Everyone knows the back-arching twists that Peter Parker uses when swinging skyscraper to skyscraper across New York City. But never have you seen your friendly neighborhood web slinger face story twists like those in the irresistibly entertaining “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” The newest star system in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is packed with surprises, excitement and quick-witted laughs.
Peter (the winning Tom Holland) was reborn in last year’s “Captain America: Civil War” as an adorable crime-fighting teen geek. He was totally jazzed to be recruited as a junior varsity Avenger, joining Iron Man, Black Widow, Ant Man and more for a superpower smackdown at Germany’s Leipzig/Halle Airport. Near the start of “Homecoming,” we see a selfie video documentary of Peter being flown there by Tony Stark’s private jet from his home base in New York, his first airplane ride ever. He’s thrilled to smithereens at being invited to join the action, jumping with joy on his hotel bed like a trampoline. That infectious delight sets the tone for the entire film.
Spidey’s return in a story of his own is great right out of the gate. The film is sharply focused on creating fresh ways to frame its very familiar material and build solid connections to modern culture. The template of choice is a character-rich teen comedy, with splashes of head-spinning action. Having just turned 15 (Holland is 21, but passes), Peter is a good kid and a science whiz and is secretly super-strong. He’s just not a superhero. Yet.
While Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his driver Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) keep their eyes on him, he stumbles through inexperienced efforts to fight evil. That means helping elderly women find their way around and jumping on guys who sort of look like they probably might be doing something that could possibly be wrong.
Between those exploits, he sits on apartment fire escapes, looks at the Manhattan skyline and waits for an “Avengers assemble” bulletin that never arrives.
Like “Ant Man” before it, this is light, small-scale, blue-collar Marvel, where ripping off ATMs is high crime. And it works.
Michael Keaton, whose great white shark grin has a peerless talent for making us feel nervous, then laugh, then repeat, brings his A Game to the bad guy part. His Adrian Toomes is no run-of-the mill galactic overlord. He’s a small-business contractor cleaning up the debris that was left the last time the Avengers and alien evildoers smashed the Big Apple into applesauce. Then a government task force revokes his license in order to keep control of the busted alien tech weapons scattered everywhere.
Adrian, deep in debt, snatches as many scraps as he can, determined to find ways to repurpose them and sell them on the black market. His plan results in extremely violent consequences and repeated one-on-one battles with a shortish, slender, light-voiced do-gooder.
So far, so standard. What sets “Homecoming” apart is how richly thought through it all is.
Keaton gives us a heavy who’s more ambitious and greedy than textbook evil. He doesn’t have a world-seizing master plan, a secret identity or a villainous code name. He’s just a guy. That’s genius. Particularly because he lulls us into the story about Peter’s homemade missions interrupting his romantic hopes and need to get to class on time.
And then we get the biggest third-act surprise in many a year. It’s uncommon for a film to startle me so much that I feel like I was clobbered in the head with a polo mallet, but this one got me for real.
There are a thousand razor-sharp gags, and not many give you the sense you’ve heard the joke before.
There’s wonderful character work among Peter’s high school classmates. Tony Revolori from “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the perfectly cast actress/activist Zendaya and newcomer Jacob Batalon turn their light supporting roles blissfully funny. And Tony Stark’s sarcasm goes on hold for several moments of genuine tough-love mentoring to Peter.
It’s not a breach of spoiler protocol to say what a movie doesn’t do, especially when it brushes off superfluous concepts. If you don’t already know who Spider-Man is, you have clearly entered the wrong theater.
So we don’t see a spider bite or any sort of origin story folderol. There’s no mention of the boy’s beloved Uncle Ben. (We don’t need a back story on Aunt May, because when Marisa Tomei plays a character, it’s always clear who she is and what she’s about.) There’s no encounter with blowhard newspaper tycoon J. Jonah Jameson. The classic Spider-Man theme is part of the score for only a muted moment. We don’t even see Spidey whoosh his way across Manhattan.
The slam-bam overkill that has turned the Warner Bros. DC franchise into orgies of excess is held in check. Nothing is pushed to overdose, not even the mandatory disaster set pieces. Most of the climactic action takes place around Coney Island, not in demolishing the Ferris wheel and other rides, but as a mano-a-mano slugfest on the beach.
This is the work of a creative team that knows smart is more important than loud, and enough is far better than extra. This movie uses very good ingredients and uses them just right.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
★★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments.