Watching Spider-Man: Homecoming is a bit like watching a little sibling grow up to make you proud. He's been off on the sidelines for a few years now, stumbling as he tries to emulate the bigger kids around him, and now he's finally coming into his own. He's not just standing on his own two feet, he's sprinting, moving with more agility than some of the people that inspired him.
Because this latest in a long line of Spider-Man movies isn't just another reboot of the classic comic book character -- it's a movie about a superpowered kid who desperately wants to be like the heroes we're all currently watching on TV.
Homecoming begins, appropriately, with a child's drawing of the Avengers -- Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America. These giants of today's cinema are more literal giants in the universe of this Spider-Man movie, the first to be tied directly to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Before you meet the film's hero, you meet its antagonist, a believable blue-collar villain-in-the-making named Adrian Toomes (aka the Vulture, played by Michael Keaton). His crew has been in charge of cleaning up the extraterrestrial mess left in the wake of the first Avengers film until a shadowy government organization shows up to take his work away. Facing a life in which he can't support his family, Toomes wonders what might happen if he kept some of the alien technology for himself.
The movie picks up several years later, and we are able to see the events of Captain America: Civil War (the movie in which this Spider-Man made his debut) through the teenage hero's eyes. A few short minutes of "homemade" documentary footage distills what makes this web crawler interesting in the current landscape of superhero movies:
He's just so freakin' excited to be here.
One of the smartest things Homecoming does is refrain from telling Spider-Man's origin story yet again. Yes, this is a new Spidey, a new universe and a new story, but audiences have seen the "boy is bitten by radioactive spider" plot enough times in the past 15 years. Doing it again would just bore the audience, so Homecoming doesn't bother. This Spider-Man is clearly new at his job, but the filmmakers trust you to infer the details.
Tom Holland plays both aspects of the character -- 15-year-old high school nerd Peter and masked New York vigilante Spidey -- very well, eclipsing the performances of Spidey actors that came before him. His Peter Parker doesn't have the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he has a lot to learn about using his great power responsibly. Like many talented teenagers, he's bored with his day-to-day life and wants to do more. He begs Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to give him another mission, another villain to fight, another crime to solve. But Iron Man doesn't think the kid is ready to be an Avenger, and would prefer him to be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man for a while, helping old ladies with directions as often as he stops runaway bike thieves.
The costumed antics of Homecoming are a joy to watch, with tense set pieces and well-choreographed action, but some of the movie's brightest spots are in its more down-to-earth moments. Peter's longing for a popular, older girl at his school is cliched but believable. The moments with his over-enthusiastic best friend are hilarious and relatable to anybody who was once a young nerd. The relationship between Peter and his guardian, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), says a lot even when the dialogue says little.
And there's one scene, a confrontation between Peter and the Toomes told primarily through body language, that delivers more tension than many of the more bombastic moments in other Marvel movies.
One of the only downsides to Homecoming is that it doesn't give us enough of the interesting world it presents. Stellar actors Donald Glover and Hannibal Buress are great in their minor roles, but they feel under-utilized. And while we can be sure that we'll be seeing more of Zendaya's character, Michelle, in future sequels, it's a bit weird that she's so off to the side in this one.
Homecoming shines because it knows just to have fun. Yes, there are high stakes, but we're not talking about the end of the world. It's a movie about a kid that wants to be a superhero and get a date to the prom. And can't we all relate to that on some level?
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (B+)
PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments). 133 minutes. In wide release.