We’ve seen a lot of dark superhero movies (including most of the DC ones) and a lot of smarmy ones (Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool) in recent years. But rarely, these days, do the movies about men in tights deliver a moment as winsome and whimsical as Lois Lane’s “You’ve got me. Who’s got you?” in 1978’s Superman: the Movie. Spider-Man: Homecoming, which is essentially a John Hughes comedy interspersed with bits of action, has the same light-hearted feel, and it’s easily the cleverest, most inventive, and funniest of the six Spider-Man features to date. It’s also the first of the six that at no point struck me as boring.
Tom Holland, a springy 21-year-old former gymnast and dancer most audiences first encountered when Spidey made a brief appearance in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, is absolutely terrific as Peter Parker, the nervous 15-year-old Queens high-school student dealing with changes to his body that are, let us say, somewhat more pronounced than those faced by his peers. Holland, like his predecessor Andrew Garfield, is a Brit, and like Garfield’s predecessor Tobey Maguire he is a wide-eyed runt full of awed disbelief about his newfound gifts. Garfield made the mistake of playing the character as cocky, and his two films have mercifully been wiped off the slate as Spider-Man, thanks to a surprising sharing arrangement between his proprietor Sony Pictures and Marvel’s masters at the Walt Disney Co., has now joined the other characters in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This opens up lots of storytelling lines: In the early stages of Homecoming, Peter, having returned home to Queens after his Avengers adventure, is still undercover as an ordinary high-school student studying for an academic tournament of nerds in Washington, D.C. He isn’t sure whether he’s an Avenger (he isn’t) or what he’s supposed to do next (nothing, says Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, who has a prominent role). In possession of an Iron Man-like Spidey suit that contains all sorts of gadgets he can barely operate, Peter disobeys orders, dons the forbidden outfit, and goes looking for wrongdoing he can right. Alas, he is unschooled in crime-fighting and not very good at crime-detecting. He attacks a supposed car thief who is merely trying to get into his own car, which sets off an alarm, which makes Spider-Man himself the object of derision from jeering Queensians. Hey, mastering an adolescent body is hard enough when you don’t have superpowers.
Peter tries to tell Tony’s majordomo Happy (an amusingly grumpy Jon Favreau) that he is on the trail of something big involving alien super-weapons left behind at the site of the Avengers headquarters building, which was trashed in a previous Marvel film, but Happy isn’t much interested. Peter is right, though: The new supervillain in town is a disgruntled salvage-company owner, Adrian Toomes — brilliantly played by Michael Keaton in the best superhero movie he’s ever done, including Birdman. Adrian isn’t motivated by smoldering evil; he’s just a blue-collar Queens guy who wants to make a buck. He was cut out of his promised profits when the G-men took over cleanup of the Avengers H.Q. site, so he’s been jerry-rigging alien mega-guns and selling them on the open market, leading to a hilarious confrontation with one upsell-resistant customer played by Donald Glover: “I’m just trying to stick up somebody. I’m not trying to shoot them back in time.”
Far sharper than the 2002 Spider-Man, which for all its teen charms was too content to reiterate genre clichés (e.g. Willem Dafoe’s boring, cackling villain), Homecoming is as well-versed in high-school uncertainties as it is in comic-book imperatives. It delivers a knockout plot twist and several blowout action scenes. In one vertiginous escapade at the Washington Monument, Spider-Man finds himself trying to save his classmates even as the military seeks to shoot him down from a helicopter. Almost as exciting is a sequence in which Spidey struggles to save a crowded Staten Island ferry that’s been cleaved in two. As is often the case in these movies, the least interesting scene is actually the climactic battle, but it’s streamlined and relatively contained, unlike, say, the spasms of digital wreckage that characterized the hyperventilating third act of 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Homecoming’s 36-year-old director Jon Watts has few previous credits — two little-seen indies (2015’s Cop Car and 2014’s Clown) and some videos for the Onion News Network —but he does a bravura job, never allowing the comedy to disintegrate into smugness nor letting it undercut the thrills (as it did in the regrettable 2014 film The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which was so bad it incited Sony to beg Marvel and its MCU producer Kevin Feige for help in rebooting the franchise). With its sunny warmth and its hilarious script by Watts and five other writers, Spider-Man: Homecoming is breezy fun, one of the most enjoyable superhero epics yet.