When is a reboot not a reboot? When it happens every five years.
In 2010, the reaction to the recasting of Spider-Man with Andrew Garfield was fierce enough to inspire charged Internet campaigns. On Tuesday, the role changed hands again, going to the 19-year-old English actor Tom Holland, who will appear in the third Captain American movie next year before getting his own film in 2017. This time, the news was greeted with shrugs. Holland is by all accounts a talented young actor, and since he’s actually a teenager, he’s perhaps a better fit to play the comic books’ high-school student Peter Parker than Garfield or Tobey Maguire, both of whom were in their mid-to-late 20s when they took on the role. Still, Holland will be the third onscreen Spidey in less than 10 years, and is by far the least familiar face, raising the question of whether audiences have the appetite to watch this particular origin story again.
Holland’s casting is a by-product of corporate negotiations: Marvel Comics owns the film rights to most of its characters, but Spider-Man is in the hands of Sony, which has produced two franchises since 2002—a trilogy from director Sam Raimi starring Maguire, and two films from Marc Webb starring Garfield. Now, thanks to a unique production deal, Spider-Man can exist in the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Sony can keep the profits from his appearances: Starting next year, fans can watch Spider-Man work with Iron Man and Captain America. But box-office returns show that as the superhero has been recast and rebooted, audience loyalty has fallen dramatically—and the lukewarm reaction to Holland’s casting is perhaps further proof of the same downward slide.
The recasting will also be the biggest test yet of whether audiences care more about characters or actors—and there’s already evidence for the latter. Garfield’s performance as Spider-Man was generally popular with critics (the films, less so), but The Amazing Spider-Man took only $262 million domestically, and its sequel barely pulled in $200 million (less than its $255 million budget). That marked a huge drop from the $403 million the first Spider-Man movie earned, and these depressed receipts came in an era of inflated returns for every Marvel box-office bonanza. Iron Man the comic-book character is perhaps one-tenth as popular as Spider-Man, but when it comes to the movies, that doesn’t seem to matter.
The simplest way to explain it is star power, but a better way might be brand familiarity. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Iron Man in the many Marvel films is crucial to their success, but the longer he’s in the role, the harder it’ll be to imagine someone else taking the job. That’s why he’s getting paid $40 million to appear in Captain America: Civil War, a film he’s not even starring in, with another bonus built into his contract if the movie does better than its predecessor (which, given his involvement, it certainly will). Marvel will have to continue backing up the truck for any future Avengers installments he signs on for, and despite its reputation as a frugal company, it’ll happen—replacing him might generate the same loss of recognition and viewer interest Spider-Man is currently suffering from.
Can the brand be rescued? Given the lack of interest in Holland’s casting, it doesn’t appear likely. In 2003, there was a frenzy over rumors that Tobey Maguire couldn’t film a Spider-Man sequel because of a back injury and that Jake Gyllenhaal would take his place, a concept that seemed near-sacrilegious after Maguire’s work had been so well-received. But Maguire recovered, and the rumor became a weird piece of Hollywood lore. In 2010, the comedian and actor Donald Glover floated the idea that maybe he could replace Maguire in the Amazing Spider-Man reboot, and furious debate broke out again over whether Peter Parker could be played by an African American actor. This evolved into a larger debate of why comic-book fans are so reactionary about such a concept.
The Sony deal seemed to give Marvel an opportunity to change course and cast a non-white actor in the role. With audiences clearly tired of Peter Parker, perhaps the new Spider-Man could have been Miles Morales, a Black Hispanic character who was created in the comics partly as a response to the Glover controversy. After all, an onscreen portrayal of Morales would have gotten around a contract requirement discovered in the Sony hack that stipulated Peter Parker had to be white and heterosexual. Whether or not that option was seriously considered, Holland (who is white) was the final choice.
Like Robert Downey Jr., he will crop up in Captain America: Civil War next year, perhaps as a way to get around re-telling the Peter Parker story for the third time in recent memory—if Spider-Man just shows up onscreen a fully formed hero, it’s likely audiences will play along. After that, there’ll be yet another solo adventure for Spidey, with another new ensemble of family members, love interests, and villains to clash with, and another indie director (Jon Watts) being thrust into the spotlight. Will serving as a cog in the larger Marvel system help box office totals rebound to their former heights? It’s uncertain. But if not, Spider-Man will serve as the first example of something that’s bound to start happening more often as current stars get superhero fatigue and retire: that rebooting with a new actor won’t be enough to guarantee audiences keep coming back for more.
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