There’s a little moment, a tiny one really, in Spider-Man: Homecoming that perfectly encapsulates the easy, abounding charm of Jon Watts’s film, opening July 7. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his trusty pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) are skulking around their high school, trying to avoid a bad guy. Pressed up against a classroom window, they catch the attention of a student inside. This gawky little kid, a curious and confused expression on his face, slowly, cautiously asks them what they’re doing. They respond in some fashion, and then, in an act of awkwardness and friendliness, the unnamed boy points to the chessboard behind him and says, “Chess,” with a little smile. Description fails it, perhaps, but it’s such a funny, weird little moment—Watts showing a warm and idiosyncratic affection for the world of sweet-tempered nerds he’s created. Peter and Ned are on a big adventure. The boy in the classroom is at chess club and enjoying that. We’ve all got our things that we love. And isn’t that nice?
To say that Spider-Man: Homecoming is nice might sound like damning with faint praise. But it really is such a nice film, pleasant and amiable in a way that the archness of Marvel films does not always allow. The six credited screenwriters have given us a Spider-Man movie that isn’t moody or brooding, like Sam Raimi’sperpetually overrated (sorry!) films could be. The tone this time is young, scrappy, kind, impetuous. Peter truly does seem like a kid, a decent and earnest one who is nonetheless susceptible to a bit of teenage hubris when imbued with extraordinary abilities and given a taste of the superhero life (as he was in his introductory film, Captain America: Civil War). Holland calibrates this really well, turning in an endlessly likable performance that never cloys or grows sticky with precociousness.
Nor does Homecoming, rather miraculously, ever feel as unnecessary as Marc Webb’s two recent Spider-Man attempts. Because there’s no tedious origin story, for one. And because, in weaving the Spider-Man narrative into the larger (like, really large) Avengers saga, Homecoming—a co-production between Marvel Studios and Sony—gives our oft-filmed hero a new sense of purpose, cynical and synergistic as that purpose may ultimately be. It allows Spidey access to the Avengers house tone, which proves a natural fit for his quippy moxie.
But Watts is careful not to overly rely on the Avengers of it all. Though Robert Downey Jr. does appear as Tony Stark throughout the movie, and the film’s villain (played with pleasing growl by Michael Keaton) is empowered by technology seen in previous Avengers films, Homecoming makes certain that Spider-Man can stand on his own in a further installment. If Watts can maintain Homecoming’s happy, lived-in vibe—and its gracious, humane approach to its characters—then there’s no reason to think that any subsequent Spider-Man film has to reference the broader franchise in order to mean something.
Which is perhaps the film’s greatest feat. It manages to stoke a craving for more Spider-Man movies, which shouldn’t really be possible at this point. And yet, there I was on Wednesday evening, bouncing out of an annoyingly hard-to-get-to theater on the east side of Manhattan, eager for more. Homecoming is just such a summery good time. Though its action scenes aren’t really where the film excels—they’re engaging, just not eye-popping—there is one rescue sequence set at the Washington Monument that has a dizzying grace, a bit of derring-do in which Peter is allowed to appear scared and unsure, and yet still brave and determined in the end. These are simple sentiments, but they’re handled delicately by Holland and Watts, while the giddy visuals add the necessary visceral thrills.
Holland isn’t the only star player here. Batalon’s Ned is an excellent sidekick, helpful and loyal, but also seemingly possessed of a sense of self. Marisa Tomei could be given more to do, but I love her gently bohemian May, a cool aunt with a soulful side. (Plus she’s got a pair of glasses that could become a national fad.) Martin Starr, Jon Favreau, and Donald Glover all have amusing moments in smaller roles, lending offbeat flair to the proceedings without hyping-up their funniness. Perhaps funniest of all is Zendaya, who plays Michelle, a misfit member of Peter’s academic decathlon team who, I suspect, will have some increased significance in subsequent films. Zendaya gives Michelle a mordant edge, but she’s not some cartoonishly antisocial misanthrope teen. She’s just got a peculiar, dark sense of humor. Still, like all the kids at Peter’s public high school for students gifted in science and tech, Michelle cares. She shows up.
She’s another facet of Watts’s humane worldview—which, though subtly applied, is almost staggeringly welcome, and comforting, in this time of antipathy and atomization. Heck, even the villain in this film is coming from an understandable place. Homecoming is well-meaning and downright loving, with its sweet-natured hero, its ragtag group of cheery kids, its portrait of an avuncular Tony Stark all projecting a radiant optimism. That all goes a long way toward masking the intricate and sinister machinery that lies underneath. It’s perhaps entirely too easy to fall under Homecoming’s affable thrall and forget that we’re being peddled Marvel’s opiates for a bajillionth time.
Which is what I’m supposed to say, right? I must point out that I am aware of the evils of franchise filmmaking, the damage it’s doing to a once noble industry, etc. I know all that, and it troubles me. But, heck, sometimes fun can be fun, and Spider-Man: Homecoming provides that in abundance, with good-humor and clever verve. Sure it may be a little dismaying to watch Peter want nothing more than to be an Avenger, so desperate to leave his quirky and wonderful little corner of Queens to join those hard and gleaming corporate ranks. But Homecoming is keen to that dismay. In the end, the film has the decency to pull Peter’s gaze away from all that, even though the whole point of Marvel’s endeavor is, of course, to make us look again and again.