Whenever anyone, usually a guy, defends the supremacy of modern-day comic-book culture by pleading, “But comic books were my whole childhood!” you can hear my eye-rolling from here to Krypton. Except when it comes to Spider-Man. For some reason, surely an irrational one, a lingering affection for a nerdy boy superhero from Queens — one who can almost fully control his web-slinging capabilities — seems perfectly defensible. There’s something else about Spider-Man. Robert Downey Jr. will probably be OK playing Iron Man/Tony Stark for at least another 10 years. But there’s a good reason the Spider-Man series has been rebooted twice since 2002, when Sam Raimi made the first movie foray into the Marvel character’s mythology: In our imagination Peter Parker remains, and always must be, a teenager. Even though a good actor can fake that youthfulness well into his twenties — both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield pulled it off pretty convincingly — the shelf-life of this particular role is short. A Botoxed Spider-Man just won’t do.
Tom Holland, the young English actor who stars in Jon Watts’ likable if sometimes unwieldy Spider-Man: Homecoming, is everything Peter Parker/Spider-Man ought to be: Charmingly awkward, light on his booted feet, and youthful-looking enough to pass for a high school student. This Peter Parker schleps his backpack every weekday to the Midtown School of Science and Technology. He gets crushes on fellow students just like everybody else — this time he has his eye on tall, brainy, stunning Liz (Laura Harrier), a member, as he is, of the school’s Academic Decathlon team. He has other friends, like fellow nerd Ned (goofy-sweet Jacob Batalon) and Michelle, a sardonic young woman whose nose is buried in a book half the time. (She’s played, with a delightfully sullen insouciance, by Zendaya.)
The homecoming dance is coming up, and Peter Parker the boy would like to go with Liz, though she seems to like him only as a friend. Meanwhile, Peter is itching for any chance to become Spider-Man, and navigating the intricacies of that other identity isn’t easy. A local trucker, good guy turned bad Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who moonlights as the black-feathered creature Vulture, has stolen a futuristic substance that’s easily weaponized, and he plans to use it for evil. Parker is onto him, but in trying to save the day, he hasn’t fully figured out the Spider-Man thing. Costumed in his stretchy super-arachnid suit, he flips and flies through the air effortlessly one minute and falls with a splat the next. His bones appear to be made of rubber. He hardly gets hurt, as long as we’re not talking about his pride.
That buoyant naïveté is key to this Spider-Man, and Holland brings it by the jittery bucketful. The movie around him is sometimes glancingly light. Other times it works way too aggressively at being entertainment, rather than just breathing. But Holland, as both Parker and Spidey, is always fun to watch: His bumbling uncertainty and his boyish eagerness make him believable not just as a crime fighter but as a kid.
And like all kids, he’s awed by the mere idea of Spider-Man, even though he is Spider-Man: He’s fully invested in his own myth even though he hasn’t figured out how to build it yet. He makes nerdy video diaries of his nascent superhero exploits. He sends anxious text messages, hundreds of them, to his caretaker, Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, begging to be taken out of school and sent on a mission. (Happy ignores each and every one.) And he eludes the stern eye of his boss, Tony Stark (Downey), AKA Iron Man, who has little patience for the spider-spud’s fumbling: At one point, trying to foil an ATM robbery, Spidey inadvertently destroys his favorite neighborhood bodega (though he does manage to save the deli’s owner and, perhaps just as importantly, its furry, big-bellied cat).
Past a certain point, the action becomes wearying, though things do perk up with the arrival of a nice little plot twist. And here and there, Watts — director of the 2015 crime thriller Cop Car — orchestrates some wonderful moments: One of them is the sight of Spider-Man balanced deftly atop the first car of the 7 train into Queens, riding high like a surfer conquering an unruly wave.
But the real pleasures of Spiderman: Homecoming lie in its quieter moments, and in the interplay between the actors. The movie’s casting is pure New York, so casually racially mixed that you barely notice it, and once you do, you don’t give it a second thought. Why can’t more movies be like this? Here’s another sly, smart casting choice: Marisa Tomei plays Peter’s guardian, Aunt May, and she shall forever henceforth be known as Hot Aunt May. Come on: You know it, I know it, the movie knows it — her effect on the men around her, of which she’s daffily, wonderfully unaware, is written right into the script. Tomei is a great comic presence, and the movie could use more of her. One of the best sequences is a montage, set to the English Beat’s gorgeous, wistful “Save It for Later,” in which Aunt May helps Peter suit up for the homecoming dance, getting his sport coat to fit right and showing him, with the aid of an instructional video, how to tie a Windsor knot. It’s a relief to see a superhero engaged in deeply human activities, like getting ready for a date with a girl he really likes. This Spider-Man is still just a kid, after all, and he has no energy for existential angst — just dealing with hormones is enough.