In contrast to the bloated portent that typically characterizes the Marvel Cinematic Universe, director Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming announces itself as a scaled-down, more intimately crafted affair. The very first shot shows a child’s crayon drawing of the Avengers, indicating that this film exists in the same world as the legendary superhero team but isn’t told from their point of view. Rather, the film is presented from the perspective of a budding young hero who looks up to Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor as role models—not unlike Homecoming’s target audience of teens who’ve been raised in a cinematic era saturated with superhero movies.
This latest iteration of Peter Parker was introduced in Captain America: Civil War, in which he was recruited by Tony Stark to fight a group of rogue superheroes led by Captain America. Watts replays the blockbuster battle royale from the previous film as a chintzy cellphone-shot video diary enthusiastically narrated by Peter (Tom Holland), a move which cleverly positions the youthful webslinger as a wide-eyed amateur enthralled by the idea of being in such close proximity to his heroes. He’s not some po-faced martyr with the weight of the world on his back; he’s simply an everyday teen thrilled to be living out every kid’s dream of fighting alongside his idols.
Having gotten a taste of the big time, Peter longs to join the Avengers for real, bugging Tony’s (Robert Downey Jr.) assistant, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), with a flurry of texts asking when he’ll be called back for another mission. In the meantime, though, he’s stuck in high school, doing low-rent Spidey stuff around his Queens neighborhood in his spare time. The first 40 or so minutes of Homecoming lock into an amiably laidback groove, homing in the human-sized stakes of Peter’s life—house parties, school bullies, a crush on a hot girl (Laura Harrier)—rather than the potential destruction of the entire planet. The film takes the time to establish a strong, funny relationship between Peter and his nerdy pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) that simply exists for its own sake.
For a time, Homecoming feels more like a comic-book riff on Teen Wolf than the latest entry in Marvel’s expansive series of interlocking blockbusters in which every installment feels like an advertisement for the next one. With its jokey screenplay, bouncy music cues, and bright color palette, the film’s first act offers a refreshing rebuke to the self-serious soap operatics of so many MCU movies—to say nothing of the grim portentousness of Zack Snyder’s DC Comics movies or the contrived nihilism of James Mangold’s Logan. Played by Holland with gawky, squeaky-voiced enthusiasm, the Spidey of this film is very much a teen, one whose youthful exuberance is genuinely infectious even as his over-eagerness gets him into serious trouble.
Soon, though, the stakes are raised, and Spider-Man is pitted against a scrap merchant turned arms dealer, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who’s flooding Peter’s neighborhood with massively destructive weapons. While the film mostly manages to preserve its jocular tone, undercutting nearly every dramatic beat with some kind of punchline, it ultimately falls victim to many of the same problems that plague so many superhero blockbusters. The bloated runtime includes no less than two different prologues and three separate endings. And not only does the film waste strong comedic actors (Marisa Tomei, Hannibal Buress, Donald Glover, Martin Starr) in thankless bit parts, but the numbing action sequences are Marvel’s usual mess of quick cuts, bloodless explosions, and giant colored beams of energy.
Most disappointing of all is simply the film’s inability to follow through on the promise of its opening stretch. When being Spider-Man is simply an after-school activity, one that Peter has to juggle along with quiz bowl, homework, and hanging out with Ned, Homecoming seems to recognize that a superhero movie can be something else—in this case, a high school comedy. But, even if the film remains funnier and more likable than, say, Captain America: Civil War, it ultimately adheres to the same stultifying genre template from which Marvel has been unwilling to deviate for almost a decade now. By partially demonstrating what a newer, fresher superhero movie might look like, Homecoming ultimately underlines its own genre-defined limitations.