Created by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko, Spider-Man first appeared in 1962's Amazing Fantasy #15, an anthology series published by Marvel Comics. The character's origin story goes something like this: Midtown High's only professional wallflower, Peter Parker, becomes a web-slinging "wall-crawler" when he is bitten by a radioactive spider and acquires the proportionate strength and agility of an arachnid. 55 years later, Spider-Man has become one of the most popular superheroes ever, inspiring countless comics, cartoons, video games, and not one but two film franchises: Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007) and Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man series (2012-2014). Those movies, produced and distributed by Sony, have their moments, but ultimately fail to deliver a definitive take on the character. Enter the appropriately titled Spider-Man: Homecoming, a new film co-produced by Marvel Studios proving third time's the charm.
After making his spectacular debut in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man (Tom Holland) joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in its sixteenth entry. Invigorated by his experience with the Avengers in Berlin, Peter returns to Queens, where he lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), under the tutelage of his new mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his right-hand man, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Peter believes that his "internship" with Stark Industries is merely a test toward becoming a full-fledged member of the Avengers, but no one's returning his calls about the next mission. Pete tries to fall back into his normal routine: preparing for the academic decathlon, building a LEGO Death Star with his best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), and pining for the brainy, beautiful Liz (Laura Harrier) – all while helping little old ladies cross the street as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
Directed by Jon Watts (of Clown, Cop Car), Spider-Man: Homecoming deals with the ground-level consequences of The Battle of New York, the epic finale of 2012's The Avengers, in which Earth's Mightiest Heroes faced off against Loki and his army of cybernetically enhanced Chitauri. While the Avengers saved the day, they've left New Yorkers with a mess to clean up. The restoration effort has been good for Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), whose salvage company has been awarded the contract of collecting the alien tech left behind in the wreckage. Things are going great for Toomes until the Department of Damage Control swoops in and takes his livelihood away. When he finds out that billionaire philanthropist Tony Stark, the guy responsible for the mess, is getting paid to clean it up, he decides to do something about it himself.
Desperate to provide for his family, Toomes begins stealing alien technology, building himself a wing suit that he uses to rob DODC trucks – repurposing their salvage as weapons to sell on the black market. As the Vulture, Toomes is the perfect starter villain for this young Spider-Man to tackle, because their paths as villain and hero are running parallel to each other. The appeal of Spider-Man has always been that he's a kid with real-world problems and inadequacies that people can relate to. Here, Vulture isn't an old coot in a lycra bird suit, but a blue-collar guy burdened by the pressures of adulthood. Toomes isn't concerned with world domination – he's experienced life's unfairness first-hand, and he's tired of playing a game that's rigged by the rich and powerful. But when putting food on the table means threatening the lives of New Yorkers, it's up to Parker to stop Vulture before his twisted version of the American Dream becomes reality.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best Spider-Man movie yet – a definitive take on the character that fits perfectly within the MCU without getting bogged down in the world-building of Marvel's ever-expanding shared universe. While Tobey Maguire was a pretty good Peter Parker and Andrew Garfield made for a decent Spider-Man, Tom Holland is the best of both, delivering heart and humor in equal measure. In the way Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans were born to play Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, Tom Holland was destined to do whatever a spider can. Like Peter, Holland is an eager kid having the time of his life learning to be a superhero, and the fun he's having on screen is contagious. It's impossible not to grin ear-to-ear when he clumsily experiments with his new suit's hidden features, or laugh when Spidey woefully fails at intimidating a criminal (Donald Glover) during a haphazard interrogation.
When it comes to action, there are sequences that rival any from the previous films: Spider-Man's Roosevelt Island Tramway scene, the train fight in Spider-Man 2, the first 10 minutes of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – Watts' exhilarating and enthusiastic film finds a way to one-up them all. In addition to the requisite wall-crawling and web-slinging, there are lovely character moments with Peter as he juggles his relationships with his aunt, his mentor, his friends, and his classmates. There isn't a rote performance or flat character in the whole movie – even supporting players like Peter's decathlon teammates feel like real teenagers at a real high school, struggling with their own teenager issues. As a result, Homecoming feels less like a superhero blockbuster and more like what would happen if John Hughes was bitten by an irradiated spider before making The Breakfast Club.
During the Golden Age of Comics, teenagers in superhero stories were often relegated to the role of sidekick. Superman had Jimmy Olsen, Batman had Robin, and Captain America had Bucky Barnes. These sidekick characters were important because they gave the protagonist someone to talk to – someone to externalize their internal monologue to. What's unique about Spider-Man is that he is his own teenage sidekick. Spidey is always talking to himself, his thoughts and feelings communicated to the reader via thought bubbles. And unlike Robin or Bucky, Pete doesn't have a superhero mentor to show him the way – he has to learn for himself that "with great power comes great responsibility."
Watts' recognizes a need for communicating Peter's internal musings, and so his fancy new Stark Industries suit comes equipped with an A.I. sidekick, like Iron Man's J.A.R.V.I.S., named Karen (voiced by Jennifer Connelly). Now Spidey has someone to express worries and frustrations to or make quips to when he's in the thick of it. In addition to Karen, he has a superhero mentor in Tony Stark. This Peter Parker grew up in the MCU – he saw Tony Stark say "I am Iron Man" on TV when he was eight years old. He wants to be like Iron Man, but Tony needs him to be better. It makes for an interesting dynamic that I can't wait to see more of in Avengers: Infinity War and Spider-Man's subsequent cinematic outings.
It's hard to believe that a Spidey movie without Uncle Ben, Green Goblin, Harry Osborn, J. Jonah Jameson, The Daily Bugle, Mary Jane Watson, or Gwen Stacy could feel this definitive, but it does. The performances are pitch-perfect, with Michael Keaton establishing himself as one of the better bad guys in the MCU, taking a mid-level villain and making him a charismatic and formidable threat. For a film with six screenwriters, it's amazing how Watts' film feels like a singular vision, not the product of two major motion picture studios co-producing a movie that needs to serve the needs of a reboot while also fitting within the rigid continuity of an already established shared universe. If there's one thing lacking, it's Aunt May's somewhat limited role. Tomei is great, but she doesn't have a spotlight scene like Rosemary Harris' stirring speech about heroism in Spider-Man 2. Hopefully, she'll get the opportunity to be more vital to the story and its stakes in the sequel, currently slated for release in 2019.
Still, Watts' Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fresh take on Marvel's iconic web-slinger that gets everything right. Not only is it the best Spider-Man movie yet, it's also a top-tier entry in the ever-expanding MCU – as funny, thrilling, and thoroughly satisfying as Iron Man or The Avengers. It doesn't feel like the second reboot of a franchise but rather a new beginning for a beloved character who's back where he belongs – in the very capable hands of Marvel Studios. Welcome home, web-head, you've been missed.
Adam's Rating: 4.5 out of 5
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