The most joyful moment — and there many — in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” happens after a short prelude, as the Marvel production logo bursts onto the screen, accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s orchestral arrangement of the theme from the “Spider-Man” cartoon series (“Spider-man, Spider-man, does whatever a spider can…“). It makes a promise: after 15 years, two actors and five movies, Spidey’s finally part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and it’s going to be fun.
This isn’t Spider-Man’s first foray into the MCU of course; Peter Parker was a highlight of last year’s “Captain America: Civil War,” when he stole Cap’s shield and threw down with a giant Ant-Man. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” picks up shortly after that rumble in Berlin, as Peter (Tom Holland) returns to Queens and the travails of high school life. He navigates the taunts of bully Flash (Tony Revolori), pines for Academic Decathalon captain Liz (Laura Harrier) and builds Lego Death Star models with best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) while moonlighting as a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, stopping car-jackers and purse thieves. When a low-level arms dealer (Michael Keaton) begins sporting a pair of wings and selling technology pilfered from the Avengers’ battle of New York, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) warns Spidey not to intervene and “stay close to the ground.” But, of course, if he did that, there’d be no movie.
Welcome home, Spider-Man
Fans have been clamoring for Spidey to join the proper Marvel universe since its inception, especially since Sam Raimi’s trilogy — whose first entries remain two of the best comic book adaptations ever — ran out of gas and Marc Webb’s “Amazing Spider-Man” duology felt more like a soulless cash grab than an artistic re-imagining. I imagine it’s not (only) because they wanted to see Spidey swing around with Thor, Iron Man and Hulk, but because Marvel’s focus on humor, color and fun felt like a better fit for the smart alec web-head than the dour, angsty soap operas he’d previously been involved with.
Director Jon Watts (“Cop Car”) brings the red-and-blue hero swinging back with wit, energy and heart. By framing the film as a high school comedy and focusing on Peter’s clique of friends and misfits, not to mention featuring one of the most diverse casts of any comic book movie, the film feels unique to the Marvel universe, even as it incorporates so much of its ongoing mythology. Spider-Man doesn’t confidently burst into action like Iron Man; he struggles to put on his tights and finds himself in trouble when he has to dash across a golf course where he can’t stick to anything. In a charming montage, Watts shows Spider-Man foiling a variety of small crimes, leaving helpful notes for the police, giving directions to lost tourists and sometimes bumbling his way through a rescue. This hero’s still learning the ropes and, unlike with other Spider-Man movies, it never feels like there’s a change from a flesh-and-blood Peter Parker to a CGI web-slinger; it always feels like there’s an awkward 15 year old under the mask.
Marvel’s biggest success has been in finding perfect actor/character matches, and Holland’s as good a fit as Downey, Chris Evans or Benedict Cumberbatch. Barely 21, he still looks like a pip-squeak who can’t drive. His Spider-Man is a wiseacre, a budding genius and an awkward dork — all the things that the hero should be. But unlike Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, who seemed drowning in angst, this Spidey’s fueled by excitement and joy. He’s impetuous and a bit reckless; he wants to race into danger and stop the bad guys. He’s still learning what (great) responsibility comes with this (great) powers, and he’s a hero who makes mistakes, acts rashly and has to deal with the consequences.
Giving him a mentor in Tony Stark is a fantastic way to tie him into the over-arching cinematic universe. Because of the events of “Civil War,” Peter’s had a taste of adventure. Just like the rest of the audience, he wants Spider-man to be part of the excitement. Keeping the events in the world of the Avengers helps us understand why Peter feels that he might be outgrowing his “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” roots. And Tony’s own journey from brash industrialist to father figure fits in with his overall franchise themes of responsibility and leadership. Downey’s role is basically a glorified cameo (Jon Favreau actually is in it more, as Stark’s right-hand man Happy Hogan), but his presence makes a crucial difference in helping this latest iteration of Spider-Man feel like part of a different, more exciting world.
What a tangled (and over-stuffed) web we weave
In true Marvel fashion, all of that bombast may be a bit too much. While Iron Man doesn’t overstay his welcome or steal the movie from its main character, the constant nudges and winks toward the bigger universe — while fun — mean the things that make “Spider-Man: Homecoming” its own, unique thing sometimes feel a bit too rushed, and leave the movie feeling overstuffed. It’s all good stuff, but sometimes there’s just too much of it.
Because, to be honest, while it’s fun to see Spidey as part of the Marvel world, this film does just fine without the franchise assists. At its best, Watts’ film balances angst, excitement and comedy in a way that makes it feel like the best superhero movie John Hughes never made. Peter and Ned’s friendship, two nerds bonding over pop culture and their own wallflower status, is genuinely funny, no tights needed. Pete’s crush on the smart and brainy Liz has a sweetness and innocence that doesn’t normally translate to the superhero genre. I wanted more of Martin Starr as teacher heading up the Academic Decathalon, and more Hannibal Burress as Peter’s gym coach. The much-publicized casting of pop star Zendaya, meanwhile, turns out to be a whiff. Her Michelle is a fellow geek, constantly rolling her eyes at Peter and Ned, but she’s largely sidelined, seemingly being saved for a bigger role in future films (something that becomes thuddingly clear with a third act reveal that elicited a groan).
But then again, if we were to cut anything, there’s material I’d hate to lose. Spider-Man’s heroic rescue atop the Washington Monument. Great banter between him and his “suit” when he alters Tony’s “Training Wheels Protocol.” Iron Man harshly chiding Peter after a rescue goes wrong. Watts brings a kick of energy that’s desperately needed and is able to reiterate common themes about power, responsibility and consequence without rehashing all the material that Spider-Man movies have dealt with before. If at the end I want a little bit more Marisa Tomei as Aunt May…well, couldn’t every film use a bit more Marisa Tomei? “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is packed to the gills with so much of what’s right in comic book movies; if it feels like it’s a bit too much sugar, that’s a lot better than feeling like it’s all empty filler.
One area where “Spider-Man: Homecoming” bests the Marvel movies is in its choice of villains. Keaton excels as The Vulture not because he’s an over-the-top comic book villain but because, like Spider-Man, he’s a street level player reaching beyond his grasp. Keaton’s character has his reasons for turning to crime, and while I wish he’d been given just a tad more shading, he’s still much more dimensional and interesting that the typical power-hungry god. Keaton, no stranger to superheroes or bird-men, never goes too overboard but he also keeps it just light enough to feel of a piece with the rest of the film. I wish a third act revelation had come a bit earlier to build tension, but it still works.
I’ve talked a lot about how the superhero movie is going to need to change in the coming years to stay fresh and interesting. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” still feels, at times, like a typical get-the-thingy adventure, but there’s just enough of a twist to the material to make me okay with that. It’s funny and energetic, bright and hopeful, and it feels like we’re getting a peek at a new corner of the Marvel universe. Maybe nestling in the corner a bit more, enjoying the neighborhood, and letting Iron Man take a break next time will lead to an even greater Spidey adventure. But for now, this Spider-Man’s still pretty amazing.
P.S. — In true Marvel fashion, the final post-credit sequence is definitely worth the wait.