This review contains mild spoilers. If you're already down to see the film, get out to the theater and then come back here. If you're just curious and/or still on the fence, read on!
How does anybody survive high school? When most of us look back at that time in our lives, the first memories that pour to the surface are the emotional ones: the crushes (unrequited and otherwise), the social awkwardness, the confusion. Yet that's only one aspect of those turbulent years. The most amazing part is looking back and seeing just how much stuff you did as a teenager. Seven hours of classes, 4+ hours of extracurricular activities, 2+ hours of homework and studying, and god knows how many hours of music, movies, and television. In hindsight, the high school years prepare you for life as an adult, a “training wheels” protocol teaching you to multitask your entire life. But unlike adult life, which carries its own brand of ennui and weariness with it, the stress and the strain of the high school years is nearly mitigated by the sheer optimism of youth. Your parents, your teachers, your enemies and even maybe your friends may underestimate you, but you're young, you have your whole life ahead of you, and you can do anything.
It is this mindset that director Jon Watts, star Tom Holland and the Marvel Cinematic Universe powers that be bring to the latest MCU outing, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Being the fifth Spider-Man film made (not counting his appearance in last year's Captain America: Civil War) along with being the second continuity reboot for the character in six years, it would have been reasonable to assume that the movie would end up a tired retread at best. While previous Spidey films leaned hard on his bad luck in an almost Sisyphean or Job-esque way (aka the Peter “Parker luck” as it's frequently referred to in the comics), this year's model brings such a fresh, exuberant and determined approach to the character and his world that it allows the film to feel completely distinct from every Spider-Man movie that's come before it. Homecoming is a big step forward in a lot of ways, presenting a take on the superhero that’s authentically young, drawing more heavily from the last few decades of the Brian Michael Bendis/Mark Bagley Marvel comics then just purely the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era, yet still mixes those iconic original stories in. “Mixes” is a keyword, as the film, unlike the strained cover version that was 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, feels like Spider-Man remixed, a completely unexpected delight containing familiar elements.
It's become an MCU staple to couch their superhero tales in diverse genres (the political conspiracy thriller, the space opera, etc.) and a large amount of Homecoming’s freshness stems from its presentation as a John Hughes-ian teen movie for millennials. After the events of Civil War, Peter Parker (Holland, all nervousness and charm) attempts to make a name for himself as a street-level hero, rescuing bicycles and giving old ladies directions, in the hopes of impressing his absentee father figure Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, still finding new shades to play nearly a decade after his first superhero outing). High school is a distant secondary concern, though his best friend Ned (the excellent Jacob Batalon), his classmate Michelle (Zendaya, bringing the most authentic teen character I've seen in years to the screen), his bully Flash (the inspired casting of Tony Revolori) and his crush Liz (a beaming Laura Harrier) are never far from his mind. When disgruntled ex-salvage foreman Adrian Toomes (a revelatory Michael Keaton) begins using his Vulture suit to steal dangerous tech around the city, Peter vows to track him down and bring him to justice, to the detriment of his social life, his health, his safety, his doting aunt (Marisa Tomei, bringing vibrant life to a previously weary character) and especially his schooling. After all, Ferris Bueller only took one Day Off and nearly got caught. How long can Peter Parker keep up his heroics without bringing his whole world crashing down on top of him?
While it sounds bizarre, the fact that CG-heavy superheroics take a back seat to the numerous character beats and memorable moments in the film is a highlight rather than a detriment. Nothing in the film rivals the train fight with Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, nor is as exciting as the Lizard fight in Midtown High in Amazing. Sure, Spidey attempting to save his friends from a falling elevator in the Washington Monument is fantastically complex and tense (and a welcome change from all the other films’ NYC only settings) and the climactic fight with Vulture on a runaway cargo plane is all gee whiz, but these aren't the scenes that will be swinging around your head when you leave the theater. Peter attempting to ask Liz out, meeting her dad, having dinner with his Aunt, escaping the Vulture’s warehouse through sheer will: these scenes and more send the film to heights not already reached by prior Spideys. Memorable, too, are the many elements that make the film unique not just in comparison to prior Spider-Man outings but superhero blockbuster movies in general. The diversity of the film’s cast is not only welcome but completely natural, the humor (while certainly expected, given the character as well as the MCU’s house style) never ventures into the cutesy distraction that plagued Doctor Strange, and the structure of the film is such that it feels completely surprising at every turn (how many times has an innocent child been used as a way to humanize a villainous character without allowing the audience to actually connect and care about that child as well, as happens here?). In a summer already blessed with Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 and Wonder Woman’s examples of how to break the comic book movie mold, Homecoming raises the bar ever higher.
If there is one major detriment the film has, it’s course correcting perhaps a little too much from the prior Spidey movies. Conventional wisdom says that “origin story” films, once such a staple of the superhero genre, are obnoxious and blasé, and in most cases this is absolutely true. After all, literally everyone in the United States if not the planet knows how Bruce Wayne became Batman. Just fifteen years ago in 2002, the name “Uncle Ben” was still more synonymous with rice than with Tobey Maguire blubbering over a dead old man. Superhero fiction is now so prevalent and popular that, as Homecoming proves, you don't need to start from scratch in order to get everyone up to speed on a well known character. However, Watts and company have done such an engaging job revising the characters and their relationships in the film that the absent origin story feels less like a wisely sidestepped burden and instead a missed opportunity. It never feels like this film picks up where the first half of 2002’s Spider-Man leaves off, and thus it raises more questions than it skips. What was Peter doing when he got bit by the fateful spider? Was the spider radioactive, or genetically enhanced, or what? Did Peter abuse his powers at first, and inadvertently get his Uncle Ben killed? Was there even an Uncle Ben? Peter only vaguely references his Aunt having “a lot going on” that she has to deal with, and neither Ben’s name nor his infamous credo of Great Power and Responsibility are said aloud. It's an odd omission, and one that takes the vigorous rebooting of the character a bit too far.
Despite all that, there's no doubt that Homecoming captures the spirit of Spider-Man while still presenting a film that feels fresh and exciting, no mean feat for any franchise five films deep. While Uncle Ben is oddly missing, the use of Tony Stark as a substitute figure Peter tries his best to live up to is inspired and pays off in a brand new way (don't worry: Marvel does not kill Iron Man in this movie). Keaton’s Vulture is the first Spidey villain since Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock to be both genuinely menacing and honestly sympathetic, and simultaneously continues to correct the MCU’s bland villain problem, following in the footsteps of Kurt Russell’s Ego from Guardians. Perhaps most importantly, the movie recreates the sense of joy I felt when I first saw one of my favorite comic book heroes on the screen back when I was in college. Listening to the literal squeals of excitement uttered by the younger audience members in the theater I saw the film in took me back to the night I got out of the 2002 installment and ran around the dorms shooting a cheap plastic water web shooter. When the deal between Sony and Marvel Studios was struck to share custody of the character, as well as reboot him a second time, it seemed like an enormous challenge. But Peter Parker is young, and despite everything that's thrown at (or on) him, endlessly determined and optimistic. He has a long life ahead of him, and he can do everything.