Why Tom Holland's new Spider-Man is the hero I’ve been waiting for
The webbed wonder is not only the best part of Captain America: Civil War, but may well be the best adaptation of the character on screen to date, says Huw Fullerton
For as long as I can remember I’ve loved Spider-Man, so I was always going to watch his latest incarnation in Captain America: Civil War with interest.
When I was a kid I devoured his TV shows and merchandise, read every comic I could find cover to cover (whether they were reprints of the 1960s stories or more modern imports from the States) and even starting (badly) drawing my own adventures for him.
When it came to making a cushion cover in Design & Technology, it seemed to make perfect sense to iron on my own splodgy sketch of the webbed wonder. When I first got MS paint on my computer, of course I’d edit my head on to his costume and stick it on the internet.
In case you’re not getting the theme here I was a slightly weird kid, and the perfect 10-year-old audience for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film series when it started in 2002 (it was a 12A but I went with my parents so it’s legit, OK?). Watching the adventures of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker on the big screen was terrific, and while it wasn’t quite the same as the comic in tone I was happy enough.
Spider-Man 2 followed and I loved it even more (Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus is still one of the best screen supervillains), only to be crushed by the disappointing mess of emo hair, miscast villains and poor characterisation that was Spider-Man 3 in 2007.
Brr. From there, the rot set in – it was hard to get excited about the Andrew Garfield reboot so soon after Raimi’s trilogy, retelling the world’s most familiar origin in a pair of films that, for all their good points, gave the impression of being cash-ins.
To be honest, by this point I was noticing the chasm between the comic-book Spidey I’d grown up loving and the mopey 30-somethings playing him on the big screen.
Despite the odd well-made animated adaptation (I’m looking at you, Spectacular Spider-Man), I more or less gave up on the character and turned to other things. Over the years, even as my work turned more and more to writing about superheroes I’d long forgotten how much I’d once known and loved the character. He was done.
Until I watched Civil War last week, and saw the seemingly effortless way Joe and Anthony Russo had plucked the Spider-Man of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original 1960s run and plonked him right in the middle of the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This was the Spider-Man I’d been waiting for, without even realising it. This was a Spider-Man who actually cracked jokes mid-fight, who seemed like a science nerd, who made mistakes and crucially (as portrayed by 19-year-old Tom Holland) was young.
Spider-Man actor Tom Holland in BBC2's Wolf Hall
“Maguire and Garfield are great actors, but they were cast at the wrong age,” Civil War co-director Joe Russo agreed when I put this to him. “He’s supposed to be a kid.”
The age is important. Comic book Spider-Man is inexperienced, immature and in over his head, and that’s what’s always made him relatable. He’s every speccy bullied kid who can’t seem to get anything right, who even with superpowers is beaten up, dumped by his girlfriends and forced to take demeaning low-paid jobs.
As one fan put it in the 1960s (when the idea of a teen hero who wasn’t a sidekick was revolutionary), Spider-Man was "beset by woes, money problems, and the question of existence. In short, he is one of us."
In the comics, the Avengers were the adult establishment who could always rather dully save the day. By contrast, Spider-Man was like the young readers – awkward, always late, making mistakes and barely scraping by, and watching Civil War I was reminded of how much more interesting that is. Who wants to watch a bunch of good-looking demigods swan their way to victory? Show me some obstacles and torment and I’m a lot happier.
Hell, this version of the character is so authentic that even his behind-the-scenes evolution was fraught with struggle, encompassing the failure of Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man movies (above), the Sony email hack that teased an early attempt at a deal between the rival studios, and the relentless pitching of Joe and Anthony Russo, who told me this week that they wanted Spider-Man in Civil War (and therefore in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) from the start.
I’m glad they stuck at it, as I firmly believe that only Marvel could have made this brilliant new version of Spidey. Unlike Sony (Spider-Man), Warner Bros (Batman vs Superman) or even Fox (the X-Men series), Marvel generally seem to try and maintain the personalities and essence of comic book heroes when adapting them to screen, and in my opinion that’s one reason behind their success.
Of course this is partly just good business (Marvel still make and sell the comics the characters come from, and they want to keep that brand consistent), but I think it’s also a recognition that the comic-book versions worked on the page for a reason. Why wouldn’t the same thing also be a hit when combined with the latest filmmaking techniques?
From my perspective, watching the new Spider-Man is the end of a disappointment I didn’t even know I was feeling, like seeing in colour after years of black and white. As a fan I loved the new Spidey’s personality. As a critic I liked the lightness he added to Civil War – as a writer I was just pleased that I’d get to write many more complicated articles about him in the coming years.
But at the end of the day, I think I was probably just happy to feel like a kid again the moment he swung on screen. ‘nuff said.
Captain America: Civil War is in cinemas now