It weirdly always felt like they’d get Spider-Man: Homecoming right.
It’s hard to put your finger on why. Though everyone welcomed the Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone castings for The Amazing Spider-Man, it seemed way too soon to be going back to that well. And rather than build upon the Sam Raimi movies in some—any—capacity, they started anew, retelling the same old story with a slightly fresher wrapper. It’s no wonder that we quickly lost interest.
Then it was announced that, once again, Spider-Man was being rebooted. But after the initial moans and groans, you got the sense that Sony and director Jon Watts had the right approach. There’d be no origin story, no gangly 28-year-old man playing a boyish teen. Oh yeah, and it would be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Iron Man would be there.
Which makes it all the more surprising that the best parts of Spider-Man: Homecoming don’t feature Tony Stark at all. In fact, the first hour of the movie is arguably the best 60 minutes of comic book movie I’ve ever seen. It’s only when Watts and company begin their Avengers-centric landing that what was phenomenal ends up being just very good.
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is a 15-year-old kid who has super spider powers. It’s assumed that we all know how he got them; if we didn’t know that he recently teamed up with Iron Man to take on Captain America in Civil War, we’re given a clever reminder of that as well. Otherwise, we follow Peter around high school as he schemes with his nerdy friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), crushes on a girl named Liz (Laura Harrier), is vaguely bullied by a non-threatening Flash Thompson (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) and tries to hide his powers from Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
There’s a whole other half of the movie, with Michael Keaton’s Vulture adopting a life of crime after Tony Stark unknowingly muscles him out of a post-Battle of New York cleanup gig, but the high school stuff is what matters. This is the first comic book movie that is truly, genuinely funny; The Avengers had witty moments that played off the characters, but Homecoming has actual jokes, ingenious setups, and brilliant comic acting. The wonderful Martin Starr and Hannibal Buress pop in—as a debate coach and a gym teacher, respectively—and even Chris Evans gets a couple well-done comedic Captain America cameos.
Watts and his bevy of screenwriters understand that while the Peter/May dynamic is the heart of the story—and that the Spider-Man/Iron Man duo pays the bills—this is essentially a teen tale. Peter is awkward and hormonal and trying to figure out how to be cool and good at the same time; it’s the crux of what makes Spider-Man a special character. Over the decades, he’s come to be defined by a tremendous group of villains and a sprawling series of adventures that take him into outer space and stand him shoulder to shoulder with the best heroes Marvel has to offer, but he also works on a much smaller scale.
That’s where Sony and Marvel place him here, and that’s where he shines. Holland understands the character as well as anyone who’s donned the suit; he plays him right in the sweet spot of "increasingly confident about his abilities but still uncertain as to how they bleed into real life." Though his powers don’t disappear when he takes his suit off, they might as well. There’s something about Holland that echoes that sentiment brilliantly; he’s a handsome kid who comes off as a slightly uneasy everyboy, which makes him a Peter Parker natural.
Then there’s Keaton. His Vulture is nothing memorable for much of the movie—like most grown men who aren’t remarkably swole, he looks ridiculous in supervillain garb—but there’s a shift near the end that makes you want to stand up and clap for the playfully threatening services a Michael Keaton can provide. It’s always a smart idea to rank talent over everything else when casting a bad guy; otherwise, you get Thomas Haden Church looking picture-perfect on the poster as Sandman but falling flat on his face the second those poorly written words start coming out of his mouth. Even the risk of casting Keaton as a bird-themed character can’t take this legend down.
Again, it’s a shame those first 60 minutes couldn’t go on forever. It’s a shame that Homecoming has to settle into its plot and hit all the "one chapter in a larger story" beats, which are enjoyable but rote and familiar. And mostly, it’s a shame that we have to shoehorn puffy Jon Favreau, a plane full of Avengers artifacts, and a bunch of other MCU nonsense into a movie that works so well on its own. It was great to have Spider-Man in Civil War, it’ll be great to have him in Infinity War, and it’s never a bad thing to have Robert Downey Jr. show up and fast-talk a bunch of near-nonsense. But I was so pleasantly surprised that Homecoming met its Spidey franchise expectations, and I wish we’d gotten an uncompromised version that kept the Marvel stuff on the sidelines. Imagine saying that two years ago and meaning it.