Funny without being tongue-in-cheek and epic without being ponderous, Spider-Man: Homecoming is what a summer movie should be. This latest installment in the Marvel comics blockbuster-verse is as bouncy as its web-spinning hero. Instead of numbly moving the plot forward for the sake of the Marvel corporate plan (I mean “storytelling initiative”), it seamlessly tucks itself into the ongoing Marvel thing without feeling obligatory. This is the way you do it.
We’ve seen a lot of Spider-Man in recent years, including Sam Raimi’s trilogy with Tobey Maguire and two installments with Andrew Garfield. Our current incarnation, played by Tom Holland, debuted last year in Captain America: Civil War, where teenager Peter Parker went under the mentorship of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in Iron Man’s superhero-mentoring program—the most engaging part of that film. Teen angst loomed large in previous tellings of Peter’s story, but Homecoming makes the radical suggestion that high-school years might also be fun—even if you’re struggling with the newfound powers of being Spider-Man.
Robert Downey, Jr. is back as Stark, and while his loyal manservant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) handles most of the exposition here, the scenes between Stark and Peter give the movie a backbone that’s both amusing and sneakily heartfelt. Peter wants to fit in with the other Avengers (the high points of Civil War are hilariously recapped in the opening reel via Peter’s video diary), but Stark urges caution—in actuality, the Spider-Man suit is programmed with a “Training Wheels Protocol” that limits Peter’s powers, an embarrassing discovery for our hero. Peter tries to solve crimes, but instead ends up putting on his red-and-blue Latex and giving directions to tourists lost in Queens. Along with this, Homecoming also morphs into a kind of Peter Parker’s Day Off, a lively teen picture with parties and school dances. The kids in Peter’s universe are wonderfully distinct and nicely cast: jovial best bud Ned (Jacob Batalan), crush Liz (Laura Harrier), blowhard rival Flash (Tony Revolori, the bellhop from The Grand Budapest Hotel), and gloriously sardonic moper Michelle (Zendaya). The high spirits are infectious and the script (credited to six writers!) crammed with quick one-liners.
There is a villain, needless to say. Again, the film makes a shrewd choice by casting Michael Keaton—currently in the midst of a hearty career revival—as a disgruntled businessman in the salvage trade. He gets his hands on some alien goo and builds a set of mechanical wings, obsessed with bringing down Stark. Keaton’s dexterity as an actor makes you feel for the guy, and there’s a third-act plot twist that lets his character inhabit an even richer vein of menace. We’ve also got Marisa Tomei as Peter’s guardian, Aunt May (she delivers the film’s exquisite final line), and Chris Evans doing his Captain America character in a series of high-school public-service announcements. As for Holland, an English actor recently seen in The Lost City of Z, he conveys the chipper enthusiasm needed for the role, and his generic looks are suitable for an every-teen.
Homecoming is directed by Jon Watts (Cop Car), who clearly knows how to set up a joke and pull off a slab of spectacle (attacks on the Washington Monument and a Staten Island Ferry enable Spider-Man’s mandatory bigger-than-life heroics). The idea of letting Peter’s video diary set the movie’s tone is not just a clever touch; the rest of Homecoming actually feels as though it might have been directed by a teenager, albeit an extremely clever one. Not only that, this is the first time watching a Marvel movie that I’ve felt the business of folding characters into a pre-existing universe actually clicks. Homecoming doesn’t give you the underscoring of gravity conveyed by the best pulp pictures—this movie has high spirits, not grand ambitions—but the bigger workings of the Marvel machinery provide the pleasant buzz of something larger afoot. If we have to create movies as blockbusters, let them be like this one: fast, daffy, and swathed in red and blue. Spider-Man: Homecoming, Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., July 7 at various theaters.