It might be the sixth live-action film featuring the third actor to fill the role in 15 years (and the first to be canonical in Marvel's movie universe following some business involving studio rights) and six screenwriters (who somehow crafted a product that doesn't feel committee-manufactured, though it technically is), but Spider-Man: Homecoming gets to the heart of what it is like to be Spider-Man. Following a brief and glorious introduction in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, this version of Peter Parker (Tom Holland) splits his time between three modes of existence: He's a bored teenager in the midst of teen-aged concerns like crushes and the title school dance, he's an aspiring hero figure fighting petty crime as Spider-Man and always looking forward to the opportunity to go big-league, and he's a cog in the Avengers machine.
These stakes feel considerably reined-in compared to the world-ending stakes of other films in this universe, and that's where the screenplay thrives, dividing its time equally between Peter's three states of being and focusing on each one in turn with an equal grace. From Holland's charismatic performance to his boyish appearance, Peter genuinely seems like a high-school student, and here he is confronted with the impending Homecoming dance (which he would like to attend with his crush Liz, played by Laura Harrier), an Academic Decathlon to be held in Washington, D.C., and taunts from the school bully (played by Tony Revolori) about his disputed claim that he's a friend of Spider-Man through an "internship" with Stark Industries. To top it all off, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) notices his nightly absences, and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) discovers his secret after some nighttime crime-fighting.
The crime-fighting is, indeed, only of the petty kind, at least for a time, leading to an outrageously funny extended montage of Peter, in the suit, helping various onlookers in need, thwarting bike thieves, and loving every minute of it. This adventurous lifestyle certainly counteracts his dull one outside the suit, which gets the kid into increasingly dangerous situations, such as when a quartet wearing Avengers-themed Halloween masks robs a bank with a curious anti-gravity magnet. Peter's grassroots investigation leads him into the path of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, exceptional as a villain who is far from standardized and whose motivation is unexpectedly sympathetic), aka Vulture, a vengeful 99-percenter who was contracted by Stark Industries for industrial work before being unceremoniously laid off alongside his staff. Now, with a team of lackeys by his side (played by Bokeem Woodbine, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Chernus, and Donald Glover), he wants to fight back against the big guy.
There is a curious mirroring effect at work here that is worth noting: Peter and Toomes each have genuine grievances toward one particular man, that being Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, who appears on occasion as a blundering father figure for Peter. Tony sees in the kid much of himself - science and technology prodigy, a byproduct of various parental figures who died during his youth - but keeps bungling the life lessons. Peter just wants to know his place in the Avengers, if there is one, and the film opens with a videotaped account of the time between his introduction to Tony and his intervention at that airport hangar when the Avengers were rent apart. Peter is a figure of genuine and unadulterated goodness here, and that attribute translates, too, to the action sequences.
Director Jon Watts (credited also as one of the screenwriters) does offer some impressive action, too: Peter chases Toomes' men through suburbia, being careful to minimize damage to onlookers' property (It doesn't work very well), saves an elevator full of his fellow students from certain death at the top of the Washington Monument, manages somehow to make the best of a bisected Staten Island Ferry, and faces down Toomes in a dazzling cliffhanger that doesn't forget that the appeal of Spider-Man is his compassion. The action might be thrilling when it comes, but it just bridges the gap between more important matters of the heart. That's thrilling in a different way, of course, but Spider-Man: Homecoming proves an unexpectedly spectacular achievement in both senses of the term.
Tom Holland (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Michael Keaton (Adrian Toomes/Vulture), Jacob Batalon (Ned), Laura Harrier (Liz), Tony Revolori (Flash), Zendaya (Michelle), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man), Marisa Tomei (May Parker), Bokeem Woodbine (Herman Schultz/Shocker), Donald Glover (Aaron Davis), Martin Starr (Mr. Harrington), Tyne Daly (Anne Marie Hoag), Abraham Attah (Abe), Hannibal Buress (Coach Wilson), Kenneth Choi (Principal Morita), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts).
Directed by Jon Watts and written by Watts, Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
Rated PG-13 (sci-fi action violence, language, brief suggestive comments).
Released on July 7, 2017.