Here’s a funny thing: Despite being the first installment in a Sony Spider-Man franchise, Spider-Man: Homecoming does a better job of feeling organically a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than any of Marvel’s television projects.
It also does a better job of presenting day-to-day life in a world with supernatural forces — not with the modern noir grittiness of Matt Murdock’s Hell’s Kitchen or the matryoshka doll secrets and weird science of SHIELD, but just by just letting us look at some kids, in high school, thinking about college, sitting in P.E. and going to prom.
“A superhero movie by way of John Hughes” is the feeling that Homecoming wears on its sleeve, proudly including a television playing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in one shot. And while that might sound like it would serve the John Hughes side of the film much better than the superhero side, Spider-Man: Homecoming is smart, incredibly funny and surprisingly clever. It is an entirely unexpected — perhaps even vanishingly implausible — fresh start for the third Spider-Man franchise of the past 15 years.
Homecoming never lets us forget that it’s swaddled in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it also doesn’t demand that we are completely up to date on its current history. Our introduction is a greatest-clips montage of the video journal Peter Parker (Tom Holland) made of his role in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, deftly re-establishing his powers and his relationship with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and the wider world of superherodom. Our main story picks up several months later when Peter is back in school in New York City, and not dubiously “aiding” Iron Man in attempting to defuse the intractable differences between the Avengers with quips and punches.
Tony hasn’t forbidden Peter from being Spider-Man, but wants him to start small and, despite Peter’s excitement, clearly has no immediate plans to put him on the Avengers roster. Peter chafes at the lack of contact from Tony and the boredom of finding small crimes to stop in Queens. And so when he discovers a group of men manufacturing high-tech weapons from stolen superhuman and alien technology, selling them to street-level criminals, he takes it upon himself to stop their operation.
The leader of that group, Adrian “The Vulture” Toomes, is played by Michael Keaton, hitting all the right notes in a role that asks some surprising things from a supervillain. Jacob Batalon takes a strong turn as Peter’s compelling and lovable best friend, confidant and occasional sidekick, Ned.
Many reviews of Captain America: Civil War highlighted Tom Holland’s debut as the webslinger among the movie’s bright points. Here, he is given the chance to deepen and broaden the character — among Peter’s friends and family, on his home turf — and he does not disappoint. We find out where he gets his bodega sandwiches, where his aunt’s favorite emergency dinner spot is and that he loves to build Star Wars Lego sets in his spare time.
In addition to fighting crime, we get to see him goofing off as Spider-Man — playing, even. Literally, playing at being a superhero, emphasizing how fundamentally his age sets him apart from every other core character of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And all of this time spent with our hero’s day-to-day is incredibly refreshing, given that so many blockbuster superhero tentpoles now have to cram a team’s worth of characters into the plot, or still insist on an origin story’s worth of introduction in the first act.
Spider-Man: Homecoming leaves Peter’s origin story almost entirely out of the proceedings. Peter alludes vaguely to something in Aunt May’s past and mentions being bitten by a spider, but other than that, it is absent. And thank goodness, because we’ve already seen that story in two other franchises since the year 2002; declining to hash it out yet again is one of Homecoming’s smartest choices.
(That said, I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know that the movie keeps other reliable standards of Marvel superhero films. There’s a Stan Lee cameo and two credits sequences, one mid-credits and one at the very end, for those with the patience to get there.)
Smart choices define Spider-Man: Homecoming’s story, within and without the narrative. With Peter at a premier science high school for advanced students, all of his friends are nerds. And not just nerds as in awkward (although some of them are), but nerds as in smart. While so many other films lazily hang their plots around a character being slow on the uptake, Homecoming repeatedly hangs its story on Peter or his friends being exceptionally clever, rolling out its characters’ intentions precisely when it needs to and no earlier.
Homecoming also never uses the infinite narrative possibilities of comic book technology as a crutch. Its devices are established, sometimes embellished upon, but they ultimately have clearly elucidated rules that bind the constraints of its plot, threading that needle of the simultaneously fantastic and realistic.
In a similar vein, Homecoming doesn’t shy away from the classic characterization of Peter Parker as a bumbling and unlucky hero. Between Peter’s traditional self-aware wit and his superpowers — immense strength, physical resilience and agility — Homecoming uses him for slapstick comedy at every opportunity. And yet, despite all the bashing and flipping and dropping he bounces away from, when the gloves come off, Homecoming still has the ability to make us fear keenly for Peter’s life and well-being, even when we know that this is a superhero movie and he’s going to be just fine.
Especially attentive fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe may be looking forward to Homecoming as a continuation of Tony Stark’s emotional journey from the wreckage left at the end of Captain America: Civil War. The relationship between Peter and Tony is perhaps the simplest arc of the film — it’s not bad, it’s just that they both play the roles you expected them to play going in. Homecoming also tries to set up a blue-collar vs. elite sort of dichotomy to its hero and villain lines that feels shallow. But in both cases, you barely notice, thanks to whip-quick plotting, expertly timed comedy and engaging performances all around.
For example, there is a moment at the heart of Spider-Man: Homecoming’s climax ... I hesitate even to mention its existence here because it’s so good. (Don’t look up the full names of the cast of characters; you may spoil yourself.) But I feel compelled to call out how it paints the entire final act of the film in a deliciously tense, but also hilarious, layer of perspective that would be impossible for any other superhero in the MCU to pull off. It’s a masterful stroke that culminates in a climactic resolution not quite like any other I’ve seen in a modern superhero film.
The movie grounds its humor, its weird science and its action in a lot of heart — in Peter’s hopes, his belief in people and his love for his friends. Unlike a lot of movies about teenage rebellion, it is not founded on Peter making selfish or rash decisions, just foolhardy ones. He wants more responsibility — he feels that because he has great powers, it follows that ...
Oh no. You won’t get me that easily, Spider-Man: Homecoming.