As ambitious as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been in building its shared setting of so many different superhero franchises, it is still bound by the inconvenient history of Marvel’s various licensing deals over the years that have resulted in a number of core Marvel characters—such as the Fantastic Four and the X-Men—conspicuously absent from all of the fun. But nowhere is this felt more keenly than with the most Marvel character there is, Spider-Man. Long held to a franchise licensed to Sony, the web-slinger had little chance of appearing in the MCU until Sony and Marvel came to terms and suddenly, one of Marvel’s characters became one of its latest additions to a universe that had been chugging along nicely without him. Greeted by fans with all of the joyful delirium of a long-overdue family reunion, Spider-Man: Homecoming would prove to be the just thing to turbocharge what is already the most successful movie series in history.
High school student Peter Parker is also the rookie superhero Spider-Man, whose introduction into the big leagues during the Civil War between Captain America and Iron Man has left him wanting to suit up even more. But his benefactor Tony Stark proves to be the most neglectful mentor ever, leaving poor Peter to his own devices. As Peter learns the hard way that being a superhero is a lot harder than it looks, he runs afoul of street crooks packing super-powered weaponry, and traces it all back to a guy named Adrian Toomes, a former salvage contractor-turned-alien weapons merchant called the Vulture who has plans to hijack the entire arsenal of the Avengers headquarters. As Spider-Man, Peter knows he’s the only guy around who can stop the Vulture. But first, he’s got to juggle high school, keeping his costumed life secret from his Aunt May, figuring out his first serious crush and deflecting the criticism of the kind of browbeating only unappreciative New Yorkers can dish out. Being willing to endure pain and death to fight for justice is one thing. But being able to put up with all of the side hassles? That’s something else. After all, getting beaten by the Vulture might be bad. Getting found out by Aunt May is something better left unimagined.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is replete with strengths, including absolutely perfect casting, enjoyable story, plentiful humor, an introduction to a previously unvisited corner of the MCU, action sequences that are just too much fun to not enjoy, and what might be one of the most satisfying post-credit scenes ever. But all of those things merely make this movie really, really good. What makes it amazing is how well the movie captures the travails of Peter’s confusing journey through the unfamiliar territory of life as a super hero, which becomes an amped-up version of the lonely transit we all make as kids growing into adulthood. Steering clear of easy parables and cheesy metaphors, Spider-Man: Homecoming does a fine job of making us love young Peter Parker as a kid a little too smart for his own good, a little too quick to not make mistakes, and a little too earnest not to play himself. He is the superhero Gen Z have waited so long for, who captures and communicates the snark, energy and angst of his audience with perfect fidelity. That is no mean feat, because this does more than merely nail the essence of Spider-Man as he was first introduced to audiences some 50 years ago. It provides an entire audience with the opportunity to see themselves clearly in their newest favorite hero. And you know what? Everybody deserves a hero in which they can easily see themselves.
As a super-caper movie, Homecoming does its job well, especially with a thrilling fight scene aboard the Staten Island Ferry (which, depending on who you ask doesn’t deviate much from the average commuting experience), and a climactic battle with the Vulture that goes in a direction most superhero movies cannot allow for themselves. But the heart and soul of this is the triangular tension between Peter, Stark and May, with Peter feeling the strain of trying to live up to at least one set of expectations too many. Stretched thinner than his own webbing, we see that Peter can’t live like this forever, and that something’s got to give. We know that it’ll be Peter himself. But we keep wondering, will Peter figure that out himself before it’s too late? It’s almost too cruel to watch, because however hard May and Stark are on the kid, neither of them realize that nobody is harder on Peter Parker than Peter himself.
Where this movie succeeds most wildly is in its most menacing, and its most low-key scene: a fateful car ride where Peter meets his prom date’s father face-to-face. It is a conversation every young man dreads, but for Peter Parker, it becomes something much more sinister, and something for which his powers are no solution. In those brief, chilling moments, we don’t just see Peter in serious trouble he can’t get out of, we see him realize that he has entered a lethal trap for which he has only himself to blame. AsPeter tries to stay calm, we can hear him rethinking all of the scolding and lecturing he’s received so far from his Aunt and Mr. Stark, people who are trying to look out for him, but who cannot figure out how to give a kid what he really needs: A chance to be himself. When that scene comes to its end, we see the movie’s moment of truth, in which the person who entered that car was a scared kid, and the person who left it is suddenly a whole older than he used to be. Welcome to the big leagues, Peter. Glad you could make it.