The Setup: Sony has held ownership over Marvel’s Spider-Man film license since 1998, and through the bulk of the 2000’s, audiences were satisfied. Then Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 released. A misstep undoubtedly, but surly Raimi would redeem himself with a part 4, Right? Nope. Given Sony’s forced inclusion of the symbiote suit and Venom into Spider-Man 3’s narrative, Raimi felt a Parker-like responsibility to hold full creative control over the follow up as to ensure a less muddled outcome. Naturally, heads butted, so Sony decided to push the emergency reboot button on the franchise. The decision was disastrous. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) suffered as a lifeless retelling of an overly familiar story and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) fell victim to more executive meddling, shoving in as many villains and sub-plots as possible to ensure brand recognition for Sony’s planned (at the time) Sinister Six spinoff. Most importantly, the box office returns for both were nowhere near where they should be for movies featuring one of Marvel’s most recognizable characters.
Sony was in desperate need of direction. Cue every Marvel fan’s dream come true when Marvel Studios extended their hand to cut the tangled web Sony found themselves in. Deciding if you can’t beat them, join them, Sony allowed Kevin Feige, producer and creative overseer of the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, to integrate a newly rebooted version of Spidey into his Avengers-connected movies. Feige and his team would take full creative control over the character and his narrative within the MCU while Sony would collect the profits from each of the solo Spider-films. Fans were happy. Marvel was happy. Sony was happy. And after announcing Tom Holland as the new Peter Parker to be fist introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, directed by the Russo brothers, every spider-fan was foaming at the mouth to find out how Peter Parker would fit into an established Marvel cinematic universe.
Why it’s great: If you were there opening night of Civil War’s premier, chances are your theater erupted in ovation when the Queens title card encompassed the screen. An hour and fifteen minutes had already passed and given just how engaging the story and conflict between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark was up to that point, it could easily have been forgotten that a certain web-slinger was soon to be involved. And what better way to announce the character’s entrance, not through the grandiosity of Spider-Man swinging into action, but with the quaint Peter Parker in his humble neighborhood. Alt-J’s “Left Hand Free” plays as a segue into Parker’s world, capturing perfectly the youthful energy of a sixteen year old returning home from school and riding a high from nailing his algebra test.
The Russo’s choice to have Aunt May raising Peter in an apartment rather than in a house, as had been tradition in all Spider-Man media up to this point, was smart given how outlandish owning a house in Queens on a middle-class income is today compared to the character’s debut in the sixties. And the modest setting adds strides to Peter’s shock of finding a world-famous, billionaire superhero awaiting him in his living room. Peter mumbles and bumbles his way through grasping the situation while Tony winks and raises his eyebrows, signaling him to play along in front of his aunt. It’s a hilarious moment that instantly has you loving Holland’s rendition of the character, connecting with the relatable awkwardness of trying to keep his cool in an inconceivable situation, nearly losing himself to nerves and astonishment. And given how well known the character is, there’s no need to spell out the stakes right away, we know Peter keeps his identity secret from May, Tony could ignite his life by letting that cat out of the bag right there in his living room.
Tony knows the power he holds over Peter and flaunts it in the most Tony Stark way possible. When the scene moves to Peter’s bedroom and Peter tries to press Tony for answers, Tony responds, “me first,” and pulls up footage of Spider-Man to show what he knows. There’s no greater Tony Stark trait than taking control of a situation and showing that he holds all the cards. Tony’s in investigation mode, trying to find out if Peter is the real deal. He’s clearly studied this new hero in Queens, even tracked him to the point of discovering his identity, but he’s still suspicious. Could a sixteen-year-old kid really pull off the tech and smarts he needs to do what he does? As the scene progresses, Robert Downey Jr. conveys a subtle warming up to Peter as he discovers that this kid is just like him, a teenage Tony Stark from much humbler beginnings, without the money and inheritance to fund his genius. When Peter reveals that he invented his own webbing, Tony tries his best to hide his visible shock. He might have a contender for smartest person in the room, and it’s a high school kid.
Mid-scene, Tony gets Peter to fess up to his secret identity and refers to the fledgling hero as Spider-Boy. Peter, somewhat embarrassed, tells Tony that he goes by Spider-Man. Given the MCU’s timetable, Peter would have grown up with Iron Man and the Avengers in the news, looking up to and being inspired by their heroics. So, when he got bit by a spider and acquired powers of his own, putting on a costume and giving himself a superhero identity would have been, to an extent, influenced by coming of age in an Avengers-world. Likewise, Tom Holland grew up in a time that Iron Man and The Avengers dominated the box office and zeitgeist. The Russos have been candid in saying this was an essential aspect to casting Holland. The intimidation Tom felt while acting one-on-one with a veteran actor he grew up admiring translated perfectly to Peter’s headspace in the scene. The moment when Tony gets up to sit next to Peter and tells him to “move the leg” wasn’t scripted. Tom forgot his stage direction and Robert was calling out the rookie mistake. It’s this real-life dynamic that blossomed the mentor/mentee relationship between Tony and Peter with such grace. And Tom, in the course of just this one scene, solidifies himself as the definitive on-screen Peter Parker. His body language and voice displays a bashful diffidence on the surface, while at the same time giving the slightest fragments of assurance and strength that slowly reveal themselves throughout the scene – most notably when Tony throws a webbing cartridge and Peter catches it instinctively without looking, or in the final moment when Peter stands up, pumps out his chest and webs Tony’s hand to the doorknob in reaction to Tony threatening to “tell Aunt Hottie.”
Perhaps the most notable aspect of this scene is that it reiterates Peter’s origin without feeling like a retread of already covered ground. Which is saying a lot, considering this was the character’s second reboot in four years. Peter’s admittance that he’d love to play football but “couldn’t then, so I shouldn’t now,” says precisely what Uncle Ben would have taught him off-screen, that if he’s got a gift, he must use it to help others rather than himself. Tony then emphasizes that Peter’s different, to which Peter quickly retorts, “But I can’t tell anyone that, so I’m not.” With just that line, we feel Peter’s isolation from having to hide his gifts from his peers in order to conceal his identity. And then, instead of using the exhausted “great power, great responsibility” line, Peter says, “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” Combining that line with Holland’s display of internalized torture, the guilt, pain and responsibility Peter feels over his Uncle’s death is conveyed without a single mention of Ben Parker or the moment he died. At a time when the Uncle Ben origin had been retold countless times in various mediums, this moment of subtlety was all that was needed for the MCU to make a nod to that crucial event so it could finally move into new storytelling territory.
Tony hearing and being affected by Peter’s philosophy is key to the overarching narrative of Civil War. At this point in the story, Tony was just commanded by General Ross to put a team together and bring in Steve Rogers. He’s wrestling with the hard fact that his and Rogers’ apposing beliefs may lead to battle. Tony’s doubts are kicking in. So, when a sixteen-year-old kid explains the simple idea of individual responsibility to do what’s right, Tony’s reminded why he signed the Sokovian Accords in the first place, to prevent the bad things from happening before they happen. He’s provided a much-needed reminder on why he’s fighting for what he believes in.
What really makes this scene great is that it shouldn’t have worked at all. Adding a popular character into a movie after just acquiring the rights to said character has “disjointed mess” written all over it. The truly amazing part is that it provides a much needed, middle of the story, fleshing out of both a prominent theme in the movie – the responsibilities of those with great power – and Tony Stark’s character motivations. And at the same time, it reboots and introduces the latest rendition of Spider-Man into the MCU, all in one impressive scene that is an engaging rollercoaster ride of tremendous chemistry, humor and emotion.