Midway through “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” there’s a sequence that revs the picture up in that buzzy spectacular “Hey, I’m watching a Marvel movie!” way. Peter Parker (Tom Holland), a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Queens, is in Washington, D.C., along with a team of his fellow student brainiacs, to attend the finals of the Academic Decathlon. They’re up in the Washington Monument when a volatile alien weapon explodes, causing a crack along the top of the building’s pointy pillar and trapping the students inside the elevator.
It’s up to Peter to save them, though as Spider-Man he’s still figuring out what the heck he’s doing. In his red-and-blue spandex costume, now layered with computer intelligence and a Siri voice, he shimmies up the monument, a vertical crawl shot at dizzying angles (as in, straight down). He blasts some sticky web here and there and tries to kick his way through a small window (nope, the glass is too hard). But it’s a sticky situation. For a few dicey moments, you’re up there with him, doing just what you’re supposed to be doing at a movie like this one. You forget yourself. You escape.
The rest of the movie isn’t bad, but it’s very much down to earth. There’s an aspect of comic-book superhero films that’s more or less encoded in the names of the heroes. Superman. Batman. Iron Man. Wonder Woman. They fly, they scowl, they see through walls, they repel bullets, but they are all grownups. Peter Parker is different — and he’s especially different in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” where Tom Holland plays him with a gawky, anxious deer-in-headlights teen innocence that’s so fumblingly aw shucks and ordinary that it seems almost incongruous when he’s referred to as “the Spider-Man.” What he looks (and acts) like is Spider-Boy. Tobey Maguire, who certainly seemed boyish at the time, was 26 years old when he first played Peter, but Holland was just 20 when he shot this film, and it makes a difference. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is the story of a savior who’s still mucking around in the business of being a kid. It’s almost as if he’s his own fanboy.
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The film’s novelty is that Spider-Man, though he’s been enshrined by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as an Avengers apprentice, barely has a handle on how to harness his powers, or what to do with them. To a degree, the film’s novelty works, though with a qualifier: This Peter is such a normal, awkward dude that he’s a touch innocuous — the closest the Marvel Universe has come to giving us a superhero who wouldn’t look out of place on the Disney Channel.
Holland has a likable presence, but he’s dutiful and imploring rather than captivating. His wormy pale handsomeness makes it seem, at times, like he’s starring in some high-school chapter of “The Bobby Flay Story,” and the director, Jon Watts, keeps all the action on the genial surface. Peter has a best bud, the roly-poly and easily wowed Ned (Jacob Batalon), and he’s got a crush on Liz (Laura Harrier), a senior who’s on the Decathlon team. The biracial romance is a step in the right direction, but at one point the two are poised in an upside-down kiss that never materializes, which only reminds you of how much the film is feeding off its legacy. It’s fine — and true enough to Marvel — to make a “Spider-Man” movie about a young adult, but “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has an aggressively eager and prosaic YA flavor.
Yet coming after the two Andrew Garfield “Spider-Man” films, which were the definition of super-forgettable competence, the movie is just distinctive enough, in concept and execution, to connect and become a sizable hit. If so, it could prove a key transitional film in the greater cinematic universe of comic-book movies. “Homecoming” tells its audience: This kid isn’t quite super — he’s just like you. “Ant-Man” did the same thing (and out of the Marvel zone, so did the “Kick-Ass” movies), but we’ve never seen a character as mythical as Spider-Man portrayed in such a user-friendly, sanded-down, After School Special way.
The villain, played by Michael Keaton, is very much an adult. His name is Adrian Toomes, and he’s a disgruntled city contractor who, in the film’s 90 token seconds of “topicality,” decides to act out his rage against the elite members of a stacked-deck system by hawking a stolen cache of alien weapons on the black market. This villainous plot is pretty bare bones: The weapons are defined mostly by their purplish iridescent glow, and Toomes, as far as we can tell, doesn’t have a master plan — he just has a costume worthy of a master plan, a heavy-metal flying suit, each wing outfitted with what looks like an ominous whirring bedroom fan. He also has a major-nemesis name: Vulture. Keaton brings all the sinister, gnashing personality you could want to the role, though the movie should have given him more to do. It does, however, provide the character with a good twist, when he shows up where you least expect him.
In “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Peter Parker is a superhero-in-training whose alter ego is just being discovered on YouTube clips, and it’s fun to see him try to gain control over his capabilities. In place of the usual Tarzan swings through the gargantuan urban canyons, he operates in more compact spaces, shooting out his web in small targeted bursts. His suit, designed by Tony Stark, is equipped with gimmicks he’s just learning about. Yet the way the movie deals with all this stuff is more rote than ingenious. It’s hard to even tell where the suit’s powers leave off and Peter’s begin — or, judging strictly from “Homecoming,” if he even has powers of his own. We all know the spider-bite basics of Spidey’s origin story, but too much rebooting has now resulted in a certain vagueness, as if the film couldn’t be bothered to fill in the logistics. That said, the flying action has a casual flip buoyancy, and the movie does get you rooting for Peter. The appeal of this particular Spider-Boy is all too basic: In his lunge for valor, he keeps falling, and he keeps getting up.