The growing pains of having superpowers take center stage in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which skips the hero’s origin story to focus on the fun and foibles of adolescence.
Anyone who missed Tom Holland’s debut as Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, in Captain America: Civil War gets caught up early through footage of that extended cameo from Peter’s smartphone. It stretches credibility a bit that Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), driver and aide to genius billionaire inventor Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), would trust this kid to record all this. But it orients us squarely in Peter’s world: a regular boy from Queens suddenly tapped to play in the larger sandbox of the Avengers.
Spidey’s been so beloved for more than 50 years precisely because he’s a teenager. When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the character in 1962, their hero broke new ground because teenagers in comics usually were sidekicks, like Robin to Batman. Even though he was bitten by that radioactive spider, Peter had relatable problems – gawkiness, a high-school bully, crushes on girls. These didn’t disappear because he was secretly a hero. He had to figure out a lot on his own, with no mentor to guide him.
Stark fills the mentor role in Spider-Man: Homecoming, providing Peter with a high-tech suit and occasional sage advice. He recognizes in Peter elements of the whiz kid he used to be. But in the endearing Holland (The Impossible, In the Heart of the Sea), we finally have an onscreen Peter and Spider-Man who captures the character’s essence from the comics, flaws and all.
Previous onscreen Spideys – Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and even Nicholas Hammond in the 1970s TV series The Amazing Spider-Man – all threw Peter into the deep end of the pool soon after he developed his powers, stumbling little along the way.
Homecoming is content to let Peter wade for a while, even if Peter’s not. Holland – now 21, playing 15 – believably looks and acts like someone itching for more responsibility for which he might not be ready. Having caught Captain America’s shield and figured out how to topple Giant Man, Peter is dying to prove he can join the Avengers.
Stark urges him to chill out, stop some muggers, “be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” for a while. But Peter can’t help but look for trouble between schoolwork, an academic contest, and a crush on a senior (Laura Harrier). His friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) becomes his confidant and sidekick after stumbling upon Peter in costume, adding humor and heart. Marisa Tomei plays Peter’s supportive guardian May, oblivious to Peter’s secret and how Stark and the neighborhood men find her hot (a treat to see onscreen, especially for women of a certain age).
The film takes inspiration from Marvel’s Netflix series like Daredevil and Jessica Jones in showing how the Battle of New York (the climax of 2012’s The Avengers) continues to affect people there. For one thing, Captain America (Chris Evans) speaks on video messages at Peter’s magnet school before physical education and detention. “I’m pretty sure this guy’s a war criminal now, but anyway,” quips Hannibal Buress as a beleaguered coach in one of many amusing asides about this brave new world.
For another, high-tech weapons with an otherworldly glow pop up around Peter’s neighborhood. Years earlier, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his crew were hired to clean up the debris after the Avengers’ battle. The newly formed Department of Damage Control, a partnership with Stark Industries, forced them out of business, so they kept the tech they’d collected to create new weapons and inventions. Now they sell these to the highest bidder – or use them to steal more.
The former Batman and Birdman invests Toomes with the right mix of empathy and menace. He’s a regular guy trying to support his family who’s discovered a taste for crime and won’t let anyone upset his livelihood – imagine Breaking Bad’s Walter White with jet-powered wings and a flight helmet. Toomes, known in comics as The Vulture, provides the perfect stakes for our burgeoning hero, who’s lighter on his webs in the city than in the suburbs, crashing into sheds with all that wide-open space, and causes problems as much as he tries to solve them.
To say any more would spoil the surprises that director Jon Watts (the crime thriller Cop Car) and a team of six screenwriters, including Watts, have strewn throughout this enjoyable, fast-moving story, which also finds time for Spidey to loll in a web hammock or read while dangling upside-down. Peter’s journey is in realizing he’s a hero, even on a smaller scale, while he learns what he needs to hang with the Avengers.
“You need to get better at this part of the job,” someone tells him at one point. It’s a delight to watch him try.