Spidey-Sense and Sensibility

The new Spider-Man marks the web-slinger’s homecoming to the world of the Avengers, but it’s strongest as a coming-of-age comedy.

Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. © 2017 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. © 2017 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved.

By now audiences know that every Marvel Studios film will end with an after-credits sequence (or five), a bit of connective tissue that links the film you just watched to the wider Marvel metastasis and teases the next not-quite-sequel due in theaters in four to six months. Spider-Man: Homecoming ends with a couple of these, of course. But for all intents and purposes, it starts with two of them, too: a scene set in the aftermath of 2012’s The Avengers and another set along the sidelines of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.

Wait—wasn’t this supposed to be a Spider-Man movie?

From the moment it starts, Spider-Man: Homecoming reminds us that Marvel has finally, 15 years after Tobey Maguire first hopped into his red-and-blue PJs, returned one of the world’s most iconic characters into the company of his corporate brethren. Because Sony Pictures holds the film rights to Spider-Man and was already deep into its own franchise when Marvel began charting out its cinematic universe in the late 2000s, Peter Parker never got to share the screen with such partners-in-crime-fighting as Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. But after Sony’s second Spider-Man franchise, starring Andrew Garfield, disappointed, the studio threw its lot in with Marvel—and now here we are, in a universe where there are bank robbers in Avengers masks, arms dealers who trade in the leftover superweapons of the Avengers’ battles, frequent appearances from Tony Stark, and the omnipresence of the fast-talking, self-aware tone the first Iron Man movie set nearly a decade ago.

At first, this synergistic charm offensive feels like too much, even if you’ve seen and generally liked the last 15 films (!) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But then we get to know Tom Holland, whose awkward big-hearted Peter Parker could have supported a great Spider-Man movie without all the cross-promotional detritus, and whose performance is spritely enough not to be anchored down by the branding requirements of membership in the MCU. Spider-Man: Homecoming is both a homecoming for the character as well as a movie in which Spider-Man literally goes to homecoming—a fitting re-introduction and an endearingly goofy teen flick.

That the film bursts out of the gate with web-shooters already spraying—to the appropriately upbeat sounds of Spoon, the English Beat, and Peter Parker’s fellow natives of Forest Hills, Queens, the Ramones—has much to do with its decision to dispense with the traditional origin story (spider bite, dead uncle, etc.).* Instead, it takes place a few months after the events of Civil War, in which Tony Stark recruited Spider-Man for a superhero melee and provided him with an upgraded spider-suit. Now Peter can’t get Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), his Stark-appointed handler, to return his calls, and his biggest sources of anxiety are his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who doesn’t know that Peter’s main extracurricular activity is stopping minor street crimes, and his classmate Liz (Laura Harrier), on whom he has a major crush. Already an effective friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, Peter desperately wants to be called back up to the majors, and he sees his chance when he stumbles upon a gang of arms dealers, led by a former junk-hauler named Adrian Toomes (a menacing but refreshingly human Michael Keaton) who flies around with deadly robotic wings scrapped from some past superbattle. This is a Spider-Man who wants more great power and more great responsibility—which is why, given the chance, he disables the “training wheels” mode on his suit and ignores Stark’s warning not to mess with superpowered bad guys.

There are, of course, a handful of thrilling set pieces (and one truly gutting twist), including a rescue at the Washington Monument, a fight on the Staten Island Ferry, and a fiery finale in Coney Island. However, they are mostly not moments that call for greatness from Peter but near-disasters of his own making. This Spider-Man has a lot to learn—and despite his good intentions, he’s often too excited and distracted to learn it.

But this film is at its best when it’s having fun at its own expense—there’s an excellent gag about how Peter’s mode of transportation by web-slinging is useless in the low-slung suburbs—or spending time with its likable ensemble, a crew that is notably more charismatic and diverse than the lily-white duds who have populated past Spider-Man franchises. They include Peter’s computer-savvy best friend and aspiring sidekick Ned (Jacob Batalon, annoying until he grows on you), his smart-mouthed academic-decathlon teammate Michelle (Zendaya, acidic and on point), and his smug rival Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), who together form the foundation of what could be a promising new Spiderverse—a ground-level complement to the ever-expanding grandiosity of Marvel’s superhero constellation.

That Spider-Man must exist in both places—he’ll appear in next summer’s galaxy-colliding Avengers: Infinity War—is in keeping with the comics and no easy feat to pull off. Remember that in the very first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man (following his 1962 debut in the anthology book Amazing Fantasy), Peter Parker tried to join the Fantastic Four. The shared universe of Marvel Comics has always been the backdrop of Spider-Man’s tales, even if his best stories are usually the ones that are walled off from the Hulk, Thor, and all the rest. The contrast between the two realms is important: Geeky, shy, and more or less normal, Spider-Man is supposed to be the character most reflective of his audience, the one who meets them halfway and draws them into Marvel’s larger, stranger world. It is convenient branding that it takes a whole lot of Iron Man for Spider-Man: Homecoming to make that point. But make it, it does.

This wouldn’t work if not for Holland, whose Peter Parker is the kind of self-conscious, quietly exceptional outer-borough teen without whom the entire concept of Spider-Man would sputter. Director Jon Watts gets this, too, and his film has the rude, focused, fist-pumping energy of the Ramones songs that soundtrack it. What would you say if you could sling through Manhattan, bound by neither gravity nor curfew? “Hey, ho, let’s go,” right?

*Correction, June 30, 2017: This story originally misspelled Forest Hills, Queens. (Return.)