This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on December 15, 2016.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
When did THIS become more attractive than THIS?
Here’s the case I want to make: We all love this new Tom Holland Spidey because of his comics roots. Just look at that costume. Look at it. Whoever was in charge of the design on this one really recognized the genius of Steve Ditko and did their absolute best to pay homage. The little spider, the clean lines, the emphasis of lanky build over muscular brawn. Now we have the armpit webbing too! It’s a great design that has lasted more than half of a century to become the best live-adaptation of the costume to date.
So what I want to tell you is that the reason we as a collective pop culture consuming blob seem to be so into the first half of that pair of images is recognition of its roots. Even though most of us don’t even know who the hell Steve Ditko is, in spite of his far less active or creative collaborator hogging space in every Marvel movie, there’s some internal drive that points us to the greatness of those early ideas. That’s what I really want to tell you, Mark.
But I can’t because it’s complete bullshit, and we both know you can see through mine with ease.
So why do we all seem so happy to embrace Tom Holland as the best Spider-Man ever based on a hamfisted cameo in a film already packed with them? My guess is it has to do with a rejection of the spirit of Spidey in favor of the feeling. When you’re willing to overlook two of the absolute best superhero movies ever made, something must be up, and you have to consider what is being sacrificed and what is being gained in that swap.
I’m not denying that there are some flaws with Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. The casting was far from perfect, except when it was absolutely perfect in cases like J.K. Simmons, Rosemary Harris, and Alfred Molina. The camp is something that isn’t to everyone’s taste. And it’s pretty clear even to high school me that Tobey Maguire should be in grad school if he’s studying anything. Those are imperfections fixed to time and style though; they don’t really damage the heart of these movies.
The use of “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” in Spider-Man is also something of a mixed effect. Purists won’t like it due to the blending of Stacy and Watson into a single character played by Kirsten Dunst and changes to the plot. Those who are unfamiliar with the comics are unlikely to appreciate the key visuals like the bridge standoff and an impalement upon a stake of humble tin.
The reason those movies hold up though isn’t how well they embody a particular aesthetic or storyline from the comics though. The first two Raimi films work because they capture the essence of Spider-Man as a character. If we’re talking Spider-Man, then there’s no disputing the first half of the film is the better half. That’s because it absolutely nails every part of the character’s origin. We get the decency instilled by humble beginnings and good guardians, the overwhelming changes of maturation and new power, and the difficulty of learning the most basic of lessons about our own humanity.
It’s easy to say that Raimi nails “With great power there must also come great responsibility” because he absolutely does, but the film and Spider-Man are much bigger than that singular facet. This is a character that is all about growth and service when confronted by the constraints of our own flawed humanity, and it’s something that movie layers into every part of Peter’s origin. And before you go throwing barbs at Maguire, it’s in every level of his performance no matter how old he looks. He’s the lovestruck dummy, the young person too smart for their own good, and each of us when confronted by tragedy too great to understand in the moment. Maguire is great.
Then you move to Spider-Man 2 and it’s everything I just talked up, but firing as an absolutely perfect superhero-fueled cinematic experience. The pull of your job, your family, your best friend and romantic interest, all against the need to do the right thing. This is one of the greatest stories we can tell and it is told in a manner that is beyond reproach. Spider-Man 2 is the best superhero film ever made. It’s just that simple.
You want to make a joke about James Franco and pie? Fuck you. Spider-Man 2 really is so good.
So what does Tom Holland have to compete with that?
Well, he certainly has boyish good looks, which is something you know plenty about, Mark. He really does look the part and is easily palatable as a high schooler, even at age 20. Those looks aren’t without an inner charisma either. When he lights up, he lights up a room. When he cracks wise, even with the dumbest of jokes, you laugh. And when he responds with overwhelming excitement to meeting Tony Stark, you remember how much fun it was to meet him yourself when Iron Man first landed. Holland’s Spider-Man is charming.
He’s also an absolute blast to watch in action. We can agree that the airport scene in Captain America 3: Civil Warwas non-organic and jammed in to fit the formula that Marvel believes leads to success (and seemingly does), but the movie lives and dies by that scene. It’s the aesthetic joy of watching all these characters bounce off one another and do cool stuff. While that is certainly not great storytelling, it’s the highlight of this movie and the reason to show up. Spider-Man is as good as anybody, maybe better than anybody in that moment. He is the webslinger us comics fans who appreciate Ditko along with more modern imaginings have come to love. It’s simply a ton of fun.
The connective tissue between all of these points though is that they are aesthetically driven. If we know anything about this Spider-Man’s personality or character, it’s because we take for granted that we know Peter Parker. This young man and the films he is in haven’t actually revealed a character, they’ve given us a really good looking mirror to project our beliefs about that character upon.
None of that ought to be read as a jab at Holland who is doing a tremendous job in the role, but you’re goddamn right it’s a jab at Marvel Studios at the entertainment complex producing stories like this. This is the perfect example of style before substance because style can be easy and accessible, but substance is demanding and specific. This is how a corporation like Disney takes characters and tries to make them palatable to literally everyone, and in doing so leaves nothing behind.
Spider-Man is important. He teaches us that life is hard and encourages us to do the right thing, especially when it’s not the easy thing. Peter Parker challenges us to admit when we’re fuck ups and to make sacrifices in the name of helping others over helping ourselves. He promotes personal and political ideals that make us better, neighborhood-friendly, members of society. This is a character that admits perfection is impossible, but encourages us to always be better. Spider-Man matters and he simply does not exist yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And I could be proven wrong. We only have a cameo and a trailer to go on here. Maybe Spider-Man: Homecomingwill really speak to all of the things that make Spidey important and remind us why we fight and help us keep it up. I don’t expect it, but I hope we get it. In the meanwhile, we’ve already embraced a Spider-Man that’s not really Spider-Man. He’s something that looks and talks like Spider-Man, but there’s no soul in him yet. I worry about what our love of this soulless facsimile says about us.