Another bleedin' Spider-Man movie, you say? Homecoming is the second attempt in five years to reboot this wobbly franchise—and it might do the trick. For one thing, thanks to some desperate corporate deal-making, Spidey is now officially a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which enables cross-promotional high-fives by fellow Avengers Iron Man and Captain America. Most important, there's been a fresh character re-think by indie director Jon Watts (Cop Car), who's also one of the movie's many writers. Watts's Peter Parker—the larval Spider-Man—is basically just a kid, a 15-year-old high school student with an impossible crush on a beautiful senior and an impossible dream of taking her to the big homecoming dance. The movie is essentially a teen coming-of-age story (think John Hughes, Clueless, Can't Hardly Wait) cranked up with a blast of spidery superpowers.
Watts was wise in casting Tom Holland to play this new Spider-Man. Holland (The Lost City of Z) was 20 years old when the movie was shot, younger than Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, his immediate predecessors in the role. As a former stage and TV dancer, he brings an irresistible athletic energy to the proceedings.
The movie does all of us a favor by ditching the traditional Spider-Man origin story. We know about Uncle Ben. We know about the radioactive spider bite. Instead of rehashing all that, the director kicks off his story right after Peter's trial-by-combat cameo in Captain America: Civil War. We find his reluctant super-mentor, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), dropping him off at home in Queens (cue Ramones track), where he lives with his unsuspecting Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Stark gives Peter a cool parting gift—a custom-tailored Spidey suit (with a precautionary "training wheels" feature, he's bummed to discover)—but when the kid asks about his next Avengers mission, Stark says, "We'll call you," and drives away.
By this point, we've already been given some pertinent backstory, set immediately after the big "Battle of New York" in The Avengers. We see salvage-company owner Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his crew rooting around in the Manhattan rubble in search of powerful alien weapons left behind by the now-dispatched Chitauri invaders. Toomes is looking forward to a major payday on this project, but he's cheated out of it when Stark Industries teams up with the government to take over the operation. Toomes already hates the rich and powerful, but never more so than now. Since he already has a number of the Chitauri weapons in his possession, he sets about selling them—and he doesn't much care to whom. He also begins constructing a big black metal-winged super-suit of his own. (Toomes's super-villain name in the Marvel comics—although not here, for some reason—is The Vulture.)
Sidelined by the big-time Avengers, Peter decides to become a neighborhood superhero, scotching small-time crime wherever he finds it. Inevitably, he sometimes screws up: There are web-slinging incidents, and his attempt to foil a late-night ATM heist ends up destroying the entire bank in which the machines are housed. When he winds up on YouTube in his Spidey suit, his corpulent best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) immediately spots the imposture, and is wowed: "Can you spit venom?" he eagerly asks. "Can you summon an army of spiders?"
While Peter tries to lower his profile, and to master the technological intricacies of his Spider-suit (which has a helpful Siri-like function voiced by Jennifer Connelly), he must also deal with the usual complications of high school life. He keeps getting grief from a sarcastic sourpuss named Michelle (an entirely delightful Zendaya) and a snotty nemesis called Flash (Tony Revolori, of The Grand Budapest Hotel). He's also kind of upset to learn that Liz (Laura Harrier), the head of the school's brainiac club and the girl on whom Peter has that crush, has a crush of her own on this Spider-Man everyone's talking about.
The movie is lighter and airier than most superhero extravaganzas. Peter is too young to have any tragic overtones, and even Keaton's villain isn't completely bad—he's a working-class guy who just wants to provide for his beloved family. The dialogue is appealingly breezy, and Downey, in his periodic appearances, is pricelessly dismissive. ("Forget the flying monster guy," he tells Peter. "There are people who handle this sort of thing.") The big action scenes are as elaborate as you'd expect—there's a long, terrific one set at the Washington Monument—but they have a sleek clarity that's unusual in a film genre so often digitally muddled.
The movie's key asset is its star—the picture flies along on Holland's youth and his skittering high spirits. Just when it was beginning to look as if there were no new direction in which to go with PG-13 superhero films…it turns out there is.