The best parts of Spider-Man: Homecoming are the scenes we don't have to see.
Perhaps we can thank the Marvel gods (Odin, I guess?) that this new Peter Parker tale doesn't burden us with yet another rehash of the web-slinger's origin story. We've already seen that tale played out on the big screen twice before, after all, with Peter's Uncle Ben suffering an agonizing, narratively convenient death that has been revisited with a cruel Sisyphean glee rivalled only by the back-alley murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
When Homecoming opens, Uncle Ben is already six feet under, Peter is well-versed in the "with great power comes great responsibility" maxim, there's no boy-wakes-up-with-sick-abs sequence, and that nasty radioactive spider that started this whole mess? Well, as Peter bluntly informs his best friend early on, "It's dead, Ned."
Shoving aside all this cumbersome back story, more familiar to modern audiences than any Greek myth, allows the film to control its own destiny immediately, throwing us into the action of an adolescent Avengers wannabe forced to balance homework with heroics. (It also employs a deft found-footage trick to recount Spidey's most infamous exploits, perhaps the best use of the shaky-cam technique since … well, ever.) By minute five, Homecoming announces itself as a self-aware, exhilarating departure from the rote expectations of the genre, so filthy is it with directors trying to one-up those who came before them. It is, in other words, fun and funny as hell.
But Spider-Man: Homecoming has little reason to exist.
Including Parker's antics in last year's Captain America: Civil War, Homecoming marks the hero's seventh big-screen outing in just 15 years. One day, our children will marvel at how many Spider-Men we could choose from. Tobey Maguire for three films! Andrew Garfield for two! And now a new Spidey emerges with British actor Tom Holland. Why, exactly? Well, as much as writer-director Jon Watts and his other five (!) screenwriters would like their cute skip-the-exposition approach to indicate otherwise, there is no truly artistic reason for re-rebooting Spidey. Homecoming is simply an exercise in accounting.
Back in the halcyon days of 2007, there were big expectations for Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3, with Sony Pictures expecting it to usher in another sequel or two. But the picture was overstuffed with villains, Maguire was getting too old to pull off an angsty Parker and even James Franco seemed bored. But Spider-Man is Sony's most valuable intellectual property, wrested from Marvel years before the comic-book behemoth knew its box-office potential. A new iteration was ordered to keep the cash flowing, this time starring Garfield and executed under the creative guidance of Marc Webb, whose surname was the closest he would get to understanding the appeal of Peter Parker. Two more movies, one more naked attempt at a villain-centric spinoff, and Sony was back to square one. Again.
Which is when Marvel Studios, now owned by Disney, stepped in. Marvel desperately wanted to continue stocking its cinematic universe with new Avengers playthings. Sony needed an easy hit, and wasn't finding success in its more dusty properties (Ghostbusters, the so-far-buried Men in Black franchise). A deal was struck: Sony would retain distribution rights and pay Marvel a licensing fee, while Marvel would control merchandise. So here we are. You can simply feel the excitement.
As far as movies-as-line-items go, Homecoming is better than it has any right to be. The story is slight but spry, thanks partly to the jettisoning of origin story but also due to its blessedly small stakes. Holland is no match for Maguire's endearing earnestness, but he handily erases Garfield's legacy. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark pops by to dole out the necessary pinches of smarm, without overstaying his welcome. And the movie is gifted with one of Marvel's few genuinely interesting villains: Michael Keaton's Adrian "Vulture" Toomes.
There would be no complaints if Homecoming spent less time on Parker's home life (Marisa Tomei's Aunt May is given exactly one trait: her Marisa Tomei level of attractiveness) and more on Toomes, a bridge-and-tunnel antihero equal parts Tony Soprano, Chris Christie and imaginary foe of Keaton's own Riggan "Birdman" Thomson. With his perpetually arched eyebrows, shifty body language and stone-cold tone, the actor mixes the role's necessary camp with a chilling menace. It is unclear if Toomes is supposed to be a legitimate threat or a mere stopover for Spidey as he goes on to bigger and Venom-er things, but there's no denying that the film drops a degree or two of cool every time the character is off-screen.
The same cannot be said for any other supporting character, with the women in Parker's life getting especially short shrift. In addition to Tomei's barely there presence, the film wastes the talents of Laura Harrier (as Parker's No. 1 love interest), the Disney Channel phenom Zendaya (Parker's No. 2 love interest) and Jennifer Connelly (Parker's No. 3 love interest, so far as he's in love with his super-suit that happens to be powered by the actress's Siri-like presence).
The film's subtitle also promises more than it can deliver, with "Homecoming" an obvious nod to the big-dance-high-school genre, one rightfully dominated by John Hughes. Nearly every interview with Watts has him tripping over himself to underline this fact, but just repeating the name "John Hughes" does not make your film a Hughes-ian exercise. The film takes place in a high school, there's a dance, there's a one-note bully and there's an embarassingly slavish Ferris Bueller nod. But to suggest that Homecoming even tentatively approaches Hughes's understanding of the pain of adolescence is as far-fetched as … well, a boy being able to climb the walls.
Although not, perhaps, as implausible as another Spider-Man – in three or four years' time.