The Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t just superheroes interacting with other superheroes. The notion of a “universe” is that the actions of some characters leave a permanent impression on the surrounding world. The idea is that when these characters do something, it isn’t just forgotten or ignored, but rather it must be reckoned with. That’s why some people find Iron Man 3 to be such an infuriating experience. If Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is in trouble and there are exploding people out in the world, then where is SHIELD? What’s the fallout from the Battle of New York other than Tony Stark being slightly more famous than he already was? If these are world-changing events, shouldn’t the world change?
Surprisingly, until Spider-Man: Homecoming Marvel kind of danced around what it meant to exist as an average person in the MCU. Agents of SHIELD never really figured out how to make the world feel more organic despite being closer to the ground, and the Marvel movies largely brushed over what was going on with throwaway lines or the occasional gag. But for Spider-Man: Homecoming, everything is determined by a post-Avengers world. They’re not a secret; they’re basically on the level of the founding fathers, and while we still recognize the world as similar to our own, the characters are fully aware of what it means to have superheroes out and about.
The way the MCU is so active in Homecoming gives the movie a special feeling like what was being built towards wasn’t a big bad or a massive conflict, but simply a different world you could walk into and understand that superheroes exist. Yes, this is a bit of a relaunch for Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and Spider-Man, but the movie also functions as a way to check in on how the world works when you have superheroes. It raises questions like “Why don’t the Avengers stop all crimes?” and “Where do the ‘little people’ fit in to an epic story?” By going small (relative to the size of the average Marvel film), Homecoming makes the rest of the MCU feel far bigger and far-reaching than other movies.
It’s also kind of ingenious to have the main viewpoint be teenagers. Yes, there’s Damage Control and there’s Vulture (Michael Keaton) and his band of thugs, but the viewpoint on the MCU is primarily Peter and his friends, people who have, in the world of the film, basically grown up with superheroes. They know that superheroes are important, but they’re also just a part of everyday life. Avengers are basically celebrities who save people, but it helps flesh out the world and define why Peter is so desperate to become an Avenger himself.
However, the film also makes its mark by showing Peter not just as conceited or willing to be popular (it’s why he leaves the party to go after bad guys rather than showing up as Spider-Man to boost Peter’s social standing). This Spider-Man genuinely wants to help people and do as much as possible. When he tells Tony Stark he wanted to be like him, he means it. He wants to be a hero that helps people, and that’s very different than the Spider-Men we’ve seen before. That’s not to diminish Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield’s take on the character. But they were in movies where the central theme is about how do you stay Spider-Man and carry the world on your shoulders? In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter still has to juggle his schoolwork and social life with being Spider-Man, but he clearly loves being a hero and it makes the film so much more joyous and fun as a result.