Not long ago, the notion of losing track of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would have seemed impossible. But nowadays, the same comic book junkie that made me the perfect audience for the MCU is straining to stay interested in the face of its overwhelming market saturation. Hence, my delayed response to Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), the umpteenth reboot iteration of Marvel’s friendly neighborhood webslinger, “coming home” to the MCU in its Phase III Avengers: Infinity War build-up.
As someone who resisted Spidey’s entertaining but incongruous cameo in Captain America: Civil War, I have to say I went into this one with something of a jaundiced eye, but I was pleasantly surprised. Mercifully, Spider-Man: Homecoming skips the obligatory reboot origin story, instead throwing us headlong into the early superhero career of young Peter Parker (Tom Holland), trusting correctly that we’ll remember the radioactive spider and Uncle Ben and so forth. In the wake of his Avengers “audition” in Germany, Peter returns to his regular life in New York City — living with his loving Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) in Queens while attending an advanced preparatory high school. Peter is anxious to join the Avengers, but Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) isn’t convinced he’s ready, so Peter busies himself with regular life — things like hiding his secret from Aunt May, and managing his crush on classmate Liz (Laura Harrier). Meanwhile, he also brushes up on his crimefighting skills, focusing on helping the citizens of New York in smaller ways. These activities, however, put him onto a weapon-smuggling ring led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), one that is hybridizing the strange alien technology that littered New York after the Battle of New York with human tech. Peter tries to report this to the Avengers through his contact Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), but gets the brush-off, so goes after Toomes and his minions by himself.
Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking in its milieu, and falls prey to the MCU habit of descending into incoherent action spectacle in its final act. Nonetheless, it’s a refreshing departure, as solo features go. Holland is a charming lead, and he’s surrounded by likable support from his well characterized classmates, who actually make for convincing teenagers. Keaton delivers effective villainy that’s somewhat more nuanced than usual. But its most striking aspect is that it tells a smaller story, stays within itself, and is far less structurally predictable than most MCU fare. Considering the robust output of this shared universe, you’d think Marvel would have learned sooner that it could mix things up every now and then. Hopefully, the success of Spider-Man: Homecoming has sent them that message.