Who is the best Spider-Man? Just like who is your favourite James Bond, Doctor Who or Batman, it’s one of those subjective questions fans will ponder on endlessly in the queue for Comic Con or on internet forums. Without giving anything away, new movie Spider-Man: No Way Home will only intensify that debate as British actor Tom Holland reaches a moment of maturity as Marvel’s web-slinging hero and his adolescent alter-ego Peter Parker.
Holland is certainly not the first to slip on the spandex and swing his way through Manhattan. The character, famously created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, has featured in television shows, animated series, video games, as well as eight solo movie outings in the 21st century. In Marvel terms, he’s the most famous hero of them all – with perhaps only The Incredible Hulk coming close.
The difference is that Hulk’s earlier movie outings were forgettable. Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) saw Eric Bana play the titular role; then, in a rare misfire for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Edward Norton took on the mantle of the angry, green rage-monster in 2008’s reboot The Incredible Hulk. Neither worked, and it was only when Mark Ruffalo grew into the part – initially in 2012’s The Avengers – that the character came into its own.
Arguing over Spider-Man is much trickier, not least because the early films were out of this world. Fresh from Wonder Boys and Pleasantville, in 2002, Tobey Maguire brought his wide-eyed expression to Peter/Spider-Man in Sam Raimi’s exhilarating first outing Spider-Man. Maguire was aged 26 when the film was released, arguably far too old to play a high-school boy who gets bitten by a radioactive spider, though his youthful innocence saw him through.
Yet, along with Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), Raimi’s Spider-Man set the benchmark for the modern-day superhero movie, with exhilarating never-before-seen footage of Spidey acrobatically swinging through the streets. That it also pitched Maguire against Willem Dafoe’s villainous Green Goblin lent gravitas to the film. This increased with 2004’s Spider-Man 2, with Maguire fighting against the peerless Alfred Molina, as the metal tentacled Doc Ock – a movie so beloved by critics, website Slashfilm recently proclaimed it “the best superhero film of all time”.
Unfortunately, Maguire ran aground in 2007’s Spider-Man 3, the runt of Raimi’s litter, in a story that sees Peter’s darker side come out when his body is invaded by a symbiote. Shots of him grooving his way down the sidewalk, clicking his fingers and pointing at women, made the character look ridiculous. Arguably, Maguire’s career has never been the same since.
Perhaps aware that they’d potentially poisoned their lucrative chalice, studio Sony, which owns the rights to the character, rebooted Spidey within five years. Andrew Garfield, then hot off David Fincher’s Facebook movie The Social Network, was cast, as 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man pointlessly gave us the same origin story Raimi’s 2002 film did. Garfield was also far too old for the role – 28 when the film hit cinemas – and was left facing off Rhys Ifans’ The Lizard, a far inferior villain to the Green Goblin or Doc Ock.
While Garfield had the advantage that his real love life at the time overlapped with Peter’s, dating co-star Emma Stone, who played Gwen Stacy, you never got the impression he was at ease in the role. As he told me several years ago, when we spoke about it, wanting to be Spider-Man ever since he was 3 had left its mark. “It weighed so heavy on me because it meant so much to me, that maybe I cared too much about that character and about honouring that character. I wasn’t really sleeping. I couldn’t really enjoy it as much as I wanted.”
Holland, however, felt like he was born to play the role from the moment he first landed in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. The Russo Brothers, who directed the film, junked the origin narrative and threw him in at the deep end. The fight at the airport, as Captain America and Iron Man go mano a mano, remains one of the high-points in the entire MCU canon, and Spider-Man is right there in the heat of battle. What an introduction.
Holland was 19 when Civil War came out and he immediately encapsulated Peter's adolescence and fanboy worship of Stark and the Avengers. Even his appearance in the trailer, snatching Cap’s shield with a well-aimed web, saw people go crazy. By the time the film came out, he’d stolen the show. “[Holland] is the best Spidey/Peter Parker ever by a country mile,” tweeted Guardians Of The Galaxy director James Gunn. “He is to Spidey as Downey is to Iron Man, [Heath] Ledger was to the Joker, [Chris] Pratt is to Star-Lord.”
With a strong background in dance and gymnastics, Holland’s series of backflipping and somersaulting YouTube videos also made him perfect for the part. “Tom’s iteration of it is so smart and he covers so much of what’s best about Peter Parker and Spider-Man,” says Benedict Cumberbatch, who has featured with him in several Marvel movies (co-starring as Doctor Strange) as well as in historical drama The Current War. “It’s ludicrous how well he knows that character. His physicality is astonishingly adept.”
While this is true, it’s been the naive innocence that he’s brought to the role that’s worked best. Free from the shackles of needing to flesh out Spider-Man’s background, his first two solo outings Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) concentrated on the growing pains of adolescence – the second of the two, for example, taking him and his pals on that rites-of-passage so many children go through: the school trip abroad.
Perhaps the only true rival (or should that be rivals?) to Holland came in the 2018 animated adventure Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, when several actors – from Nicolas Cage to Chris Pine – voiced the character. Best of all, Shameik Moore became the first African-American to play Spider-Man. Maybe casting an actor of colour to play the next on-screen incarnation will be the way forward.
For the moment, enjoy Holland – truly the best Spider-Man yet.
Spider-Man: No Way Home opens on Thursday
Watch the trailer for 'Spider-Man: No Way Home':