“When’s our next mission?”
“We’ll call you.”
Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, has just completed his first mission with the Avengers, and he’s eager for further adventures. But Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, thinks Peter could use a bit more seasoning—he’s only 15, after all—and encourages the boy to work on being a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” for a while before getting called back up to the Big Show. So he gives the kid the number for his security chief, Happy Hogan. Peter, needless to say, texts and calls—and then texts and calls some more—without response.
It’s a perfect setup for Spider-Man: Homecoming: Peter Parker—high-school nerd, eternal outsider, the guy whose greatest successes somehow wind up feeling like failures—waiting by the phone for a call that never comes.
When Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios announced they were teaming up to re-boot Spider-Man once more—the third iteration of the character in 15 years—it was easy to be skeptical. Sony’s first bite at the apple, with Tobey Maguire, fell apart by the end, and the second, with Andrew Garfield, barely got off the ground at all. But Marvel demonstrates once again that it knows exactly what it’s doing with one of its premier characters: Homecoming, starring Tom Holland in the titular role, is an utter gas, a fast and very funny superflick that inserts Spidey into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe without ever losing sight of what makes him unique and beloved.
The movie opens with a mini-movie—really more of a video diary—by Peter himself, briefly recounting the character’s reintroduction as a temporary Avenger in Captain America: Civil War. (“No one has actually told me what I’m doing in Berlin,” he narrates to his smartphone. “Something about Captain America going crazy.”) But when it’s over, it’s over. And Peter, having had a taste of full-on superheroism, is back to being an ordinary, not terribly popular high-schooler in Queens.
Well, not quite ordinary. He still has his superpowers, the high-tech suit with which Stark outfitted him, and an abiding desire to fight crime. If he can find any, that is. To the brilliant accompaniment of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” (Hey! Ho! Let’s go!), Peter confronts an apparent car thief who turns out to be the owner of the vehicle in question, and recovers a stolen bike that may or may not have actually been stolen. But finally he spots a genuine ATM heist being carried out by goons wielding super-high-tech weaponry.
Did you ever wonder what happened to all the futuristic alien gear with which the Chitauri attacked New York in the first Avengers movie? Well in theory, it wound up in the hands of a joint venture between the government and Stark Industries called the Department of Damage Control. But given that 1,500 tons of the stuff was scattered throughout the tri-state area, inevitably some of it fell into the wrong hands. And two of those hands belonged to Adrian Toomes, a construction engineer with a decidedly Trumpian sense of aggrievement at the rich elites (looking at you, Tony Stark) who he believes have looked down at him all his life. To compel them to start looking up, he equips himself with giant turbo-powered wings and goes into business quietly selling weapons constructed from Chitauri technology: black hole grenades, anti-gravity guns, and the world’s nastiest joy buzzer.
Thus, even as it reinvents the typical Marvel hero as a shy kid with a severe high-school crush, Homecoming also reinvents the typical Marvel villain: Toomes—occasionally people refer to him as “Vulture,” though he doesn’t seem to bother with the moniker himself—is not bent on global dominion or destroying the Avengers or any such grandiose endeavor. All he wants is to stay below the radar and make a few bucks selling contraband arms. Needless to say, Spider-Man wants to stop him and, given that he isn’t able to get the Avengers interested, decides to go it alone.
Homecoming gets so many things right that it’s almost difficult to catalog them. For starters, there’s no origin story: no radioactive spider and Uncle Ben getting shot and “with great power comes great responsibility” speech and on and on. If you really don’t know how Peter Parker became Spider-Man, look up one of the earlier movies. Peter does still live with his Aunt May, but she’s been reconceived from an elderly widow to younger surrogate-mom played by a very good Marisa Tomei. (A less successful reconception involves Spidey’s gadget-laden suit, which even talks to him; Stark product or no, it can’t help but feel just a little too Iron Man-y.)
As Peter, Holland exudes a sense of boyish wonder even more boyishly wondrous than that of his predecessors. Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau reprise their longstanding roles as Tony Stark and Happy Hogan, respectively, though the former looks as though he may be tiring of the gig after three Iron Mans, two Avengers, and a Captain America. And Michael Keaton is both marvelously cast—he’s almost certainly the best Marvel villain since Loki—and, post-Birdman, a doubly wicked inside joke on what was already, post-Batman, a wicked inside cinematic joke.
Peter’s classmates at Midtown Tech are a likably diverse bunch, featuring a nice romantic bait and switch (even if you see it coming), and a hilarious turn by Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend, Ned. (“Do you lay eggs?” he asks, upon learning his buddy’s super-identity. “Do you spit venom?”) High-school bully Flash Thompson is reinvented from a tall, Aryan jock to a diminutive alpha-geek played by Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel. And a teacher played by Martin Starr (Gilfoyle from Silicon Valley) appropriately gets the funniest line in the movie and, arguably, Marvel Studios history to date.
Clever gags are everywhere to be found, which is unsurprising given that the director, Jon Watts, and the many listed screenwriters have their principal roots in TV comedy. The movie’s title, Homecoming, technically refers to Peter’s high-school dance, but it’s foundationally a joke about Spider-Man at last joining the Marvel stable. Captain America’s Chris Evans makes a few cameos in Public Service Announcements on the importance of staying in shape and avoiding detention. (As the gym teacher who shows the first clip drily notes, “I’m pretty sure this guy is a war criminal now.”) High-school girls play “Marry, F***, Kill” with members of the Avengers, and there are witty bits involving the difficulty of webslinging in the suburbs (not enough tall buildings to swing from), Stark’s marital reticence, what comes after “screwing the pooch,” and the iconic upside-down kiss from the 2002 Spider-Man. There’s even a (sort of) invisible jet to make up for the one that went missing from Wonder Woman.
But in the end, it comes down to Marvel’s deep reverence for character, and the studio’s understanding that every superhero is different. After the extraterrestrial meanderings of the Guardians of the Galaxy and the save-the-world mandates of the Avengers—to say nothing of the grim offerings served up by DC Comics pre-Wonder Woman—it feels like just the right time for a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man. Hey! Ho! Let’s go!