"[I]ts pervasive bubbly effervescence is what sets it apart from the two other depictions of the character we've had in the last 15 years. Marvel's Peter Parker is young, bright and eager to participate."
There's a moment in Captain America: Civil War during the hangar action scene where Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier tries to punch Spider-Man, who is pursuing him. "You have a metal arm? That is awesome dude!" Peter Parker's response to coming face to face with famous superheroes and spies two decades his senior is so genuinely teen-aged that Tom Holland cemented his place as my favourite Spidey right there and then.
Spider-Man: Homecoming does a fantastic job of sticking the landing by distilling that youthful eagerness into a near perfect sequence at the beginning of the film: during the events of Civil War, Peter makes a video diary of his trip to Berlin with Happy Hogan and Tony Stark to be part of the aforementioned battle. It isn't even 5 minutes long, but its pervasive bubbly effervescence is what sets it apart from the two other depictions of the character we've had in the last 15 years. Marvel's Peter Parker is young, bright and eager to participate. He's 15, in high school and desperately wants to show his value to Tony Stark as part of the Avengers team. That eagerness is what makes him so fun to watch, but it's also, brilliantly, part of the core conflict of the film.
Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark, taking on the role of Peter's reluctant mentor. He's allowed Peter to keep the suit he gifted him, but wants him to stick to combating low level crimes like purse-snatching and bike theft. This frustrates Peter, whose been dropped back into the mundanities of high school after being an integral part of an international political incident. His strategy is to take on bigger baddies against Stark's orders in the hopes that he can prove he's ready for the big leagues. Predictably this has dire consequences for him as he learns that having super powers isn't the same as being ready for adult responsibility.
Several times Peter finds himself in over his head and in need of Iron Man's assistance; this frustrates Tony, who feels responsible for him well-being and wants to keep Peter out of the fray. Smart as he is, Peter is still, in fact, a child and Tony doesn't want any more death on his conscience. The events of the last two Avengers films have produced a changed man who no longer acts without thinking about the consequences. His struggle to instill these lessons to Peter are integral to Peter's own narrative development. The stakes are incredibly high, and the weight of that hasn't settled in for him yet.
A rapid sequence of events propels the final third of the film: Tony repossesses the Spidey suit after his ambitions put people in danger. Peter attempts to readjust to being a normal teenager and finally confesses his feelings to his crush Liz Allen. He discovers his arch-nemesis The Vulture is Liz's father and abandons the titular Homecoming dance to face him. Without his super suit Peter is badly disadvantaged, but as The Vulture points out, he still has grit. Unfortunately, that isn't always enough, and after being buried under a massive pile of rubble when The Vulture brings the building down on him, Peter is forced to contend with something Tony said when he confiscated his tech: if he's nothing without the suit, then he shouldn't have it.
The audience I saw the film with greeted Peter’s show of strength with raucous applause, and I couldn’t blame them. It was his “stop the train” moment, solitary as it was, because it was the moment he realized Spider-Man only existed because he did. After stopping The Vulture (Michael Keaton) and earning both Happy’s gratitude and Tony’s praise, he declines the offer to join The Avengers, deciding to look out for the little guy instead. It’s the decision that’s been building all along: just because someone or something is small time doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
The only question I’m left with is how the Netflix/Marvel universe aligns with this story. While any talks of a crossover were quashed long ago, the film is so strikingly different in tone to say, Jessica Jones or Daredevil that it’s hard to even imagine their reactions to the evening news story that a kid in a spider suit thwarted an arms dealer specializing in Chitauri technology.
That said, various other things pepper the film with fun bits of fan-service and add to its overall lightness. Jacob Batalon’s Ned matches Holland’s eager excitement with obvious nerdy glee and Zendaya’s dry sarcasm is well-placed for the best comedic effect. The film is incredibly funny, and she’s a big reason why. The final reveal that she is in fact playing MJ is hardly a surprise, but it bodes well that her relatively tiny role will be significantly expanded moving forward. A recurring bit in which Chris Evan’s Captain America appears in educational videos both reprimanding and encouraging the students is an amusing juxtaposition of his in-universe designation as a war criminal. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts also makes a brief appearance and it seems she and Stark are back together after breaking up sometime after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
In many ways Spider-Man: Homecoming is the anti-coming of age film: its primary lesson is that there's nothing wrong with punching within your weight. Over the course of the story Peter learns that there are things he's not yet ready to handle on his own and that it's not only better to let those with more experience handle them, but ultimately more responsible too. It's a lateral take on the iconic "with great power comes great responsibility" ethos, but it works well for a Spider-Man who isn't even old enough to drive. The Avengers are busy handling matters of international diplomacy and corporate interest but the working class need a hero too, and there's nothing wrong with a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.