Spider-Man’s third film series in 15 years kicks off on July 7 with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Unlike its predecessors, however, this will not be an origin story and fits into a much larger universe, with Peter Parker having already made a well-received appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America: Civil War.
The masked teenage vigilante’s newest incarnation is portrayed by the 21 year-old Tom Holland. At the same age when many graduate from university and enter the workforce, Tom is graduating from his stage and independent film beginnings to a new position in Hollywood. While his status as an A-lister is still yet to be determined, a look back across his career to date reveals a remarkable range, verisimilitude, and dynamism in his roles – boding well for his turn as a superhero.
After a Kingston-upon-Thames upbringing and barely into his Wimbledon prep school days, Holland made a name for himself in Billy Elliot in 2008. He played the titular character (in rotation with other child actors) for two years, including at the fifth anniversary performance in March 2010. While his singing range may not factor into his Spidey senses, his movement skills and agility will be well on display as Peter Parker.
While he may not have actually been seen on screen in his first leading film role (he voiced Sho in the UK release of Arietty in 2010), he quickly came to critics’ and audiences’ attention with The Impossible (2012). The emotionally harrowing and almost universally lauded picture landed just in time for the 2013 Oscars and garnered several award season nominations.
Holland, then unknown in Hollywood, proved his worth alongside his more recognised co-stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor; his stellar turn earned him the National Board of Review Award for a Breakthrough Performance and the London Film Critics Circle Award for Young British Performer of the Year.
A supporting role in How I Live Now – the 2013 apocalyptic teen romance based on the novel of the same name – earned Holland more exposure. Even if his role was largely relegated to plot device, he kept his performance grounded and honest as the film’s events became more unnerving and fantastical. Another memorable supporting performance, this one from 2014, was in Steven Knight’s Locke.
The film could be seen as a vehicle (no pun intended) to showcase Tom Hardy’s acting talents, as the camera is always trained on his face, inside his car, as he drives from Wales to Birmingham for the birth of his son by a one-night stand. Holland is therefore never seen on screen, but he is memorable among the strong supporting voice cast as Ivan Locke’s son Eddie, the older of his two boys who understands just enough of his father’s predicament to tread delicately and diplomatically. His exchanges with Hardy are some of the film’s more nuanced points.
Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea (2015) positioned Holland against the elements and a murderous whale, and alongside a renowned seafarer played by Chris Hemsworth. The whaling adventure’s narrative flounders at points, but the characters and performances are not to be faulted. Here, Holland is the innocent – the youngest sailor on the crew, the untested caught in unforgiving waters. It might be a stock role, one written in to win the audiences’ affections and allegiances, and it is a testament to Holland’s skill that he does not become maudlin.
Many comics fans groaned when a new Spider-Man franchise was announced; many more joined them when Spider-Man’s first appearance was announced to be in Captain America: Civil War (2016) – a film already stuffed to the brim with superhero-sized personalities. How would a new figure break into this established larger-than-life scene? Extraordinarily well, it turns out. After eight years of building its world and characters, introductions could take second place to character-based fun and angst. Deft directorial choices and dialogue from the Russos kept the story focused on its titular figure while allowing the side characters, new and old, to flourish. It was an excellent way to showcase their version of Peter Parker, and they seem to have found the ideal performer to take him on.
Holland’s Peter Parker balances awkward and entirely competent, a lack of self-awareness and boyish bravado with uncertainty of his place in a world of gods and giants. He only appears for a few of the film’s two hours and 28 minutes, but his mark is felt. He wins goodwill almost immediately in his brilliant introductory scene, conveying embarrassment at being exposed as the masked vigilante and excitement at Tony Stark’s nascent trust in him. Later, he steals the show in the (possibly flawless) airport battle scene; Spidey does not stumble on a single move or quip. He proves himself worthy of leading his own film; between this perfectly judged turn and the previous Spider-Man franchises, however, the bar is set very high for Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Indie film fans may have seen Holland on screen most recently in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z. While only appearing in the film’s final half, Holland progresses from a headstrong yet fragile boy to a graceful, hardened man as British explorer Percy Fawcett’s son. Those who missed The Lost City of Z may have caught Holland on Lip Sync Battle back in May, where he performed Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’. While barely two minutes long and decidedly not a feature film, it bears mentioning as it contains more heart, humour, guts, and daring acrobatics per second than many superhero films could aspire to. If this raw talent and these nerves of steel appear in every single performance of his, Holland has a bright future ahead.
This is not the longest CV of any actor, but considering its breadth across theatre, television, and film (and several genres of each) as well as Holland’s tender age, it impresses. By taking on the mantle of the first MCU Spider-Man, he seems poised for large-scale success. As he graduates to Hollywood from the world of indie pictures and stage roles, he has proved he has the skills, range, and gumption to take on Hollywood-calibre roles. Holland’s career will certainly be one to watch as he matures throughout the coming decades.