Spider-Man’s powers are strength, heightened senses, web-shooting, wall-climbing, and, apparently, reincarnation. After three successful Raimi-Maguire movies that aren’t as old as you think, and two Webb-Garfield installments that were shiny, glitzy placeholders, the Marvel Universe has, like a thirsty arachnid, pulled one of the brand’s oldest, beloved trademarks back into the interconnected fold with “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” a sixth movie that really wants to be your first and favorite.
To that end, it’s packaged like a fast-food menu of the things you love from Marvel movies: suit gags, winking humor, colorful showdowns, an identity crisis, two post-credit scenes (one being the last word on such teasers), and MCU cameos. The Captain America appearances are inspired, but Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Jon Favreau’s Happy are in this one enough as full-on characters that you could also call it “Iron Man 4.”
The most obvious novelty to this version of the webslinger’s story is a hammered-home reminder that while Peter Parker is a legitimate threat to any supervillain, he’s also only 15 years old. To that end, Tom Holland’s casting is a real plus, his fresh-faced buoyancy, hyper earnestness and general teen-ness a far cry from the too-old-for-high-school vibe of Maguire and especially Garfield, and placing this “Spider-Man” firmly in John Hughes territory.
And if you take that weird-science nerd humor (spread across a refreshingly color-diverse cast of young actors), cross it with a more cartoonish action sensibility, and add the adventurous spirit of Disney’s ’60s-era live-action comedies, you’ll have some idea of how director Jon Watts (“Cop Car”) and his sextet of screenwriters approached “Homecoming.” It’s like a sugar-fueled adolescent itself: usually you’re on its hopped-up wavelength, but sometimes you’re just taking a breather to admire the energy level.
Part of that instant fizz is that the origin story is (thankfully) backstory, since Holland was already introduced last year in “Civil War” as a brash Queens vigilante recruited to fight alongside the Avengers in Berlin with a tricked-out Stark-manufactured suit. After an amusing kickoff that gives Parker’s golly-jeepers viewpoint of that movie’s main fight sequence (and its buildup) as a narrated video diary, the main action starts eight months later.
Now he’s just a bored sophomore who’s tasted the superhero life and wants more, as in, to be called up for world-saving Avengers duty and leave behind chasing down two-bit criminals at night. (The montage of his local crimefighting, both successes and mistakes, is especially funny.) Stark, on the other hand, sees immaturity still, and would prefer for now if Parker would just be — you can see the line coming — “a friendly … neighborhood Spider-Man.”
Not that high school doesn’t offer its share of high drama and roiling emotions, too. A unintended reveal forces Parker to turn best friend Ned (appealing newcomer Jacob Batalon) into his lone Spidey confidant, a secret the Avengers-worshipping Ned may be too awed by to handle. (“Do you lay eggs?” he asks.) Parker’s crush on smart, beautiful academic decathlon colleague Liz (Laura Harrier, “4th Man Out”) is also all-consuming, as is the pressure of the upcoming decathlon finals and the school’s homecoming.
Parker’s ready-made excuse for his strange absences from school functions — and to his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), strange behavior in general — is that he’s got a Stark internship. But when he finds himself on the trail of a group of thieves whose alien-like tech hardware suggests a more elaborately organized and sophisticated criminal operation, Parker’s earnest-if-reckless vigilantism threatens even his relationship with Stark, putting his desired future as an accepted superhero in jeopardy.
The less said about how Michael Keaton’s blue-collar villain fits into “Homecoming” the better, but his potency as the antagonist starts with the movie’s very first scene — set amidst the rubble of the clean-up following the events in “The Avengers” — and comes to a delightfully tense head in a car moment between him and Holland, after the movie has delivered a justifiably eye-opening twist.
It’s almost too bad digital avatars for good and bad (one suited, one winged) take up so much of the mano-a-mano time, but until the usual operatic CGI excess takes over in the final stretch, the human versions of Holland’s brashly charming innocence and Keaton’s coiled, menacing energy make for gripping opposites. (And frankly, when is the all-CGI Spider-man finally going to look realistic? The evidence suggests there’s still a ways to go.)
There are other small pleasures in the casting, including Zendaya as a hard-edged, politically minded decathlete, Martin Starr (“Silicon Valley”) as the team coach, and Donald Glover (“Atlanta”) as a sleepy-eyed criminal. As for Downey, Jr., his Stark gets shtickier with each pop-up; the defensively funny industrialist of “Iron Man” has curdled slightly into something resembling a smarmy agent with patter. (Chris Evans’ deployment this time around is funnier.) On the other hand, making a friendly, nostalgia-pandering appearance is Bob Harris’ Spider-Man cartoon theme from the 1960s, symphonically beefed-up as it plays over the title card.
Hey, whatever helps the come-back-again cause: Marvel’s made a literal “Homecoming” in that one of their prized characters is no longer in a single-parent (Sony) household. The result is a “Spider-Man” that feels a little more punchy, laugh-filled, and exciting than one might expect from a property that’s already been given plenty of chances to succeed. And yet, when it says “Spider-Man will return” at the very end, one is tempted to think, “Don’t they mean ‘reboot’?”