ENTERTAINMENT

Tom Holland Wants To Be Taken Seriously. But Can He Move Past Spider-Man?

With the gritty addiction drama "Cherry," the 24-year-old actor is trying to prove he's more than a Marvel superhero.

Tom Holland’s future is about to be determined. Marvel anointed him a global movie star, and now come the inevitable questions: Can he capitalize on his comic-book origin story? Or does his career rely on Spider-Man’s guaranteed bankability? 

Holland’s quest to find the answers began last September when he headlined the bleak Netflix thriller “The Devil All the Time,” playing an orphan caught in a web of Southern Gothic depravity. Now he’s starring in another downer, “Cherry” (available in select theaters and premiering March 12 on AppleTV+). This time, Holland is an Iraq War medic who develops PTSD and a heroin habit that prompts an amateurish bank-robbing spree. He gets his girlfriend (Ciara Bravo) hooked, too. Peter Parker would be scandalized. 

We know “Cherry” wants to be taken seriously for a few reasons. First, there’s the marketing campaign — specifically, the moody burnt-red posters featuring a bruised Holland mugging the camera. Secondly, Holland narrates with a sad-boy rumination that punctures Parker’s pep. (“Sometimes I think life was wasted on me,” his character sighs.) And finally, Holland is attracting the narrative that tends to follow any actor who made his or her name portraying a superhero in the last decade. According to a recent Esquire cover story, “Everyone around him — his collaborators, his famous mentors and his contemporaries — says he’s ready to move outside the Marvel boundary and have his grown-up moment.”

Ciara Bravo and Tom Holland in "Cherry"
Ciara Bravo and Tom Holland in "Cherry"

That last phrase is key, though Holland has been more circumspect when asked about it publicly. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (due out in December) fulfills the final requirement of his Marvel contract, which means he could soon decamp. He wouldn’t want to anger his Sony and Disney overlords by seeming ungrateful, though. “If they want me back, I’ll be there,” Holland told Collider last week. “If they don’t, I will walk off into the sunset a very, very happy person because it’s been an amazing journey.”

Holland’s “grown-up moment” encompasses a pair of oppressively somber dramas, both representing efforts to be embraced by a sophisticated audience. But unlike some Marvel superstars, 24-year-old Holland can’t coast on the reputation he built before donning an enchanted bodysuit. His older counterparts (Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Chadwick Boseman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brie Larson) were already high-value entities when they joined the franchise, so they didn’t need to fret about getting trapped in its clutches. Others, like Chris Evans, Chris Pratt and Florence Pugh, had at least achieved some semblance of name recognition by the time Disney came calling. 

Most Americans don’t know Holland from his stint as Billy Elliot on the London stage, so we’ll have to use his screen credits for grist. Holland had a few before “Spider-Man: Homecoming” became one of 2017′s highest-grossing releases, but he wasn’t the center of attention in any. He played Naomi Watts’ son in “The Impossible,” an associate of Henry VIII in the British miniseries “Wolf Hall,” a sailor in the nautical misfire “In the Heart of the Sea” and a budding Amazonian explorer in “The Lost City of Z.” 

Holland in "Spider-Man: Homecoming."
Holland in "Spider-Man: Homecoming."

With the possible exception of Chris Hemsworth, he is the performer whose long-term stardom is most tethered to Marvel. He’s probably best known for lip-syncing to Rihanna in a one-piece. Lacking any other starring vehicles, there’s no obvious path for Holland. That could yield infinite possibilities, or it could relegate him to ham-fisted attempts at grit.

That’s basically what “Cherry” is. Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical debut novel of the same name, on which the movie is based, sparked a bidding war when it was published in 2018. Anthony and Joe Russo, who directed Holland in the final two “Avengers” installments, beat out James Franco with a reported $1 million offer. But instead of an insightful look at modern warfare, opioid use and youthful romance, the Russos wound up with a checklist of Hollywood clichés — supposedly edgy sorrow porn that doesn’t realize its dimly lit cinematography actually looks quite polished. 

Holland does his best with the material. His eyes, always enthusiastic as Peter Parker, have the frenzy of an addict, so it’s too bad they’re undercut by the film’s sepia tones. Despite a 141-minute running time, “Cherry” doesn’t give him enough room to breathe, too concerned with its own stylized prestige. Like “The Devil All the Time,” it constantly underlines its own seriousness, which instead makes it seem silly. As Holland’s handsome face turns pale and sweaty, the whole thing feels like an exercise in make-believe. 

Holland in "The Devil All the Time."
Holland in "The Devil All the Time."

“Cherry” opened right before the Feb. 28 qualification deadline for this year’s Oscars. Netflix and AppleTV+ don’t release consistent viewership data, so we may never know whether it or “Devil” find an audience. That means Holland won’t have to worry about either flopping in a traditional sense. But without that metric, how can anyone guarantee his brand’s sustainability? If Holland keeps choosing movies like these, I’m not sure it is sustainable. He’s currently being asked about the opioid crisis in interviews, which is probably not something Tom Holland fans across the world have been waiting for. 

Still, he has at least one other thing going for him: a nice-guy image. That’s important right now. Several years ago, there was a bad-boy renaissance in Hollywood that benefited young actors like Franco, Shia LaBeouf and Ansel Elgort — not to mention veterans like Johnny Depp and Mel Gibson. But that’s been defeated by the rise of Holland, Timothée Chalamet, Michael B. Jordan, Henry Golding, Robert Pattinson and Lucas Hedges — sensitive studs whose charm comes across as less ego-driven. In an era when bullies and predators are being more or less (rightly) blacklisted, the public won’t be quick to cast them aside. I’m sure there’s a fresh romantic comedy or whip-smart psychological thriller out there that is worthy of Holland’s talents. 

In some ways, this is a critical moment for the 2010s’ superhero idols. Marvel is slowly inaugurating new characters, and DC Comics has handed the Batman cowl to Pattinson, an art-house wunderkind who doesn’t need a huge blockbuster to preserve his worth. Even if Holland makes more “Spider-Man” flicks, he knows his web-slinging days are numbered. One can only hope an industry saturated by intellectual property will match his potential.

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