As a kid, Spider-Man was totally my bag. For me, there was Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. And, until Sam Raimi entered the picture, the only cinematic representation I had was the 1977 film, which is more ridiculous camp than anything else (though it does retain a few charms.) Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 were rock solid, with the sequel serving as the best comic book movie I’ve ever seen until this year. Spider-Man 3 was a disaster of epic proportions, and something I still don’t quite understand. Enter Andrew Garfield. His Amazing Spider-Man was a delightful change of pace, but not quite the Spider-Man I read as a kid. Amazing Spider-Man 2, like Spider-Man 3, was garbage – overstuffed, underdeveloped, and so lacking in inspiration that I thought it might have killed Spidey for good. In this case only, thank God Sony and Marvel are stubborn enough to not take “no” for an answer. Why? Because Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best of the bunch, and one hell of a fun time.

Forget the backstory, which we don’t need and rarely want. We know how Spider-Man became Spider-Man. So Homecoming drops us right in the middle of Peter Parker’s humdrum teenage life. He’s already helped The Avengers and can’t wait for his next mission. By day, he goes to school, builds Lego Death Stars with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), and pines over an older girl, Liz (Laura Harrier). By night, he puts on the suit given to him by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), and does his best to stop crime across the city, though inadvertently occasionally causes more harm than good. But what he desperately wants is to be an Avenger and help out on a global scale, which he constantly conveys to Happy (Jon Favreau), his handler, who couldn’t be less interested in what lady gave him a churro. When Peter stumbles upon some guys selling super powerful alien weapon technology, including a winged madman (Michael Keaton), he begins a journey to prove his worth by stopping them, while still attempting to maintain as normal a home and school life as he possibly can. That, my friends, is Spider-Man.

We should start with Tom Holland because that is what makes Homecoming so special. Forget Tobey Maguire, who was never energetic enough for the role. Forget Andrew Garfield, who was far too cool to be Peter Parker. Tom Holland is Peter Parker from the comics. He’s young, and he looks and acts young. He’s A.D.D. and excitable, and just the right combination of dork and hero. He doesn’t understand the powers he has, really, and Homecoming is all about his coming-of-age as a teenage superhero. It’s John Hughes if John Hughes made a superhero flick. Holland’s most impressive scene comes towards the end of the film when Spider-Man finds himself trapped in a compromising position. The desperation and vulnerability we see there is something wholly lacking from the previous incarnations. In that moment, he’s a scared kid who doesn’t know what to do, and it makes us feel for him and root for him all the more, so that when he does summon his strength, we’re as riddled with excitement as we’ve ever been in one of these films. It’s truly one of the great cinematic moments in the Marvel Universe to date.

Now: Michael Keaton. In many ways, Homecoming is just as much his film as it is Holland’s. His Adrian Toomes is not just fleshed out in ways most villains aren’t, he’s given the first ten minutes of the film to almost entirely develop into what we eventually know as Vulture. Like Dr. Octopus from Spider-Man 2, Vulture is a human being doing what he thinks is right. He’s not some other-worldly monster. He’s a man, with a family, doing whatever it takes to protect what he holds dear, even when it means doing sinister things. Keaton finds the perfect balance, particularly in the third act of the film when an unexpected reveal really changes the direction of his character. So much of what makes any superhero film work is the strength of its villain and Keaton, like Molina in Spider-Man 2, is entirely game for the challenge. There’s no phoning it in here. Keaton is menacing when he needs to be menacing, and congenial when he needs to be congenial, and he creates a fairly authentic portrait of a man driven to extremes by some of the very individuals we’re rooting for in the Marvel Universe.

Most of the real fun in Homecoming comes from Peter Parker at school. His relationship with Ned is a real highlight, and their chemistry is absolutely delightful from beginning to end. Peter Parker was never really given that in previous incarnations, and you don’t realize how lacking it was until you see Homecoming. And, whereas previous films were so focused on Peter’s relationships with Gwen or Mary Jane, Homecoming makes that of less importance. Sure, Peter has a crush, but saving the city is more important to him, and that never wavers. It gives the film less time to worry about romance and more time to focus on really building the characters. Zendaya is terrific as Michelle, the “Ally Sheedy” of the academic decathlon team. Tony Revolori is a perfect foil for Peter Parker as Flash. And Martin Starr made me laugh on more than a few occasions as Mr. Harrington. Thinking about how rich and fleshed out Peter’s school life is here, it makes me sad neither Riami or Webb could find a way to make that work.

Some other tidbits of enjoyment: Robert Downey, Jr. could have phoned it in here, and he doesn’t. He’s used sparingly, but just enough to seem less like a tie-in and more like an organic guest arc. And the way they use him works incredibly well, so when we do see he and Peter share a space at the end of the film, there’s a power to it that has been entirely earned. Also, Marisa Tomei is a particularly fabulous Aunt May, and I loved the running joke that everyone wants to have her. She also gets a last line in the film that is precisely what we want from that character in that moment. Oh – and I should also mention that the film doesn’t waste time setting up ten different villains for the inevitable sequel. It doesn’t need to do that. We’re going to see Spider-Man again before the sequel hits, so the filmmaker didn’t have that looming over him (That filmmaker is John Watts, whose Cop Car was one of my favorite films the year it came out.). He has proven, with Homecoming, that a budget doesn’t matter when you’ve got talent. He continues his fine work of getting incredible performances out of young people.

I’m really just over the moon for Homecoming, so I’m probably blathering like an idiot. I don’t care. I’ve been waiting thirty-five years for an actual Spider-Man picture, and I finally got one. Look, I get it – Spider-Man 2 is still a great film. I’m not disputing that. But Homecoming is far more of what the comic book promised. It’s a Peter Parker that feels like Peter Parker. It’s a Spider-Man that feels like Spider-Man. It’s one small piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it feels like its own special little place where other folks can visit from time-to-time while still allowing it to be itself and grow at its own pace – sort of like a teenager. Homecoming is the unruly teenager of the MCU and one that I hope isn’t grounded any time soon. I hope John Watts stays with this franchise and keeps his unique blend of coming-of-age awkwardness and comedy trucking along through graduation. I hope the sequel focuses on fleshing out a true villain as much as this film did. I mean – the results sort of speak for themselves. Homecoming is the best Spider-Man film yet, and the best MCU film I’ve seen to date. It’s that good.

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