THE WORDS “superhero fatigue” have been loitering around Hollywood so long that the term itself is getting tiresome. Fortunately, in 2017, the cinematic minds who guide the Spandex franchises have been especially nimble in their abilities to adapt and reinvigorate the form.
The year has already given us two of the most enjoyable superhero films in recent years, in “Logan” and “Wonder Woman” — and they are to be joined this week by “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which is similarly enriched by an infusion from other genres. While “Logan” cites Westerns and “Wonder Woman” draws from “Casablanca” and other war romances and classic comedies, the adolescent DNA of sincere high school comedies courses throughout Tom Holland’s first solo outing as Peter Parker.
Like “Logan” using a film clip of “Shane,” “Homecoming” gives us one from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” As Peter Parker is running home by foot, director Jon Watts chooses to show a TV-screen snippet of Matthew Broderick’s cocky teen hopping suburban-Chicago back yards.
In the case of this Spider-Man, in fact, the cinematic spirit of the late-great filmmaker John Hughes was sought from the get-go.
First, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige convinced Sony and its outgoing boss Amy Pascal that they needed to be in league with Marvel to rescue the webslinger and properly reset the franchise. Then, Feige explicitly sought talent that might deliver a Hughes “feel.”
One team that made a bid for the “Spider-Man” directing chair was Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. Although the Sony/Marvel brain trust went with “Cop Car’s” Watts instead, they liked what they saw enough to hire the “Horrible Bosses” duo as “Homecoming’s” primary screenwriters.
Daley and Goldstein, after all, had shown a true appreciation of Hughes’s comedic beats in writing and directing the 2015 remake of “Vacation.”
And what Daley and Goldstein deliver to “Homecoming” isn’t simply a direct visual nod or two; instead, they mine Hughes’s gifts for honest observation and layered relationships.
“One thing I love about Hughes’s characters is that the audience isn’t 10 steps ahead of him,” Daley tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “I hate a lot of action movies where you [already] kind of know when the character is making a mistake.” Such predictable writing, Daley and Goldstein say, feels very patronizing toward the audience.
And Hughes’s strongest influence upon “Homecoming,” they say, is in creating a credible high school environment — one that gets beneath the physical stereotypes, Goldstein says, to get at the textures of relatable experience.
In that way, “Homecoming” is not only arguably the funniest Spider-Man film yet; the movie also roots its humor deeply in character — including the socially awkward Peter, the wide-eyed fanboy sidekick Ned (Jacob Batalon) and the tough-posing but emotionally cautious friend Michelle (Zendaya).
And while some notes might be more obvious — Michelle could slide right into Ally Sheedy’s Allison role in “The Breakfast Club” — other Hughes influences upon “Homecoming” are more subtle.
One example, the screenwriters say: The tender relationship between sole guardian Aunt May and Peter Parker owes an emotional debt to Harry Dean Stanton and Molly Ringwald’s father-daughter scenes in the Hughes-penned “Pretty in Pink.”
And mostly, the writers say, they were inspired by Hughes’s consistent gift for subverting classroom stereotypes by striking universal themes.
Themes that cross-pollinate organically across genres when updating a kid superhero. With great hormonal change, after all, comes great unpredictability — and just the sort of youthful spring that boldly staves off franchise fatigue.