When Spider-Man first appeared in the trailers for Captain America: Civil War, I was skeptical. A brief stinger at the end of a long, crowded string of events, the teenage hero’s cameo seemed more likely to further clutter the full film than to redeem the franchise. Knowing that his arrival in the Marvel cinematic universe was the product of corporate meddling, I thought it seemed likely that his screen time would be mere scene-setting, more of what we got in Batman v. Superman, which clumsily shows off other Justice Leaguers but barely bothers to integrate them into the plot.
But my pop-culture Spidey-sense was wrong. Though Marvel’s films have been increasingly bogged down by the busy scope of their shared universe, Civil War is a pleasure to watch from beginning to end. As Jamelle Bouie observes in his review for Slate, that’s partly because the film favors human emotion over grand spectacle. But it’s also a product of Tom Holland’s winning presence as Spider-Man. For audiences, Spidey’s evident delight at being part of the proceedings serves as an invitation to swing along beside him.
One of Marvel’s flagship properties, Spider-Man has almost always played a part in its grander crossover comic book events (including the original, execrable Civil War comics storyline). But even when the proceedings trended toward the cosmic, he’s always worked best as a street-level hero, somehow more plausible when stopping a jewelry store robbery than when mucking about with Infinity Gems.
That has everything to do with Spider-Man’s secret identity. Peter Parker’s concerns have always been quotidian: He may be able to lift a two-ton truck, but he still worries about avoiding detention or, later, making rent. Those kinds of issues are still in the background in the new film and will likely be more significant in his upcoming solo outing, Spider-Man: Homecoming. But instead of dwelling on them or trying to ignore them, Civil War employs the ordinarily small stakes of Spider-Man’s world as a trampoline. Used to more minor goings on, this teenage hero is rightly awed by everything that’s happening around him.
Spider-Man, absent for much of the story, gets plenty of screen time in the film’s centerpiece battle, but his role in the fight is largely inconsequential. He’s there to quip his way through the battle, and while that goofiness will be familiar to those acquainted with the character’s other incarnations, here it’s clearly a sign that he’s out of his depth. He jokes because he doesn’t quite fit in but also because he’s so happy to have been summoned anyway—and so charmed to see his his fellow heroes in action. Spider-Man may not belong in this company, but his pleasure at participating is contagious.
In fact, he’s kind of a comics nerd: Mid-fight, he pauses to geek out over the composition of Falcon’s wings and the makeup of the Winter Soldier’s mechanical arm. That he does so while everyone around him is trying to beat each other into submission neither takes anything away from the proceedings nor slows down the action. Batman v Superman fixated on feats of ponderous badassery when its protagonists finally smashed into one another. Civil War rejects that dour attitude, starting from the premise that it’s fun to be a superhero—and fun to hang out with them too, even if they happen to be tossing each other into walls.
In the Washington Post, David Betancourt proposes that Marvel has revitalized Spider-Man with Civil War. That’s true enough, but in his own way, the character also recues the film, ensuring that what could have been a somber slugfest feels free and fun. Where Spider-Man’s famous maxim holds that great power entails great responsibility, too many recent superhero films have held that great power begets great misery. Civil War suggests a different path, reminding us that the greatest responsibility of superheroes may be to bring greater joy.