Spider-Man: Homecoming is a delightful reminder of how much fun a superhero movie can be. Though director Jon Watts hasn’t exactly transcended the genre, he’s (re) re-booted this familiar franchise with all of the spirited adventure and adolescent awkwardness it requires. No iteration of the teenage web-slinger has ever felt so unapologetically naïve and eager to please. This lends an authenticity to the storytelling that compensates for the lack of thematic heft and some seriously dodgy special effects.
While Spider-Man: Homecoming never reaches the Shakespearean heights of Sam Raimi’s 2004 opus, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it mercifully erases the sting of Marc Webb’s two Amazing Spider-Man fiascos. Director Jon Watts’s haunting 2015 debut, Cop Car, might seem an insular audition for the interconnected sprawl of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but it fits perfectly with the modest sensibilities of Spider-Man’s re-introduction.
Peter Parker (the refreshingly un-smarmy Tom Holland) is just a 15-year-old kid struggling to assimilate at Midtown School of Science and Technology. He wants to ask the most popular senior girl in school, Liz (Laura Harrier), to the big Homecoming dance, but he’s got a serious case of ‘foot-in-mouth’ disease. A mob of bullies, led by the wormy Flash (Tony Revolori), serenade Peter with a chorus of ‘Penis’ Parker jeers. His only friend is an uber-nerd named Ned (Jacob Batalon), who spends his Friday nights constructing an elaborate LEGO Death Star. Oh yeah… Peter also has super-human strength and fights crime in a grimy red spider costume.
Watts and his screenwriters (an astounding six writers are credited for the script!) wisely forego the usual origin story nonsense. They assume our knowledge of Peter’s backstory; referring to his fateful encounter with a radioactive spider in a brief snippet of casual conversation (“Can you lay eggs?” is Ned’s earnest follow-up question). The genesis of Spider-Man’s powers, the tragedy surrounding Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and the whereabouts of radioactive spiders are never addressed.
Instead, Watts uses a fiendishly clever home movie made by Peter to introduce what is, essentially, an obnoxiously sincere kid who’s hell-bent on clumsily saving the world. Peter takes us through his initial meeting with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and his battle with Captain America (Chris Evans) in 2016s Captain America: Civil War (“I stole Cap’s shield!”). This eagerness to risk bodily harm, along with his painfully relatable pubescent gawkiness, ingratiates Spider-Man like no other film has.
The villain, too, is a relatable anti-authority figure this time around. Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes, an ordinary construction contractor initially tasked with cleaning up New York City following The Avengers epic battle with aliens back in 2012. Instead, he’s unceremoniously sacked in favor of a government agency that would be extremely busy in the real world; The Department of Damage Control. Toomes liberates a few “exotic materials” from the alien battleground, mocks up some terrifyingly powerful hybrid weapons, and invents an avian alter ego called the Vulture. Sadly, the Birdman crossover all cinephiles were craving never materializes.
Watts successfully follows the lead of his MCU brethren by staying focused on his characters. Each quirk and motivation is clearly defined, laying the groundwork for gags and throwaway jokes that land with frightening efficiency. Peter’s motivation to join the Avengers is hilariously punctuated by his tireless progress reports to an increasingly exasperated Happy (Jon Favreau). Ned, who routinely steals every scene as Peter’s bumbling sidekick, constantly angles to be “The guy in the chair”; the computer nerd who relays instructions and villainous wrongdoings to his superhero buddy.
The script also subverts expectation in satisfying and surprising ways. Spider-Man gets his supercharged suit from Iron Man (with the more dangerous features protected by a ‘Training Wheels Protocol’), but he’s consistently forced to emphasize ingenuity over gadgetry. There’s also a twist that rivals the Mandarin reveal from Iron Man 3, though it’s more likely to delight viewers than leave them infuriated.
Where Spider-Man: Homecoming falters, however, is on the technical side of things. More specifically, the computer rendering of Spider-Man’s acrobatics looks terrible. The action centerpieces, including the Vulture’s attack on the Staten Island Ferry and the daring rescue of Peter’s classmates from the Washington Monument, are competently staged set pieces, but the inhuman, erratic movements of Spider-Man are an inescapable distraction.
Certainly, no one expects the exhilaration of Sam Raimi’s camera swooping through streets and dangling from rooftops (ala Spider-Man 2002), but there’s no sense of movement or space to anything that Spider-Man does here. He’s a herky-jerky blob of pixels more reminiscent of a faceless CGI orc from The Lord of the Rings than an iconic superhero. It’s not a deal breaker, but it looks cheap and feels lazy.
Because Watts and his creative team refuse to make unwieldy superhero action the focus of Spider-Man: Homecoming, these technical failings never cripple their story. This is a lighthearted lark that functions as both a standalone feature, as well as an endlessly entertaining entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Holland is a genuinely engaging actor who takes the character in a new direction, even if we’ve seen this ‘coming of age’ story played out a million times. If Spider-Man truly needed to be re-booted (again), and that’s a debatable point, Spider-Man: Homecoming was the best way to do it.