Spider-Man: Homecoming is a whooping love letter to adolescence
Why I'm so glad Spider-Man: Homecoming made Peter Parker young again
Spider-Man: Homecoming, Marvel's latest reboot of the embattled superhero franchise (which survived a rough reboot in 2012), is winsome and fun. It's fast and funny and fantastically immature. And if great power and great responsibility — the comic's sobering watchwords — sneak in here and there for a quick cameo, they're never explicitly mentioned. Tom Holland infuses a character who's usually shown staggering under the burden of his tragic back story with so much irrepressible energy that he's more puppy than hero. He's unsinkable without being annoying. Ebullient without being unserious.
That irrepressibility is the movie's greatest pleasure. Unlike other iterations — which sometimes made Peter Parker behave like a small sad adult — Homecoming takes the fact that Spider-Man is a teenage boy and reminds you that, no, really, Spider-Man is a teenage boy. I don't mean that dismissively; teenage boys deserve better portrayals than the slack-jawed horn-dogs they're generally shown to be, and Homecoming takes a loving approach, depicting them with interest and respect and care. It relishes their energy. It loves their impatience and enthusiasm. It recognizes them as thinking beings and resists the many easy punchlines.
More than a superhero flick, then, this is a playful high-school movie about a smart high-school kid. Homecoming lives up to its name: School dances are both cheesy and terrifying. They're hokey with high-stakes. Not since the heady days of Ferris Bueller has a kid had this much fun being himself, but there's more to it; there's some Freaks and Geeks edge in there too.
Here's the setup: Peter Parker is a high-achieving 15-year-old with a crush on an older girl, Liz (Laura Harrier). She's the cool girl but she's just as nerdy as he is; so is his best friend Ned (an endearingly fanboyish Jacob Batalon). Peter lives with his aunt May (Marisa Tomei, who's entrancing without ever quite capitulating to the version of "hot" you expect based on the reports that precede her). He loves a good sandwich and tells everyone he's "interning" for Tony Stark. In practice, he's trying to be a "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man" in Queens under Happy's (Jon Favreau) reluctant supervision — and getting used to his fancy new Spidey-suit.
Enter Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, a blue-collar contractor who became the "Vulture" (a down-market Batman — or Birdman) after losing a salvage contract with the city to the government's Department of Damage Control. He's eked out a black-market existence with a skeleton crew that creates fancy weapons out of alien technologies, but he's running out of raw materials. That's where Spider-Man comes in. Keaton is great as usual, and the movie winks with him at the pleasure of having an ex-DC hero in the Marvel universe. (At one point, Toomes happens on a Tony Stark Iron Man mask and tosses it contemptuously aside; it's hard not to see a little Batman rich-superhero rivalry peeking through.)
This is an odd villain for Spider-Man and I'm not going to lie: The reasons Spider-Man and Toomes first cross paths feel a little contrived, and the final battle is both very pretty and totally nonsensical. But the stuff in between is absolute gold. Director Jon Watts was smart to pair Holland's lean, spry, rubbery physicality against Keaton's heavy, older, more brutal style. (He also gets a lot of mileage out of Holland's virtuoso solo performances opposite his own suit.)
All this would have been enough for a solid superhero movie, but Homecoming really is firing on all cylinders. It's funny, it has a deep bench of great actors, and it's layered with great meta jokes without ever depending on them (Captain America's after-school TV specials deserve a spinoff). Keaton and Tomei sparkle onscreen. Zendaya steals multiple scenes as Michelle, another Academic Decathlon kid, and Hannibal Buress, Martha Kelly, and Donald Glover put in hilarious performances. Jon Favreau and Robert Downey, Jr. are welcome and funny non-surprises — Watts et al skillfully integrate Iron Man into Spider-Man's story in a way that feels load-bearing rather than expedient. This film also pulls off something very rare: It managed to surprise the audience not once but twice — I'm talking the kinds of subverted expectations that produce collective gasps.
Even the title — Homecoming — resonates on several levels, some of them goofy. This movie plays for laughs. Like its protagonist, it lacks some discipline. It could conceivably have been edited down into a more efficient version of itself. But Spider-Man is always careening and bouncing and a little out of control, and the script mimics that motion without ever losing focus. The effect is pretty charming. Watts manages to build real stakes without taking his work too seriously. No relatives are imperiled. Aunt May — thank the god of tropes — doesn't have to be saved. Peter thinks big and makes big mistakes, but he's granted a safety net. He's still in Training Wheels mode.
What the movie does take seriously is Peter's drive to move past the training wheels. It respects his ambition and grit.
There's a point in the film when Peter's friend Ned gets caught by a teacher in the computer lab. He's been helping Peter track some bad guys, but when she asks him why he isn't at the dance, he hesitates and blurts out that he was looking at porn. It's a silly joke, but it might be my favorite conceptual sendup of the Horny Teenager Cliché. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, teenagers are smarter and sweeter and weirder and younger than they usually get to be. I never thought I'd leave a superhero movie thinking it was adorable, but here we are. However young and unprepared this new Peter Parker might be, he also (and without denying his youth or inexperience) totally proves his worth. If Wonder Woman uncovered an appetite for uncomplicated idealism, Spider-Man: Homecoming suggests we might be ready to think about youth — which has acquired a reputation for angst and narcissism and basic uselessness — as the superpower it could be.