The breeziest, most convivial Marvel movie in ages, Spider-Man: Homecoming boasts a high-school Peter Parker with no trendy superhero angst. Played by Tom Holland, the teenage Peter doesn’t brood over collateral damage, threats to civil liberties, or the ethical and psychological perils of vigilantism. He just loves putting on his goofy costume, shooting out webs, and swinging around foiling robberies and saving good people. He watches bystander videos of himself on YouTube and relishes the number of views. He has a roly-poly pal, Ned (Jacob Batalon), who’s like a stand-in for Comic-Con fanboys (the cheerful ones, not the chronic malcontents), and has a crush on a lovely girl named Liz (Laura Harrier), who maybe likes him back. The fate of the planet is not at stake. The movie’s villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), is doing his dirty work with alien technology scavenged from an invasion of a few Avengers movies back, but he’s basically a bank robber with a chip on his shoulder who works out of a glorified chop shop. The homecoming of the title is a high-school dance, but it also suggests a trip back to a simpler era in superheroics.
Even those of us who regard the Marvel aesthetic as a plague on world cinema can find much in Spider-Man: Homecoming to be charmed by. Peter’s famous tagline — “Just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” — takes on a new meaning. In the 1960s, it was novel, insofar as most superheroes didn’t make deflating jokes mid-battle, as if they’d read their own Mad Magazine parodies. Now it reads as a declaration of independence in an interdependent superhero galaxy.
Well, almost. There’s no such thing as total independence. Holland’s Spidey made his debut in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, and he’s Avengers adjacent whether he likes it or not. Marvel and its affiliated studios (here it’s Sony, elsewhere Disney and Fox) are in the “universe” business, which means hundreds of millions at stake on every stupid little comic-book movie. And so Peter Parker has a hovering father figure in Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and a surly monitor in Stark’s one-time chauffeur Happy (Jon Favreau). There are fans who let out squeals of delight when an Avenger or miscellaneous Marvelite puts in an appearance, but those of us who prefer our superheroes as madcap individuals rather than members of solemn collectives get a sinking feeling. All the juice has gone out of Downey’s Stark, who functions as a scold, and Favreau is too far out of the acting business to give Happy more than one note. I’d pay to see him in a Chris Christie biopic, but that’s about it.
Best to focus on what’s right. The director, Jon Watts, hails from comedy, and his action scenes are full of witty fillips, busy but not bludgeoning. Peter’s attempt to keep a bisected Staten Island Ferry from coming apart almost tops the subway sequence in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 — almost. (Simpler is generally better.) The only letdown is a poorly storyboarded midair climax, but it’s saved by its resolution on a beach amid the burning debris. The acting is so good you feel you’re looking at the wreckage of lives.
Holland (a Brit) pitches his voice high and maintains his springy, gee-whiz American energy without becoming tiresome, partly thanks to good comic timing, partly to the resourceful script by … too many writers to list (and those are just the ones who are credited). All I missed were indications of Peter’s “Spidey sense,” which gets a workout in the comics but isn’t much in evidence onscreen. As his crush, Harrier is appealingly self-possessed, and the former teen fashion icon Zendaya radiates happiness — and suggests she has all kinds of mischievous secrets — as a classmate named Michelle. It should be noted that Harrier and Zendaya are not white, which makes this Spidey iteration something of a Marvel movie marvel. A new poll has it that even in Mississippi a majority of Republicans approve of interracial marriage. True, 46 percent don’t, but the times they are a-changin’.
As the new, youngish Aunt May, Marisa Tomei does little more than frown while other characters comment on her hotness (the character needs an upgrade), and there’s a bit too much of Batalon: It’s like being stuck in an elevator at Comic-Con. But as the coach of the school’s academic team, Martin Starr is a delightful study in brainy befuddlement. And Michael Keaton is everything you could hope for. He doesn’t have a huge amount of range — you can always see traces of his Beetlejuice, his Batman, his Birdman, his Ray Kroc. But he’s palpably happy to be working again after so many years out of the loop, and everything he does is smart, alert, grounded. In Toomes’s first face-to-face with Peter out of costume, Keaton and Holland play with both farcical precision and emotional weight. It’s a screamingly squirmy scene, a true melding of superhero gravity and high-school panic.