To reboot or not to reboot. That was the question facing Sony Studios just three years ago. After The Amazing Spider-Man 2 left almost no one excited for a third go-round with Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield’s bumming brooder, Sony had little choice except to continue down the same road, with diminishing returns and eventually reboot the series with a new director and actor or reboot now (or rather then), teaming up, superhero style, with Marvel, bringing everyone’s favorite web slinger to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), where Spider-Man has belonged since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created him more than five decades ago. There was a risk too, of course, of miscasting, of hiring the wrong director or writers, of playing up too much fan service, both to Spider-Man’s comic-book roots, or too story-dragging world building to connect the new, latest, and greatest Spider-Man to the ongoing MCU and its increasingly complex mythology. All those risks? More than worth taking, especially when the result, Spider-Man: Homecoming, doesn’t just succeed in making moviegoers forget about the last two, disappointing missteps, but delivers arguably the best, true-to-his-comic-book roots Spider-Man on film.
When we meet up with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) again, he’s still flying high from being part of the Avengers smackdown featured in last spring’s Captain America: Civil War. For Parker, it’s only been a few days and weeks since Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) plucked him from relative obscurity as a teen superhero in a homemade costume fighting street-level crime in Queens, New York. But all adventures end, even superhero ones, leaving Parker eager to take the next step and join the Avengers permanently. Stark, however, has other ideas, like Parker staying local and finishing high school. Stark’s not again Parker fighting street-level crime, giving Parker a state-of-the-art costume loaded with the best Stark tech Stark money can buy, including an AI with a female voice (he’s less Spider-Man than the Iron Spider). Stark’s not completely irresponsible, though: Parker’s age (he’s all of 15) and relative inexperience means he should stay close to home and leave the big threats to Stark and the other Avengers.
Parker has other ideas, beginning with the repurposed alien tech he encounters when he tries to stop an ATM robbery. Playing detective, Parker soon learns the identity of the man behind the hybrid alien tech: Adrian Toomes / the Vulture (Michael Keaton), an anti-Stark, anti-1% arms dealer. Despite repeated attempts to alert Stark and Stark’s stand-in in New York, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), of the threat Toomes poses, Parker fails, leaving him exactly where he wants to be: a superhero savior. Except the still-in-high-school Parker has to navigate the usual trials and tribulations of being in high school: Classes he doesn’t like, an obnoxious bully, Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), in constant humiliate Peter mode, and Parker’s romantic interest, Liz Allan (Laura Harrier), a high-school senior who also captains the academic decathlon squad. Parker also has to keep his super secret from his aunt, May (Marisa Tomei), and maintain best-bro status with Ned (Jacob Batalon).
That’s all good, but familiar in a “Hey, haven’t we seen all of this before?” kind of way, except that it’s not. Spider-Man: Homecoming does something neither the near camp charms of Sam Raimi’s celebrated trilogy or the grim-and-gritty non-charms of Marc Webb’s divisive take did: It gives moviegoers the nearest equivalent of a flesh-and-blood Parker, a teen first, superhero second character with a metric ton of relatable flaws, fears, and anxieties, each one making him all the more human. He wants to prove himself worthy of Liz, but he also wants to prove himself worthy of Stark’s respect, respect symbolized by a lifetime membership in the Avengers. And as a superhero, he’s not godlike like Thor, the Hulk, or even Doctor Strange. He can jump, crawl, and sling, but he’s not invulnerable and he can’t fly. Watts and his screenwriting squad max out the “Spider-Man can’t fly” non-superpower as a plot device, using it for both comedy (Spider-Man’s forced to run across an open field) and drama (clinging on to a flying supervillain with mechanical wings can lead to a long drop and almost certain death). In short, outside of Captain America, Spider-Man is the closest we have to a human superhero.
And in Holland, the MCU has found its perfect Spider-Man/Peter Parker. It’s not just about Holland looking the part with his slight build and non-imposing height, but in a performance that captures the essence of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s singular creation and brings him to big-screen life. Holland captures Parker’s constant, wide-eyed amazement at his own exploits as they’re unfolding with an infectious, enthusiastic sincerity that’s difficult, if not impossible to resist. Sure, Holland’s Spider-Man nimbly quips his way through fight scenes, using his sense of humor to gain a temporary advantage over his opponents. It’s when Spider-Man, eating a sandwich on a fire escape while taking a break from his “Stark internship,” furiously texting Happy or leaving Happy a long voicemail or getting shaky when he’s leaning over the side of a national monument moments before his classmates perish in an elevator, that he becomes the most relatable superhero in or out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).