My (S)hero, Zendaya: A Spider-Man: Homecoming Review

Tom Holland as Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) is a delight. He’s adorable, dorky, and incredibly fit for a 20-year old playing 15. He delivers a wonderfully believable performance as a high school sophomore facing academic rigor, social awkwardness and the trials of maturing. But the real star of Spider-Man: Homecoming, without whom the movie would not have truly sparkled, was Zendaya.

On screen but for a few brief scenes, Zendaya makes the most of her time as Michelle, serving up sharp retorts with a dead-pan delivery that at first surprises and then delights. She is my brand of comedy in this film: unexpected, quick, peculiar. But more than being comedically in sync with my preferences, her character portrays a high-school female often not seen on screen.

First, her ethnicity (she’s biracial). Second, not a single reference to her body is made. Blessedly indicating to young girls, that yes, your worth is determined by your actions and intellectual contributions more than your anatomy. Third, she technically is the hero of the decathlon team. It being a superhero movie, we’re fairly accustomed to men swooping in and saving the day. Having a girl clinch the victory rather than step aside for the boys helps balance the gender scale.

Everything she does is atypical of how young women are normally portrayed in the high school setting. She’s not the cheerleader or the doting dorky crush. Her hair is not perfectly coiffed and she’s not wearing any makeup. She delivers her sharp wit with rapid fire precision, and exhibits an emotional pattern with which I’m all too familiar: use humor to deflect. An example: “Can’t believe you guys are at this lame party,” she says to Peter and Ned (Peter’s best friend) when she notices them arrive at a house party. “You’re here too…” remarks Ned. *beat* “Am I?” Zendaya then bites into the toast she just finished buttering and walks away. It’s my favorite comedic sequence of the entire film. She’s not above the social constructs of high school (she is indeed at the house party and she attends the Homecoming dance) and never condescends those who partake in them. She reads books at every turn, sketches when she’s not reading, and is never once seen talking or texting on a mobile device. She is never called strange or weird. Rather, an individual with these tendencies is considered completely normal within this world, but our reality (i.e. pop culture) would label her as ‘that weird girl’, simultaneously telling young girls that more artistic and perhaps more pure cultural pursuits subsequently make them that way.

The high school world created is also of significant note. Typical subspecies of the social strata (jocks, nerds, goths) are not deployed at the Midtown School of Science & Technology. The only evidence of organized athletics is the cheerleaders (identified by their uniforms) next to Peter’s locker who remark that building the Lego Death Star “is lame.” The main extracurricular we witness is academic decathlon — to which no cynicism is ever applied — there is mention of Peter quitting band, and Ned is worried about Peter missing his Spanish quiz. A rich high school tapestry can and does exist without sports.

Other highlights include all of Peter’s t-shirts displaying various math and science puns, which represents what I love most about this movie: it’s a celebration of ‘nerds’. Those kids in school who care about their academics and struggle with crushes and social situations. Peter’s struggle to prove he has more to offer, a greater potential than anyone gives him credit for, and being told ‘he just doesn’t understand the world’ are all conversations I’ve had with adults in my life. It’s infuriating and thus incredibly relatable. The strongest and most enjoyable moments of the movie are those in the high school, watching Peter interact with his peers and struggle with being 15. Which Tom Holland does quite well, awkwardly talking to his crush, crashing through the neighborhood in his pursuit of the bad guys and generally trying to keep it all together. The fact that he doesn’t, but experiences conflicting responsibilities pulling him in different directions makes him a believable high schooler which shakes up the Marvel universe in all the right ways.