Most hero stories dating back to Achilles are fantasies of power, of the world made right through violence. What sets Spider-Man apart, outside his joyous bouncing through New York City, is that his stories are also fantasies of responsibility. Rather than just kick bad-guy ass, Spider-Man must forever fight to save his family, his friends and every stranger who chances near the fray, always in the process destroying his own life as Peter Parker. Seven years ago, in a storyline in Marvel's Amazing Spider-Man comic book, Parker vowed that, on his watch, nobody in New York would ever die again, and he nearly died himself trying to make it so; in that series’ current issue, Spider-Man bails on a brawl with the latest iteration of Dr. Octopus so that he can rescue civilians caught in the dust-up.
Nobody speaks his famously humane credo — that with great power must come great responsibility — in Jon Watts' brash Spider-Man: Homecoming, the first Spidey flick as ebullient as the comics you read when you were a kid. But that truth pulses through the film: He's protector rather than avenger or punisher, not just of the young woman he crushes on (Laura Harrier) but also of his Queens neighborhood’s ATMs and bodega cats, of his classmates and families, even of the criminals he busts (for whom he exhibits a compassion rare in American hero stories).
As in Sam Raimi’s soulful Spider-Man 2, the most rousing of the many and varied action set pieces here find him helping rather than hitting, trying to make sure regular people get home safely. This time, though, a moral question underpins the excitement. In many of these rescue scenes, on ferries and monuments, it’s thanks to Spider-Man’s recklessness that everyone is in danger in the first place. The movie is buoyant even as it charts the young hero’s cock-ups, glancing against its lessons rather than hammering them home: Responsibility means actually being responsible, not just performing heroics, so the web-slinger has to learn not to pick fights with hoods in the middle of New Yorkers’ commute. Meanwhile, a quick, priceless early scene teaches him — and, I hope, America — the dangers of jumping to conclusions about who’s a criminal.
This Spidey, played by Tom Holland, sometimes gets it wrong, but he’s always striving to be better. That’s at odds with decades of violent Hollywood heroes, whose zealous mindset has become something of a national pathology: I am certain I’m right, therefore whatever havoc I wreak is just. Holland’s Peter Parker is still in high school, but in this he’s more of an adult than almost anyone else on our multiplex screens this summer.
The film skips right through these ideas. You know how some comics fans insist that they actually read sequential art or graphic novels? Spider-Man: Homecoming is comics, unapologetically, as close as blockbuster filmmaking gets to cartooning. Early scenes of the teen hero patrolling Queens edge toward sketch comedy. He gives street directions to the elderly; he performs acrobatic feats for fans on the sidewalk; he must chase goons through suburban backyards with no buildings to swing from, a witty homage to the classic Amazing Spider-Man 267, by Peter David and Bob McLeod.
Out of costume, Holland’s Parker blends attributes of the previous actors to play the role: He’s a soul-sick worrier, like Tobey Maguire’s, and a spaz who doesn’t know how hunky he is, like Andrew Garfield’s. Despite his Hollywood abs, Holland is scrappy, a squeaky motormouth whose words scrape against the back of his throat as they gush out. His rasp and stammer at times suggest a raw young Michael J. Fox, without the ironic detachment. His characterization echoes the ’00s Ultimate Spider-Man comics, by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, though the filmmakers borrow elements from all of the half-century-old character’s eras.
The most welcome of these: a best-friend character, borrowed from Bendis, who catches on to Parker’s secret — and geeks out so winningly that the hero can’t mope in his bedroom, as Maguire’s Spidey used to. Jacob Batalon and Holland have chemistry like vinegar and baking soda, fizzing a little out of control whenever they’re put together. Two other friendships, with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Jon Favreau, as Stark’s driver and assistant, serve as counterpoint, each actor so nimble in his comic duets with Holland that their roles never feel like franchise-building drop-ins. These characters seem to share a world, and director Watts (Cop Car) finds laughs in the incongruity between Parker’s everyday worries — field trips and a homecoming dance — and Avengers business.
That world proves more bold, more diverse, more lively and lived-in than most of the Marvel movies. Don’t look for the Avengers films’ usual scenes set in stainless-steel labs — or the Noo Yawk construction Joes of the other Spider-Mans. Homecoming is precise in its milieu, vaulting along Queens Boulevard and the elevated 7 train, attentive to local color and addresses, populating its sunny magnet school with young people who look as if they might actually live in the borough. The women around him don’t get enough to do but for once they’re (mostly) not just problems and plot points for him to deal with. (His secret life means that he must disappoint them all, of course.) Too many male characters leer at Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, but Zendaya, as a lefty bookworm who is essentially a conscientious objector to high school, commands many scenes with just a caustic line or eyeroll.
Coming from the other wing of American politics is Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, the villain. He’s a screwed-over forgotten-man type who gives speeches about systems being rigged and, once legit business proves unprofitable, will do whatever it takes to make a score. His schemes — snatching tech we’ve seen in the other Marvel movies and selling modified versions of it to local crooks — are as down-to-earth as they can be for a heavy in a flying-vulture powersuit. Keaton is all earthy menace, a tough guy who believes he’s doing the right thing by seizing back a bit of the America that richer men have yoinked from him. Superhero fans once balked at the idea of Mr. Mom playing Batman. Now, in this most comic of comic-book movies, Keaton’s mere appearance can turn a scene dead serious.
In his abbreviated screen time, Keaton jolts Homecoming with just a scowl and those wily and restless eyes. The climactic battle, as in most of these films, is a blurred bore puked up by a computer, but the spoken showdowns between hero and villain prove tense and thoughtful. Here are two different understandings of the responsibility that great power demands, perfectly opposed views of what we owe one another in this world. The compassionate one, of course, prevails only in the movies and in the funny pages.