Hollywood has been in the Spider-Man business for just about as long as teen protagonist Peter Parker has been alive, but the movies — though financially rewarding — have never gotten it totally right.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is the sixth film to focus on the 15-year-old superhero with age-specific anxieties and uncertainties since the series, which has grossed in the neighborhood of $4 billion worldwide, began in 2002.
And Tom Holland is the third actor (following Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) to pull on the suit. But despite much ballyhooed changes in approach from the earlier films, the results here, as in the previous attempts, are mixed.
As always the stunt work, which includes the inevitable flying through the air and extends to a climb up the Washington Monument and an attempt to save a beleaguered Staten Island Ferry, is strong.
And in Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. the Vulture, a blue-collar guy with a grievance against the system fiercely played by Michael Keaton, “Homecoming” has one of the strongest, most sympathetic villains of the entire series.
As to the new approaches here, they include Holland’s noticeable youth — he was only 19 when he got the role — and the way that Marvel Studios has come on board for the first time as the producing entity.
That reunion, which includes the likelihood that Spider-Man will appear in future Avengers movies, should be a boon commercially because fans of the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe have proved to be eager collectors of the entire set of films.
But as unevenly orchestrated by director Jon Watts (Sundance item “Cop Car”), who was also one of six credited screenwriters, the Marvel presence is pretty much a wash. Benefits like some amusing moments with Chris Evans’ Captain America (there’s an especially good one after the final credits) are invariably balanced by distractions like a more than usually meaningless Gwyneth Paltrow cameo.
As for Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark and Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, who jointly serve as Parker’s mentors, their portrayals feel on automatic pilot as often as not.
Stark/Iron Man became involved with Parker/Spider-Man when the older man recruited him to be on his team in the “Captain America: Civil War” battle. The thrust of the new film is the hard time Parker has readjusting to post-combat life as a high school sophomore at Queens’ Midtown High School of Science.
That recruitment scene in Parker’s bedroom was a high point in “Civil War” because of Holland’s subdued, serious take on the youthful character. But viewers expecting more of that in “Homecoming” are in for a disappointment.
For reasons that are unclear, that engaging characterization has been abandoned in favor of pushing Parker too hard and too long in the unwelcome opposite direction.
Here he’s a frantic, frenetic, wild-eyed and callow juvenile enthusiast, a characterization without staying power that owes a debt not to youthful reality but to Hollywood ideas of teenhood dating as far back as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
And “Homecoming” has doubled-down on that approach by giving Parker an even-more-juvenile teen sidekick named Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), whose energy is boundless and whose every other word is “awesome.”
If you are looking for a weak copy of the teen-centric epics of John Hughes, you will be in your element here. Other viewers have only limited reasons to apply.
One of those reasons is Keaton, who appears first in a flashback as salvage operator Toomes, a little guy hoping to make an honest buck off of the alien debris scattered around New York City after the outer space attack that ended “The Avengers.”
But Toomes gets big-footed by none other than Tony Stark, who partners with the government’s newly created Department of Damage Control to take over the business, leaving Toomes with both a grudge and a plan to turn whatever alien stuff he can pilfer into illicit weapons.
Blissfully unaware of any of this, at least at first, is young master Parker, who is jonesing for his Avengers experience and trying to be content stopping petty-ante crime in his striving Queens neighborhood.
As noted, Parker is also contending with the clichéd perils of high school. In no particular order they are the beautiful senior girl who doesn’t know he exists (Laura Harrier), the arrogant bully who calls him “Penis Parker” (“Grand Budapest Hotel’s” Tony Revolori) and that best friend who can’t keep his mouth shut. Only current Vogue cover model Zendaya, strong as a more level-headed friend, manages a welcome bit of sanity.
When Parker/Spider-Man discovers local thugs using high-tech weaponry, he starts to unravel a plot that gradually gets him in over his head in pursuit of Toomes and the Vulture.
Against considerable odds, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” finds its pace and rhythm by the end. Not only did figuring out how to become an effective Spider-Man require more of a learning curve than Parker anticipates, figuring out how to make a successful superhero movie mandated one for the filmmakers as well.
Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments.
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes
Playing: In general release.