[Posted by Jeremy Grayson]
In the fifty-five years since his debut, Spider-Man has been both insider and outsider. He is Marvel Comics’ most recognizable superhero, yet he is largely disconnected from the publisher’s greater Universe. Outside of the Marvel Team-Up series (which paired him with other heroes in every issue), he has mostly worked as a loner, web-slinging his way through a more earthbound sector of comics than the Avengers or the X-Men.
Yet that may be a key to his popularity. Spider-Man’s relative freedom in the Marvel Universe has allowed his character to grow in ways that most superheroes can only dream of, maturing from a high school boy to a married man across his first 25 years in print. (Comic book characters age more slowly than real folks do.) He has also proven to be surprisingly deep and malleable, combining Shakespearean tragedy (Peter Parker has the worst luck in history) with light and quippy comedy. Everyone can relate to Spidey on some level, even if most of us have never crawled up skyscrapers or spun boats out of webbing. (He did that once in the ‘60s. I’m serious. Look it up.)
So it’s not surprising that, in a world where superheroes translate so eagerly from page to screen, Spider-Man has been portrayed by multiple actors across numerous productions. He has headlined eight TV series (all but one of which are animated) and, since 2002, has starred in six films across three distinct franchises.
It’s that last achievement which is especially noteworthy. Though Spidey is not the first onscreen superhero to be rebooted on two separate occasions (the Dark Knight returns… a lot), his resets have come fast and furious. And why not? The first five of his films have made nearly $4 billion in box office receipts combined, and the sixth (which hits theaters this weekend) should raise that number at least a point or two. Audiences love the web-head, no matter which film he’s starring in.
But the question, for the sake of all nerd culture, must be posed: Which film is the best? And which is the worst? And which is the most in-between? (That last one could take some thinking, given the even number.)
What follows are my brief reviews of all six Spider-Man films. I spent a bit more time on the sixth one, which, as stated, has is just now reaching wide audiences. (Don’t worry – I’ll avoid any real spoilers.)
Enough guff. Let’s get swinging:
The film that started at all starts it off pretty well. The first half of the original Spider-Man has fun telling the story of the webslinger’s origins, adding little details to embellish on the comic book. And Tobey Maguire does a commendable job as the science nerd turned super-nerd, nicely compensating for the overused “Great power/great responsibility” line.
Unfortunately, the story goes somewhat askew in the film’s second half. The Green Goblin has been one of Spidey’s most threatening foes for decades, but he’s here reduced to a cartoony supervillain, hammily played by Willem Dafoe and clad in a costume that recalls the worst of ‘50s B movies. The story, too, devolves into mere good vs. evil clichés, with uninspired dialogue and unconvincing special effects. The action is staged well enough to carry the film over the finish line, but Spider-Man’s first film was not his best.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Easily the most successful film in the original trilogy, Spider-Man 2 features everything a fan could ask for (and which too many of us, in the current age of Marvel Mightiness, now take for granted): Hard-hitting emotion, great humor, terrific action, and characters who resonate. Peter is given a compelling introspective arc and an unsettling opponent (played excellently by Alfred Molina). The special effects, which earned the film an Oscar, are vastly improved over the franchise’s first installment, adding tension to action scenes occurring on both horizontal and vertical planes.
It’s difficult to remember how instrumental Spider-Man 2 (along with X2 the year earlier) was in shaping the modern superhero film. Following the rut that comic-book movies had dug themselves into during the late ‘90s, films like Spider-Man 2 took superheroes more seriously, without tipping over into operatic melodrama. It was this mix that garnered the film so much applause – and formed the template that the MCU would capitalize on a few years later.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Derided by most fans as “one sequel too many,” Spider-Man 3 at least lays claim to the best visual effects in the original Spider-trilogy. Beyond that, however, the film is as lazy and contrived as sequels come, throwing too many villains and side-conflicts into a story that cranks up the emotional baggage to interminable levels.
Much hay can be made of the way the film retcons the circumstances surrounding Uncle Ben’s death, or the way it waffles uneasily between comedy and drama in displaying the symbiote’s effect on Peter Parker, or on the fact that Venom barely gets any screentime at all. But the greatest sin of Spider-Man 3 is that it’s simply boring. The emotional arc that Peter and Mary Jane are put through feels forced, with Gwen Stacy little more than a cipher between them. This storyline and several others are developed with long, dull conversation that’s heavy on telling but light on showing. Plans for a fourth Raimi film were made, but ultimately scrapped; one can’t be faulting for blaming the failures of the third.
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
There was no way for Marc Webb’s reboot of the Spider-franchise to not feel like a studio-mandated cash grab. But as far as studio-mandated cash grabs go, it’s surprisingly good. Andrew Garfield embodies Peter Parker credibly, giving the character a more serious air than Maguire was ever allowed to. The film at large takes its comic book roots quite seriously, emphasizing character development over the obligatory action scenes.
Amazing Spider-Man can never quite overcome its reset-button roots, and it would have been nice for Gwen Stacy (played by the ever-lovable Emma Stone) to be written as more than just the standard love interest. But this is one of the better films to bear the webslinger’s name. (And speaking of names, no, I will not be one of the seven million people to make a joke about the director.)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Much like Spider-Man 3, the second (and, despite high expectations, final) film in the Webb franchise suffers from too much story in too little space. Garfield and Stone continue to have chemistry (with the latter getting a slightly meatier role this time around), and the special effects remain dazzling, but the plot lurches from one development to the next, and from one villain to the next, trying to function simultaneously as both a standalone film and the launching pad for even more sequels to come.
While the film features more humor than its predecessor, too much of the drama feels disconnected, working better in short bursts than as a two-hours-and-change feature film. The result is a film that is mildly diverting but far from a Spider-smash.
(Am I overdoing it with the Spider-talk? Sorry. I’ll Spider-stop.)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
And here we are at last: The latest, and greatest, Spider-Man.
I admit that when the idea of another reboot was announced, I emitted an audible groan. The story had been told, the waters charted – did this cash cow still need to be milked?
My fears were allayed somewhat by Spider-Man’s brief but memorable appearance in Captain America: Civil War, which suggested a more fun and vibrant version of the friendly neighborhood superhero than the interpretations of Raimi or Webb. And any remaining doubts were wiped away when I sat down with Spidey’s first solo film in the MCU.
The current summer has already featured two superhero hits – the amiable Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and the triumphant Wonder Woman – but Spider-Man: Homecoming is one of the best blockbusters that 2017 has produced thus far. It would be easy to write the film off as yet another box on the Cinematic Universe’s checklist, but that would be an unfortunate mistake.
Put simply, this film gets Spider-Man in a way that neither of the two previous franchises quite did. The “Homecoming” in the title refers to the time-honored high school dance (which plays a part in the story), but it can also be taken literally, as the film takes Spider-Man back to his Silver Age roots. The Peter Parker we see here is clumsy, immature, and overeager – in other words, he’s just a kid. Director Jon Watts recaptures the innocent spirit of the 1960s comics, dipping into the well first dug by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita. (Perhaps the film’s finest moment is a brief, subtle homage to one of the greatest Spider-Man comics ever published. If you’re as huge a nerd as I am, you’ll recognize it when you see it.)
The film also handily surpasses its predecessors in its command of style and tone. Homecoming may have all the trappings of a superhero film, but at heart, it’s a high school comedy, crossing adolescent awkwardness with subversive humor. The film features a variety of comedic actors in small roles (Martin Starr, Hannibal Buress, and Donald Glover all get their moments to shine), as well as a talented cast of young actors to fill out the teenage roles. The fun factor endears us to the characters, which only heightens the tension when the bad guys show up.
It’s testament to the vastness of Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery that several of his comic-book foes play a part in this movie – yet none of them have been recycled from earlier films. (Michael Keaton gets the meatiest role as the film’s chief antagonist, but Bokeem Woodbine is also good as one of the secondary villains.) Marvel films have always had problems writing for baddies not named Loki, but Homecoming is so breezy and funny that you’ll forgive the villains’ relative lack of development, and simply focus on the ways they put our young hero in peril.
The film rivals either Guardians film for sheer number of throwaway jokes, a difficult feat considering that it’s much more closely tied into the larger MCU than the adventures of Rocket and Groot. But Marvel has long since earned our trust when it comes to summer blockbusters, and with Homecoming, they deliver on that trust with one of their best films yet.
Marvel’s self-confidence is also on display here: A sequel to Homecoming has already been announced, slated for release in summer 2019. And Spidey is a sure bet to appear in the upcoming Avengers films, as one of a new wave of characters designed to usher the MCU into the next decade. It looks like Spider-Man has finally found a permanent cinematic home – and fortunately for us all, it’s a home that seems truly delighted to have him as a resident.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is currently playing in theaters. The other Spider-Man films are all available on DVD and for digital download.