Leave it to the clever team at Marvel Studios to use the existence of five previous Spider-Man movies in the last fifteen years as an advantage instead of a detriment in their efforts to help Sony launch yet another reboot of the popular character. There are many moments and ideas in Jon Watts' eclectic, exciting, elasticized entry Spider-Man: Homecoming that would not and, in some cases, could not have been done without the aid of previous Spidey directors Sam Raimi and Marc Webb working out many of the kinks.
At times, this latest version simply manages to be a funnier take on the web-head's exploits than any previous iteration, a product of knowing how and where the character has been used before and seeking out the unexplored corners of his eccentric existence. At other times, it's the lack of a perceived need for any origin tale or backstory that allows Watts to set a breezy pace from the very start. After Raimi's movies covered that early stuff well and Webb's reboot made the error of doubling down on Peter Parker's past, this new reboot had no choice but to drop the radioactive spider bite and the tragic demise of Uncle Ben, opening the door to new conflict and drama.
In place of those well-known and well-worn Spidey milestone moments, we get a delightful video diary captured by Peter Parker (Tom Holland) as he provides a behind-the-scenes look at the events leading up to his re-debut in last year's boffo blockbuster Captain America: Civil War. It's the kind of thing Marvel does so smoothly now, this coolly confident building of their universe that's character-focused and therefore informative, but also playful and free. The video clips are cute and comical and act as a refresher that's different enough than a mere recap to prevent any feeling of unnecessariness from creeping in.
More than anything, though, they offer a delightful glimpse of just how good Holland is in this role. His extended cameo appearance in Civil War showed promise, but the young actor is absolutely note-perfect from the first frame here. He instantly nails Peter's youthful glee and achieves an infectiousness that aligns us with his budding emotions. And he changes just enough when he dons the Spidey suit that we can mark the confidence boost his alter ego provides while still relating to his otherwise uncool unmasked self. Holland's performance is built on sincerity and there's not a misstep in his entire pic-stealing turn.
Despite the reboots through the years and Sony's penchant for driving the franchise into the ground, the character of Spider-Man has always been well cast. So it's an impressive feat that Holland manages to emerge with the definitive big screen take on the superhero, besting past Spidey players Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. As good as they were, Holland brings so much humour, innocence, and joy to the role that he immediately sheds any baggage the part should reasonably have and makes both his Peter Parker and Spider-Man stand out as surprisingly unique.
Just as Holland wastes no time making the role his own, Watts follows suit in separating his webhead adventure from past Spidey blockbusters. This includes a riotous early montage sequence in which Peter leaves high school and enthusiastically changes into his costume, ready to take on any crime the city dares to offer, only to end up with nothing better to do than offer street directions to old ladies and mistake everyday citizens for car thieves. Spidey’s calling has always come quickly in past cinematic entries, at least once the origin stuff is out of the way, but here he’s a crimefighter with no glamourous crime to fight.
It’s a great joke, that this Spider-Man’s world is already inundated with superheroes like Iron Man and Captain America and that the kid’s eagerness to make a difference doesn’t match the situations he finds himself in. As Stan Lee’s motto goes, with great power comes great responsibility, but this Spidey can’t even find an opportunity to explore the limits of his own responsible abilities.
This will soon change, of course, since Peter’s story begins to converge with the experience of contractor-turned-alien arms dealer Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who flies around town in a high-tech pair of wings as he keeps his profitable black-market business afloat with brash heists.
Every hero needs a villain and while Toomes’ Vulture persona is just the latest name on the list of Spidey’s cinematic rogue’s gallery leftovers, he’s used here in a very smart and pointed manner. He’s a family man pushed to the dark side after the events of the first Avengers movie, a victim of a cruel twist of fate. His problems are those of the working class, which puts him in direct opposition to Robert Downey, Jr.’s cameoing billionaire Tony Stark, who has taken Peter under his wing, although perhaps too haphazardly.
Keaton brings meaty menace to his villainous role and his growly voice certainly marks a clear juxtaposition against the other adults in Peter’s life, from the smooth lilt of Stark to the soft chirp of Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May. We’re meant to fear this guy alongside Peter, but we’re also meant to understand him and somewhat relate to his desire to protect his family at all costs. Toomes represents the everyman in a world full of superheroes and it’s a glimpse that Marvel movies rarely provide, peeling back the curtain on how an average citizen has chosen to survive in the aftermath of what was previously rendered as just some big screen spectacle.
Watts doesn’t ruminate on the past too long here, nor does he ever excuse Toomes’ actions, so the gray area is slight, but it’s fair to say that the universe-building pieces of the story here are less about laying Easter egg goodies for fans than they are about recognizing consequences of superhero actions.
It’s a theme that plays directly through Peter’s entire Homecoming arc. While it’s an ongoing gag throughout Spidey’s existence that the world has a harsh sense of irony and often kicks him around for simply exercising good intentions, this Peter Parker genuinely makes massive mistakes that rightfully get him in hot water. He’s still trying to do the right thing, but he’s reckless in his peppy pursuit of crimefighting adventure. So when fate deals him a difficult hand, there’s a melancholic sense that Peter deserves it, that this is the lesson about responsibility that he must learn.
For a movie that spends the majority of its running time being deliriously funny, Homecoming finds some tantalizing dramatic stakes in Peter’s arc. Everything feels personal, which has long since been a cornerstone of Spidey’s popularity. Holland’s performance then catapults that relatability to new heights with his generous dose of youthful charisma.
Watts has everyone in the surprisingly diverse cast contributing effectively, though. Laura Harrier makes a wonderful love interest who isn’t defined by Peter’s crush on her, Tony Revolori offers a welcome new take on school bully Flash Thompson, and Jacob Batalon adds heartfelt comic relief as Peter’s best buddy Ned. Keaton is understandably excellent as well, fittingly trying out the other side of superhero conflicts after last playing Batman twenty-five years ago.
Keaton’s casting makes sense on multiple levels. Not only is he great at playing intense, intimidating characters that we can still empathize with, but his presence is another reminder of how Spider-Man: Homecoming owes much to past superhero movies and even acknowledges its debt. Watts clearly knows that he’s benefitting from many previous efforts in the genre and he uses that as encouragement and inspiration to make something exceedingly exceptional when he could have simply resorted to recycling.
This Spidey couldn't and wouldn't be as wonderful as it is without his previous cinematic iterations testing the various waters so thoroughly, but it's extremely rare in this age of reboots to see an umpteenth take on a character that feels this fresh and fun. Instead of shouldering the weight of past versions and feeling like reconfigured old parts, Homecoming hops heroically off a heap of history and doesn't look back. It slings and swings so sweetly that it seems as though we're meeting Spider-Man not for the first time, but certainly for the best time.