At no point in Spider-Man: Homecoming is anyone bitten by a radioactive spider. That’s already happened—not just in two prior Spider-Man movies, but also in the world of this new one, populated by an ever-growing roster of Avengers. The fateful encounter between a teenage egghead and a genetically enhanced arachnid is handled in a single line of dialogue. So, too, is the death of Uncle Ben, that warm dispenser of wisdom, gunned down to teach his nephew a valuable lesson. Blessedly, no one reiterates Ben’s speech about power and responsibility. It’s implied at this point, isn’t it? The makers of Spiderman: Homecoming know that this is the third time in 15 years that a whole new franchise has been built around Marvel’s friendly neighborhood web-slinger, with a whole new actor slipping on the bright red costume. So why tell us something we already know?
Even as it neatly sidesteps the origin story laid out by Sam Raimi’s eccentric blockbuster smash Spider-Man and redundantly restaged in the less-than-amazing Amazing Spider-Man, this latest reboot takes Peter Parker back to his roots—specifically, to his time as a high-school sophomore, struggling to balance homework with moonlighting rooftop duty. That turns out to be the key to the movie’s charm, the choice that distinguishes it from not just the other Spider-Man films, but also the vast majority of cape-and-cowl tentpoles, including those of the Marvel crossover machine to which it belongs. As light on its feet as its title character, Spider-Man: Homecoming is often more of a teen comedy in spandex (think: The Perks Of Being A Wall-Crawler) than a full-blown superhero extravaganza. That’s a relief—and not just because director Jon Watts shows more comfort with the awkward wisecracks than the busy, relatively generic CGI set pieces.
Much of the film’s infectiously youthful spirit comes courtesy of its star. At 21, Tom Holland is only a hair younger than Toby Maguire was when he first donned the tights. But in his pipsqueak overeagerness, his boyish enthusiasm, Holland comes across as authentically adolescent in a way Maguire never quite did. This is the young actor’s second appearance as the character, having popped in for some melee backup in last summer’s Captain America: Civil War—an action-packed debut amusingly re-staged here through verité snippets of Parker’s video diary. “Stay close to the ground,” he’s told by his mentor figure, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., summoning that deadpan snark for an eighth or ninth time). It’s advice that Homecoming itself takes by scaling the conflict down, past world-saving stakes to the divided priorities of a 15-year-old superhero. Parker is desperate to prove himself in what he euphemistically refers to as the “Stark internship.” But he’s also got classes, a worrying and implicitly widowed aunt (Marisa Tomei), an impending Academic Decathlon tournament, and a burning infatuation for senior dream girl Liz (Laura Harrier).
This Parker is almost as irresponsibly bad at crime-fighting as the kids of Watts’ Cop Car were at grand theft auto. He’s careless with his secret identity, accidentally revealing it to computer-geek best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon, an onscreen surrogate for gushing, excitable fans of all ages). And he has a habit of causing severe property damage while swinging around the neighborhood, knocking over tree houses and rarely sticking the landing. Homecoming gets a lot of comedic mileage out of Parker’s screw-ups, especially once he unlocks some of the advanced, Starkian features of his super suit, including the AI tech support with whom he develops a screwball rapport. But there’s also something poignant about the way the movie acknowledges and embraces the character’s teenage fallibility, his human error. This is a Spider-Man who can’t drive yet, who hasn’t entirely conquered his fear of heights, who cries when in pain. For a film with six screenwriters, Homecoming creates a remarkably coherent vision of a smart kid still dumb about the world, battling the learning curves of his double lives.
It’s what Spider-Man, as a character and a half-century-old franchise, has always been about; he may be the most relatable of the major comic-book icons, because he’s the one who’s always tripping over normal problems, saving the day but failing his friends, his family, his significant others. The last of the movies to really get that was Raimi’s majestic Spider-Man 2, still a high-water mark for this genre, mostly for how it stressed the man as much as the spider. That film had a stronger villain, in Alfred Molina’s ambition-consumed Doctor Octopus, than the arms-dealer heavy of Homecoming. Yet another embittered byproduct of Iron Man’s corporate empire (they could assemble a Sinister Six for vengeful victims of his globalism), middle-aged Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) starts hawking alien technology on the black market after Stark Industries puts his rubble-clearing construction company out of business. Keaton’s Birdman, er, Vulture makes sense as an anti-Stark, shirking the responsibility that comes with his high-tech power and darkly mirroring Iron Man’s fatherly disappointment in his barely pubescent disciple. But with the exception of one chillingly civil car-ride conversation, the role doesn’t give Keaton much to sink his beak into.
One almost wishes this Spider-Man could exist outside of the Marvel industrial complex, even if the studio’s quality-control measures probably steered it clear of the minefield of bad decisions made by the Amazing series and Raimi’s own overstuffed Spider-Man 3. As usual, the clunkiest passages are the ones that labor to tie the story to the larger one Marvel has been telling since 2008; every pop-in by Stark or his exasperated, promoted bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) fills time that could be better spent in the teenage trenches with Parker, trying to mentally talk himself into going swimming with his upperclassman crush instead of clumsily foiling the bad guys’ plan. But there’s enough of those scenes—enough that put Parker’s bumbling sincerity front and center, ahead of the franchise maintenance—to make the film feel more like a breezy blast of summer fun than a mercenary brand extension. Did we need another Spider-Man so soon after the last two, the last five, even? By rediscovering what makes the character special, Homecoming suggests that maybe we did. As blockbuster coups go, that’s borderline amazing.