The following post contains minor spoilers for Captain America: Civil War.
Oh what a difference 18 months makes. A year ago last fall, Spider-Man fans were facing an entire universe of Spidey movies they didn’t particularly want: A third Amazing Spider-Man about the continuing and not-particularly-exciting adventures of Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker, plus spinoff movies for Venom and the Sinister Six. Things got so bad for Spider-Man that when ludicrous rumors began circulating that Sony was considering an Aunt May movie, the studio had to publicly dismiss that talk as “silly” with “no validity whatsoever” because after the Amazing Spider-Man 2 trainwreck, no idea, no matter how obviously terrible, seemed implausible.
A year and a half later, everything has changed. The Amazing franchise is dead and gone, the spinoffs are in limbo, and a revamped Spider-Man has emerged. Sony will continue to release his solo films (the first, Spider-Man: Homecoming, opens in theaters next summer) but this new hero, played by Tom Holland, is officially back in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starting with a small but terrific role in this week’s Captain America: Civil War.
This new Spidey hasn’t had much screen time yet, but he’s got a real shot at being the greatest movie Spider-Man of all time. In some ways (like the seven below) he already is.
1. He’s looks (and acts!) like a teenager.
Tobey Maguire was 27 when Spider-Man hit theaters in 2002; Andrew Garfield was a few months shy of 30 in 2013 as The Amazing Spider-Man made its premiere. I know he’s called Spider-Man, but c’mon; that was ridiculous. Maguire and Garfield were and are great actors, but high school kids? Peter Parker’s supposed to be a science genius. Both Maguire and Garfield’s Peters look like they were left back. A lot.
As great as the previous iterations of Spider-Man were at times, both were afflicted with what could be called “Beverly Hills, 90210 disease” — an acute affliction of the facial area that make pop culture adolescents appear much more physically mature than they should. New Spider-Man Tom Holland is just 19, and he looks a decade younger than either of his predecessors. Even better, his Peter doesn’t act like a cool, calm, and collected superhero; he’s a dork with incredible powers. With his high and reedy voice Holland is the first movie Spidey who can pass for a legitimately awkward pubescent kid, nailing one of the most appealing (but least explored, at least onscreen) parts of the character.
2. No origin story.
Hey did you know that Spider-Man’s uncle was killed by a burglar and he could have stopped him but didn’t and on that day he learned that with great power comes great responsibility?
Yes of course you did because everyone in the universe knows this.
It’s one thing to retell the origin of Ant-Man or Doctor Strange, characters whose histories and backstories might not be that well known by the public at large (or which are getting tweaked slightly for the silver screen). It’s another thing to tell the origin of Spider-Man, one of the most iconic fictional characters of the last century. In 2016, after two different franchises with two different origins, there’s just no need for another spider bite and robbery gone wrong and tearful vow to avenge injustice.
Where so many comic book movies keep wasting time rehashing the same origin stories (*fakecoughBatmanvSupermanfakecough*), Captain America: Civil War tells you all you need to know about this new Spidey with a few simple lines and then gets down to what we really want to see, which is the new Web-Head in action. Speaking of which…
3. Better action.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man deserves a huge amount of credit for creating a visual language for the Friendly Neighborhood Wall-Crawler; translating the imagery of comics to the big screen in a way that has remained basically unchanged to this day. Still, for all his innovation, Raimi never quite delivered an unforgettable super-powered brawl. His Spidey’s best moments were always when he was swinging around Manhattan, dodging debris, and rescuing women as they fell from great heights, not so much going toe-to-toe with the bad guys.
Spider-Man’s role in Captain America: Civil War is a modest one, but this Spidey has already given us the coolest fight scene of the character’s movie career. Part of that is the context; Holland has the benefit of taking part in an enormous Avengers battle royal, giving him tons of different heroes to interact and fight with. That said, if directors Anthony and Joe Russo and their stunt and effects teams hadn’t found inventive ways to use Spider-Man’s powers, no one would care if he fought the entire contents of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The TV spot below gives you a tiny taste of this new Spider-Man in action, and leads us right into our next point.
4. He’s the funniest Spider-Man to date.
Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parkers were very different men, but they shared a similarly muted sense of humor. Maguire excelled at Peter’s melodramatic side; he was always most comfortable digging into the ups and downs of his love life and career, and the struggle to carry the full emotional burden of his decisions. But Maguire struggled with the character’s sillier side. His wisecracks and quips as Spidey — a staple of the hero’s comic-book adventures since his earliest days — often felt forced. His Spider-Man was weirdly silent an action; this battle with Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2 is about as jokey as he got, and he delivers just two mildly amusing lines during this four-minute fight.
Garfield had his own issues with the character’s wisecracks. When he tried it, he mostly came across like a smug jerk.
Garfield did fare a little better in Amazing Spider-Man 2. His one-liners during the opening bank heist and car chase were as close as cinematic Spidey came to the lighthearted joke machine of the comics — at least until Civil War’s Spider-Man, which is far and away the funniest screen Spidey to date, and the one to best use the character’s humor the way the comics do, as a defense mechanism a shy and nervous kid deploys to cope with his anxiety during overwhelming situations. Spider-Man doesn’t run his mouth because he’s cool or arrogant; he does it because he’s a scared 15-year-old in insane situations. Holland’s the first guy to capture that, and to find a way to make Spidey’s motormouth both annoying and endearing in equal measure.
5. The best Spider-Man costume to date.
Spider-Man’s costume has often been a strength of the various Sony franchises. Maguire’s uniform from the first Spider-Man (designed by James Acheson) was probably the best superhero costume to that time, and while the first Amazing Spider-Man’s red-and-blues were sort of a mess, the second film was probably the most realistic version of Spidey’s outfit in any of these movies.
Still, of all the Spider-Men onscreen in the last 15 years, Captain America: Civil War’s is the best dressed of the bunch. He’s also got the best explanation for a dweeby teenager winding up in a suave and high-tech one-piece jumpsuit (which I won’t spoil). Holland’s Spider-suit combines the best of Steve Ditko and John Romita’s Wall-Crawler with great 2016 design touches.
Best of all: Eyes that change sizes.
There’s a justification for those narrowing eyes in the film and that’s cool, but it’s ultimately more of a clever means to a crucial end: A Spider-Man who’s even more expressive in battle than ever before.
6. A new and different Aunt May.
There will always be a special place in my heart for Rosemary Harris, who was perfect as the maternal Aunt May in Sam Raimi’s movies. It would be tough to improve on her version of the character, so why try? Better to do something new and different with May Parker.
Sally Field could have done that, but by her own admission she didn’t enjoy playing the part and didn’t put a great deal of thought into her performance. Instead, it’s Marisa Tomei who got to reinvigorate the role of Aunt May. Rather than the frail, overly protective, and naive woman who’s been typical of Aunt May for half a century, Tomei’s May is young, hip, and energetic. The fact that Tony Stark couldn’t stop hitting on her in their brief scene together suggests all kinds of potential for dramatic tension between this May and Peter. Tomei’s presence provides something that’s all-too-rare in superhero movies: A sense of unpredictability.
7. He’s a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Last but certainly not least, Marvel’s is the superior Spider-Man because he’s finally back where he belongs, shoulder to shoulder with the other giants of the MCU. Spider-Man is a rich enough character to carry a movie on his own, and he’s fine in a vacuum, but he’s even better in a group setting because his inexperience and youth play well off older, more mature heroes who can play straight men to his nonstop barrage of punchlines.
Sony spent most of Amazing Spider-Man 2 trying to cobble together a cinematic universe for the character to live in, when a perfectly good one — the one where Spidey always belonged — already existed. This really is a perfect homecoming. Here’s hoping this new and improved Spider-Man sticks around for a good long while.