Spider-Man: Homecoming works because it’s only partly a Spider-Man movie. This is just as much a high-school movie. There’s a dance, a party, and awkward flirting; the best action scene takes place on a field trip to the Washington Monument. Peter Parker has always been unique as a superhero because of his age, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, as the title implies, leans into that quality.
It also has the right actor to do so. Tom Holland may not be quite as adolescently nerdy as Tobey Maguire was when he anchored Sam Raimi’s three Spider-Man movies, but he’s certainly more of a believably squeaky-voiced teen than Andrew Garfield, the fidgety, emo star of the unfortunate, previous reboot of the franchise. Holland’s Peter Parker, who we got a glimpse of in Captain America: Civil War, is, more than anything else, eager. (That Civil War battle scene is revisited here via amusing mobile-phone footage Peter took in the midst of the fray.) Eager to win the affection of his crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), and eager to leave his regimented high-school life behind, Peter wants to trade up from petty crime-solving to more Avengers-sized missions.
Thank goodness the film doesn’t let him. Directed by Jon Watts, Spider-Man: Homecoming’s most refreshing quality is its relative smallness. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) tells Peter early on to lay low, to be a “friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.” And for the most part he does. Even the larger mission he takes on (against Stark’s wishes) involves thwarting a small-time local weapons dealer. In other words, no gargantuan alien forces appear. And while I may have missed it because they tend to make my eyes glaze over, I don’t think there’s an Infinity Stone to be found.
That villain, the weapons dealer, is one of the movie’s delights. We meet Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) in the very first scene, in which the salvage company he runs is cleaning up the mess left behind by an earlier Avengers battle. The feds march in and throw him off the job, handing it instead to a Stark subsidiary. An enraged small businessman held back by big government (Keaton lets his crazy eyes fly as he punches one of the federal agents), Toomes keeps some of the alien technology his crew had salvaged. He uses it to concoct new, powerful weapons, including the winged, flying suit that turns him into a flying menace known as Vulture. (I love that Keaton wears a bomber jacket while piloting it.) Toomes is a wonderfully conceived and devilishly performed villain—something like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, if he had become an arms dealer rather than a drug dealer and voted for Donald Trump.
He’s also, at this point, more than Peter can handle. Spider-Man is still learning the ropes, quite literally; frequently he swings wildly off course and crashes into a shed or some other such structure. When he and his best friend Ned (a charmingly dorky Jacob Batalon) hack the Spidey suit he’s been given by Stark to activate its enhanced features, he’s like a kid who just got his driver’s permit, swerving all over the screen. It’s funny, but it also enhances the sense of danger. Vulture could kill this kid.
Ned, whose previous goal in life was to complete a Lego Death Star set, is one of handful of well-cast supporting characters who flesh out Peter’s high-school experience. As Liz, Harrier is a sweet, though not pliable, love interest (I like that she’s taller than Holland), while Zendaya brings both humor and pathos to the part of Michelle, the cynical Academic Decathlon teammate who hides her affection for Peter beneath layers of withering sarcasm.
It’s the decathlon team who finds themselves atop a crumbling Washington Monument during the movie’s standout action sequence. Adopting his Spider-Man alter ego, Peter comes to the rescue, but finds himself standing on the pinpoint of the monument suffering from vertigo. Watt’s camera peers from above him over the edge, then swings back and forth, so that we too feel his trepidation. Earlier scenes of Spider-Man in action are serviceable, while a climactic fight at night succumbs to the usual CGI darkness, but this sequence is sublime. The camera combines Peter’s eagerness and anxiousness in a way that’s exhilarating.
For the most part, Spider-Man: Homecoming wears its Marvel Cinematic Universe membership lightly. Clever throwaway scenes of high-schoolers watching corny inspirational videos featuring Captain America work far better than the frequent Downey Jr. appearances as Stark/Iron Man. This is particularly true for the final moments, in which Stark seemingly awards Peter for doing the very same thing—not respecting his limitations—that he punished the kid for earlier. At least the movie concludes with Peter back in Queens. He may have a new Spidey suit at this point, and certainly more skills, but here’s hoping he stays in the neighborhood.