Did the superhero movie kill the teen comedy? Or at least lure its former audience away with one of those must-have pillars of light? That's the only reasonable explanation for why a genre with such an active afterlife has been having so much trouble lately getting traction with audiences when it comes to anything new. Mean Girls is so widely memed that social media would basically collapse without it. The 20th anniversary of Clueless was commemorated with tributes, oral histories, and a full week of ETonline coverage. Films from the John Hughes era through the Can't Hardly Wait era through the Easy A era get cozily considered using the golden lens of nostalgia, regardless of whether the viewer had even been born when the movie first came out.
And yet when a successor as excellent as last year's The Edge of Seventeen rolls around, it has the abbreviated lifespan of a scrappy, underseen indie. When it comes to movies and marketing demographics, relatable teen travails have had trouble competing with the more spectacular appeal of superpowered ones. That is, until Spider-Man: Homecoming, a film that smuggles in a delightfully dorky high school saga under the banner of a too familiar superhero one. The wisecracking Queens web-slinger has undergone his second reboot in a decade for a story that's always more interesting when dealing with crushes and extracurriculars than it is with fighting villains.
You know how this origin story goes — Peter Parker develops powers after having been bitten by a radioactive spider, he lives with his (newly hotcha) Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and he devotes himself to a secret life of crime fighting after the murder of his Uncle Ben. Director Jon Watts (Cop Car) and his half dozen screenwriters know that you know all this, and thankfully skip over unnecessary explanations to dump us right into Peter's life as a junior superhero and sophomore in high school. While Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker was a figure of melodramatic grandeur and Andrew Garfield's was a dashing romantic lead, Tom Holland's comes off as an actual kid, albeit a jarringly toned one.
This Peter is as much a flailing fanboy of the Avengers as he is an aspiring member, waiting to be summoned up to the big leagues by reluctant mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) or the industrialist's delegated point of contact Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), though both are more likely to ignore his calls. The film does its dutiful genuflecting to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Peter's aspirations are less interesting as indicators of future movie installments than they are as any teenager's dreams of being able to skip past all the humiliating BS of adolescence and dive right into adulthood. Because as teens, Peter and his bestie Ned (Jacob Batalon) are crushingly uncool, which says a lot when they attend a magnet school in which everyone, even the bully Flash Thompson (Grand Budapest Hotel's Tony Revolori), is a big ol' overachieving nerd.
Who wouldn't choose the importance of saving the world over the realities of being an awkward high schooler who gets taunted as "Penis Parker"? Not that the world cooperates with Peter, who sneaks out at night to swing around Queens in costume looking to help out, but more often than not ends up doing things like giving directions to a lost elderly woman. When you've gone toe-to-toe with Captain America (Chris Evans, who shows up here for a series of very funny cameos), high school can be frustrating and boring — but then it can be frustrating and boring anyway, and Spider-Man: Homecoming really shines when it shows Peter as a guy whose exceptional powers don't excuse him from standard-issue high school problems.
And so Peter and Ned geek out over a 3,803-piece Lego Death Star, pine from afar for the beautiful senior Liz (Laura Harrier), and exchange quips with the snarky Michelle Jones (Zendaya, who will presumably be given more to do in the sequel). (In a welcome reflection of the actual borough, the student body is also not predominantly white). Spider-Man: Homecoming is the never-before-seen superhero movie in which academic decathlon doesn't just figure largely into the plot, but also enables the best set piece. When Ned discovers his friend's "Stark internship" is actually masked-vigilante work, all he wants most is to leverage the discovery in order to up their popularity, plotting out ways in which Spider-Man could appear at a party Liz throws and declare that he's Peter's pal.
It's such a potentially disastrous prospect that it's both a relief and disappointment when the plan gets derailed by superheroics, as Peter gets drawn away to the scene of a sinister deal involving alien tech-enhanced weapons and a memorable, if briefly seen, Donald Glover. At times, Spider-Man: Homecoming resembles nothing more than if Paul Feig and Judd Apatow's revered TV series Freaks and Geeks kept getting rescued from its most memorably excruciating moments by action sequences.
That can't be an accident given that one of Spider-Man: Homecoming's six writers is Freaks and Geeks star John Francis Daley (another cast member, Martin Starr, turns up as a teacher onscreen). But it's also the reason the movie loses rather than gains momentum as it goes on. Its depictions of teenage social mechanics are so fond and so genuine — from the agonizing car rides with parental figures to parties to the thrill and terror of asking someone to a dance — that the unavoidable showdown with the movie's baddie can't help but feel routine in comparison.
And that's even with a villain, played by a magnetic Michael Keaton, who's a pretty good one for once — Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, a disgruntled New York City salvage-company owner turned thief and weapons dealer (and lightly coded Trump voter, just tell me I'm wrong). Adrian is pretty small-time, for a Marvel baddie, just a guy intent on maintaining his family's upper-middle class quality of life rather than doing anything more ambitious and irrational like taking over the planet. But then the film's version of Spider-Man is carefully positioned as small-time too — "street level," as various characters in the film put it.
Keaton's played a superhero before, as well as an actor famous for playing a superhero, and as a mechanical wing–sporting supervillain, he's great precisely because he doesn't play his character as anything other than a flesh-and-blood man. Heading up a criminal team that includes Michael Chernus, Logan Marshall-Green, and Bokeem Woodbine, Keaton positions Adrian as a self-mythologizing working-class bootstrapper who insists that all he's doing is defending the business he built. He's a decent foil for Spider-Man, this resentful, rationalizing adult going up against a precocious, eggheaded boy. To watch the two characters together is to wish they spent less time fighting and more time verbally sparring.
Their battles look like the stuff of so many other recent franchise flicks, all CGI and visual incoherence, a blur of impossible action in which it's hard to invest. But their banter fits in with the teen-movie tendencies that Spider-Man: Homecoming otherwise largely abandons in its conclusion in favor of MCU business. When they talk, Adrian becomes the assistant principal in The Breakfast Club, the dean in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (which gets an explicit nod in the film), the domineering, blithely condescending grown-up talking down to the kid he doesn't actually see. If his clashes with the film's hero feel increasingly rote, it's because he's not nearly as intimidating in his Vulture gear as he is out of it. In costume, he's just another colorful baddie to be taken down. But out of it, he's the monster sheltered by the structures of adulthood, the bully normalized and hidden in plain sight — a thoroughly effective teen-movie nightmare.