Within the last 15 years, Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee's ever popular web-slinger has been portrayed by three different actors, from Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi's critically-lauded films in the early 2000s to Andrew Garfield in Marc Webb's gritty and "ultimate" interpretation in 2012, and now to Tom Holland (who made his scene-stealing debut as the friendly neighborhood hero in "Captain America: Civil War" last year).
The good news is, like Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, Holland (whose previous credits include The Impossible and The Lost City of Z) represents a throwback to the fun and fantastic thrills of the comics from the '60s, while embracing John Hughes films of the 80s as well as today's trends. Director Jon Watts, in fact, had the cast watch several Hughes films in preparation for filming, which comes through in scenes like detection a la The Breakfast Club and the titular dance a la Pretty in Pink. (Even the credits are an MTV-style homage to '80s culture.)
The beginning of the film shows Peter filming a video diary of the central heroes battle in Civil War (a creative and impressive update). Two months later, Peter hasn't heard from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., who reportedly may be hanging his armor up soon) and wants to fight alongside other heroes. And yet, he's held back ("Can't you just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?") Thus, Peter continues his regular life as a high school sophomore at Midtown Science with his nerdy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), quirky classmate Michelle (singer Zendaya), while crushing on the prettiest girl in school (Laura Harrier) and sitting through motivational videos from Captain America himself (supposedly before he became an outlaw). His objective throughout the whole movie, obviously, is to prove that he's capable of more than others think, despite being a teenager. Even more, he's portrayed as a real teenager--not a 20-something pretending to be a teen (sorry, Tobey and Andrew).
Here's the good news. The film differs from previous adaptations of Spider-Man by avoiding another origin story route (something the 1989 Batman did really well), another dead Uncle Ben, and another gritty and depressing version of a comic book character (I'm talking to you, Batman v Superman). The fact that Peter is both witty and humorous is pleasing. (After a montage through New York, you'll never hear the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Pop" the same way again.) And when his best friend Ned finds out, we get a different take on "the guy in the chair." The same goes for an unexpected twist involving a central character, Stark's role as a surrogate (and possibly absent) parental figure, and Peter's relationship with Aunt May.
The overall direction of the film is well done, including action sequences that deliver a real sense of vertigo (particularly at the Washington monument), power (when Peter is stuck under massive piles of rubble, echoing what is considered one of the most iconic moments in the comics), and emotional reality. The costume has several technical upgrades via Tony Stark, yet retains the classic look in the comics. In addition, several characters carry a supposed misguided sense of what it means to protect loved ones, understanding how the world works, and what it means when they're "under the radar" and how that affects those closest to them. And the cast is terrific, especially Zendaya as the quirky and sarcastic Michelle, Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, and Michael Keaton as the brilliantly-menacing Adrian Toomes a.k.a. Vulture. (Honestly, what is it with Hollywood casting Keaton in bird-like roles?)
But the fact that this film, while entertaining, is part of a cinematic franchise may also be its biggest setback. I was hoping for a film that would stand on its own and not require any backstory of previous installments or chapters. The opening of the film is a brief backstory on the Vulture, tracing back to the alien war from the first Avengers. And the occasional salty language (which was one of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2's biggest weaknesses as well) does dampen the story at times. Still, like "Wonder Woman," "Spider-Man: Homecoming" proves superheroes can still be fun and heroic, and not just conflicted.