Spider-Nerds Through the Years

Spider-Man is an incredibly pervasive cultural touchstone; we all grew up with him in some form or another. I grew up with Tobey Maguire.

While I’ve never considered Spider-Man a favorite superhero, there’s no denying that he was a Big Deal to anyone under eighteen years old at the exact point in American culture that those films came out. He was funny, heroic, and relatable to those of us who understood we were awkard. He was a young, street-level hero in New York City, which was the city of heroes. (The Tobey Maguire movies capitalize on this by always having at least one Big New York Scene, where New Yorkers get to prove they’re badass heroes in their own New York way. Cue cheers from the red-blooded American audience.) He represents a lot of the superhero stuff of that era, with a flair for drama, grit, and dark lens filters, but what makes Spider-Man unique was well-reflected in Tobey Maguire’s performance. He came at the right time, in the right way, and was Important for cultural reasons beyond the scope of comics.

90% of the people I know who loved Tobey hate Andrew Garfield’s performance. Understandably, since he’s a totally opposite character; he’s nerd-cool, handsome, and sure of himself except in that cute heartthrob way. There’s a Big New York Scene, but it feels more like an homage to the other films than a justifiable scene in and of itself. He’s an anathema to anyone who loved Tobey because he’s, well, totally the opposite of him, really. They polish Peter Parker so hard that who he is seems to disappear under the wax. But in the meantime, Tobey’s own performance has suffered in the light of changing times. With the rise of polished, slick, fun superhero flicks, he looks ugly and dramatic. When Tobey Maguire cries, his chin crinkles, his mouth sags, and his face turns red, much like most of us when we’re crying; when Andrew Garfield cries, he yells manfully at the sky and a single drop of sparkling dew traces down his face.

Neither of these Spider-Nerds is wrong in and of themselves, they’re just both very much products of their era. They are different teen boys appealing to different target audiences. They’ve aged, and with the benefit of knowing how good and bad superhero movies can really get, they’re just fine.

In Spider-Man: Homecoming, New York is filled with diverse people in many bodies with many outlooks, and the way the city and Spider-Man combine is something the other films missed out on when they decided to glorify the relationship. When we get a montage of Spider-Man out on patrol, he isn’t saving cats from trees and running towards the sound of shrieking women who just lost their purse. He gives directions, doesn’t do very well at stopping a bike thief, and backflips on command for a guy at a food truck. He’s a part of the fabric of the neighborhood, and the people in it, like us, have seen Spider-Man swing by so many times that he looks natural against the skyline–and it reminds us of where he belongs by taking him away from that place and showing us how remarkable he feels in that context.

The villain, Michael Keaton’s Vulture, comes straight from the scuffed-up streets; his storyline is the only one that feels connected to any sort of 9/11-based mindset, coming as it does from the New York working class being treated with disrespect by the powerful. This makes a bit more sense, since he’s older than most of the teenaged characters and feels a sense of New York and manly pride that loses out more when things are taken for him. I think some people might come out of the movie thinking his motives for villainy are weak, but they make a lot of sense. This isn’t a case of science driving someone crazy or world domination for the fun of it; the bad guy is trying to make a buck and has done a backslide over eight years into the realm of villainy. We get the feeling that the fact that his costume is animalistic is more of a coincidence than anything, and when he gives a villain monologue, it is because he’s a bitter adult talking to a naive kid. And of course Michael Keaton’s perfectly capable of delivering a performance that feels like a normal guy who would absolutely strap on wings to fight Spider-Man.

In a miracle, the rest of the cast is strong and painted with enough brushes to be interesting. Peter Parker’s best friend Ned is extremely excited about his friend being Spider-Man, but unlike many stock characters, is capable of reigning it in and being supportive. (He also makes a bad hat choice at a party, which is so me circa age sixteen that I felt my heart ache.) Peter’s crush Liz is beautiful and perfect and a senior, but the movie makes pains to show that she has more dimensions than “pretty girl.” Zendaya’s Michelle is revolutionary if only because she is a teen girl who does not wear visible makeup. Just like his neighborhood, Peter Parker’s closer circle is diverse and interesting. Tony Stark is, well, Tony Stark; RDJ perfected the performance years ago, but he actually gets something new to do in this one. Despite regret fueling his actions because that will be Tony Stark’s raison d’etre until the end of time, we get to see that he’s matured and is doing the right thing by a vulnerable fifteen year old who thinks he can drop out of school to save the world.

Tom Holland himself feels like a cloning accident of the first two Spider-Nerds that has somehow produced something…much more subtle and miraculous than I expected. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is cute yet young, a LEGO fan yet teen-fashionable, earnestly ready to be a hero yet full of big and little flaws. His character is guilty of pride and of assuming that adults don’t listen to him, of relying on his own limited viewpoint as the gospel truth of the world, but these assets also make him the homegrown hero that pays off for him in more subtle ways. He feels young and naive without that naivete taking away anything from him; instead of feeling like the backwards beginning of someone who is different and better and polished by the end of the movie, we feel like we are seeing, well, a fifteen-year-old, who is massively talented and only just beginning the upward arc toward adulthood. This movie very successfully makes Peter Parker a real person without making Spider-Man lame, and when he cries, it feels as natural as everything else about him.

(I lie. I find Tom Holland’s abs unnatural, but I admit that I’m twenty-five and I’ve just reached the point where hot fifteen year olds are Weird.)

It remains to be seen if Tom Holland will come to look like a product of our modern outlook; he’s certainly a product of the Marvel Studios machine, the “quip, fight, quip some more, be sad, be noble, quip for the final time” model that they have laid out, regular as railroad ties. This design started with Stan Lee’s Spider-Man comics back in the day, so part of me thinks that this particular Spider-Nerd will continue to feel like a right fit for the character long after our film consciousness shifts to another kind of narrative. Spider-Man, is, in a way, an immortal character; he’s been able to be successful in these three eras because his story is inherently interesting, inherently current, and inherently flexible. If he needs to be rebooted to suit a new audience, those filmmakers will find it very easy to pull off, and they will do it decades after Star Lord fades back into obscurity.

So I wish Tom Holland and his Spider-Man all the luck in the world at not getting tarnished with age. But for now, he’s doing just fine.

You can talk to the author of this blog on Twitter @yipp33kiyay.

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