It's all right there in the title: Spider-Man: Homecoming. Not "homecoming", the early-fall tradition in U.S. and Canadian high schools, which puts in only a very mild and plot-inessential cameo in the film. But "homecoming" as in "coming home" as in "welcome to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spider-Man, this is where you belong". I don't know, is it? The 2002 Spider-Man and 2004 Spider-Man 2 did just fine in depicting a Spider-Man who was the world's only super-hero and needed no shared universe to give him the necessary context to thrive, and those films are both a shitload better than Homecoming.

Regardless, that's the main plot and purpose of the film: helping 15-year-old Peter "Spider-Man" Parker (Tom Holland) find his footing within the MCU, as embodied by Tony "Iron Man" Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and Stark's attaché Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), that beloved character. There's other stuff in there, undoubtedly, but it's all somewhat window dressing. The main arc of the film is concerned with how Peter will prove himself to Stark and figure out his proper place in a universe where the Avengers exist. The last time that being a part of the MCU was so transparently, desperately important to an MCU film was seven years ago, with Iron Man 2, when the franchise was only three years old. Now, Iron Man 2 was more about setting up future films, whereas Spider-Man: Homecoming is mostly looking to position itself within the company of films that already exist, so it's not remotely as irritating here as it was then. Still, as someone who has very little stake in the idea of a shared universe per se, I could have been very happy to do without all of it, and just let Spider-Man be Spider-Man.

Because there definitely could be something here, if the film was a little bit looser and more limber, and not so transparently micro-managed by not one but two different multinational media companies in every moment of every frame (Jon Watts is the credited director, but given how much this resembles all of the other middle-tier MCU films in every aspect of its aesthetic, I take it that his title is largely an honorific). It has, if nothing else, a hell of a good Spider-Man in the form of Holland, who's exciting and fun here to an extent that I was very much not sold on yet, based on his role debut in 2016's... my God, was it just a year ago, really? It feels like a generation has gone by... 2016's Captain America: Civil War. Obviously, a big part of that is that he's now in a movie where he belongs, and not just a movie where they got the rights back just in time to stuff him in.

Holland's version of the character is, after three attempts, easily the most comic-book-accurate version of the character. Tobey Maguire's more earnest, soulful college student Spidey (still my favorite) and Andrew Garfield's sarcastic hipster version of the character have their place, but the high-strung energy and 15-going-on-10 boyish enthusiasm that Holland (a very young-looking 20 years old at the time of filming) brings to the part is its own special kind of delightful. The way he babbles on with nervous, giddy mania drills right into the heart of how much fun it must be to be a superhero; when was the last movie that even had that thought cross its mind? The early flight scenes in Man of Steel kind of get there, but of course that's the beginning and end of anything "fun" in Man of Steel, or any other film based on DC comics in recent memory, and while the Marvel-based films are, as a whole, not quite so dour, there's not much in them that really gets at the great elan of superhero comics before the dark ages of the 1980s. And if that was all Homecoming did, I would be grateful to it. Actually, that's pretty much all Homecoming does.

So anyway, Holland is a great delight, a pleasure to spend time with, and tremendously good at channeling both the "cocksure hero" and "flailing nerd" elements of Peter's personality, and even clearly indicating how the character (as opposed to the actor) tries to synthesise them. He's matched by, I am thrilled to say, the best villain in any E-ticket comic book movie since at the very least Tom Hardy's Bale in The Dark Knight Rises, five years ago, and I'd not fight you, nor barely even give you side-eye, if you tried to convince me he was the best villain in any MCU film ever. Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), only named "Vulture" in a visual grace note, is right in line with the villains of Spider-Man movies past, Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin and Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus and Thomas Haden Church's Sandman, a man whose actions are damaging and wicked to be sure, but motivated by something so familiar and human that it's hard not to find yourself feeling at least a little bit sad for him. He's just a working fella, screwed over by Tony Stark following the events of The Avengers (side note: thanks to one entirely arbitrary "eight years later" title card, Homecoming has rendered the MCU timeline irresolvable) (second side note: the opening scene with Toomes makes me long for an MCU adaptation of the Marvels comic miniseries), and now driven to sci-fi crime in order to keep his family safe and content. And it certainly helps matters considerably that Keaton's performance - completing the arc that led from Batman to Birdman, from hero to asshole - is among the very best in this franchise to date, mixing smugness and meanness with a distinctive feeling of self-awareness, that even if he's doing things for good reasons, he's still a bad guy. And thanks to the film's first post-credits scene (they are unusually good this time around), he ends up moving through a substantially more complex and rewarding arc than the title character.

So you've got a great hero, and you've got a great villain, and you've got... and this is where Homecoming loses me. It already runs afoul of the problem superhero movies have been dealing with in various ways since Batman and Batman Returns, in which it would kind of be better if the film focused on the supervillain rather than the superhero. And it also suffers from having just not a whole lot besides the characters and the general high-spirited feeling Holland brings to the table. The broad stable of side characters is filled with a whole bunch of high school stereotypes, and while the cast is game, they're still playing one-note stock types. Downey is visibly bored, as he has been in almost every one of these movies since the first Avengers, Marisa Tomei is hamstrung into playing the same scene a half-dozen times; the only standout is Donald Glover in a two-scene cameo as a petty criminal who seems to have sadly resigned himself to living in a world full of superhero bullshit, but doesn't have to like it.

It's also a pretty weak action movie; Spider-Man as a character is flexible enough in how he can use his suite of powers that even a damp dishrag of a movie like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could come up with some fun ways to exploit it, and Homecoming does absolutely no such thing. There's a reasonably fun shot that tracks his progress through a series of backyards, ending with a brief visual homage to Ferris Bueller's Day Off, that would work as one of the lesser moments from the Sam Raimi films; here, it's the best we'll get. The climactic fight on an airplane is just dreadful, mixing low light with confusingly busy CGI and too many close-ups, and thank God nothing else is that bad, but this is generally choppy and unimaginatively conceived even by the standards of a franchise that hasn't done very much in the way of good action over the course of nine years and 16 movies.

Admittedly, Homecoming's not trying to be a great action film: it's more interested in the high school setting and character relationships, but it's no better than it has to be at those, either. With increasingly rare exceptions, generally involving the presence of James Gunn, the MCU films have full committed to being product first, engaging cinema second, and the product is reliable (the idea of a genuinely bad Marvel Studios film is even harder for me to imagine than a genuinely great one); but Homecoming feels especially actively and impersonally product-like, about on par with Ant-Man. Given what we damn well know big-screen Spider-Man adventures are capable of, the fact that this one is so thoroughly pedestrian is a bit more galling than it might have been, otherwise.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 3)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016)
Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017)
Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)
Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019)
Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019)
Spider-Man: Far from Home (Watts, 2019)