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We are now in the tenth year of the Marvel Age of Movies, and who can argue against the astonishing influence of the comic book publisher turned crafter of cinematic crescendos? All through that resounding success, it had to rankle that the most famed member of the mighty Marvel stable was under the lockdown control of another studio, effectively banned from being a part of their practically unprecedented interlocking landscape of big screen stories being spun like a shimmering web. So in the slender space where the commerce and art of film are decent bedfellows, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a big deal. It is therefore utterly reasonable that the whole production feels like a delighted victory lap from an upstart champion who wrenched the Olympic torch away from the appointed runner.
As opposed to the slew of other reboots — including the previous stab at taking everyone’s favorite wall-crawler back to panel one — Spider-Man: Homecoming has a tang of purpose that transcends the obvious money grab that is its truest creative motivation. The character is being put back in his proper place, among the other legacy costumed do-gooders that started tumbling forth from the House of Ideas over fifty years ago. Spider-Man hardly faced the onscreen abuse of Marvel’s founding family, the Fantastic Four, but there was a sense that he was being ill-served by rival studios who were incapable of reverse-engineering Marvel’s serialized success story, despite lots of desperate trying. (Being fair about this, it was Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 that served as the clearest template for Marvel’s approach to the tone and tenor of individual films.) As the title says, it was time for Spider-Man to come home.
And his full-scale cannonball into the Marvel Cinematic Universe pool is a giddy delight, as was forecasted by Tom Holland’s winning debut in the role in Captain America: Civil War. It helps that this is first time Peter Parker and his arachnid alter ego isn’t being played by an actor ten years too old, no matter how many nice moments Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield had in their respective iterations. Holland brings a gee-whiz exuberance to the performance that conveys how freeing it would be to have these great powers, even if they came with great responsibility. He’s eager and innocent, beaming at the prospect of being a part of this strange new world where demigods streak across the sky.
Although this Spider-Man remains officially housed under the Sony/Columbia banner (rather than fully moved over to the control of Marvel’s benevolent entertainment corporation overlords at Disney), there’s no doubting that this is in the same universe as the other proper Marvel films, even aside from the presence of the principal cast of the Iron Man films in prominent supporting roles. This is maybe the first of the Marvel films that noticeably lives and breathes in an existence where super-powered beings are part of everyday life. Peter longs to be an Avenger the way a New York baseball nut might dream of playing shortstop for the Yankees, and heroes — and their exploits — are incorporated casually into the mundane conversations and interactions of people who’ve seen city blocks implode as titans clashed. When miraculous beings are constant, they stop being miraculous and start recording educational videos.
Jon Watts is essentially untested as a director at this scale, but he handles the whirring wheels of the narrative with charm and grace. Only when the movie pushes into especially thunderous action sequences does he sometimes bobble a bit. Overall, he balances the big moments with smaller sequences that give the movie a welcome dose of humanity. In particular, the film commits to Peter’s place in high school as more than a backdrop. Wisely sidestepping the established supporting characters in the Spider-Man canon, the film largely invents a new peer group that looks and acts more like the fellow teens Peter might encounter in a modern science-specialty high school. (Jacob Batalon and Zendaya give especially entertaining performances among the crew of classmates.) This aspect of the film is worthy of the influence of the oeuvre of John Hughes, who gets an overt and witty hat tip midway through. Spider-Man: Homecoming might be the first superhero film that could conceivably be just as engaging if never got around to the protagonist donning a costume and swinging into action.
There are a couple kinks in the plot — including a massive coincidence that makes for compelling melodrama, but strains credibility more than an irradiated spider conferring superhuman strength — but the film is mainly zippy, joyous, and thick with the sort of satisfying morality play fodder that is at the heart of the superhero subgenre. No matter how much the team behind Marvel Studios have proven themselves over the past decade, Sony was surely reluctant to cut whatever deal was required to get their input and thusly share the riches. But the value of the collaboration is right there on the screen. On the printed page or onscreen, Spider-Man has rarely been better. Face it, tiger, we all just hit the jackpot.