As any observer of the corporate side of superhero cinema can tell you, the title of Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t only refer to its hero’s status as a 15-year-old dealing with all the usual high-school concerns. It also celebrates an intellectual-property marriage, in which Spidey, the greatest creation of the ink-and-paper Marvel Comics empire, finally enters Marvel’s big-screen “Cinematic Universe,” hitherto dominated by Avengers like Captain America and Thor.
Previous Spider-Man movies (for you non-geeks out there) were Columbia Pictures offerings with no Marvel Studios overlap, much as the X-Men franchise is controlled by 20th Century Fox. And if Homecoming is any clue, one can assume that any Marvel Studios exec getting access to those famous mutants would immediately start wondering if Wolverine would be fiercer with a little Hulk blood in him, or if Professor X might enjoy getting out of that wheelchair with the help of one of Tony Stark’s surplus exoskeletons.
That’s the kind of overeager cluelessness displayed in this occasionally exciting but often frustrating film, which seems to think the iconic character created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko will appeal more to tech-addicted teens if only his costume has as many gizmos baked into it as Iron Man’s.
Though it doesn’t approach the abominations of recent DC movies, which (with the happy exception of Wonder Woman, but certainly including the cringeworthy Justice League trailer) seem intent on making those initials stand not for “Detective Comics” but “Douchebag Corrosiveness,” it represents a creative misstep for the studio — albeit one likely to ride fanboy enthusiasm to much better receipts than those enjoyed by Amazing Spider-Man, the recent incarnation starring Andrew Garfield.
Where Garfield’s Peter Parker displayed a believable 21st-century angst, we return largely to the character’s wide-eyed roots with Tom Holland, whose performance is thoroughly winning even when the script isn’t helping him. (With no fewer than six writers credited on the screenplay, could we not have had more of the wisecracks for which the teen crimefighter is famous?) Holland’s Peter enters the film with superpowers intact (get your origin-story kicks elsewhere, kids), shooting an “I can’t believe this is happening” video diary of the events we saw in Captain America: Civil War.
After strutting his stuff in that battle, Peter rightly expects to be joining the Avengers. Instead, he’s given something like the brush-off by Robert Downey Jr.’s Stark: The industrialist gives him a multimillion-dollar outfit full of electronics, makes his flunky Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) Peter’s “point guy,” and essentially says, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” So Parker watches the clock impatiently every day at school, waiting for the final bell so he can go fight petty crime, checking in with Hogan in hopes that he’ll get Stark’s attention.
Of the things the movie gets right about Peter’s quotidian academic life — his swooning over the pretty upperclassman Liz (Laura Harrier); the mockery he gets from Flash (Tony Revolori); the withering commentary of scene-stealer Michelle (Disney Channel veteran Zendaya) — one false note is how careless he is with his secrets. In chemistry class, Peter tinkers with formulations of his web fluid, conveniently labeled as such; after he blows his cover with best friend Ned (the likably excitable Jacob Batalon), he dissects alien technology with him right in the middle of shop class.
That alien tech was left behind by a crew of baddies led by Michael Keaton, who was just a hard-working salvage contractor back when the Avengers first wreaked havoc on Manhattan some years ago. Keaton’s Adrian Toomes realized that the Battle of New York left behind enough super-powered debris to make him rich; now, he’s an arms merchant who flies around in a cool-looking rig with big metal wings. Comics fans will know to call him The Vulture, but given who’s playing the villain, the rest of us will inevitably call him Birdman.
Spider-Man crosses paths with the Vulture’s crew just as he’s understanding the potential of the suit Stark gave him. Turns out that Stark has enabled a “training wheels protocol,” setting most of its more powerful features off-limits until Peter is more experienced. But no mere genius-billionaire-inventor-superhero could be expected to craft tech impervious to a high-school sophomore. Within minutes of discovering this protocol, Peter and Ned have unlocked it.
This commences the movie’s most muddled action, in which Spider-Man is technologically granted heat-vision, super-hearing, assorted drones and tracking devices, and, of all things, a parachute. At their best, these augmentations refer cleverly to the hero’s pulpy past (as with some little webbed wings) or provide nonsensical visual fun (finally, a technological explanation for the masked hero’s expressive eyes). But they’re usually at their worst, with Spidey interacting incessantly with the same kind of artificial-intelligence assistant Iron Man has in his suit.
Peter initially calls the female voice “Suit Lady,” and she ruins things in a variety of ways. Not only does she introduce this character to the kind of baloney normally reserved for spy or sci-fi movies — as when she somehow calculates exactly how long an elevator’s damaged cable will hold before sending Peter’s friends to their doom — but she introduces a multiple-choice element that distracts from the usual webslinging fun. This Stark-designed suit, it turns out, can sling spiderwebs in ways Parker has not yet imagined, and poor Peter is likely to be bickering with Suit Lady about the available options when he should be thrilling us with his agility.
While much of the film’s midsection sinks under these developments, the pic enjoys a sustained success in the sequence for which it is named. Peter manages to score a date to Homecoming just as his crime-fighting alter ego is at a low ebb. He seems, finally, to be about to engage in real life instead of rock’em-sock’em dreams. But comic books don’t work that way, and a back-to-basics Spider-Man winds up in an unlikely but thrilling battle on the outside of a jet plane high above Brooklyn.
Satisfying from its day-of-the-dance prelude (where Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May shines) all the way to its fiery, cathartic conclusion, this sequence hints at the film Homecoming might have been — had Marvel Studios execs and a half-dozen screenwriters not worked so hard to integrate Peter Parker into their money-minting world. But integrate they do, and the film wraps up with an ending recalling the incoherent, have-it-both-ways finale of Iron Man 3 — attempting to embrace the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” ethos while exploiting the rich-dude glitz afforded by Spidey’s new buddies. Hang in there, True Believers: Maybe it’ll get better the second time around.
Production companies: Marvel Studios, Pascal Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Zendaya, Tony Revolori, Martin Starr, Hannibal Buress, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly
Director: Jon Watts
Screenwriters: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers
Producers: Kevin Feige, Amy Pascal
Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Patricia Whitcher, Jeremy Latcham, Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Salvatore Totino
Production designer: Oliver Scholl
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Music: Michael Giacchino
Editors: Dan Lebental, Debbie Berman
Casting: Sarah Finn
Rated PG-13, 133 minutes