Spider-Man’s cinematic presence this century is felt at this point. Spider-Man: Homecoming is not only the sixth Spider-Man film in 15 years, but the third incarnation of the character in that timespan as well. What makes things different this time around, though, is this marks the beginning of the Spider-Man films taking place inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That investment from Marvel makes for a world of difference in storytelling. Not to knock Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, or even Marc Webb’s darker interpretation in the Amazing Spider-Man films, but Jon Watts’ new film makes Spider-Man actually, finally, be a teenager who wants to be Spider-Man.
Following a quick recap of the events of Captain America: Civil War from young Peter Parker (Tom Holland), the young hero is dropped back off in Queens by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and is told to keep in touch with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Two months later, Peter is itching to get back into action and waiting to hear from Tony when he comes across high-tech weapons, which he eventually tracks to a scavenger named Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. Vulture (Michael Keaton). As Peter works to track down Toomes and his crew, he has to balance the pursuit with his friendship with Ned (Jacob Batalon), his crush on Liz (Laura Harrier), and keeping his superhero identity secret from Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
The MCU has a reputation for injecting humor into its films, but Spider-Man: Homecoming has the rest of the MCU beat for the amount of comedy that’s put into the film. It helps distinguish Homecoming not only from the rest of the MCU, but from previous iterations of the character in film. This take on the character is, as Tony says at one point, the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” and keeping large parts of the film light helps give the film more localized stakes than the globe-trotting adventures that have come to dominate the rest of the MCU.
That’s not to confuse “localized stakes” with “lower stakes.” If anything, there’s more character depth given to Peter Parker here than we’ve seen before. The film wisely bypasses the two biggest points we’ve seen in Spider-Man origin stories – the spider bite and Uncle Ben’s death – in favor of watching this kid who wants to grow up so he can be a part of something bigger. Civil War was a perfect way to introduce the character, because it gives him a taste of that bigger thing he wants, and it’s clear that he wants to stay there even though it’s also clear that he’s not ready for it.
Of course, as the film’s promotional material makes clear, Iron Man is around this time – and what you’ve seen in the trailers is a majority of what you get in the film. Stark’s always been a prick, but Homecoming really doubles down on the idea. He basically leaves Peter with a high-powered suit and the promise of more, but without any real training and minimal supervision from Happy. Peter tries repeatedly to let Tony and Happy know what’s happening with Toomes, but he’s frequently dismissed. In a particularly frustrating scene, Tony says that he wanted Peter to be better than him, and while Peter is better than Tony, it’s a weird wish because Tony’s left Peter alone for so long.
Thankfully, the vast majority of the film takes place without Iron Man, and with Tom Holland’s take on Spider-Man. Both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield brought good versions of the character to the screen, but Holland’s interpretation taps into something their versions barely touched on: the pure joy of being Spider-Man. Each version has technically started with Spider-Man as a high school student, but by making him 15 in this version (and by going with Holland, who at 21 is much closer to his character’s age than either Maguire or Garfield were when they started), the film really leans into how someone so young would react to everything, and that’s…by not always knowing what to do, no matter how enthusiastic he may be.
And while Homecoming may not hit the traditional Spider-Man origin story notes (thankfully, again), it is an origin of sorts. In this case, it’s about Spider-Man coming into his own in a world with bigger villains and bigger stakes than stopping a bicycle thief or helping an old lady around town. It’s also about how Peter Parker really, truly learning how to balance being a superhero with being Peter Parker, friend and nephew.
With that, the film takes more time to invest in the people in Peter’s world. We get to care about his relationship with Ned and his dynamics with other classmates (Zendaya is the biggest scene stealer as Michelle). The film even manages to create one of the few bright spots in the villains of the MCU with Toomes. Keaton brings a real menace to the character, but there’s a surprising relatable quality to Toomes’ goals. The opening scene shows how he’s been hurt by the system (and more specifically, Stark), and why he’s embraced a life of crime: to support his family. Sure, Toomes’ goals may be small-scale compared to other villains in this universe, but the small scales tend to work best in this series.
Spider-Man: Homecoming confirms what Civil War suggested: Spider-Man is a great addition to the MCU. By bringing the two together, the humor that both the franchise and character provide create something different for both parties, making something that should feel old feel fresh. The result is what very well may be the best Spider-Man film to date.