For many a superhero fan, whether in comic books, television or movie format, Spider-Man is likely to be a childhood favorite. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation of a nerdy teenager who acquires the abilities of a spider has struck nerves (or web strands) with multiple generations, as Peter Parker’s struggles with his new powers and the isolation he experiences resonate with teenage feelings of angst and loneliness. As such a fan, I was thrilled when the wall-crawler reached the big screen in 2002 and even more so in 2004 — especially since “Spider-Man 2” gave me an early experience of IMAX — and I seem to be one of the few people who like “Spider-Man 3.” While the 2012 reboot, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” proved more average than “Amazing,” the 2014 follow-up, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” provided genuinely emotional moments. Then abruptly, Sony’s solo “Spider-Man” franchise halted, and we wondered where Spidey had gone, before he somersaulted into the trailer of “Captain America: Civil War,” his “Hey, everyone” directed at the fans as much as the Avengers.
Tom Holland’s incarnation of Peter Parker appeared only briefly in “Captain America: Civil War,” but it was a memorable appearance that made more of Peter’s youth than those of either Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield, including Peter’s reference to “that really old movie ‘Empire Strikes Back,’” that made anyone over a certain age feel, well, really old. Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts and co-produced between Marvel and Sony, maintains this character aspect by placing Peter firmly in a high school setting. In doing so, it continues Marvel’s strategy of combining superhero narratives with other genres. Whereas “Guardians of the Galaxy” and its sequel are superhero space operas, “Captain America: The First Avenger” a superhero World War II film and “Ant-Man” a superhero heist film, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a superhero high school comedy. Watts and his fellow screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (six writers in this case are not a cause for concern) wisely eschew the origin story that previous films have covered. Peter simply explains that he was bitten by a spider and gained its abilities, and we can carry on, which the film does with aplomb, delight and a consistent laugh rate.
The humor is a great strength of the film, as Peter’s growing pains are raucously funny, from his initial ineptitude at fighting crime to his constant haranguing of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, “Chef”) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., “The Judge”), hiding his secret identity from Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, “Love the Coopers”), and his bumbling attempts to talk to his female schoolmates, most significantly Liz (Laura Harrier, “4th Man Out”). Similarly amusing is Peter’s friend Ned (Jacob Batalon, “North Woods”) who imbues the potentially annoying role of sidekick and confidant into someone rounded and relatable. Indeed, as much as the film invites the viewer to laugh at Peter (and Ned), we do so with affection rather than cruelty, as he is endearingly earnest and goodhearted in his naivety. A particular highlight is Peter preparing for a big date, fumbling with a tie, shoes and a corsage, in which he comes across as a delightfully recognizable super dork.
Peter’s everydayness is key to the central conceit of Spider-Man: Homecoming being on the ground. Stark emphasizes the importance of this to Peter repeatedly — rather than being a highflying superhero like Iron Man or Thor, Spider-Man is local and domestic, a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” like the song says. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has explored distant worlds with “Thor” and the Guardians of the Galaxy as well as alternative dimensions with “Doctor Strange,” while its storylines are often operatic such as the alien invasion of “The Avengers” and the AI revolution of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” not to mention the ongoing Infinity Stone narrative. In the midst of that grandeur, it is admirable that Kevin Feige and his fellow producers still maintain an interest in those on the periphery of the larger events. This is evident from the pre-title sequence of Spider-Man: Homecoming set in the aftermath of the Battle of New York (as seen in “The Avengers”), which presents regular workers being deprived of income by large corporations. Alien invasions come and go, it seems, but the old rat race is here to stay.
This human front is perhaps the film’s greatest strength. The humor feeds into the humanity, as does Watts’ creation of a strong sense of place in terms of home, school, and neighborhood, locations lovingly rendered by production designer Oliver Scholl and beautifully lensed by cinematographer Salvatore Totino. Further human elements are various sequences when Peter is severely out of his depth as he encounters super weapons, as well as the inclusion of a more memorable villain than is typical of Marvel. With the exceptions of Loki, Kaecilius and Ego, Marvel villains have been somewhat forgettable, but Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Michael Keaton, “The Founder”) is especially effective for a number of reasons. Firstly Keaton’s performance imbues Toomes with a growling melancholy that is, much like the younger characters, relatable and recognizable. This warmth is juxtaposed with a steely ruthlessness that in one key moment is genuinely unnerving. Secondly, Toomes receives the origin treatment that Peter does not need — part of the film is “Vulture: Origins.” Rather than the somewhat ham-fisted motivations for Ivan Danko (Mickey Rourke) in “Iron Man 2” or Zemo (Daniel Brühl) in “Captain America: Civil War,” Toomes is presented as a blue collar worker trying to master the capitalist system, which he accurately points out as being rigged in favor of the Starks of the world. The film does not labor this simplistic socio-economic commentary, but it does provide a sense of context for the characters rather than their motivations coming out of nowhere. Nods to other villains in Spider-Man’s back catalog include the Shocker and the Scorpion, suggesting ample potential for future web-slinging installments.
Speaking of nods, there are plenty to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Aside from the presence of Stark and Hogan, Avengers HQ appears, the high school students watch motivational videos from Captain America, references to Thor, Black Widow and the Sokovia Accords pepper the dialogue, and Spider-Man’s suit is a typical Stark product, complete with dozens of functions and a supportive AI (voiced by Jennifer Connelly). All of these add to the sense of fun that runs throughout the film, from the Spider-Man song playing over the opening credits to the post-credits stinger that either laughs with or at the audience in a way that may aggravate some viewers.
The film’s only significant weakness is the action sequences, which are functional but lack creativity. One of the great opportunities of superhero cinema is to thrust the viewer into superpowered exploits with a visceral kick or sense of wonder. Directors such as Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon and Scott Derrickson have succeeded in this regard, creating genuinely inventive action set pieces, but others such as Alan Taylor and, unfortunately, Watts as well, deliver sequences that fall below these standards. Spider-Man: Homecoming has a number of set pieces, but only the Staten Island Ferry sequence gives a powerful sense of immersion and involvement in the events on screen. Otherwise, the viewer may find themselves pining for the exhilaration that Sam Raimi brought to the first three installments, his unique directorial style still the most effective at bringing Spidey to the screen, although Watts’ final clash does return his film to its central conceit of being at ground level with the little guys.
Overall, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a worthy addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has humor to rival both volumes of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” high-tech wizardry on a par with all three “Iron Man” films, and a sense of embodiment and humanity that reminds us why we fell in love with Peter Parker in the first place. As expected, the end credits promise that “Spider-Man will return,” and his return cannot come too soon.