B.Kliban did a cartoon captioned “What did the city of New York do with King Kong?” over a drawing of a skeevy-looking burger stand. Spider-Man: Homecoming starts off similar: Toomes (Michael Keaton) is the head of a team cleaning up after the cataclysm in The Avengers (2012) after a Chitauri armada emerged from a wormhole over Manhattan.
While he toils in a bomb crater full of alien junk, in comes the damn government, with the new “Department of Damage Control” taking him off the job.
Toomes is a sympathetic portrait of the Trump voter type, driven nuts by regulations. He becomes a flying supervillain with the aid of the technology he kept. A winged terror of turbo fans and razor sharp wings, it looks like an industrial accident waiting to happen. It’s fast and it’s quiet, and it can scoop Spider-Man up, like a mouse rapt by a hawk. Funny, Toomes stays a foreman, even after he turns criminal. He’s a small-time arms dealer. He’s not watching the world burn—this movie has a body count of one. Keaton brings in a melancholy power and dignity to this vision of a salt-of-the-earth man unenthusiastically working himself up to murder.
Our 15-ish hero (Tom Holland) thought that he’d been tapped for the Avengers, but now it’s the familiar don’t call us, we’ll call you. Before he absented himself, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gave Parker a high-tech spider-suit Peter doesn’t quite understand. Misuse of this suit leaves Parker in the position of a kid who just ran his dad’s car into a tree.
His high-school life is modeled after Freaks and Geeks and The Big Bang Theory; Parker is a reject, befriended by Ned (Jacob Batalon, a live-action version of the kid from Up, giving us a masters class in the art of sidekicking). While trying to round up Toomes’ blasters that can carve buildings, Peter is crushed on by a ravishing classmate (Laura Harrier). Somehow his spider-senses fail to notice the rude but sharp bookworm Michelle (the one-named Zendaya). Even those allergic to whip-smartness may be delighted by Michelle’s stances. On a D.C. field trip, she refuses to enter the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves. The guide shrugs—she’s right.
In director Jon Watts’ hands, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a true comedy. There may be better Spider-Man movies, but there’s never been a funnier one, one that avoids the origin story and poor old Uncle Ben. Holland is a delight—an eager, likable stripling. For him, it’s not just the problems of trying to date while a giant metal vulture is menacing the city, but also a Harold Lloyd-worthy escape from the suburbs, hopping through golf-course sprinklers and caroming off garden sheds because there’s nothing to swing from. He finishes his night with a Nantucket sleigh-ride off the back of a van.
Caucasians who moaned about the racial changes in the casting got doubled-down on by Watts and the six credited writers. Here’s a polyglot, multicolored Queens, scored to the Ramones. Spider-Man still poses in a three-point footballer’s crouch in front of Old Glory, but this time she’s not on a Manhattan tower, but atop a bodega-lined block. Those who feel New York today is just the latest of the world’s bleached coral reefs may be cheered. If it’s more frictionless than the way it works in real life, surely this is how NYC is supposed to be.
The IMAX height-ordeals keep getting more harrowing: a rescue at the top of the Washington Monument is a stomach-plummeter; you can’t look, clenched with the old childhood feeling: how the hell is he going to get out of this one? The two other climaxes are a fantastic runaway-plane fight, and the rescue of a Staten Island ferryboat, split lengthwise by alien blasters.
The boat’s name is “Spirit of America”—too much? Maybe it’s only our shared symbols that are holding us together these days, and our hero binds the left and the right halves—excuse me, the port and starboard halves—of this ship of state. Fills you with simplistic political feelings worthy of Peggy Noonan, it does: bring us together again, Spider-Man!
PG-13, 133 Mins.