Calling a movie “adolescent” is usually the kiss of death, as if all our entertainments should aspire to maturity. Even the billion-dollar superhero Tinkertoys that rule the summer box office can come with pretentions of social responsibility and larger meaning.
Sometimes that works (“The Dark Knight”). More often it feels strained (“Batman v. Superman”). And sometimes, as in the case of “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” a superhero movie is adolescent in all the right ways: limber, reckless, full of youthful brio and uncertainty. Trying on new identities, overreaching, doubting, starting over again.
The new film isn’t a masterpiece but it’s excellent summer fun, a vast improvement on the last two entries featuring the character and an appealingly modest step back from the Wagnerian concerns of most men-in-tights movies. The entire universe isn’t threatened with destruction in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” or even planet Earth. It’s just Queens.
All right, and the Washington Monument.
The latest Peter Parker is played by Tom Holland, a fine young actor (“The Impossible,” “The Lost City of Z”) with spindly legs and a face that appears to be waiting for the next zit to appear. Holland’s 21 but he makes us believe that Peter’s 15 and that his emotional concerns are as such: the next quiz, the homecoming dance, the faraway girl. It seems only coincidental that Peter’s “internship” with Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), actually consists of his slipping into the red-and-blue Spider-Man outfit and web-slinging through his neighborhood in an effort to stop crimes. Even then, he mostly gives directions to little old ladies.
Because the “Spider-Man” movies are now firmly back in the Marvel corporate fold — more about that in a bit — “Homecoming” has been engineered to synch up with the most recent “Avengers” films. What could be dutiful is given a lift right at the outset by replaying the battle royale from last year’s “The Avengers: Civil War” from the vantage point of Peter Parker’s cellphone: the superhero donnybrook as excitable teen Snapchat, filmed by a kid who’s just glad to be in the room.
The plotline of “Homecoming” sends Peter back to his drab high school existence while waiting for a phone call that never comes from Stark’s right-hand man, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). As scripted by a raft of writers and directed by Jon Watts (“Cop Car”), the movie’s content to keep its horizons low, sketching in the hero’s teenage peers: best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), rival Flash (Tony Revolori, of “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), dreamgirl Liz (Laura Harrier), proud misfit Michelle (ex-Disney Channel moppet Zendaya).
A high-tech Spidey costume on loan from Stark Enterprises aside, the kid hasn’t earned his superhero status yet. “Homecoming” is about how he tries, fails, and tries again.
The tone is light, lively, sometimes too antic — again, believably teenage. But there has to be a supervillain, and it’s a good thing they’ve cast Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, a Noo Yawk construction foreman who comes upon some alien weaponry left over from an earlier “Avengers” movie and skunkworks it into an entire criminal enterprise, with himself outfitted with mechanical wings as The Vulture. Even here the stakes are blessedly low-key. As far as I can tell, the Vulture just wants to make enough money to retire and move to Florida.
One reason “Homecoming” feels like a comparative breath of fresh air is because the last two “Spider-Man” movies were disastrous. Some pop-corporate history: Columbia/Sony long held film rights to the character and made the 2002-2007 trilogy, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire; the first two entries are still rightly considered the property’s high-water mark. Sony decided to reboot a new series in 2012 before production rights reverted to Disney and a resurgent Marvel Entertainment, but the two films with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are mortifyingly bad and often nonsensical — arguably the worst superhero films of the modern era. The producers of “Homecoming” were right to send Peter back to high school. (The new film is a joint Sony/Marvel release.)
That said, there may be a little too much time spent watering the franchise garden — I like Robert Downey Jr. as much as the next moviegoer, but still — and not enough time with the re-imagined Aunt May (a youthful Marisa Tomei; it raises the question of what happened to Uncle Ben) or the unexpectedly delightful Michelle, who is the series’ secret weapon (for now) and whose air of deadpan ridicule deflates whatever pomposity is left over from the “Avengers” movies.
Have I mentioned that Donald Glover (“Atlanta”) turns up as a minor villain and mostly hangs around debating the merits of various Queens delicatessens with the hero? At its best, that’s the kind of Spider-Man movie this is.
Oh, there are lessons learned. “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it,” Peter discovers to his chagrin and eventual betterment. OK, Dad. Much more entertaining and to the point is the bit where Spider-Man turns off his suit’s Training Wheels Protocol and suddenly has to deal with Enhanced Combat Mode, Instant Kill, and 576 Webbing options. (With a great outfit comes great responsibility.)
“Homecoming” is about process — the way a kid figures out who he can be, or wants to be, as he grows, making mistakes every other step. The key exchange of dialogue is between the hero and his best friend before a party: “I’m just going to be myself.” “Peter, nobody wants that.” Consequently, it’s a movie less interested in resolution, and the final fight scenes with the Vulture on a nighttime Coney Island beach — not to mention the revelation of how the bad guy fits into the movie’s family tree — are hectic, noisy, and unconvincing.
But, as with “Wonder Woman” — this summer’s other superhero surprise — that’s the blockbuster mortgage coming due, an understanding among most audiences that things will eventually have to blow up real good or they won’t be getting their money’s worth. To its credit, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” forestalls the inevitable as long as possible. It puts the “neighborhood” back into your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
Directed by Jon Watts. Written by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers. Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Zendaya. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s IMAX, Natick and Reading. 133 minutes. PG-13 (sci-fi action violence, some language, brief suggestive comments).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.