When Peter Parker became a modern cinematic icon in 2002’s Spider-Man, it wasn’t just because of his amazing wall-crawling, web-slinging abilities. It was more than that. More than the spider-bite origin story, the death of Uncle Ben, the unrequited love for the redhead out of his league. It was partly how homemade his super-persona felt, and the joy (and puns) he found in his powers. And partly how intimately director Sam Raimi intertwined the stakes of Peter’s personal and superhero lives—his greatest Big Bad, the Green Goblin, after all, was his best friend’s dad. But all of it, the upside-down kiss, the battle at the Brooklyn Bridge, might never have amounted to much had Peter Parker not been so well-defined as an individual, one we felt we knew painfully well.
Raimi’s first two near-perfect Spider-Man movies spend more time outlining Parker through life’s mundane indignities than through his headline-grabbing heroics. He’s a loser. Like, the kind even other losers on the school bus refuse to sit next to. He’s a kid-genius, but a mess—he loses a menial job as a pizza boy because he can’t deliver on-time, and he’s so strapped for cash he sells photographs of himself as Spider-Man to a tabloid editor who hates him. He can’t talk to women. And yet he is such a fool in love that almost every risk he takes is for the girl next door. (He even gets bit by that spider while taking Mary Jane’s picture. It’s both beautiful and embarrassing.) Peter’s life is tinged with tragedy, too, but rarely of the remarkable kind. Aunt May struggles to keep up with her mortgage. Mary Jane’s dad is an abusive alcoholic. Ben dies not at the hands of a supervillain, but because he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. And all the while, the absence of Peter’s parents, who died when he was young, looms unspoken in the background.
Peter Parker is ordinary, that is, even after he gains superpowers. He’s prone to fits of doubt and self-consciousness. He tells bad jokes and makes mistakes. He’s like us. What makes him a hero then isn’t the suit or the webbing—it’s how hard he tries to be a good person. That’s what we root for, fiercely. And it’s why this dweeb from Queens, in a universe of powerful gods, billionaires, and intergalactic icons, is still one of Marvel’s most beloved (and lucrative, to the tune of $1.3 billion a year) creations, even 55 years after his comic book debut. Aunt May phrases the appeal best in Spider-Man 2, after Spidey goes into hiding, and she loses the house and hires a young neighbor named Henry to help her pack: “Kids like Henry need a hero,” she tells Peter. “Courageous, self-sacrificing people setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble…Spider-Man did that for Henry and he wonders where he’s gone. He needs him.”
It’s a great speech. But of course, in real life, Spider-Man never left. Apart from the comics and dozens of animated series and films, the webhead’s starred in three live-action film franchises in 15 years. Still, most fans would say the last great Spider-Man story told onscreen was Raimi’s first sequel in 2004. Tobey Maguire’s final turn as Spidey came in the regrettably overstuffed Spider-Man 3. Andrew Garfield starred in an Amazing Spider-Man reboot in 2012, followed by a 2014 sequel for which the less is said, the better.
There is a silver lining though: that last flop netted just half the domestic box office haul of Raimi’s first Spider-Man, forcing Sony, the studio with the keys to the character’s screen rights, to finally pause for reflection. One flight to then-Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter’s Florida lair and top Sony execs Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal had minted a rare two-studio deal: Disney-owned Marvel (which still holds Spider-Man merchandising rights) would reboot the character yet again, this time within its own successful cinematic universe. In exchange, Sony finances the new films, reaps a share of the profits, and happily retains the rights to its most valuable intellectual property. Corporate hullaballoo aside, to Marvel fans, the news rang like a hallelujah: finally, Peter Parker was home.
After 13 years of waiting like Henry wondering where all the good Spider-Men have gone, fans now have a worthy successor: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts’ hugely lovable, unabashedly fun Sony/Marvel miracle baby. Tom Holland’s pitch-perfect performance as a 15-year-old Peter Parker cements him as the face of the character so indelibly, he now practically is Spider-Man the way Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man. Better yet, under Marvel producer Kevin Feige’s watchful eye, the film wisely avoids the parts of Parker’s story fans have already grown over-familiar with. We know about the spider bite and the power and responsibility. What Homecoming does instead is stake out a new genre: this is a teen comedy, MCU-style, as rambunctious in spirit as Ferris Bueller. How cleverly it deconstructs its central character from unexpected angles, crystallizing who he is and why so many care about him, is just a welcome added bonus.
The fun starts from the get-go, before the clash of titans that was Peter’s debut in Captain America: Civil War. The opening moments of Homecoming introduce us to Peter through his video diary, when he’s whisked away to Berlin by Jon Favreau’s Happy. Delightfully, it could not be more at odds with the self-serious situation at hand. Peter’s voiceover is pure breathless excitement and wide-eyed amazement. He’s a science nerd, nerding out at everything around him from the real-life superheroes he meets to the sophisticated, high-tech suit Tony Stark gifts him. Fast-forward a few months, however, and the novelty of Tony’s directive to stay a friendly neighborhood hero—the kind whose typical deed of the day ranges from stealing New Yorkers’ bikes back for them to helping out the churro lady—as opposed to a jet-setting Avenger wears thin. Peter wants more. He’s got the suit, the brains, and a burning desire to help. Also an unlimited texting plan, judging by the hundreds of unanswered messages he cheerfully pelts Happy with, asking about his next “mission” with “Mr. Stark.”
You can guess where this is heading: Overeager, Peter web-slings his way into situations leagues above his pay grade, making everything exponentially worse. Thankfully, though it’s much lighter in tone, Homecoming dwells on the ground-level consequences of superheroics as much as Civil War did. Tony bursts in to save Peter from a cell of illicit arms dealers twice before he finally takes the suit away. Those arms dealers traffic in leftover alien and superpowered technology from attacks like the ones on New York and Sokovia. Their leader (a flawlessly chilling Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture) becomes the face of working-class resentment against thoughtless billionaires like Tony. Tony’s compulsive need for control in the cleanup after The Avengers cost Toomes his construction company. And it’s that deep-seated resentment that feeds the Vulture’s desire to kill Spider-Man, an apparent associate of Iron Man’s. The vicious finishing touch: Vulture points out to Spider-Man that what he does for a living isn’t so different from how Stark made his billions in the first place.
The budding surrogate-father-son relationship between Tony and Peter seemingly severs after Peter’s final screw-up. But by confiscating the suit, the film takes a surprisingly thoughtful turn. It was always an unconventional choice not to have Peter make the suit himself. (This absurdly overpowered one comes with a J.A.R.V.I.S.-like artificial intelligence, web wings, a drone, a parachute, enhanced eyes, and 576 web-shooter combinations.) Tony saving Peter twice only helps create a sense of artificial stakes. Brilliantly, it turns out that’s on purpose. Once Tony storms out of the picture (he’s mercifully sparse, occupying no more than 15 cumulative minutes), taking Peter’s hopes of being an Avenger with him, the real Spider-Man movie begins. We finally get to know Peter Parker, the person: the overachieving, Star Wars-loving academic decathlete from Queens. The outcast with a puppy-love crush on the prettiest girl in school. The one Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) hilariously calls “Penis Parker.”
It’s the best part of the movie. Captain America’s recorded PSAs about detention and gym class alone may be the single greatest things the MCU has ever produced, I swear to god. Out-charming Tom Holland is an order as tall as Giant-Man, but Peter’s blabbermouth best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his endearingly deadpan/woke/cool-as-hell classmate Michelle (Zendaya) come dazzlingly close. We see what Peter is like in his world: in school (quiet, distracted, yet razor-sharp), with girls (stutteringly sweet), at house parties (sweaty-uncomfortable), with his closest pal (mad excited about the new Lego Death Star). There’s a sweetness this film brings back to Spider-Man that went missing sometime after 2004. And a compassion that’s generally uncommon in the superhero genre. It even allows its villain shades of gray.
Of course, danger—and the Vulture—soon find a way into Spidey’s little world. The point by then is clear: the Spidey suit isn’t what makes Peter Parker a hero. It’s that he’d strap in for battle to save his friends with just his old web-shooters and the sweatshirt and pants Tony once called a “onesie.” There’s a scene where Peter gets into trouble (I’ll stay vague). Holland cries out for help so pathetically, so desperately you genuinely want Iron Man to swoop in and save him again. But he doesn’t. Peter grunts, cries, strains and, exhausted, wills himself free. The moment suddenly defines the whole film. This is when this new Peter Parker finally becomes Spider-Man, the do-it-yourself superhero. Someone who can save himself and his city with the help of super-strength, sure, but mostly through sheer determination. What Aunt May was talking about: the stuff found in all of us.
Homecoming is as much about a superhero as it is about a good, smart kid who makes mistakes, and whose best efforts sometimes just aren’t enough. Life is realer for Parker than for most of Marvel’s A-list heroes. He doesn’t ascend to some Olympus-like Avengers compound at the end of the day; he goes home to his aunt’s apartment in Queens. A great story about him needs more grounding than a city-smashing showdown between good and evil. (The only architectural casualty here is an unmanned light tower at Coney Island. Huzzah.) It’s about relationships. About pining away as an outsider. It can be a soap opera like Raimi’s with big swings and big emotions, or an exuberant high school comedy, or any iteration to come. What sticks is the irresistible fantasy of a Lego Death Star-building nerd—the real uncool kind, like the poor sucker you watch chase down a bus before he trips flat on his face—becoming the hero of a city.
“Everybody loves a hero.” And we love to cheer their names.