves the local bodega owner (Hemky Madera) after some playful ball busting about Peter’s hot aunt and the price of a sub. He gives directions to a woman who buys him a churro as thanks. His backpack is constantly stolen. Peter Parker lives in this city alongside everyone else. What Spider-Man: Homecoming understands is that the people he saves, the people he should be afraid of needing to save, are just as important as the hero himself.