Finally, finally, they get Spider-Man right—and damned if they don’t do it by throwing it into reverse, flooring it and making it scrappy, goofy, optimistic and fun again. Spiderman-Man: Homecoming is the third big-screen reboot since Tobey Maguire first donned the mask in 2002. Which raises the question: Do we really need to go through all of this again? This time, though, almost everything clicks, and the thing feels fresh, upbeat and relevant.
The good news begins with the casting of Tom Holland (British, 21, and a charm monster) playing Peter Parker not in the mopey mold of Maguire or the quirky, cocky style of Andrew Garfield. As a squeaky-voiced, nervy, smart-assed high-school sophomore, Holland isn’t merely good in the role; he’s definitive. The storyline has his Peter Parker such an ace at web-slinging, wall-scaling, and perp-busting that he is practically jumping out of his tights to do his thing on a bigger scale than his workaday Queens neighborhood.
He’s also presented as one of the smartest, most picked-on nerds in what ought to be called John Hughes High School—a place populated by scene-stealer Jacob Batalon (who plays his super-nerdy best bud), along with Zendaya (a snarky, funny outlier), and peevishly jealous rich boy Tony Revolori. But although the jokey script, credited to six different writers, presents Peter as happiest while wearing his costume, he’s also characterized as a nice, average kid who has to deal with everyday concerns like finances, shyness around girls, a crush on a senior class beauty (Laura Harrier), finding a date for the big school dance, and ducking detection by his loving widowed guardian Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who may be wise to his secret identity.
Although Peter longs to do bigger things alongside the Avengers, it’s clear that he’s still a gifted amateur. Absentee mentor Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., practically leaving a trail of smarm across the screen) tells him so, even after Spidey’s German-airport battle alongside the Avengers as seen in Captain America: Civil War. (Captain America himself turns up for several wonderfully satirical cameos). The self-enchanted zillionaire Stark tricks out Peter with a state-of-the-art Spidey suit and fobs him off on Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), another highly reluctant long-distance nanny whom Peter barrages with texts and phone messages on the same theme: Put me in, coach.
Meanwhile, Spider-Man isn’t the only powerful force Iron Man has thwarted. In a prologue, salvage-company crew boss Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, memorably menacing, especially as things progress) gets tossed aside as the boss of a salvage crew mining alien debris. But eight years down the line, Toomes has reinvented himself as the Vulture, a powerful arms dealer, high-tech villain and family man whose appealingly populist poor vs. rich philosophy runs, “The world is changing. It’s time we changed, too.” Spider-Man and fearsome, winged Vulture—part Batman, part Birdman—are destined for a head-on collision. When it comes, in a series of set pieces splashed against such backdrops as Washington Monument and the Staten Island Ferry, the conception, action and staging may not be especially original or even coherent, but it’s satisfying enough.
Some may object to newbie director Jon Watts (Cop Car) keeping the coming of age movie more grounded, loosey-goosey, and character-centered than adrenaline-driven. Forget ‘em. Watts is right on the money. This one’s sweet, entertaining, consistently funny, humane, optimistic and eager to please. That, especially in the often dark, cynical and pretentious realm of superhero movies, feels like a brazen act of nose-thumbing—completely in line with Peter Parker’s cheeky personality and with the peppy rock soundtrack that includes those other superheroes heroes of Queens, the Ramones. Marvel and company, take a long, deep bow.