If Spider-Man: Homecoming is your introduction to the web-slinging superhero and his alter-ego, Peter Parker, then you might want to check out any of the six previous Spider-Man features. They’re not related, and only a few of them are any good, but they provide more of the back story and origins of the character, and each is interesting to see in contrast to Homecoming.
Additionally, filmmaker Jon Watts and star Tom Holland may be unfamiliar talents, so you should check out some of their previous efforts, such as Cop Car and The Lost City of Z, respectively (also try to find Holland’s performance in “Billy Elliott: The Musical” if you can). Consider those the basics, while the following eight picks are movies I recommend with specific relevance to the latest Spider-Man reboot.
In case the headline isn’t hint enough, note that this column deals in spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming.
The Karate Kid (1984)
Way before the misguided remake starring Jaden Smith, the original Karate Kid movie gave a boost to young martial arts programs, even though it’s unlikely any karate school followed the lessons of Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance). In the movie, that old man takes a teenage boy under his wing and teaches him how to physically defend himself against bullies.
Like Holland’s Peter in Homecoming, Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso is an impatient kid who wants to be the hero right away. While Peter/Spider-Man wants to fight crime and take on some local adversaries but is limited by a “training wheels” setting on his suit, Daniel/Karate Kid wants to fight his nemeses but feels limited by the chores he has to do for Mr. Miyagi, not knowing they’re actually part of his training. At one point in both movies, the kid tries to handle his situation himself and winds up in bigger trouble than he intended, but fortunately the mentor arrives just in time to save him.
The Karate Kid spawned three sequels — better than any of the Spider-Man incarnations, although the fourth Karate Kid is sort of a reboot. The Karate Kid Part II has Daniel accompanying Mr. Miyagi to a former Axis country, whereas Spider-Man accompanied his mentor, Tony Stark/Iron Man, to a former Axis country in Captain America: Civil War (recapped in Homecoming). If you want to follow the direct degrees of connection from The Karate Kid to Spider-Man, check out Macchio in My Cousin Vinny opposite the new Aunt May, Marisa Tomei, in her breakout, Oscar-winning role.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
There’s a sequence in Homecoming where Spider-Man is swinging through backyards that pays obvious homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, enough that we don’t really need the confirmation shot of a TV playing the classic teen comedy. Other than that bit and the fact that Peter cuts classes, Spider-Man’s alter-ego isn’t very much like Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), who is more popular, confident, and interested in leisure over responsibility. He does save someone, though. Well, he’s called a hero, jokingly, anyway.
There’s actually a good amount of reference to John Hughes, who wrote and directed Ferris Bueller, in Homecoming. Zendaya’s character, Michelle, is inspired by Ally Sheedy’s character in Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, and Peter and Ned are nerdy best friends in the spirit of the main duo of Weird Science —- which is one of Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr.’s early movies. Meanwhile, Jennifer Connelly, who starred in the Hughes-scripted Career Opportunities, voices Spider-Man’s suit-operating-system AI, “Karen.” And interestingly enough, Homecoming is co-written by the guys (Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley) who wrote and directed the most recent Vacation movie, which originated from a Hughes story.
The villainous role of Vulture in Homecoming is so perfect for Michael Keaton, it’s almost like he’s been building towards it his whole career. He’s a blue-collar guy, reminiscent of his characters in the ’80s who worked at auto plants. He’s also a costumed character named after a winged animal, like his Caped Crusader of Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns and the title superhero portrayed by his actor character in Birdman.
I actually previously recommended Batman Returns in my list of movies to watch after you see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (the last Spider-Man movie before Homecoming), so now it’s best to just go back to the first one and then follow his progression from superhero to supervillain in 28 years. His Batman is a vigilante, and his Vulture is a family man, so both are more complex than your basic good and evil.
There is one scene in Batman that I thought of during one of Keaton’s peak out-of-costume scenes in Homecoming, whereas Batman’s out-of-costume alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, he lashes out at the Joker (Jack Nicholson) with a fireplace poker. In Homecoming, he’s similarly crazily addressing young Peter, making for a 180-degree swap for the actor. For another degree of connection to the new movie, while Keaton and Tomei don’t any scenes in Homecoming, they co-starred in 1994’s The Paper.
The Rock (1996)
Keaton’s Vulture is one of those villains where you’re sympathetic to his motives if not his actions. That’s actually fairly common for Spider-Man adversaries, such as the Sandman seen in Spider-Man 3. One of the best examples of a movie bad guy we can agree with in his anger but not his plan is Brigadier General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris) in Michael Bay’s The Rock. Like Keaton’s baddie, he and his men were screwed by the government.
The two villains have another thing in common: Bokeem Woodbine plays minion to both of them and at one point goes against the superior baddie. They also both rob government facilities of some of the worst weapons on the planet, though the Vulture sells his catch on the black market while Hummel aims his at San Francisco, but only as a bluff. The Rock also features a younger novice hero working alongside an elder experienced hero.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
In addition to John Hughes movies, Watts says he was inspired by some Cameron Crowe movies, including his teen classic Say Anything. Another movie that is not just inspired by but feels like an unofficial direct sequel to Say Anything is Grosse Pointe Blank, in which John Cusack plays a secret hitman attending his high school reunion. With a title like Spider-Man: Homecoming, I had anticipated the new movie to similarly have more scenes during a dance at a high school, maybe with a fight scene in the halls.
But we got enough of that in the first Amazing Spider-Man, and anyway Homecoming has another link to Grosse Pointe Blank in the way each movies’ hero winds up discovering the guy he’s supposed to take down or take out is the father of his dance date. That obviously makes for a complicated situation where the hero questions his task because of what it means for the girl he likes. The circumstances are a little different, though, allowing for different solutions and outcomes for the two characters.
Roger Dodger (2002)
Another Crowe movie that aligns very well with Homecoming is Almost Famous, in which a teenage prodigy enters a more adult world with appropriate talent and intelligence but an ill-fit innocence. He also has a mentor he can call upon when needed. But as much as I love Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, there are a lot of great mentor/mentee movies I prefer, including Back to the Future and this one that came out the same year as the first modern Spider-Man movie and stars the actor who played Peter’s father in the Amazing Spider-Man series.
That actor, Campbell Scott, plays the titular Roger, a ladies man who takes his teenage nephew (Jesse Eisenberg) under his wing for some lessons in wooing women. I imagine this being the movie that Homecoming would be if Tony Stark never became Iron Man but he still met and mentored Peter Parker, maybe through another supposed “internship.” Stark would have helped him some with scientific inspiration, but because the elder playboy was also known for being a womanizer and might lead Peter in similar pursuits.
Space Tourists (2009)
This documentary from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Christian Frei (War Photographer) is partly about wealthy people who are able to pay for a trip to outer space, as tourists aboard the International Space Station, with specific focus on the first woman space tourist, Anousheh Ansari. But the recommendation is not based on the fact that Tony Stark is rich enough that he also once wound up in outer space, albeit not by choice.
Another concentration of Space Tourists is on scavengers who go after pieces of rockets and space shuttles discarded over the desert of Kazakhistan during launch. They use the parts for good, mainly to construct houses for themselves and other poor people of the region. They don’t, as the Vulture and his cronies do, turn these things that fall from the sky into powerful deadly weapons.
There are some other great documentaries I recommend after you watch Space Tourists that are like unofficial spin-offs in a sort of real-life space-travel cinematic universe. One is 2010’s Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott’s Road to the Stars. Another is 2013’s Sepideh, which is more relevant to Homecoming with its brief moment where Ansari is the equivalent of Tony Stark to a young Iranian girl who wants to be an astronaut.
In Jackson Heights (2016)
We finish with another nonfiction film, this one a three-hour documentary of the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights and its multicultural population. It’s unclear where the high school in Homecoming, Midtown School of Science and Technology, is located, but Peter and Aunt May hail from the Forest Hills part of Queens, which is southeast of Jackson Heights (traditionally, Midtown High is also in Forest Hills). The area as depicted in the movie, as well as the school’s student body, showcases a similar scale of inclusion.
The one thing Homecoming is lacking as far as diversity is LGBTQ representation, though there also could probably be even more ethnicities among the main teen characters. In Jackson Heights is not a complete portrait of central Queens either, but it’s a hopeful celebration of the area, as is the general approach Spider-Man stories take with their consideration of community and neighborhood unity in spite of any crimes occurring there for the friendly superhero to deal with.
Frederick Wiseman, the creator of In Jackson Heights, is a Boston-based filmmaker, but he regularly captures New York City better than most (see also Central Park, Welfare, The Garden, and others, including the upcoming Ex Libris: New York Public Library). He also made the best nonfiction high school movie of all time (High School). Similarly, Homecoming was shot primarily in Atlanta but looks and feels more like a New York movie than most movies set in the Big Apple lately. It’s also one of the best high school movies in years. But don’t tell Wiseman I compared his work to a superhero blockbuster.