Captain America: Civil War and the Enduring Magic of Spider-Man

By  · Published on May 6th, 2016

The best on-screen version of Spidey yet also reminds us of why the character is so beloved.

“Hey, everyone.”

Even if you haven’t been lucky enough to snag an early screening of Captain America: Civil War, you’ve probably heard by now that Spider-Man steals the show. Certainly that this is the best live action adaptation of our web-head we’ve ever had.

What you’ve heard is correct.

Civil War manages, for the first time ever, to get both halves of the character right. All due respect to Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, who had fine turns in their own franchises, but it’s long been said that Maguire got the Peter Parker half right, but missed the mark on Spider-Man, whereas Garfield nailed Spider-Man, but was off-base as Peter Parker. But Civil War manages to do three very important things with Tom Holland’s portrayal: One, it reminds us that Spider-Man was, first and foremost, a 15-year-old kid when he took up the role. Two, it finally showcases the true power of Spider-Man, something that the previous films haven’t conveyed. Three, it finally balances both halves of the character and gets them both right.

All of those things come together in the film and remind us of why Spider-Man has endured as a character. There are a few characters in pop culture history who have seemingly always been in the public consciousness: Batman. Superman. Wonder Woman. The Doctor, if you’re British. Captain America. They’re reborn on screen and off again and again.

But maybe no character is as truly beloved as Spider-Man. After two failed movie series and our third recast in a decade, fans were understandably nervous about getting yet another version of him on the big screen, back in Marvel’s hands or not. So it’s a testament to his enduring magic that, when the Civil War trailer finally revealed him for the first time, he was all anyone buzzed about. Not Iron Man. Not Black Panther. Not even Captain America in his own film, but Spider-Man. It was Spider-Man who had fans excited, who rekindled our love affair with him in all the time it took for Iron Man to call out, “Underoos!”

Why? It’s because the trailer did what the rest of the film has done: Made him one of us. He’s not a billionaire, not a super soldier, not an android or alien or super assassin. He’s not invincible, invulnerable, and infallible. He was just a kid who gained superpowers, and, after his own failing led to the death of his uncle, decided to do everything in his power to do good. So many superheroes truly came into their powers as adults, at least in the Marvel universe.

Not Spider-Man, though.

Fifteen years old. Think about that for a second – no, really think about it. What were you doing when you were 15? Before you could even drive? Before you had even possibly had your first job? When you were still trying to figure out geometry and acne and balancing football practice or band practice with homework? While you were doing all of that, Peter Parker was busy spending his nights fighting crime AND navigating all of the above. But he did it because it was the right thing to do.

I’m not sure he would have been who he is had he come into his powers later in life, after he’d figured out who he was and shaped a set moral code. Whether he would or wouldn’t have been, the fact remains that Peter Parker learned his hardest lesson ever when he was still at a formative age – just a baby, really. It took his already-good heart and broke it, then reforged it in the fires of experience into one of iron-clad nobility. He bends, but never breaks. There is literally no question for him that being granted the gift of his power means he has to use it responsibly, for the greater good, for the betterment of those around him, no matter what. It’s his internal driving mechanism, his inability to do anything other than try to do what’s right and it’s defined him throughout the years.

“Do you know what is the greatest gift anyone can receive in his lifetime? The greatest gift we can receive is to have the chance, just once in our lives, to make a difference. Do you understand how many times you made a difference? Enough for a hundred lifetimes.” – Doctor Strange to Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man #500

When we think of heroes, we tend to think of ones like Captain America, like Superman. But it’s easy to be a hero when your moral compass never falters. It’s easy to be a hero when you have god-like powers. It’s much harder to be a hero when you’re constantly getting your ass kicked, when you’re beaten and bloody more often than not, when the easiest thing in the world to do would be to give it all up, when, even when you try to walk away, you come back because you can’t not be a good man. Other superheroes have always made it look so easy, but nothing’s ever come easy to the wallcrawler.

That’s why it was so important for Civil War to get back to Spidey’s roots. He is the wild card in the film, a rough around the edges kid who doesn’t seem to truly grasp the seriousness of the situation. And how could he? Where most of the rest of the Avengers have been fighting for years and are experienced in major, world-altering battles, he’s been fighting crime for all of six months. His fighting style is sloppy, movements unpolished. Fighting isn’t yet second nature to him, and so there are moments in the film where you see him go cartwheeling through the air when he gets his ass handed to him. His power is not yet something he’s learned to control.

But the power is there, and that’s important. “With great power comes great responsibility” is perhaps the most well-known motto in all of pop culture. Yet, the previous iterations of Spider-Man on the big screen have made the mistake of focusing more on the latter half of that phrase at the expense of the first part. Sure, they’ve shown him swinging gracefully on his webbing, flipping around fighting bad guys, but they’ve never truly showcased his raw power, both physical and mental, something as important and fundamental to who Spider-Man is as his sense of responsibility.

When he fights in Civil War, rough as it is, you can see the pure potential in him, his prodigious strength, his speed, the incredible dynamism of his webbing. By now, you’ve probably seen the TV spot where he catches Winter Soldier’s bionic arm mid-swing and bends it around to inspect it in amazement. Bucky’s face at that moment is pure shock, akin to Superman’s dumbfounded expression from Batman v Superman when Batman easily blocks his flying Kryptonian punch. Peter isn’t even aware that he’s done something that even other stronger, experienced superheroes can’t do – he’s too busy bubbling over with kid-like excitement for Bucky’s “awesome” metal arm to notice he’s just singlehandedly blocked a punch from the most powerful hitter in the fight and made it look easy.

Metal arms will never not be awesome to teenage boys

It’s a nice moment that highlights both his youthful enthusiasm and the fact he’s so strong he doesn’t even realize it – a recipe for a fascinating Bildungsroman in his upcoming standalone movies on a level we’ve not yet seen.

What’s more, the film touches upon the incredible sensory input that’s flying through Peter’s head all the time, constantly needing to be filtered. His “Spidey-sense” has been somewhat of a deus ex machina over the years, at times appearing when writers needed to get him out of a seemingly impossible jam and disappearing on him when it served the purpose of putting him in peril, at others. It’s been equally inconsistent in his film adaptations.

But in a line that I won’t spoil here, when he’s talking to Tony Stark not as Spider-Man, but as Peter Parker, he mentions the sensory overload that he’s gained as part of the package deal of his new powers. Again, it’s something that has never been made clear in previous films, but one that longtime Spider-Man fans have always known. It’s not just that he moves so fast because only his physiology has been modified by the spider bite – he moves that fast because he thinks faster than everyone else, too. Not only is he a genius (again, something that hasn’t really been fully explored in the previous movies), but he also has exponentially increased mental and sensory input. There’s a reason his comic book artists have regular drawn him flash-stepping over the years.

That’s not to say any of this will come easily to our newest iteration of Spider-Man, because it never does. He’s not just Spider-Man, superpowered, crime fighting hero, but also Peter Parker, teenage boy— juggling everyday problems like acing his algebra quiz, protecting those he loves, figuring out what kind of man he wants to be, appeasing his aunt. It’s something his previous films have taken somewhat for granted over the years – just how hard it is for him to be as powerful as he is as Spider-Man while trying to live his life as Peter Parker and not use those powers to cut corners, to make his life easier. While the Sam Raimi films came close, they, much like the Amazing Spider-Man reboot, quickly moved Peter from high school to college and beyond.

It will be fantastic to finally get a version of Peter Parker that keeps him in high school, that explores the formative years that were so important in shaping him as a man. It will be fantastic to finally get a version of Spider-Man that showcases just how overwhelmingly fast and powerful he is as a hero. Civil War has set up a Spider-Man that finally gets the character right on both sides of the equation, and, in doing so, has reminded us why he has been so beloved by the world for so long.

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Happy little nerd in a world made of words. | Editor-at-large: Moviepilot | Writer: Forbes, Marvel, and Film School Rejects | Contributor: Birth.Movies.Death.