The film’s stellar, frequently hilarious first act does a brilliant job of filtering the MCU through a pubescent POV. Without giving it away, trust that Watts and co. devise a brilliant way to show us the events of “Civil War” through Peter’s eyes, using a simple device that efficiently brings us back up to speed on the action while also grounding the story from a fanboy’s perspective. From there, “Homecoming” does a great job of normalizing what it might be like to grow up in a world where superheroes are real, and where the MCU’s 9/11 is just a terrible thing that the current generation of high school kids were too young to remember.
Seriously: They teach “Age of Ultron” in history class. Captain America lends himself to a series of (very funny) instructional videos. The girls play “Fuck / Marry / Kill” with the Avengers, though they call it “F / Marry Kill” because this is a family film and Marvel doesn’t care if its teen characters skew too young to be realistic — you won’t either, as sanitizing an age-appropriate cast still feels a lot more natural than hiring a 26-year-old to play someone whose voice still cracks. Ned and Peter share a believable bond and a lot of choice banter, and Watts wisely fills the corridors of their midtown school with genuinely funny human beings like Martin Starr, Hannibal Buress, and “Grand Budapest Hotel” breakthrough Tony Revolori.
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But the MVP here is — or at least should have been — Disney Channel alum Zendaya, who plays Peter’s perfectly sardonic (and strictly platonic) decathlon teammate, Michelle, and makes each one of her 10 lines of dialogue feel like a major moment. The rising talent is even more egregiously wasted than the rest of the movie’s female characters (no mean feat), but she brims with enough potential to make Marvel’s next Spider-Man standalone into the most exciting title on their slate.
Here, however, Michelle is maddeningly symptomatic of a film that alternates between being a superhero saga and a teen comedy because it lacks the courage or the grace to thread its two pieces together. “Homecoming” is a knockout during the rare moments when it manages to walk and chew bubblegum at the same time; look no further than the electric early chase sequence that’s so proud of itself for broadly referencing “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” that it ends with Peter Parker sprinting by a television that’s playing the 1986 classic. The wink might be a bit much for anyone who’s old enough to actually remember high school movies, but the vibe is spot-on.
The movie works when the Avengers noise is a means, not an end, but Watts (and / or his corporate overlords) aren’t entirely comfortable with that, and so — like the overeager teenager at its heart — trips over itself as it tries to be all things to all people. Tony Stark is a surprisingly tolerable supporting character, but the MCU-ness of it all still can’t help but distract this movie from the story it so desperately wants to tell.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the scant few action sequences are some of the franchise’s least inspired (a case of bad food and small portions), or that the CG here is frustratingly weightless (“Homecoming” aces chemistry, struggles with physics), but even a setpiece as dazzling as Joss Whedon’s “Avengers” finale wouldn’t fix the fact that watching Michelle do her homework would be more fun than watching Peter fight Toomes on an invisible airplane.
If only this could have been a John Hughes movie that was bit by a radioactive spider, and not a superhero story written by people who happen to be fans of “Pretty in Pink.” Still, the fact that “Homecoming” even tries to think outside of its shrink-wrapped box — even acknowledges that it’s in a box, and that there might be something worth seeing beyond its plastic walls — is a landmark moment for the MCU and its competitors. “Things are never gonna be the same now,” Toomes says in the film’s very first line. Here’s hoping he’s a man of his word.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” opens in theaters on Friday, July 7.