As a Spider-Man fan, it’s been a tough decade. After crawling to the top of the world with the unprecedented success of the first two Sam Raimi movies, Spider-Man enjoyed a brief moment as the world’s favorite superhero; a huge victory for a character usually defined by being the awkward weirdo of the superhero table, and just as much of a victory for those of us who always loved him for it. However, the fallout from Spider-Man 3 — which wasn’t terrible, really, but didn’t come close to Spider-Man 2 — was the first blow. The fall terminated in a ridiculous editorially mandated reboot called One More Day (and followed by the equally wrongheaded Brand New Day), an ugly stain on the comic book mythos that has yet to be erased.
All this, combined with the less-than-enormous response to the two Amazing Spider-Man movies (which also weren’t so bad), and, well… something’s been missing.
Captain America: Civil War has a lot to recommend it. Ever since Marvel Studios first launched, this is probably the best movie they’ve ever done; it’s not quite the genre-defining blast that Marvel’s The Avengers was, but it is definitely a game changer. The conflict between Captain America and Iron Man is real, visceral, and painful to watch, in a movie that isn’t afraid to dramatically alter the status quo of Marvel’s cinematic landscape. And amazingly enough, Spider-Man is one of the best parts.
Why? Because they actually got Spider-Man right. He’s only in two scenes, but he’s the shining moment of both of them. And boy, is it wonderful to see the real Spidey again.
The comic book Spidey hasn’t really felt like himself since Brand New Day, and though I wasn’t a fan of the deterministic totem elements of the JMS run, JMS’s take on Peter’s non-superhero life was something to be applauded: I’ll take JMS’s high school science teacher version of Peter over the corporate “Parker Industries” Peter any day. What makes Spidey great is his social and economic normalcy, how real his life is, how he’s an everyday awkward human being that can get evicted, lose his job, or be late on bills, instead of a larger-than-life superhero. While I liked the two Amazing Spider-Man movies far more than I expected, they also focused too much on determinism instead of chance: too much focus was put on genius scientist parents, and this focus undermined the fact that Peter’s role as Spider-Man is accidental, luck (or bad luck) of the draw.
The Spidey that we meet in Civil War is still young, only six months into his superhero career. But from the moment that Tom Holland, our new Spider-Man, first appears on the screen — walking through a lower income apartment complex with an old DVD player in hand — we know that we’re in for something special.
I think it’s too early to call Tom the best Spider-Man, since he’s only had a few scenes to show what he can do. For now, Tobey Maguire’s amazing performance in Spider-Man 2 is still the pinnacle, and Andrew Garfield did a good job as well. But in the few scenes Tom has, he nails it. He becomes Peter Parker in the flesh, and I think it’s very likely that by the time he gets center stage in his own film, he might very easily become the best Spider-Man we’ve ever seen. His portrayal combines the joyous sense of humor, the enthusiasm, the human quality, and the heart. He takes the best aspects from both prior Peter Parker actors and melds them into his own interpretation.
“When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t… and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” – Peter Parker, to Tony Stark
The scene where Peter meets Tony Stark is a masterwork in how to establish a three dimensional character in only a few minutes of screen time. Within one scene, we find out that Peter Parker is a poor kid in Queens, a dumpster diver. He’s quick-witted, smart, and funny, but definitely a dork. But most important is the quote above, the young Peter’s shy callback to his Uncle Ben’s famous mantra. This Peter is an awkward, clever kid with a big heart, who just wants to do the right thing.
When Captain America tells Peter “You got heart, kid”, he nails exactly what the movie itself gets right about Spider-Man. Spidey is a character whose mythology is all about heart. Spider-Man isn’t about darkness, shadows, secret agents, or epic conflicts. Tragedies are important to his narrative, but only as important as they are to our own narratives in real life. Just as us regular people lose our loved ones, just as we feel guilty over every loss, so does Peter. When Stan Lee had Peter age, go to the college, get a job, and get married, it worked — because Peter is a normal person, in a way that other superheroes are not, and the balance between his normal life and his superheroic exploits should never be undone for the sake of a shocking twist.
The struggle for balance between Peter and Spider-Man’s lives, separate and yet unified, is exactly what made Spider-Man 2 so terrific. That’s the movie that the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming should look to for inspiration.
What makes Spider-Man such an iconic figure is his normalcy. He’s a regular person trying to do the right thing. A nerdy kid from Queens, with a big heart, a big brain, a mouth that tends to run in circles when he gets nervous.
In Civil War, Marvel Studios shows us a glimmer of what makes Spider-Man great. As long as they don’t lose sight of that uniqueness, as long as they remember who the character is, then Spider-Man: Homecoming should be something truly special.