Sony’s latest Spider-Man movie is kind of like the first and fourth, even if it’s hard to keep track of what happened when in this on-and-off again series. Once more, it spins on Peter Parker (the nice, boyish Tom Holland), a teenager who develops super-skills after he’s bitten by a troublesome spider. The title of the likable, amusing “Spider-Man: Homecoming” indicates that this is a return, though to what exactly? To Queens? To youth? The rest of us can’t go home again, but given that this is the second Spider-Man reboot in 15 years from Sony Pictures it seems Spidey has few other options.
“Homecoming” is more or less about how Peter Parker needs to stay forever young, ideally 15 or so years old. What’s always been most appealing about Spider-Man is that he’s a kid, if one who can spin big, sticky webs and swing from rooftop to rooftop, comparatively rinky-dink talents in the flying, magic-hammering superhero world. What makes Spider-Man different and, ideally, work as a character, giving him an off-kilter charm, is he retains the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of adolescence. For all his super-gifts and despite the weird and dangerous company he keeps, he is also a teenage boy — that’s his Kryptonite, what cuts him down to recognizable human size.
The team behind “Homecoming” certainly gets that Spider-Man is a kid, even if the movie plays the naïf angle too hard at times, making Peter look not just inexperienced, but also silly, a borderline dumb cluck. The movie — credited to six writers and directed by Jon Watts — opens sometime after Peter has been bitten. He’s still trying to get his bearings and struggling to figure out the limits of his powers, which is complicated here by the fact that this is the first Spider-Man movie that Sony has made with Marvel Studios. It’s a liaison that has brought Spider-Man into the Marvel worldwide domination machine, which is why he’s being mentored in the way of the superhero by Marvel’s Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., who pops in and out).
That machine, known to executives and true believers as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is vast, complicated, lucrative and ever-expanding. It’s also intrinsically uninteresting for viewers (at least one!) who just want a good movie. Marvel has produced a string of movies of wildly divergent quality, but Sony has had a tougher time coming up with regular superhero successes. And so, after stumbling with its first “Spider-Man” resurrection, it cut a deal with Marvel, which is also not inherently interesting. Even so it’s modestly amusing to consider that Sony, much like Peter Parker here, needed help getting off the ground again and so Marvel stepped in to play its Tony Stark-like guide.
For its initial hour, “Homecoming” moves along breezily enough, though sometimes with too much forced airiness. It works best when it sticks close to Peter and is content to be a light, good-natured story of a teenager who’s navigating through, and often badly fumbling, the competing demands of school, home and his emergent Spidey self. Mr. Holland looks and sounds more like a teen than the actors who’ve previously suited up for this series, and he has fine support from a cast that includes Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend. Other good company includes Donald Glover, as a wrong-time, wrong-place criminal, and Martin Starr, who plays his teacher role with perfect deadpan timing.
Mr. Watts’s previous features include “Cop Car,” a slick, small-scaled nail-biter about two boys in peril that showed he knows where to put the camera, is good with actors and has a sadistic streak, which together presumably clinched his big-studio future. “Cop Car” is such an exercise in pressure-cooker cinema that it’s surprising how tamped down the sense of danger is in “Homecoming,” even in some of the earlier sequences in which Peter is still puzzling out how to scuttle and swing as he vanquishes villainy. A brief scene of him sneaking into his bedroom (to avoid Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May) has more tension than any single action setpiece.