Spider-Man is back, and ready to take on the dastardly cynics who'd snark at Sony's third launch of the film property in 15 years. Be warned, foes to this new franchise: this web-slinging wit is armed with fantastic action and phenomenal fun.
Rebooted within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up in the swing of Captain America: Civil War, showing snippets of Peter Parker's perspective of the Berlin airport battle through a jaunty video diary. High on heroics, Spider-Man (Tom Holland) believes he's ready to join the Avengers, but his reluctant mentor Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) instead ushers him back to his high school humdrum, filled with shaky subway rides, rattling school bells and bullying from the arrogant Flash Thompson (a smirking Tony Revolori). Dedicated to a dynamic destiny, Peter sneaks out of after-school activities, and fills his afternoons and evenings with whatever do-gooding he can find. Mostly it's snatching bike thieves and escorting old ladies across the street, until a fateful run-in at an ATM robbery puts him in the path of New York City's kingpin of Chitauri-based arms dealing, The Vulture (Michael Keaton).
The big showy arc is Spider-Man versus Vulture. But director Jon Watts brings distinctive heart and humor to the MCU by keeping in focus what makes Spidey so different from the other Avengers: his double-life. Tony proudly proclaimed to the press he was Iron Man. For decades, Steve Rogers has been celebrated as Captain America. Thor is always the Asgardian god. Peter Parker, however, is not just a brave defender of justice, sporting high-tech spandex -- he's also a high school sophomore dealing with classes, insecurities and his dizzying crush on the elegant Liz (the lovely Laura Harrier). Thankfully, he has friends who have his back. His best buddy Ned (the beaming and affable Jacob Batalon) is ever-ready to build LEGO Death Stars, be his wingman at parties or play the tech-savvy sidekick. Meanwhile, the acerbic Michelle (a bitingly funny Zendaya) can be relied on to give both boys a tough-love reality check with some side-eye and shade-throwing.
Masterfully weaving together these tales of teen angst and superhero woes, Watts creates not just an awesome superhero movie, but a unique coming-of-age classic centered on Peter's self-discovery. It's a tricky balancing act. However, an explosively entertaining cast knits these two different worlds together into an astonishing web of fun, thrills, and big heart-pounding moments. Holland is its heavy-lifter, joyously shouldering scenes with every major character, and having to play not only a lithe and winsome Spider-Man, but also the gawky yet lovable Peter Parker. With wide eyes and an impressive and open-hearted American accent, this English ingendude wins audience empathy and devotion with every small moment (like rescuing an at-risk bodega cat) to big ones (like risking being torn in two to save Staten Island Ferry riders). With an easy charm and a dancer's dexterity, Holland is positively sensational, and precisely the Spider-Man the MCU deserves.
Moreover, his baby face raises the stakes of this intimate MCU offering. When Spidey is suited up, a seamless blend of CG and Holland's acrobatic performance manifest a hero that's extraordinary and seemingly invincible. But every time his red mask is whisked off, we're reminded this is not a billionaire in impenetrable armor, or a super serum-fueled solider, a tenacious green monster, or a glistening god. Peter is a kid from Queens in a very big hurry to grow up and do great things. So our hearts go out to him, and our pulses race in panic as Keaton's Vulture descends.
Props to the supporting cast that brings charisma and plenty of energy to the school scenes, and Marisa Tomei who delivers an edged sassiness to Aunt May. Cheers to Downey, who shows a new side to Tony; one that is awkwardly paternal and freshly poignant. But Keaton's is the performance that will have jaws dropping, tongues wagging and fans roaring.
Villains have long been a weak spot of the MCU, proving primarily as fiendish focal points instead of as compelling characters. They're rarely anywhere near as memorable as the heroes they battle. So, some have pondered if the franchise peaked with Loki, the seductive, smooth-talking shape-shifter of Thor and The Avengers. But brewing a backstory of relatable rage and disillusionment, Keaton makes his baddie a working class hero gone off the rails. And so gives us the best MCU villain we've seen since Loki. He's not as theatrical, or arguably as brazenly sexy as Tom Hiddleston's fan-favorite. Yet Keaton brings that heated volatility that made him iconic in Batman, and channels into a rogue you can't help but root for, just a bit. To avoid spoilers, I'm being vague. But I will say this, Keaton proves there's a place for nuance and complexity to be found in these larger-than-life villains. And by chiseling out this distinctive and dizzying performance, he helps Holland and Watts build the best Spider-Man movie the world has seen.
For the record, I've enjoyed all the Spider-Man movies. I don't say this lightly. But grounding Peter's story with actors who actually look like teenagers makes a world of difference when it comes to the story's emotional weight. Add to that Holland and Keaton's electrifying performances and the level of superhero spectacle the MCU has made requisite, plus a generous slathering of good-natured comedy, and you get a summer movie that's so exhilarating and enthralling, it won't just pull you to the edge of your seat, it'll leave you breathless and exhausted.
Helming his first major production, Watts had a Herculean task before him. He had to appease executives from rival studios (Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures), while building a solo vehicle that not only had to fit into the MCU, but also demanded a story big enough to be summer blockbuster exciting, but small enough that the Avengers wouldn't have to swoop in to save the day. Plus, he had to contend with the soured expectations of moviegoers sneering over the idea of a reboot of a reboot.
With all this against him, Watts delivered exactly the kind of shake-up the MCU -- and the Spider-Man -- franchise needs. Not every movie can be an epic ensemble like The Avengers or Captain America: Civil War. This series needs to have smaller-stake stories, too. And by thoughtfully considering how a modern Spider-Man would fit into the character-driven realm of the MCU, Watts not only created a superhero movie full of charm and surprises, but also one the best MCU movies yet.
Spider-Man: Homecoming opens July 7.