It’s simultaneously easy and impossible to forget that Spider-Man: Homecoming is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Easy, because unlike most every MCU film before it, with the partial exception of Doctor Strange, it manages to extricate its characters (and especially its scope) from the world-ending catastrophes faced by The Avengers to tell a story that is a little bit more “close to the ground,” to use Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) own words. Impossible because, well, Tony Stark is in this. Quite a bit, actually. Nevertheless, Homecoming manages to pull off the most difficult feat for just about any franchise installment: It justifies its own existence. Briskly paced and charming to a fault, it’s a Spider-Man movie that fully embraces both its source material and the perils of 21st century teenage life.
Much of that praise is owed to Tom Holland, who is playing the first iteration of Peter Parker who, damnit, actually feels like a high school student—more or less. Can he pass for 15 years old? Not a chance, but there’s a wide-eyed ingenue quality to him, a joy in becoming Spider-Man, missing from the likes of both Tobey Maguire’s and Andrew Garfield’s takes. This is a Peter Parker who is understandably taken aback by the massive events in which he immediately found himself embroiled after being recruited by Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War. Engaging in battle alongside The Avengers? The idea is so dumbfounding (and so unfathomably cool) to him that in the days that follow, you get the sense that he can hardly believe it actually happened. His itch to prove himself to Stark, and to thus re-enter their world of demigods, is an obsession that borders on mania, and it’s unsurprising that as a result he has quite a difficult time restricting his purview to “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” as Stark requests.
Nor can he afford to. Michael Keaton imbues his antagonist, Adrian Toomes (Vulture), with true menace and physicality, his streak of ruthlessness all the more disconcerting for the fact that he can so rapidly shove it to the back and hide in plain sight as an unassuming family man. His speech to Peter, in the classic “we’re not so different, you and I” mold, plays upon themes that have been integral to the last two Avengers entries, primarily the real-world ramifications and fractal-like offshoots of the arrival of superheroes and world-destroying alien hordes. All of Vulture’s advanced tech is itself based off harvested materials from the original Battle of New York “8 years earlier” (could it really have been so long?), which, like the Sokovia Accords, holds the MCU’s heroes culpable on a more genuine level. The fact that none of The Avengers can be bothered to lift a finger to stop such a “petty criminal” from potentially killing people is only more damning in this respect.
For a comic fan, the film is rife with Easter eggs, from the appearances of longtime Peter Parker classmates such as Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) and Liz Allen (Laura Harrier), to the inclusion of a fair number of the hero’s rogues gallery, who are either evoked or given micro origin stories to be called upon in future films. These moments pass with a wink and a nod before quickly getting the audience back to what it paid to see, which are the genuinely suspenseful action sequences. In particular, Spider-Man’s rescue of classmates from the top of the Washington Monument crackles with intensity despite the audience’s near certitude that everyone will be fine. Likewise, a later meeting between Peter and Vulture, out of costume, has the air of an in-public Mexican standoff, and the tension of not knowing who will make the first move is delectable.
With that said, the plot beats of Spider Man: Homecoming do tend to feel cribbed not just from the MCU playbook, but from battered copies of Screenwriting 101 much of the time. Beautiful, unattainable love interest? Check. Entitled rich kid with a pet name insult for the protagonist that he repeats whenever possible? Check. Quirkier, politically active friend girl shunted off to the side of the group but one who might just turn out to be a more compatible love interest? Check. There’s even a textbook “all is lost” moment so obvious in its intention that it somewhat undermines its own effect because the convention has become so well understood by the average filmgoer.
Still, none of those things are enough to even partially deflate Homecoming’s charms. Holland is simply a likable face, a near-perfect blend of awkwardness, uncertainty and charisma exemplified by the simple physical comedy of putting on the Spider-Man costume. That act, in itself, summarizes the film. Previous Spider-Men would simply have suited up effortlessly and gone out to fight crime. This humanistic Peter Parker fumbles and yanks and tugs his suit into position, just as surely as he awkwardly realizes there’s nothing appropriate to swing on as he’s trying to move through a suburban area. It’s not hard to imagine this version of the character resonating with an under-21 age demographic in a much more profound way than any of his predecessors. It’s equally impressive that such a self-assured film would come from a relatively unproven director in Jon Watts, whose 2015 indie thriller Cop Car was received warmly enough, but whose only other feature was the patently absurd 2014 horror movie Clown.
From here, it’s hard to say how Spider-Man will be meant to play into the larger MCU. The film shies away from the idea of him becoming another “face in the crowd” among The Avengers, seeming to sow the seeds of future solo installments as a higher priority. It may be that Marvel Studios has finally created the best of both worlds—a property that can be part of the larger whole while maintaining an unusual degree of independence. You don’t have to be gifted with Spidey Sense to know that means money.
Director: Jon Watts
Writers: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Laura Harrier
Release Date: July 7, 2017
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer who is mildly spider-averse. You can follow him on Twitter.