For everything there is to love about Spider-Man: Homecoming—and there’s a great deal in which to revel—my favorite element has to be that Marvel kicks off a new Spidey series, the third since 2001, without rehashing the Uncle Ben/with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility origin story. Thank god.
At this stage, still basking in the afterglow of maybe the most fun I’ve had at a movie so far this summer, it’s premature to call Spider-Man: Homecoming the best Spider-Man movie. But it’s certainly in the running, and definitely the best in quite a while—easily since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. (Though there are individual pieces I admire, the Amazing Spider-Man films are not good.)
What director Jon Watts and company accomplish is to take a character we’ve seen five times (six if you count his welcome-to-the-MCU moment in Captain America: Civil War) in recent years and reintroduce him in a way that’s fresh and fun and new. We can argue back and forth all day about whether this is because Marvel took control of the character back from Sony, but the whys of the situation are largely irrelevant.
Homecoming captures things I love about the Peter Parker/Spider-Man character from the comics that the earlier screen iterations lack. This Spider-Man is an awkward teenage nerd trying to find his place in the social hierarchy. It just so happens he also has super powers and has the added challenge of trying to figure out where he fits into the superhero landscape. This is Freaks and Geeks with superpowers; a John Hughes movie with dudes in tights who climb up walls. At least part of this is thanks to the script from (Freaks and Geeks alum) John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (though there are six credited writers).
And that’s when Spider-Man: Homecoming works best, when it’s a high school movie. It hits all the typical genre markers: detention, bullies, awkward crushes, homework, tests, school dances, parents who just don’t understand. But in the wake of Civil War, Peter (Tom Holland) also has way more going on. He lies to Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), keeps secrets from his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), crushes on senior classmate Liz (Laura Harrier), and patrols his Queens neighborhood by night.
Holland perfectly captures the tweenage insecurity. Peter’s uncertain and unsure of himself, but also brash and cocky, and this version depicts his wise-ass banter with bad guys better than any attempts thus far. He’s also frustrated that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) keep him at arms length, treat him like a kid, and brush him off like an annoying little brother.
Peter, of course, believes he’s capable of so much more than he’s given, which gets him into trouble and leads him afoul of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best villain since Loki, Adrian Toomes, AKA Vulture (Michael Keaton). His villainy comes as a direct result of the events of The Avengers. A working class guy just trying to provide for his family, when that’s snatched from him, he takes the only path available: salvaging leftover alien scrap and turning it into new tech—an almost anti-Tony Stark move. Toomes doesn’t start out evil or even seek out revenge; he’s a husband and a father, he’s responsible for his employees and their livelihoods, and he’s forced onto this track. It weighs on him and twists his original intentions, but this isn’t a maniacal supervillain bent on world domination. And Keaton is so, so good in the role; driven and vicious, but also relatable, nuanced, and well-rounded in a way most Marvel villains aren’t.
Part of why Spider-Man: Homecoming works well is because of its lower-stakes nature. Sure, life and death are on the line, but the fate of the universe and the planet don’t hang in the balance. It’s more similar in scale to Marvel’s street-level Netflix series—though admittedly much less gritty—than what we’ve seen so far form the main, Avengers-centric core. In practically every way—from the high school stuff to the scope that rarely looks beyond Peter’s neighborhood—it remains grounded and accessible. It puts a personal face on destruction caused by the Chitauri invasion of New York City and shows the human cost rather than the sweeping, geopolitical implications.
For the most part, Spider-Man: Homecoming has a distinct feel and stands alone—like Logan or Guardians of the Galaxy, you can watch this without needing the broader context of their respective cinematic universes. There’s a larger connection, but it’s only hammered home during the Tony Stark/Happy Hogan scenes. We don’t get a ton of this (some folks worried this was going to become an Iron Man movie, but it does not), but these moments take on a totally different tone than the rest.
This shift isn’t necessarily jarring, but it’s basically Tony Stark doing his Tony Stark shtick, and as such, it’s overly familiar. Only here does Homecoming feel like a typical, same-y Marvel movie. The script attempts to create a bit of a father/son, or at least older/younger brother dynamic between Tony and Peter. It’s an interesting impulse, one that could have added an interesting wrinkle—we see a momentary flash of maturity we don’t often get from Tony—but it devolves into Robert Downey Jr. doing his fast-talking banter that may as well be a scene cut from Civil War.
Beyond Tom Holland and Michael Keaton, whoever cast Spider-Man: Homecoming should get an award. Across the board, it’s perfect. Marisa Tomei’s younger, hotter Aunt May has ruffled some purist feathers, but her age makes sense since Peter’s only 15, and she brings more personality to the role than we’ve seen in some time. Jacob Batalon provides much of the humor as the best friend who’s simultaneously in awe of his pal at the same time he’s still the same awkward, love-struck buddy. Casting Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson gives the character a new twist—and while he’s a typical bully, he’s a typical bully at a smart-kid school, all of which makes him slightly more intriguing than the stock high school antagonist. There’ve been rumors and rumblings about Zendaya’s Michelle, and while I won’t give anything away, she’s a total blast. A bitter, sarcastic outsider, she has a wicked streak that results in some of Homecoming’s best jokes.
While Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t a straight origin story, it still functions as a type of origin story. It tracks Peter’s journey as he grows into the hero he ultimately becomes, but without having to show how he got his powers or subjecting audiences to another learning-to-use-his-new-abilities montage. He starts out as an inexperienced kid who makes dumb mistakes, but he progresses over the course of the film. It’s a clever method of imparting the familiar “with great power” theme without having to kill another old dude on screen.
Sure, the climax has issues, and Shocker is a pointless inclusion, but overall, Spider-Man: Homecoming is an insanely good time that revisits a fan favorite character in thrilling, hilarious fashion. Even the obligatory post-credits scenes call back to the high-school-movie nature of the story and offer something just a little bit different. [Grade: A-]