Why a teen Peter Parker is something to marvel at in the new Spider-Man
When doling out senior superlatives, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” star Tom Holland is most likely to succeed at playing a teenage Peter Parker.
Holland was just 19 when Marvel announced he would don the red-and-blue second-skin suit as Spider-Man, the high-school superhero who owes his web-shooting and wall-climbing abilities to a bite from a radioactive spider. His relatively young age is something to marvel at.
Weeks after the first SpiderMan movie opened in 2002, star Tobey Maguire turned 27. Andrew Garfield neared 29 as “The Amazing Spider-Man” premièred in 2012.
Holland, whose 15-year-old Parker balances saving the world and passing his Spanish class, celebrated his 21st birthday in June. Wearing hoodies and sneakers and assuming a higher-pitched American accent, the agile British actor believably pulls off the role of a pubescent teen.
“Being able to see that the culture is acknowledging your existence” matters to younger audiences, says social psychologist Eileen Zurbriggen, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Seeing a hero or heroine who is a young person is validating, but less so if you can tell that they’re actually 28 or 29.”
The earlier Spider-Man movies are far from the only projects guilty of casting actors several years older than their characters. But Hollywood is increasingly aware of the need for authenticity and representation. The new Spider-Man film boasts a diverse cast, which producer Amy Pascal says was inspired by “reality.”
Producing a story that reflected a legitimate teenage experience was important to Homecoming director Jon Watts.
“That was a constant thing, reminding Tom — and Tom reminding me, too, sometimes — that if you were 15, would you really do that?” Watts says. “What is your thought process, because you think differently. And always trying to put yourself back in the shoes of when you were that age and let that drive the character.”
It can pay off if a teenage story resonates with a young audience. The adolescent love story “Everything, Everything,” starring Amandla Stenberg, 18, and Nick Robinson, 22, has been the most popular movie at the box office this year among teens ages 13 to 17, according to comScore/Screen Engine’s PostTrak audience survey. That age group accounts for 13 per cent of filmgoers thus far in 2017.
Casting director Marci Liroff, a board member for the Casting Society of America, says hiring an actor for a teen role boils down to budget and believability.
“If you hire a minor who’s under 18, we’re restricted in the amount of hours that we can use them on set,” says Liroff, who cast both a teenage Lindsay Lohan and a 20something Rachel McAdams for 2004’s “Mean Girls.”
Fandango.com managing editor Erik Davis sees the shift to casting actors who are closer to the age of their roles as a trend, citing Michael Bay’s decision to hire 15year-old Isabela Moner for a prominent role in “Transformers: The Last Knight.”
“You’re getting filmmakers now where this is a very important thing for them that they find people who are age-appropriate,” Davis says. “That’s why we’re seeing a lot of fresher talent in some of these bigger movies, because they’re trying to find new actors and new faces — young faces that they can hold on to for more than one movie, especially with franchises. They want actors that they can kind of grow with.”
TV is also seeing its share of more realistic casting. The stars of Netflix’s controversial teen-suicide drama “13 Reasons Why,” Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette, are in their early 20s. The lead of the CW’s Archie comics update “Riverdale,” New Zealand actor K.J. Apa, just turned 20.
“We needed to cast someone who was a teenager on the cusp of being a young man,” says Riverdale creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who searched six or seven months for his star. “It wouldn’t have worked if we’d cast someone who was 25 or 26, because they’re on the other side of that. KJ’s a little bit older, but he’s certainly not eight or nine years older.”
For younger Spider-Man fans, attention to authenticity can translate to anticipation. Holland’s Parker had an introductory role in last year’s “Captain America: Civil War,” which excited Daniel Azbel, 15, who lives near Toronto. The contributor for Get Reel Movies looks forward to seeing the movie.
“In scenes in Civil War where he’s just at home with Aunt May, it just really felt like it was somebody that would maybe go to my school,” Azbel says. “It makes it feel more realistic . ... That he looks like a 15-year-old just adds to the relatability and to why I like the character.”
Spider-Man devotee Nour Harrak, 21, of Mississauga, who formerly co-hosted the Ultimate Spin, a Spidey fan podcast, goes so far as to endorse Holland as “the perfect high-school Peter Parker.”
“I thought the (previous) movies did the best job that they could to make the actors feel as young as possible,” he says. “But lining them up side by side (and) now having Tom Holland, there was a point where eventually I thought they outgrew the role.”
Representations that are diverse and more realistic are the optimal way for teens to be depicted in movies and TV, Zurbriggen says.
Tom Holland, who was 19 when he got the role, stars as Peter Parker in "Spider-Man: Homecoming."
Nick Robinson and Amandla Stenberg in "Everything, Everything" are 22 and 18, respectively, part of what makes the movie so popular with 13 to 17 year olds.
K.J. Apa, 20, plays Archie Andrews in "Riverdale."