The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Michael O’Sullivan’s review of “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” click here.
I can’t define what makes a leading man, but I know it when I see it.
Those lucky few who belong to the category share certain qualities, of course — they’re conventionally handsome (OK, maybe Humphrey Bogart wasn’t exactly a hottie, but anyone looks good when reflecting the light shining from Lauren Bacall) and wryly funny, and they possess a subtle, easy charm that’s at once approachable and knee-weakening. Our modern apotheosis is, of course, George Clooney. There’s Ryan Gosling, his spiritual heir. Denzel Washington, yep. But beyond those three? We need to see Chris Pine, Donald Glover, John Cho and Idris Elba in both good romantic comedies and tuxes to assess them fully. Leo tries too hard, McConaughey doesn’t try hard enough, Chris Pratt is a shade too goofy and, man, did Johnny Depp turn out to be a tool. Cary Grant, the Zeus in this pantheon, would be very disappointed in Johnny.
Which brings us to Tom Holland and “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” After his scene-stealing turn in last year’s “Captain America: Civil War” (by the way, Chris Evans is too safe and Robert Downey Jr. too dangerous to make the leading-man list), Holland takes center screen in this swoopingly fun, surprisingly heartfelt take on Spidey. The superhero’s well-trodden origin story is thankfully absent — at this point, not knowing about the bite is akin to assuming Thomas and Martha Wayne are alive and well — so what we get is a spandex-clad coming-of-age story underscored with worries about Academic Decathlon and a crush on the pretty upperclassman who’s a head taller and a thousand times more popular.
Holland essentially has to play two characters: the quippy, confident Spider-Man and Peter Parker, who wears T-shirts with physics jokes on them and would rather blend into the walls than swing from the rafters. Holland does both with more ease and believability than anyone playing a secret identity-carrying hero in recent memory (coughAffleckcoughCavill), and he’s at his best in those moments when the friendly neighborhood heartthrob facade cracks, revealing glimpses of the nerd hidden inside.
Holland is only 21 (though entirely believable as the 15-year-old Parker), so it remains to be seen if his boyish charm and immense talent will carry into his adult years. Young actors face plenty of challenges, both professional and personal, and with this role Holland can expect to be showing up in headlines of Us Weekly and its lowly ilk awfully soon. For now, though, his levity and heart make him a welcome addition to the team as we approach “Avengers: Infinity War.” And his work in other, non-heroed films — this Oscar season he’ll appear in “The Current War” with Avenger-adjacent prestige actor Benedict Cumberbatch — suggests he’s interested in his craft, not just cash. So it’s early, but welcome to the team, Tom. Let’s get you fitted for that tux.
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