- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
So many good decisions went into making in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the best Spider-Man movie in years, that it’s hard to know where to start.
But let’s start with actor Tom Holland, who was introduced as Peter Parker in “Captain America: Civil War.” There, he was a high school science nerd and tinkerer who has been webbing his way around Queens stopping crimes when Tony Stark tracks him down. His participation in that movie’s big fight scene in Berlin helped it be the best such sequence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In “Homecoming,” Holland is note-perfect. It isn’t just that he’s the closest in look and feel to what is on the comics page since Christopher Reeve tied on Superman’s cape and turned into a dead-ringer for a Curt Swan drawing; it’s that he is better than anyone — better than Tobey Maguire, better than Andrew Garfield — at embodying Spider-Man’s youthful energy. It helps that he actually looks like a high school student.
“Homecoming” is a co-production between Sony (which had the rights to Spider-Man) and Disney (home of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies). So Spidey is — unlike, say, the X-Men or the dormant Fantastic Four — back with his Marvel comic cohorts in “Homecoming.” But there is still something refreshingly off-brand about the whole enterprise, and the film is well aware of this, and the way it conflates with Peter’s underdog persona (Spoon’s “The Underdog” is the first pop song you hear.)
Peter spends most of his time at a New York City magnet high school that feels a lot like Bronx Science. And, hey, it actually looks like a New York City magnet school (read: not just white folks). Former Disney star Zendaya is the cynical, aloof Michelle, actress Laura Harrier, of mixed ethnicity plays Peter’s love interest Liz, Filipino-American actor Jacob Batalon kills it as Peter’s best friend Ned.
And, in a particularly ingenious move, Flash Thompson, traditionally a blond football-bully, is recast as a rich jerk (Tony Revolori), the sort of jackass who leans on the airhorn too much when he is DJing.
What really makes “Homecoming” stand out is its savvy combination of big-heartedness and low stakes. It is a genuinely sweet movie — Peter is still a wide-eyed 15-year-old thrust into a world (i.e., that of the Avengers) that he wants to be a part of.
Unlike every other Marvel film, which relentlessly marches the story forward, “Homecoming” spends a bit to time filling in the gaps from other movies.
Before he becomes the Vulture, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is a contractor hired to clean up Stark Tower after the events of “Avengers.” When the Department of Damage Control (headed up by Tyne Daly — where you been, Mary Lou Lacey?), takes over, Toomes is out of a job. So, naturally, he keeps some alien tech for himself, and he and his crew start taking scores with it. Later, we see that Peter filmed himself during the Berlin mission and is still high on the whole experience.
But, even with a suit provided by Stark (Robert Downey Jr. and his increasingly weird facial hair), Peter is just not that good yet at being a hero. In classic Spider-Man fashion, he makes a whole mess of unforced errors, is forced to clean up messes he made and cannot win for losing.
Speaking of reduced stakes, there has always been something rather low-rent about Spidey villains. The Shockers, the Vulture, the Tinkerer, the Beetle, Rocket Racer — these guys always seemed like two-bit hoods who happened to get ahold of a super-suit that did one or two things well and thought, “Eh, let’s rob a few banks or something.” In “Homecoming,” this is presented, cleverly, as a class issue.
Toomes is just trying to provide for his family after being screwed over by the man. The mid-movie twist is clever, completely unexpected (by me, at least) and a really cool recasting of a traditional Spider-Man trope, more of which I will not spoil. (Does Spider-Man lift a Big Heavy Thing? Yes, he does. That is never, ever going away.)
Director Jon Watts does a solid if slightly flavorless job of making this all hang together (a script with no fewer than six credits doesn’t help much, chatter-wise). The film is especially sharp on its meta-commentary on various action movie tropes. When Ned finds out his friend’s secret, he begs to be Spidey’s “guy in the chair,” i.e. the hacker-person who gets into the bad guy’s mainframe and talks to the good guy in the field.
But the key to all of it is Holland. When he gets giddy during the Berlin fight, we get giddy with him. When he struggles to keep his life together, we struggle with him. When he chooses to be better than his enemies and turn his back on glory, we are reminded why he is the best superhero of all time.