Oh, what a tangled web they weave, when first they practice to re-conceive — again — the swinging radioactive guy in the red-and-blue suit. Is there anything new under the Spidey-sun that could possibly justify another iteration of a hero who has already been portrayed in nearly uncountable ways on page and screen and stage for over half a century? The answer lies partly, of course, in the endless, ever-expanding Marvel universe, where there is always room for one more warrior on the bench. But mostly it’s in looking both forward and back: A brightly contemporary retelling that is not so much an origin story as a coming of age: The On-His-Way-to-Amazing Spider-Boy.
The movie’s opening scenes offer no breaks for newbies; if you missed Tom Holland’s introduction as the latest Peter Parker in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming is not here to fill you in. (Though there does feel something poetic and full-circle-ish in the fact that the first lines are spoken by Michael Keaton, a man who once answered to the call of a certain distant bat signal). Just know that Keaton is now on the other side of dark knighthood: officially he’s Adrian Toomes, a straight-shooting blue-collar engineer; unofficially, he’s also got a strong entrepreneurial sideline in stolen government-grade experiments, including a weaponized harness with a wingspan somewhere between a condor and a small Cessna.
And Peter? He’s barely 15, fresh out of superhero summer camp — sorry, Tony Stark’s “intern management retreat” — and back to school in Queens, just another awkward sophomore dealing with debate-club prep, Spanish quizzes, and an unrequited crush on the senior-class goddess (Laura Harrier). He has the spandex and the will to hero, if he could only find a crime to fight: At best, he might get a chance to help repossess a stolen bicycle or offer directions to a nice little old lady (“She gave me a churro!”); even local grand theft auto proves a little above his pay grade. Which is exactly where Stark (Robert Downey Jr., still as dry as vermouth and as tan as George Hamilton) wants him to stay, at least for now.
But Peter is too enthralled by his supernatural bag of tricks, and too young for impulse control. This is a kid, after all, whose world-altering abilities have arrived several months ahead of his learner’s permit. So with great power comes great irresponsibility: With the help of his dazzled best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), he disarms the training-wheels protocol that keep his suit’s maximum capacities in check and goes rogue to fight Keaton’s Vulture alter ego and his henchmen. That’s great news for the debate club — and a vicarious thrill for Ned — in one literally-high-wire scene, but less good for the Washington Monument, among other large immovable objects.
If the setting and story arc are mostly familiar, the movie finds freshness in its casting: classic supporting players and new additions — from Marisa Tomei’s boho-cool Aunt May to Zendaya’s wry classmate Michelle (who like most movie “nerds,” is still improbably gorgeous beneath her make-under) — feel modern without being unduly, laboriously reworked. Members of the extended Marvel family also pop up in several winky cameos (Captain America: The classroom visual aide your high-school principal never knew you needed).
In a city where the average citizen seems to accept Avengers as a fact of daily life as common as a rat on the subway or a Starbucks on the corner, Homecoming‘s Parker is still consistently, winningly wowed by his own capabilities; he can’t stop saying “Gross” or “Awesome” at the things that shoot out of his body (which, to be fair, is also just basic adolescence). But he can seem ordinary to the point of confounding the storyline, too — less a supercharged arachnid than an adorable puppy with special powers, or the YA dreamboat on an exceptionally well-cast Nickelodeon wizard show.
Director Jon Watts — whose short resumé includes a horror movie called Clown and 2015’s little-seen Kevin Bacon thriller Cop Car — doesn’t deprive his audience of the explosive large-scale action sequences that are essentially written into the contract, but his true interest seems to be grounded less in things that go zoom than in a much more John Hughes-y sort of teen normalcy. (A visual joke early on involving a well-placed clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off feels like no coincidence). That Homecoming comes off as loose and sweet and light on its feet as it does feels like sort of minor Marvel miracle; whether Watts can swing this boy into super-manhood with all his endearing humanity intact is a question only time, and the next inevitable sequel, can tell. B+