DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. There have been three big-screen incarnations of the Marvel superhero Spider-Man. The part has been played by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and, most recently, by the teenage Tom Holland, who had a small part in last year's "Captain America: Civil War." Now Holland has his own feature "Spider-Man: Homecoming," which also stars Michael Keaton and, as Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr.
Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The hero of "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is a teenager who's remarkably free of trendy superhero angst. Unlike his Marvel Comics colleagues or the ones over at DC Comics, Tom Holland's Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, doesn't brood over collateral damage to civilians, threats to civil liberties or the ethical and psychological perils of being a vigilante.
Although he aspires to join the big-league collective the Avengers, Peter mostly just loves putting on his goofy costume., shooting webs out of his hands and swinging from buildings foiling robberies. The homecoming of the movie's title refers to a high school dance, but it also suggests a trip back to a simpler era.
This is the breeziest, most convivial Marvel movie in ages, which doesn't necessarily mean there was a burning need for it or even that it's as good as the best of the series, Sam Raimi's 2004 "Spider-Man 2." What it suggests is that Marvel executives have a talent for changing gears to keep the company's legions of fans from getting tired of one particular approach or tone.
In "Spider-Man: Homecoming," the fate of the planet isn't at stake. The villain, Michael Keaton's Adrian Toomes, does his dirty work with alien technology scavenged from the rubble of an intergalactic war. But he's basically a bank robber with a chip on his shoulder working out of a chop shop.
The milieu is high school. Peter has a crush on a girl named Liz, played by Laura Harrier. He has an offbeat rapport with a charismatic nerd, played by pop icon Zendaya. And he has a pal, Ned, played by Jacob Batalon, who could be a stand-in for all those Comic-Con fanboys. In one scene, Ned drops by the Queens apartment where Peter lives with his guardian Aunt May, played by Marisa Tomei, and spies his friend creeping across the ceiling in costume.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING")
MARISA TOMEI: (As Aunt May) What was that?
TOM HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) Nothing, nothing.
JACOB BATALON: (As Ned) You're the Spider-Man - from YouTube.
HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) I'm not.
BATALON: (As Ned) You were on the ceiling.
HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) I wasn't. Ned, what are you doing in my room?
BATALON: (As Ned) Aunt May let me in. You said we were going to finish the Death Star. She doesn't know?
HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) Nobody knows. Well, I mean, Mr. Stark knows because he made my suit, but that's it.
BATALON: (As Ned) Tony Stark made you that? Are you an Avenger?
HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) Yeah, basically.
But you can't tell anybody about this. You've got to keep it a secret.
BATALON: (As Ned) A secret, why?
HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) Because you know what she's like. If she finds out people try and kill me every single night, she's not going to let me do this anymore.
BATALON: (As Ned) OK. OK, OK, OK, OK - I'll level with you. I don't think I can keep this a secret. This is the greatest thing that's ever happened to me.
HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) I can't believe this is happening right now.
EDELSTEIN: As you can hear, Tom Holland pitches his voice alarmingly high. But he maintains his gee-whiz, American breathlessness without becoming tiresome, maybe because he's actually a Brit and knows how to modulate his pitch.
The director, Jon Watts, hails from TV comedy. He keeps the pacing sprightly and adds witty touches to the action scenes, especially a showstopper in which Peter attempts to keep a bisected Staten Island ferry from falling open. The climactic air fight is poorly storyboarded, but its aftermath, amid burning debris, is moving. You feel as if you're looking at the wreckage of not just flying contraptions but lives.
That's because of Michael Keaton, the most grounded supervillain imaginable. Keaton doesn't have much range. You always see traces of his Beetlejuice, his Batman, his Birdman. But his characters crackle with intelligence and desperation. His best scene is Toomes' first face to face with Peter Parker out of costume, which he and Holland play with both farcical precision and emotional weight, a sublime melding of superhero gravity and high school panic.
There I would leave "Spider-Man: Homecoming" but for one gripe. Because Marvel and DC are in the business of building universes, today's superheroes aren't madcap individualists, they're members of solemn collectives, like the Avengers or the Justice League. So Peter has a hovering father figure in Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, and a cranky monitor in Stark's ex-chauffeur, Happy, played by Jon Favreau.
I know many people let out squeals of delight when miscellaneous Marvel characters pop in. But here, they bored me silly. The juice has gone out of Downey's Stark, who functions as a scold. And Favreau is a full-time director these days and can't manage more than one cartoonish note.
I hold out hope for this new "Spider-Man" series, though. Peter likes his school and his neighborhood. And the movie's writers use Spidey's famous catchphrase, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, as a declaration of independence. I hope Marvel recognizes the value, in terms of storytelling anyway, of just keeping it local.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show...
WENDY WHELAN: I've been strapped in - you know, physically to pointe shoes, strapped into a leotard and tights - for my whole entire life.
BIANCULLI: Wendy Whelen, former principal ballerina with the New York City Ballet, reflects on what it was like to retire after nearly 30 years with the company and start a new life. She's the subject of a new documentary, "Restless Creature." Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "I'VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.