When the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched with the releases of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in the summer of 2008, the Disney-owned Marvel Studios was operating with a handicap: It didn’t have the film rights to Marvel Comics’ most recognizable character, Spider-Man. Sony did, and after the disappointing box-office returns (and chilly critical reception) of 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the studio eyed the MCU with jealousy. Marvel didn’t have Spidey, and Spidey didn’t have mojo. Neither studio was winning with the web-slinger.
Then, last year, something remarkable happened: Sony and Marvel Studios reached an unprecedented rights-sharing agreement whereby the two would co-produce Spider-Man flicks, meaning the web-head could pal around with Iron Man, et. al., in the MCU. Given the positive fan response it seemed like a wise and potentially profitable move, but the proof would be in the pudding when this rebooted Spidey, portrayed by relative unknown Tom Holland, debuted in Captain America: Civil War. He didn’t disappoint, and is actually one of the most delightful parts of the movie. Let’s take a look at what the film gets right about this iconic character. Spoilers ahead.
First and foremost, he’s funny.
A Spider-Man depiction lives or dies on humor. Ever since comics creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko co-created the character, back in 1962, one of the primary traits setting him apart from other spandex-wearers has been his banter during battle. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely knew how to deliver on this front, and Holland expertly delivered the bon mots. I won’t spoil all the good lines, but during the movie’s big battle between Team Cap and Team Tony, nearly every Spidey line provoked guffaws from the audience. No gag fell flat, and he even got to do a smidge of Deadpoolesque audience-winking — “That thing does not obey the laws of physics at all!” he exclaims upon seeing Cap’s shield in action.
One of the first Spider-Man stories ever published featured the wall-crawler auditioning to join the Fantastic Four — at the time, Marvel’s premier super-team — so it’s appropriate that his introduction to the MCU centers around Tony Stark testing the kid out as an Avenger. Holland gets many of his biggest laughs when he acts as an audience surrogate, totally bowled over by the notion that these world-famous figures are anywhere near him. “I gotta impress Mr. Stark,” he says during the aforementioned big battle — a welcome, breezy alternative to his teammates’ motivations, which are rooted in dour themes of duty and vengeance.
He feels young, and not just Hollywood-young.
Tobey Maguire was 26 when he donned the big-eyed mask; Andrew Garfield was 29. At 19, Holland is a little too old to be a high-school student in real life, but his diminutive stature and slightly squeaky voice make his predecessors seem middle-aged by comparison. When Spider-Man first appeared on the printed page, his youth was revolutionary: At the time, teenagers in superhero comics were almost always relegated to the role of plucky sidekick. By putting the angsty concerns of a teen at the forefront of the narrative, Lee and Ditko made Peter Parker eminently relatable to anyone who experienced the discomfort of pubescence (which is to say, everyone). When Holland’s Peter tells Tony he’s worried about running off with him because he’ll be late on his homework, you’ll feel a pang of familiar anxiety from those turbulent years.
His costume is dynamite — and distinctly Marvel-ish.
One of the best aspects of the MCU has been its consistent belief that it’s okay to be colorful. From the very first time Iron Man suited up, we’ve seen bright shades that offer a much-needed break from the Matrixesque leather of the X-Men’s uniforms. Maguire and Garfield weren’t monochrome (other than that bizarre symbiote-costume interlude in Spider-Man 3), but their reds and blues were heavily muted. Both designs felt like misguided attempts to bring seriousness to the wacky notion of a child with mutated spider DNA.
There’s no such shame in the Civil War Spider-Man outfit. It has the red, white, and blue of a freshly stitched American flag, and the aesthetic adds to the sense of delight and buoyancy that the movie wants to emphasize with the character. It’s the closest thing a movie has ever gotten to the original Ditko design, but it also adds a crucial modern update: the eyes can change size thanks to some kind of tiny machinery. Finally, nitpicky nerds have an explanation for how a mask can change facial expressions!
He doesn’t get bogged down in an origin story.
Given that he’s already had two big-screen debuts (and more than a half-dozen TV incarnations), it’s safe to assume that folks are familiar with Peter Parker’s whole “dead uncle / neurotic regret” thing by this point. Getting into it would dilute the delight of seeing Spidey on the screen and take up a bunch of time in a movie that’s already two and a half hours long, so it’s nice to just cut to the chase and get the character rolling.
His mind’s on his money.
When Spider-Man attempted to join the Fantastic Four in that early story, he wasn’t doing it because he was bored — he was very explicitly doing it because he was hard-up for dough. In order to support himself and his struggling Aunt May, he was looking to snag some cash from the FF by selling his services to them. Here, we don’t see Peter being destitute, but when Tony shows up to recruit him, one of his first concerns is whether or not the bajillionaire can offer him any money. In a universe where we rarely see any hero even mention pecuniary matters, it’s a sweet and grounding moment.
His Aunt May is terrific and fresh.
Aunt May may not get much screen time, but actress Marisa Tomei offers a take on her that’s wildly different from anything we’ve seen for the character in film. While Rosemary Harris and Sally Field are both fine actors, their respective incarnations were written as dowdy, aging schoolmarms, utterly devoid of verve. Civil War doesn’t fall into the Hollywood trap of portraying any woman older than 30 as an old maid. Instead, May is energetic and, in Tony’s eyes, deeply attractive. Just a few weeks ago, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice forced the dynamic Diane Lane to don prematurely gray hair and plod around as Superman’s mom, despite the fact that — as critic Bilge Ebiri has pointed out — she’s the same age as Robert Downey Jr. Here, May gets to be cool and clever. It’s not exactly a feminist landmark, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction for the superhero genre and yet another reason to look toward Spider-Man: Homecoming with cautious optimism.