In the decade since the term “reboot” entered the Hollywood lexicon, the prospect of relaunching a popular franchise with a new actor and creative team has become an increasingly tricky proposition. For every Batman Begins, there’s been a Fantastic Four, and every Casino Royale has had its RoboCop counterpoint. But perhaps the most contentious of these quick-to-do fiscal year-defining revamps was when Spider-Man got a misleading “Amazing” qualifier 10 years after Sam Raimi’s original classic. And now in even less time, Spider-Man: Homecoming is swinging into movie theaters with a new Peter Parker.
So it’s something of a magic trick that Spider-Man: Homecoming makes all of that irrelevant. Pretty much instantaneously. Despite being the sixth Spidey film, Homecoming feels stunningly fresh and playful, inventive and cocky. But most impressive is that it’s a blast to watch, harkening back to the sugar rush that accompanied flipping through Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s earliest comic adventures for the web-head in the 1960s.
What seemed like shrewd studio deal-making between Sony Pictures (who maintains the Spider-Man license) and Marvel Studios to reboot the character has ultimately benefited both with a superhero movie that enjoys a disarming buoyancy so effervescent that it practically dares you not to smile along. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has said in the past that he considers the wall-crawler to be the greatest superhero of all-time, and he more or less delivers on his vision by producing one of his studio’s best flicks.
It still bears some marks in the margins that come with all of Marvel’s tightly packaged products, but whatever branding compromises frame the piece, it is still an undeniable crowd-pleaser that is sure to make its star Tom Holland the most popular Spider-Man to date.
Wisely choosing to avoid the the origin story setup that we’ve already seen twice on the big screen, Spider-Man: Homecoming hits the ground running and really never stops. Since Holland’s Peter Parker was introduced as an excitable bundle of teenage nerves in last year’s supersized Captain America: Civil War, director Jon Watts aptly reintroduces the character by covering the same ground from the 15-year-old’s vantage point.
Showing moments of his flight to Berlin, and even a selfie’s perspective of that film’s airport battle, it becomes clear this movie is less about swinging with the gods as bouncing up and down on the ground. And bounce Spidey does. There are few moments of this superhero majestically drifting between skyscrapers, but there are plenty of sequences of him stumbling through New York bodegas and sliding haphazardly across suburban McMansion rooftops.
Merely a sophomore in a Queens magnet school for kids gifted in the sciences, Peter is still the smartest kid in his class—whenever he bothers to show up. After getting in a German sparring session with Captain America in the last movie, our Uncle Ben-less Pete wants to marvel at his powers and become a full-time Avenger, much to the chagrin of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.).
So Pete’s life pretty much goes as it should: he is part of an academic decathlon; he nerds out about his superpowers with his geeky best friend, Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon); he constantly tries to pull a fast one on his much younger version of Aunt May (Marisa Tomei); and he pines to take his dream girl Liz Allen (Laura Harrier) to the dance while ignoring the snarky attention of Michelle (Zendaya). But there’s also a “weird flying guy” (Michael Keaton) floating above the neighborhood that is starting to distract him too…
There is a remarkable vibrancy about the entire tone and approach of Spider-Man: Homecoming. While still operating within the parameters of the Marvel Studios aesthetic, Watts and company succeed by turning the movie into a breezy and lighthearted day-in-the-life of a boy that verges on comedy. This is less to do with inserting humor as just letting the youthful energy of its lead character and actor take hold.
Holland, like Downey and Chris Evans before him, appears in some scenes to have been created out of whole cloth by Feige to encapsulate the most popular aspects of his respective comic book hero. While Tobey Maguire may still yet be in the best Spider-Man movie, Holland more or less plays the Spider-Man fans have long demanded. And the quick-witted editing and pacing of the movie, complete with several songs from fellow youth-in-revolt Queens icons, the Ramones, matches a 15-year-old whose favorite part of the day is helping an old lady cross the street… so long as he can do it in costume.
After five movies about how hard it is being Spider-Man, this is a blessed relief. The marketing material compares his supporting cast to John Hughes, but they’re less The Breakfast Club than the snappy and archetypal teens of ‘90s high school movies like Clueless or 10 Things I Hate About You. And while there is plenty of emphasis on the high school, from the students to the rather dry deadpan of the teachers, Holland in this particular film has the most fun playing off Batalon—although the movie could have benefitted from more scenes with Tomei. Featuring a sharper and more skeptical eye than previous versions of May Parker, this is a maternal figure with an edge. Sadly though, she is relegated for most of her scenes to the role of MILF that all the men drool over.
What keeps this film from turning into a complete laugher, however, is Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture. In spite of his aristocratic name, Toomes is a blue collar working stiff. Think if Keaton’s Riggan Thomson from Birdman never discovered acting. Middle-aged and supporting an off-screen family, Toomes is cut from the Walter White template as a little guy sick of never getting ahead until he starts a lucrative crime ring, albeit selling alien weapons here instead of drugs.
Even with this working class hero origin and a desire to stick it to New York billionaires, Keaton still ends up playing the first Marvel Studios villain with actual human menace behind the special effects. He’s a teen movie authority figure out to destroy the hero in a literal sense.
It’s somewhat ironic then that the film’s best confrontation between the hero and villain is one where they’re just speaking it out and breaking it down, elevating their generational rivalry like the best early Spider-Man comics. When it comes to the actual fighting, there is a blizzard of CGI wizardry, but it frankly pales to any of the scenes in Sam Raimi’s wondrous aerial ballets from the original Spider-Man movies. Also like all Marvel Studios pictures, it’s when the movie should be at its tensest that one suspects the filmmakers are pulling their punches. It shares a familiar anxiety about never getting too sincere, or letting the drama actually become truly dramatic.
Despite these qualms, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a triumph for all involved. It reboots a pop culture icon who previously appeared played out and enjoys charisma to spare, designing a pretty little web for itself in its corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One that feels mostly organic in how it ties into other movies, as opposed to the mechanical effect a number of MCU films have had.
All in all, Homecoming is easily the best Spider-Man movie in over a decade. Spider-Man 2 is probably still the richer cinematic experience, but this is the Spidey adventure that diehard fans always wanted, and it will likely convince everyone else they needed it too.