Superhero fatigue has reached its peak. Just in the last five months, we have had no fewer than four superhero movies, with two waiting in 2017’s wings. If we turn our attention only to Spider-Man, it gets even more ridiculous. In the last 15 years, there have been SIX Spider-Man movies (plus a hefty cameo in 2016’s Civil War): the Spidey exhaustion is very real. (One last point on that: The Amazing Spider-Man movies were not particularly well-received and I, for one, never could think of a good reason for their existence. With Homecoming premiering on the heels of those forgettable films, it faces a big climb.) Whether or not you are inclined to see Spider-Man: Homecoming, the newest Marvel film, probably depends a lot on your superhero and Spider-Man tolerance levels. I cop to feeling a lot of fatigue. I initially planned to avoid Homecoming altogether, even with Tom Holland’s super-charming appearance in Civil War. However, since my son saw it with his cousins and my daughters were so excited to see it, I bit the bullet (especially with so many critics lauding it). I am glad I did. Though it cannot completely overcome the sameness that has permeated superhero movies nor the fact that Spider-Man has now been rebooted twice in the last five years, Homecoming is a worthy entry into the Spider-Man canon and is so light on its feet and charming that fighting against its infectious joy just seems silly.
The efficacy of the film starts with Tom Holland. For the first time, we have a Peter Parker that looks and sounds like a 15-year-old. When he clumsily checks out his crush Liz (Laura Harrier), it feels true. When he and his friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) talk about a Lego Death Star that they are excited to build, it is delightfully and awkwardly real as opposed to uncomfortable. Holland doesn’t dial up the levels of his embarrassing teenager-hood to bombastically ridiculous levels; instead, he finds the relatability within every inelegant encounter. The filmmakers (director and co-writer Jon Watts and the five other credited writers, especially) have gone to great pains to re-establish Spider-Man as a insecure but witty young teenager figuring out how to do the superhero “thing.” USA Today’s Brian Truitt calls in the first YA superhero movie. I agree and I think it is all the better for it. Peter here deals with crime-fighting with an innocence and naivete often unseen in superhero films. The same insecurities that permeate his normal life seep into his life as a fledgling Avenger. Just as he wants to prove himself to his crush, he wants to prove himself to his de facto mentor, Tony Stark. Those parallels, obvious but not beaten to death, are what give Homecoming its buoyancy. As Peter tries to impress Stark and his put-upon bodyguard Happy, he is also shamelessly trying to impress the audience. And Holland more than meets that challenge. He’s geeky and yet sometimes self-assured, learning from Stark’s well-practiced insouciance but also Iron Man’s cocky belief that he can solve everything on his own. For both of them, their insouciance belies something deeper. In Stark’s case, the fact that he actually cares far too much; in Peter’s case, the scary feeling that he will never be good enough.
Of course, the Marvel movies have shown great ability to get us to root for their heroes. It’s the failure of the villains that many have taken issue with. The villain in Homecoming is not exception. Many critics have called out the “Vulture” (played, in an inspired bit of winkery, by Birdman star Michael Keaton), lumping him in with the cavalcade of uninspired villains that have traipsed through previous comic book films. Though he is by no means a perfect antagonist, he inspires both empathy and sympathy like Zemo in Civil War, which is more than can be said about many others. Keaton is more than up to the challenge of imbuing his character with more than just nebulous, semi-motivated malice. He has been driven to criminality in ways that feel genuine and realistic, and Keaton never loses sight of that. The interplay between Spider-Man and the Vulture actually seems to mean something in the end. That’s more than a lot of comic book movies can say.
Finally, agenda item #1 for the Homecoming filmmaking team seems to have been to give the audience a hilarious and delightful experience. Every supporting character has multiple amusing lines. Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned, Zendaya as their sardonic classmate Michelle, and Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks) as their somewhat hapless teacher Mr. Harrington, and Tony Revolori (Dope) as the cocky and rude Flash, all shine in multiple scenes, mostly through their assured deliveries. (Batalon has one line that sent my theater into uproarious guffaws. Of course I won’t ruin it here. My personal favorite line came from Starr.) One chase sequence takes on a very Deadpool-esque tone (minus the raunch and cynicism) as Spider-Man very ungracefully attempts to follow a speeding van. He crashes through backyards and destroys parts of roofs, continually infringing on strangers’ privacy but still getting off genial one-liners and observations. If the movie used all of this to become too breezy, it would undermine the tension the audience should be feeling. The movie is savvy enough to never let the lightheartedness outweigh the real stakes though.
Bottom line: Spider-Man: Homecoming is not an “essential” film by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think anyone will leave the movie theater thinking it has changed them in real life for the better. I also don’t think it necessarily reinvented anything substantial. While the very best comic book movies find a way to comment thoughtfully on the real world, most of them simply give us a respite from everyday travails. Homecoming may be offering a soft-edged critique on the pessimism that pervades some of the better comic book films, but that is not its main objective. Whether you ultimately decide to see it or not will depend on how you feel about the Marvel movie universe and the overabundance of Spider-Man flicks. Nonetheless, the movie successfully combats superhero exhaustion and makes a compelling argument for its own existence, and that is no small feat.