“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a refreshing reboot
In “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Tom Holland’s 15-year-old webslinger, Peter Parker, is more mathlete than athlete, a geeky high school sophomore whose beanpole physique is as likely to be sheathed in the iconic, formfitting red-and-blue bodysuit of comic-book lore as a baggy Tshirt on which two cartoon molecules are shown conversing with each other. (“I lost an electron,” says one. “Are you positive?” replies the other.)
Although not quite pimplefaced or pencil-necked, this uber-dweeb anchors an authen-
tic, refreshingly nerdy and highspirited reboot of the well-worn Marvel franchise, one in which the obsessions of a certain branch of male adolescence — girls, grades and geeking out on “Star Wars” Lego sets — compete for the attention of its hero with the underground arms dealing by a supervillain named Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, looking more like his tortured, middle-aged “Birdman” character than his earlier outings as Batman).
It’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” meets “The Dark Knight.”
In a breath of fresh air, “Homecoming” opens with a prologue that, despite the movie’s originstory contours, has nothing to do with getting bitten by a radioactive spider, or the catalyzing death of Peter’s Uncle Ben. (Thank you, screenwriters — all six of you.) Peter’s guardian Aunt May is still in the picture, but, as played by a frisky Marisa Tomei, she’s a far cry from versions of the dowager aunt delivered by Rosemary Harris and Sally Field in previous versions of the “Spider-Man” story.
Set in the aftermath of the Battle of New York — aka The Incident — depicted in 2012’s “The Avengers,” the opening of “Homecoming” introduces us to Keaton’s Toomes: an engineer who gets fired from his job rebuilding the devastated city, but not before he manages to furtively salvage some extraterres- trial weapons technology left lying around in the wake of the alien attack.
Fast-forward to the present day, when Toomes is now a peddler and designer of illegal high-tech guns, flitting above the nighttime underworld of New York in a vulturelike flying apparatus that looks like it was codesigned by Leonardo da Vinci and Doctor Octopus. In short order, Peter, who had his first small taste of superheroics fighting alongside Tony Stark’s Team Iron Man in last year’s “Captain America: Civil War” — and who has grown bored with recovering stolen bicycles in his Queens neighborhood — gets wind of Toomes’s black-market business, and he tries to put a stop to it.
Peter is both aided and hampered in this adventure by a fancy suit designed by Tony (Robert Downey Jr.), who cautions his young protege against getting too deep into crime-fighting before he’s seasoned. As part of what Peter unironically refers to as his “internship” with Stark Industries, Tony has disabled some of the most powerful features of the Spidey costume, setting it to what the suit’s Jarvislike voice assistant calls “training-wheels mode.”
The film, for much of the first two acts, takes itself just about that unseriously, maintaining a jokey, self-aware tone that is nicely evocative of the original comics. That tone is epitomized by Martin Starr’s wryly deadpan turn as the faculty adviser to Peter and his fellow participants in the academic decathlon that takes them on a field trip to Washington, D.C., where one of the film’s thrilling action set pieces — involving a rescue from an elevator inside the Washington Monument — takes place.
Another amusing running gag features corny video PSAs that Peter and his classmates are forced to listen to, featuring inspirational messages from Captain America (Chris Evans). “I’m pretty sure this guy is a war criminal now,” cracks the school’s coach and detention monitor (Hannibal Buress), offering a sly allusion to the muchcriticized collateral violence of some of Marvel’s recent films.
As youth-oriented and lightly larky as “Spider-Man: Homecoming” may be, the focus of the film — whose title refers to the school dance around which much of the narrative takes place — can’t stay small forever. Like its protagonist, who seems to be itching for a growth spurt of his own, the movie ultimately gets a little big for its breeches, in a mayhem-and-effects-soaked climax that suffers from many of the excesses of other Marvel movies.
That is to be expected, and yet it does not dim the bright and breezy story that precedes it. Marvel fans know this by now, but stay for the credits — and I do mean all of them — for a postlude that will deflate any lingering feelings of undue pomp and circumstance.