By now, you’ve probably heard that there’s a new Marvel movie out; that’s it’s title — Captain America: Civil War — suggests some serious internal turmoil happening among the Traveling Wilburys of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a.k.a. the Avengers; that everybody short of Howard the Duck and your mom shows up to duke it out in the film’s battle royale centerpiece; and that the nerdistrocracy (along with several prominent critics) has declared it the greatest superhero movie of all time. You’ve also assuredly been tipped off to the fact that a certain friendly neighborhood webslinger makes his MCU debut here, either from the second full-length trailer for the summer blockbuster or from early-screening advocates singling out the performance of 19-year-old newcomer Tom Holland as Peter Parker and his masked alter ego.
Specifically, it’s the character’s introductory sequence that’s been the source of near-unanimous praise regarding this latest iteration of the popular superhero. (If spoilers cause you to break out in hives, you may want to abandon ship here and come back after you’ve seen the film.) As the high-school student returns from a day of classes, he finds his uncharacteristically youthful Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) chatting with billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in the kid’s Queens apartment. The older man takes Peter aside and says he’s aware of the teen’s extracurricular activities; he needs an extra set of hands, preferably ones that have web-shooters, to help out in an ideological stand-off between regulated heroics and what some see as borderline vigilantism.
What comes next is arguably the highlight of Civil War: a nervous, passionate Parker explains that he’s not doing the superhero thing for greater glory or world policing, he’s just trying to stand up “for the little guy.” The young man then says he can’t go to Germany to help Stark take on his fellow Avengers, even though he’s a big fan of all these costumed do-gooders. “I have homework,” he explains, sheepishly. In a quick series of exchanges, the entire character is beautifully sketched out: a geeky brainiac teen who has powers he can’t quite comprehend, suddenly in over his head. You no longer care if Spider-Man’s inclusion in the MCU is courtesy of corporate backroom deals between Sony and Disney; you’re just excited to see the hero you know and love from the comics show up on screen.
“There was a lot of pixie dust on that scene,” says Civil War co-writer Stephen McFeely. “It came out of the computer pretty close to what you see in the movie. When the mandate you’re given is make him seem young and be naturalistic, you have your work cut out for you. It’s like: Okay, he’s 15, when he’s in an apartment building in Queens, Aunt May is going to be more generationally appropriate, you try to write him as realistically as possible.
“And I should add,” McFeely continues, “that we had the benefit of five other movies. The assumption is that people in the audience have seen at least one of those. So we do not have to talk about a radioactive spider, we do not have remind people that with great power comes great responsibility — most folks in the theater already know this going in. It makes it that much easier to go straight to establishing the character.”
“We also had the tremendous advantage of having Robert Downey Jr. in the room,” says co-writer Christopher Markus. “Much like Tony Stark, he’s constantly plotting, always pushing a scene and looking for ways to poke at the other actor to get more out of them. Tom is a young guy, this is his first gigantic movie — and right out of the gate, he’s got to dance with Robert. He was nervous and on his toes as an actor the same way Peter Parker is with a guy who’s just walked in and exposed his huge secret.”
Indeed, the fact that new Peter Parker is played by a 19-year-old actor, thus putting him a little bit closer to Parker’s age in the original 1962 comic, added to the dynamics of both the scenes and, per the screenwriters, the film overall. “Can you imagine if you’d cast a 25-year-old — how much sameness you would have gotten?” Markus asks. “You’ve already got a roster of very confident people here, starting with Cap himself. It’s fun to watch confident superheroes but at this point, you’ve got 10 or 12 confident people up on that screen. So the goal in the writing was: Let’s get someone in here who isn’t settled in their place of heroism. You know, someone who doesn’t really know what or why he’s doing this. And that made all the difference.”