With the theatrical release of Captain America: Civil War this weekend, Marvel is introducing one of the most popular comic book characters ever created, Spider-Man, into its ever-expanding Cinematic Universe. Nineteen-year-old Tom Holland has donned the classic red-and-blue pajamas for his first outing as Ol’ Webhead, and he’ll be the one carrying the character into his own solo series (along with the occasional appearance in other Marvel movies).
In what’s already one of Marvel Studios’ best movies, Spider-Man stands out. Holland manages to steal the show in what amounts to an extended cameo by capturing the bright-eyed, youthful wit that has resonated with fans since the character’s creation. But Holland’s success in the role is underscored by how little the movie tries to justify his presence. Spider-Man might be one of the best parts of Civil War, so it’s hilarious that he has next to no business being in it.
Tom Holland is arguably the best onscreen Spider-Man to date
Let’s get something out of the way. Any die-hard fan worried about this being the third take on Spidey in 15 years should know that Tom Holland is arguably the best onscreen Spider-Man to date. It’s as if the movie took the twitchy charm of Andrew Garfield and the do-gooder attitude of Tobey Maguire and molded it around Holland’s palpable energy. It’s a magnetic performance. Seeing him thrill over the Winter Soldier’s metal arm or use Star Wars as inspiration for taking an embiggened Ant-Man down are applause-worthy comic beats in a movie that’s otherwise pretty dour given its "United We Stand. Divided We Fall." emotional arc.
The Russos do a great job at planting the seed for the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, too. During a few brief sequences in Queens, we get to see Peter Parker as a gifted teenager living with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) trying to make the most of his superpowers. We don’t get anything in the way of an origin or "With great power…" speechifying, because we don’t need it. (Especially since we’ve seen all that twice already.) Civil War commits to the idea that Spider-Man is a young new player in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and makes you like him simply because he’s a good kid.
But ask why Spider-Man needs to be in Civil War in particular, and you’ll start to scratch your head. It’s a pertinent question: after all, Spidey was the moral center in the original Civil War comic series a decade ago, allying himself with Tony Stark before eventually giving into his doubts about the cause. The Russos even told io9 recently that Peter is "critical to the movie."
'Civil War' works just fine without him
Unfortunately, it’s surprisingly easy to imagine the movie working just fine without him. In the cinematic Civil War, Tony Stark realizes that he needs a ringer in his upcoming fight with Captain America, so he — without much explanation — jetsets over to Queens, New York to meet with a kid with spider powers. It’s the comic book movie equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of your hat. And when the Big Fight in Berlin is over, so ends Spider-Man’s role in the movie, coming in at maybe 20 minutes of screentime. Thanks for the hard work, kid!
The Marvel movies live and die based on their ability to drive the action forward based on character. Time and effort are given to each superhero’s personality and motivations. That’s the principal reason why this movie works as compared to the disappointing mess that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But Spider-Man is the exception here: the Russos don’t give him a whole lot of time to establish himself as meaningful to the plot, so he sticks out like a sore thumb.
Making matters worse, Spider-Man’s affiliation with Iron Man in the plot falls apart under scrutiny. Tony Stark is trying to push the Sokovia Accords, an agenda that would have the Avengers submit to control under the United Nations. The logic there is that, with oversight, superhumans would be unable to act without sovereign authority and therefore never put innocents in harm’s way. Think about that for a second. Isn’t taking it upon yourself to recruit a child and stick him into a battle that destroys an airport the exact kind of irresponsible thinking the Sokovia Accords are trying to correct? And just like that, Tony Stark breaks the entire conceit of the movie.
Isn't putting a kid in danger the exact sort of thing superhero registration would theoretically prevent?
But you know what? Despite the degree to which he was shoehorned in, Marvel might have actually succeeded where Sony failed. The company managed to create a Spider-Man that’s worth rooting for, even if his involvement is the result of a late-in-the-game co-licensing deal. Depending on your outlook, Spidey either elevated an already great movie, or won your heart despite being in a flawed movie. For my part, I’m looking forward to Homecoming next year. That ought to be the character’s true introduction.