The latest superhero movie can sometimes feel like the last one, with over-quippy dialogue and shallow themes—especially if it’s one of a few recent Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Not so, however, with Spider-Man: Homecoming. This film marks a happy return for Marvel’s popular yet humble hero, and to Spider-Man’s classic themes of power and responsibility.
Newer Marvel stories occupy amazing fantasy settings (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) or offer up wish-fulfillment glamour (Iron Man). Homecoming, however, returns to basics by counterintuitively skipping Peter Parker’s spider-bite origin and sharing a new perspective on his familiar challenges: Now that Peter can join the broader Avengers universe, he must learn how to become great like the A-list superheroes—by first learning to serve his own people.
A quick recap: To date, this is the third cinematic version of Spider-Man. Sony Pictures licensed the Marvel hero for the first 2002–2007 Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire. Then, Sony rebooted the series in 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man, which starred the earnest Andrew Garfield. But the rebooted series didn’t work well, partly because Sony engineers wanted both a cool, merchandisable story-world and a humble Spider-Man at once, and partly because Iron Man (2008) had kicked off the idea of a shared hero universe, motivating fans to expect a broader story palette. Meanwhile, growing special-effects resources helped push superhero films out of the standard “secret identity” plotlines, which had helped balance epic fantasy battles with the more budget-conscious civilian lives of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man.
Sony executives thus chose to reboot Spider-Man again, this time teaming up with Marvel Studios to share plotlines and profits. The Avengers had taken the baton from Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man trilogy, and now they passed it right back. Our new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) no longer needed to live in a universe of Sony products and overly grandiose side plots about conspiracies and his late parents; now, he lives in the same cinematic world as Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America.
Spider-Man made his debut in 2016’s hero-packed Captain America: Civil War, in which Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) recruited Peter to join Team Iron Man for a battle against Captain America and a giant-sized Ant-Man. It’s easy to imagine that in Peter’s eyes, this was like the best and most “spiritual”-feeling summer camp ever. But as Homecoming begins, Tony drops Peter back into his old “unspiritual” life with only a new suit to help with part-time heroics. It’s nothing compared to becoming a full-time hero with the Avengers: Spider-Man is stuck in the dull web of home and school, with friends and a pretty girl, but also tests and bullies.
Director Jon Watts’s team has fun with Peter’s frustration but never laughs at him. Nor does the story cast Iron Man and his amazing friends as villains—even when Tony won’t answer Peter’s calls. And when Peter jailbreaks his own suit’s tech, takes a battle into his hands, and causes a crisis, Tony arrives and steps into a new armored form: Iron Patriarch Mark I.
“I need you to be better,” Tony lectures. “I’m taking back the suit.”
“I’m nothing without the suit!” Peter pleads.
Tony counters: “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.”