In the rainbow-colored kaleidoscope of superheroes that have captured the imaginations of comic book readers for nearly a century and taken the film industry by storm (for better or for worse) over the past decade, there are few more beloved and enduring than the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. While his peers strike their slo-mo hero poses and flex their pristine pecs as they save the world from their respective doomsday scenarios, Peter Parker beats up small time crooks and puzzles over how to impress girls at school. He’s a teenager, uncomfortable in his own skin, who’s suddenly been burdened with great power, great responsibility, and a godawful streak of bad luck.
If there was something missing from the first and second attempts to bring Spider-Man to the big screen, it was the sense of mischief, irreverence, and fun that made the original comics so special. Both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were too old (and, in the latter’s case, too handsome) to come across as awkward adolescents in their respective attempts at the role, and the material they were working with was too concerned with being taken seriously to capture the pure, high-flying joy of the comics.
The almighty empire that is Marvel Studios now takes a swing at the franchise with the MCU-integrated Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the results are, in a word, spectacular. Director Jon Watts, whose bite-sized thriller Cop Car was one of the most delightful indies of 2015, hits all the right notes and finally delivers the quintessential movie version of the lovable web-head. The script’s half-dozen writers certainly deserve credit for the characterization as well, but the bulk of the credit goes to the film’s star, who seems all but born for the part.
British actor Tom Holland is 21 but easily passes for five years younger, and his boyish looks and squeaky voice are the very characteristics that kept Maguire and Garfield’s performances from being definitive. But what’s more essential to the success of Homecoming is Holland’s performance; the classic Spidey zingers and self-deprecating quips flow ever so naturally from his lips, and he’s just as expressive with his body when we can’t see his face behind the iconic mask.
His energy is matched by the Michael Keaton playing big-bad Adrian Toomes, who’s better known as classic Spider-Man villain The Vulture but goes moniker-less in the film. The story starts with a flashback to the aftermath of the Avengers’ near city-leveling battle with the alien Chitauri invaders in New York eight years ago, with Toomes losing a big construction job to Tony Stark/government paid clean-up crew. Left with no job to support his family, he pockets some destructive alien tech dug up from the construction site and builds a black market alien weapon racket over several years, which catches us up to the present day.
Coming off of his brief stint with the Avengers (as seen in Captain America: Civil War), Peter is back in school, though all he’s thinking about is when he can join his new mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) on another mission. Stark urges him to lay low and concentrate on school, but Peter fancies himself an honorary Avenger and takes to the streets anyway, zipping toward any mugging and misdemeanor that catches his eye as he swings from building to building, often ungracefully (he falls flat on his face quite a bit throughout the film, in more ways than one).
His hijinks inevitably lead him to Toomes, who now pilots a gigantic, winged mech-suit that looks like death sounds like a fighter jet from hell. Peter’s obviously bitten off more than he can chew, but his ego and valor persist.
The mentor-pupil subplot between Tony and Peter yields the movie’s best moments; Downey, Jr., is only in a handful of scenes, but he brings an incredible sense of gravity to the narrative and brings out the best in Holland. Mercifully, this MCU iteration of Spider-Man has skipped the origin story and chosen rather to deliver a coming-of-age story in which Peter, like most teenagers, learns the hard way to not grow up too fast. This struggle with identity enriches and informs every scene and distinguishes Homecoming from Marvel Studios’ typical fare.
Watts’ skills as a filmmaker shine in the movie’s more intimate moments, like Peter’s geeky bedroom hangouts with his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon, hilarious), and a wicked, hysterically tense staredown between Peter and Toomes in the uncomfortably close confines of a car. The action sequences, however, lack the same polish: most of the set pieces in the first two thirds of the movie are thrilling enough but more or less trite, and the sky-high final showdown is an almost incoherent mess of poorly-lit imagery that you’ll find yourself constantly squinting to decipher.
The script has some nagging issues, too. The high school drama doesn’t feel as urgent or high-stakes as it should; Peter gets bullied and labeled a loser in front of his peers over and over, and yet he doesn’t seem all that embarrassed or bothered by it all, which fits thematically to a certain extent but makes all of the campus scenes feel a little bloodless as a consequence. There’s also a moment later in the film in which Peter hits rock bottom and uses his brawn to get out of a sticky situation when using his brains would have been a more compelling narrative route.
These shortcomings are easily outweighed by Spider-Man: Homecoming’s myriad virtues. It’s pure exhilaration to watch this new, pitch-perfect version of the iconic hero swing high above the New York City streets, and if the movie’s forthcoming sequels are as fun as this, Marvel Studios can keep ‘em coming. Longtime Spider-Man devotees will rejoice at the sheer number of references to the books (Watts slips them in quietly and tastefully), but even the average moviegoer won’t be able to help but get caught up in Homecoming’s tangled web of witty humor, fast action, and feel-good storytelling.