When you cut through all of the spandex and special effects, superhero movies are really just high school movies with bigger muscles, bigger budgets, and bigger constraints. Indeed, the best moments in the giddy, fitfully entertaining “Spider-Man: Homecoming” are the ones that gleefully conflate the likes of Stan Lee and John Hughes, delighting in the extent to which both of their signature genres tend to revolve around emotionally unsure young people who are struggling to juggle their double lives.
“Homecoming” takes Peter Parker all the way back to his sophomore year, (re)re-introducing the endlessly rebootable web-slinger (a wide-eyed and overeager Tom Holland) as a 15-year-old pipsqueak who splits his time between anchoring the the academic decathlon team and auditioning to be an Avenger. The Queens sophomore can barely bring himself to talk to the girl he likes (Laura Harrier as Liz), but once he puts on his signature red and blue suit he’s suddenly endowed with the confidence to fight crime (even if he’s not very good at it) and flirt with death. Should he show up to the big party as the scrawniest nobody in his class, or should he swing in as the friendly neighborhood superhero who Liz naturally has a crush on? Should he stay at the inevitable homecoming dance, or does all that power and responsibility mean that he has to leave his date in the lurch to go save the city?
When “Homecoming” works, it does so by borrowing more from the likes of “Sixteen Candles” and “Just One of the Guys” than it does “Iron Man” or any of the other 412 previous installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It works by repurposing all that superhero stuff as a shiny new backdrop for the timeless dilemma of adolescence: How do you reconcile the person you are with the person you pretend to be?
In other words, “Homecoming” works by doing something that no Marvel (or DC) movie has done before, something that shows how this monolithic cinematic universe might hope to sustain itself once Thanos has been vanquished to the great space armchair in the sky and modern cinema’s biggest mega-franchise becomes desperate for new ways to feel fresh. “Homecoming” works by allowing itself to become an actual genre film, the first of its ilk to recognize that superhero movies might be more interesting if they were also something else. It’s the first of its kind to appreciate that today’s assembly-line blockbusters are neutered by their need to fit a unique brands into a one-size-fits-all action template.
At its best, “Homecoming” is a riotously fun riposte to the logic of firing Phil Lord and Chris Miller for daring to make a Star Wars adventure into a comedy (or, for that matter, to the logic of firing Edgar Wright off “Ant-Man” for having the gall to make it into an Edgar Wright movie). It argues that the next Batman movie could be a horror film, that the next installment of X-Men could be a sobering mid-budget drama in which Magneto examines his Jewish heritage.
Yes, it’s a superhero saga, and one that comes complete with all of the tropes that fans have come to expect from such fare (e.g. lots of snarky crime-fighting, a numbingly dull final battle, and a gaggle of severely underwritten female characters, including a barely there Marisa Tomei as Aunt May). But it’s also a bonafide high school movie, fueled by hormones, threatened by detention, and rounded out by a pudgy best friend called Ned (Jacob Batalon) who correctly identifies his buddy’s big secret as their shared ticket to popularity. At one point, Ned earnestly tries to talk Peter out of saving the city by saying “We have a Spanish quiz!” Indeed, it can be such a joy to watch Marvel figure this out that it’s tempting to overlook the fact that a much better movie called “Sky High” pulled off the same trick 12 years ago (or that “Harry Potter” has pretty much perfected it since).
A coming-of-age story for the Age of Ultron, “Homecoming” is the smallest chapter of the MCU since “Ant-Man,” but this script — credited to six different writers — takes much greater advantage of its scale. That’s evident from the very opening scene, in which the film’s big bad is revealed to be a squawking New York foreman whose clean-up crew is cheated out of a chance to clean up the mess that Loki left behind in Manhattan. His name is Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), he speaks in a thick outer-borough accent, and he probably cares a lot more about the Rangers’ playoff hopes than he does those stupid Infinity Stones.
Yeah, a secret cache of alien technology turns him into the city’s most dangerous arms dealer, but the guy is still a far cry from the last Marvel villain, a god-like planet who wanted to subsume the entire universe. Even though Toomes is eventually whittled down to your standard superhero antagonist (especially once he scavenges together a badass winged suit of armor), the movie never loses sight of his humanity, and that helps keep things honest even when the third act inevitably devolves into a chaotic orgy of hollow special effects that “Cop Car” director Jon Watts isn’t remotely equipped to handle by himself.
And then there’s Peter, who may have fought alongside the Avengers once before, but is definitely not a full member of the team quite yet (he’s more of an unpaid intern, patrolling/terrorizing the streets of Queens while impatiently waiting for Happy Hogan to offer his next proper assignment). In fact, he isn’t really anything quite yet. There’s no pathos, no pain behind those eyes. He’s just a kid with a sad aunt, a bright future, and a totally unearned set of abs that he has no idea how to use. And while this surface-level characterization serves as an unnecessary reminder that Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” was a genuine miracle of humanist studio filmmaking, “Homecoming” at least has the good sense to let this story about a 15-year-old boy actually be a story about a 15-year-old boy.
This review continues on the next page.