One clever step back, and several adroit steps forward, Sony and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (★★★★) is a thrillingly alive origin story, rather than a rehashed one. Directed and co-written by Jon Watts (Cop Car), the $175 million reboot charts a new course for the transformation of precocious Peter Parker into a better Spider-Man. Watts and team have delivered the most exhilarating superhero flick since last year’s Captain America: Civil War.
A corporate marriage of convenience between Disney-Marvel and Sony facilitated Tom Holland’s winning onscreen introduction as Peter Parker/Spider-Man midway through Civil War. The English actor, shrewd beyond his years opposite Naomi Watts in The Impossible, bounced in and out of the onscreen melee with agile charm.
For this seamless follow-up to the Avengers showdown, Spidey gets to team up with new pal Iron Man. Like many a fifteen-year-old, Peter wishes he truly were friends with Iron Man’s alter-ego, the genius industrialist Tony Stark. Robert Downey, Jr. is, as ever, the star in this universe, exerting the strongest gravitational pull, and his Stark takes Peter on as an intern of sorts in the hero business. The billionaire places his best man and chauffeur, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), on Parker duty.
Never too far from Peter’s side, but always too close to one of the youngster’s nagging calls or texts, Happy shadows Peter. Favreau underplays nicely, as Happy keeps a wary eye on the high schooler’s exploits and on the spanking new tech and costume that Stark is happy to lend — not give outright — to the greenhorn crime fighter.
Spidey first garnered Stark’s attention by nabbing neighborhood bike snatchers and car thieves. Now, the eager young chemistry and physics wiz has to step up his game quickly to take on black market weapons dealers trafficking lethal arms powered by pilfered alien elements. And, as usual, high school gets in the way.
Brightly hued design and flowing camerawork lay out a cool, inviting Queens, so darkness doesn’t get in the way of the fun. Lighthearted, but not low-stakes, Watts’ direction lends substance to Peter’s development from insecure novice to more reliable hero. His unexpected choice of Marisa Tomei to play Peter’s doting Aunt May was announced to much twittering dismay, but the Oscar-winner’s warmly natural presence works wonderfully to help frame the film’s fresh view of the familiar web-slinger.
Casting Tony Revolori as Peter’s high school tormentor, Flash Thompson, similarly shifts expectations, and for the best. The amusing edge of envy underscoring Revolori’s performance makes his Flash memorable among the countless bullying school rivals who have locked horns with Peter across seven major Spider-Man films.
More unexpected — until the movie’s assured comic rhythms are firmly established — is how Peter’s daily life tends to be not just perilous, but hilarious. From the film’s sly first second to the last post-credit sequence, the jokes consistently land. Many of the gags are delivered by experienced scene-stealers like Hannibal Buress, Donald Glover, and Baskets deadpan artist Martha Kelly, in brief turns as the folks who populate Peter’s school, neighborhood, and one fateful trip to Washington, D.C.
To the filmmakers’ credit, Peter navigates a world that’s as effortlessly inclusive as any car of the local subway train in Astoria. When Pete’s gorgeous crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), and her friends play Fuck-Marry-Kill with the Avengers roster, Liz’s male friend, Seymour (J.J. Totah), is right there for the fun. And rather than just playing spoilsports to Peter and his debate team friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Michelle (Zendaya), many of the adults are as hip as the kids, including their debate coach, the harried Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr), who points out, “Protest is patriotic.”
The breezily heady approach extends to the film’s wily main villain, Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. the Vulture, played by erstwhile Birdman Michael Keaton. Toomes fights for the “little guy,” not world domination, and directs his righteous working man’s rage upwards at powerful Establishment know-it-alls like Stark.
He’s an action-movie villain who monologues with purpose — although the anticipated climactic clash between the Vulture and Spidey poses one of the picture’s only major disappointments. The fantastic effects render the wall-crawler, and the buildings that fall on him, with impressive weight. But the combat buzzes and swirls without much passion. Watts’ hand feels surer mounting Spidey’s suspenseful rescues, and in depicting Peter’s dilemma as a boy who’s fragile, but with the power to save the world.
Peter Parker grapples, as much as Bruce Wayne does, with living as two people: in his case, as both the spectacular Spider-Man, and a sensitive, orphaned scientist teen from Queens. An abundance of beloved character traits exist in that simple description, and not every entry in the Spider-Man series has mastered the combination to get the guy just right. This one does, and no doubt will reap tremendous rewards for it.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is rated PG-13, and opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, July 7. Visit Fandango.com.
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