When Tom Holland swung onto the stage as Spider-Man for 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, it’s safe to say that comic-book fans everywhere got pretty excited.
After two previous Spider-Man film adaptations – Sam Raimi and actor Tobey Maguire’s genre-defining early 2000s trilogy that was marred by a messy third instalment, as well as Marc Webb’s ill-fated Andrew Garfield-starring reboot – this version of the character would for the first time see Spidey in his rightful place coexisting with other Marvel heroes (having previously existed in a separate Sony-owned universe for rights reasons), and early signs pointed to Holland’s webhead being the closest to the comic-book version of the character that we’d seen yet.
After all, at a babyfaced 20 Holland was much more convincing as the traditionally teenaged Spider-Man (while now 21 he still plays the character as 15, the same age he was written in his earliest 1960s appearances), especially when compared to Garfield and Maguire, who were in their late 20s when cast as the hero.
“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 last year. “He’s supposed to be a kid.”
Tom Holland as Peter Parker in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War
And after seeing him briefly in Civil War, fans were even more elated. This was a Spidey who was awkward, funny, inexperienced and faintly annoying to the other heroes – much closer to the relatable comic-book character who has dominated the industry since the 1960s than the previous films had managed, as I (slightly breathlessly) wrote when Civil War first came out.
But now, the new webslinger’s first solo film Spider-Man: Homecoming is in cinemas, giving us a much better idea of how near this Peter Parker is to his comic-book incarnation – and in my view the answer is close, but not quite as close as many expected. In the end, though, that may be no bad thing.
You see, Marvel Studios have pulled their usual trick of subtly altering the character while retaining the core of what made them successful in the comics in the first place. You can see a similar repositioning in characters like Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man (who is much more sarcastic and prone to one-liners than his comic-book counterpart) or Chris Evans’ Captain America, a significantly more cuddly and lovable version of the comics’ slightly stern Sentinel of Liberty.
In Homecoming Peter Parker is a little clumsier, a little more likely to mess up his day-saving duties and overall a little younger and more juvenile than Spider-Men past, in keeping with a plot that sees Spidey as a wannabe hero desperate to prove himself to Iron Man and the Avengers (also a slight digression of which, more later). Hell, he doesn’t even swing through the Manhattan skyline any more, instead sticking to the suburbs and Queens in what’s a clear attempt to create a more homegrown Spidey than we’ve seen before.
And while Spider-Man has rarely been gritty, Homecoming is also a lighter take than many will be used to seeing onscreen or in the comics. Not only is there no overt mention of Peter’s murdered Uncle Ben and his “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” speech (the guilt of which has always driven the character), but there’s also no sign of Spider-Man’s traditional unpopularity with the media and the public, as spearheaded by proto-Fake News outlet The Daily Bugle.
This Spidey is more or less beloved by the public (notably one supportive extra is credited as “Yeah Spider-Man guy”), even when he “screw[s] the pooch, big-time” in the words of Downey Jr’s Iron Man and endangers members of the public on a botched mission.
None of this is to say such changes are a bad thing, as what works on the page (or the comic-book panel) doesn’t always translate to screen. And anyway, a lot of these omissions may be a reaction to avoiding the mistakes and successes of Spider-Men past. Who wouldn’t want a lighter Spidey after the brooding of Andrew Garfield’s incarnation? And why crowbar the Daily Bugle into a storyline when you’d only invite comparison with JK Simmons’ peerless performance as publisher J Jonah Jameson in the Raimi films? And if repeated over and over again, who’s to say such defining Spider-Man moments wouldn’t become clichés instead of classic character beats?
And anyway, for purists a great deal of the comic-book core does make it into the movie. One or two reviews of Spider-Man: Homecoming have noted Peter’s struggle between his civilian life (parties, school tests) and his Spider-life (webslinging, cracking wise, stopping villains) in the movie as its Big Idea, the new take on Spidey for the new generation.
But frankly, this was always the crux of a character originally created by writer Stan Lee and legendary artist Steve Ditko in 1962 to appeal to a certain subset of readers – young people trying to balance their increasingly complicated lives. Famously, a college-aged fan of the character in the 1960s described the character as “beset by woes, money problems, and the question of existence.
“In short, he is one of us.”
Peter Parker has long struggled to hide his Spidentity (thank you) from friends and family, missed dances, run out on dates and disappointed his Aunt May in the comics – that’s sort of the point of him. Unlike well-funded, public-eye heroes like Cap and Iron Man Spider-Man’s always been a relatable, part-time underdog, a kid in a home-made suit battling bad guys while sneaking out of his bedroom and having his colourful long-johns frequently handed to him by superior foes.
Spider-Man appeals because he isn’t the strongest, the fastest or the best fighter. He’s just a kid from Queens in over his head who won’t give up on what he knows is right, even if it brings him problems in his personal life, and Homecoming nails this part of the character perfectly.
Well, almost perfectly – because interestingly, one of this film’s biggest strengths is also one of the things that turns the character away from his comic-book appeal: Spidey’s titular “Homecoming” to the Marvel universe that unites him with the world of the Avengers et al.
Put frankly, for a lot of this film Spider-Man feels less like his old self because he just has too much help. While his Uncle Ben is still dead he has two helpful(ish) male role models in the form of Tony Stark and his colleague Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), with the pair ready and able to bail him out of trouble at a moment’s notice, while close friend Ned (Jacob Bataclan) is also made privy to Peter’s secret identity and quickly becomes his “guy in the chair” to direct him to where he’s needed. Hell, even the AI Peter has in his suit (christened “Karen” by the webslinger) slightly undermines Spidey’s traditional DIY heroism and smarts.
In fairness the film seems to know this as well – Marvel supremo Kevin Feige has described this film as an origin of sorts for how a superpowered teen BECOMES Spider-Man, and it doesn’t give too much away to note that later in Homecoming the webbed wonder realises he has to work on his own without Avenger help – and it seems likely that future films will continue this trajectory as Peter grows up.
Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming
And all in all Homecoming is a entertaining, touching and funny film that brilliantly plays off teenage angst (and teen movie tropes) to create a refreshing take on the increasingly stale superhero genre. Who cares if this is Spider-Man taken in a slightly different direction for a new generation, especially when it could be exactly what the character needs to survive and thrive?
Well, obviously I care a little bit – I wouldn’t have rambled on for over 1,000 words otherwise – but the point stands.
Still, with all that said I can’t help but cast my mind back to one of the most compelling moments from Spider-Man Homecoming, (slight spoilers incoming, hardcore fans, so look away if you need to) when an unmasked Peter is trapped under fallen masonry, unable to muster the strength to lift it off him and stop The Vulture (Michael Keaton) from carrying out a heist.
Glancing into the puddle in front of him where his mask lies, he sees his face as half Spider-Man, half Peter, and realises that if he doesn’t do this people could get hurt – so somehow, some way, he marshals the strength to heave the enormous weight off his body, standing alone and tall as only Spider-Man can.
It’s a triumphant moment, an inspiring moment, a moment that defines and creates the idea of Spider-Man for this new Peter Parker– and it’s also a moment lifted directly from the comics (above), specifically the 1965 “Master Planner” trilogy where a series of iconic panels see Spider-Man forced to heave an immense piece of machinery off him to save his Aunt may after being trapped in an underwater base.
Similarly, the half Spidey/Half Peter face has a long history in the comics to help visually portray the character’s inner monologue and strained duality, as you can see below.
Clearly, then, there’s still plenty the movies can glean from Spider-Man’s comic-book roots, even if they have to remix the character a little to make him work onscreen for a new generation. And for now, the signs are good that this version of the webhead has potential to grow and change just like his paper counterpart.
Personally, I’m excited to see where that leads – even if it does mean that Uncle Ben has to stay on ice for a while.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is released in UK cinemas today