Peter Parker graduated from high school almost exactly 50 years ago: Amazing Spider-Man #28, “The Menace of the Molten Man,” just three years after Puny Parker started web-swinging. And Spider-Man kept growing up for the next 35 years. Slowly but surely: College, then his salad days living in Manhattan when Manhattan was affordable on a freelance salary, then marriage. Age is generally meaningless as pertains to superheroes—everyone’s a twentysomething who talks like a fortysomething’s version of a teenager—but when I started reading comic books, Spider-Man read like a guy in his mid-to-late-20s, with a cool job that paid him nothing and a beautiful wife starring on a soap opera.
The character’s had a couple few comic reboots since then—back to high school, back to swinging-single bachelorhood. What I’m getting at is: There is no central one-and-only take on Spider-Man, and don’t believe anyone who tells you any different.
Like, in the best Spider-Man movie ever made so far, Tobey Maguire was a college kid living in an apartment too cruddy to be fashionable, watching the love of his life marry an astronaut. Maguire was cusping on 30, and the opening scene of Spider-Man 2 is the best portrayal ever of The Superhero As Adult Everyman: Working two crappy jobs, struggling to fight crime and deliver pizza. (You could argue that Spider-Man 2 is the Superhero Movie As Quarterlife Crisis; remember the Quarterlife Crisis?) And in the worst Spider-Man movie ever made so far, Andrew Garfield was graduating from high school and learning what it really means to grow up, or something. Garfield was already over 30—and instead of Alfred Molina, he had Blue Jamie Foxx and yet another Green Goblin.
So: Tom Holland will be Spider-Man now. Yes, he is another white British kid. Yes, this is the most rapid reboot turnaround in franchise history. Recall the five years between Hulk and The Incredible Hulk, the eight years between Batman & Robin and Batman Begins, the 19 years between Superman: The Quest for Peace and Superman Returns. No, nobody particularly enjoyed the last two Spider-Man movies—and even though I like Spider-Man 3 more than the makers of Spider-Man 3, I am willing to admit that this is a franchise that has not produced a properly good movie in over a decade. More crucially for the Sony-Marvel alliance, this is a rare case where the average global moviegoer actually seems to care about quality: Witness declining receipts.
The bright side: Tom Holland is, as of this moment, an actual human teenager. Only just—he’s 19—but he’ll be done filming his first two bigscreen outings as Spider-Man before his 21st birthday. You cannot doubt Andrew Garfield’s full commitment to the Amazing movies, but he was a 5-foot-10 grown-ass-man. (Go watch him right now in the first Red Riding movie, and ponder our bizarre Hollywood age, where a studio watched Andrew Garfield play Humphrey Bogart and decided he’d be perfect as Ryan Phillippe.)
And, crucially, Holland will benefit from proximity to other superheroes—something no other feature-film Spider-Man has ever been allowed to do. Holland will debut next year in Captain America: Civil War, where he’ll be explicitly younger and maybe gawkier and presumably just less of a professional stalwart badass then the parade of Avengers surrounding him. Another crucial tidbit: If we can believe Kevin Feige, Tom Holland will not have to suffer through yet another origin story. No Uncle Ben prologue, no discovering-his-superpowers-via-skateboard montage.
You could make the argument that the Amazing movies didn’t really do Spider-Man as a high schooler—that they jumped too deep too early into the Nolanized depths of Peter’s murdered parents and Oscorp and well-funded penthouse laboratories. And if you’re someone who prefers to look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe as one whole narrative unit—and not a series of variable episodes that run the gamut from very good to decent to Thor: The Dark World—then you might even appreciate how “Spider-Man in High School” has more resonance in the context of a megafranchise. The Amazing movies had to pretend that it made sense for an average high schooler to constantly save the entire city; Tom Holland’s Spider-Man might occupy some third space between the city grit of Daredevil and the flying-ships-attacking-a-city third-act gravity of the last few Marvel movies.
But, yes, this is the third Spider-Man in 13 years, and the second reboot this decade. And even if Holland is a new kind of big-screen superhero—even if this new Spider-Man is the high school comedy-romance with superpowers that we thought we were getting three years ago—we’ve already seen a lot of Spider-Man’s tricks. He has spun webs and he has fought villains on bridges and he has fought mad scientists transformed into monsters and he has seen girlfriends tossed from high places. Green Goblins: He’s seen a few.
Spider-Man is a visual opportunity like no other superhero: He doesn’t fly, he swings; he doesn’t shoot laser beams, he spins webs; he doesn’t punch, he acrobatically reverse-kicks. We’ve seen it all. A new Spider-Man needs to show us something new, or at least put some kind of radical Nolan-doing-Batman spin on something very old. Good luck, Jon Watts! (And confession: I loved Onion SportsDome.)
The simple fact is that finding a new Spider-Man is the least of Spider-Man‘s worries. The franchise is in a difficult place. This isn’t Batman after & Robin, but this could be X-Men after Origins: Wolverine, and the decision to circle right back around to where Amazing Spider-Man started isn’t the most obvious good idea.
But at least this new guy looks younger than Stockard Channing in Grease.
Like Tom Holland? Miss Andrew Garfield? Want to discuss how Mary Jane’s subplot in Spider-Man 3 is really great? Email me at email@example.com, and I’ll respond in the next Geekly Mailbag.