Unsurprisingly, Spider-Man is one of the hottest topics in movies at the moment, thanks to the news that the next film to feature the character will be a co-production between Sony and Marvel Studios, despite Sony owning his theatrical rights outright. The excitement over the news shows just how significant a character Spidey is – still arguably the most bankable character in all of superhero comics – yet the very fact that this is happening, and that it’s been seen by most fans as a desirable move, is demonstrative of the prevailing notion that Sony just haven’t really got it right with their take on the web-head for any sustained period.
All five films so far have at least something to recommend them – and in almost all cases you can see what they’re trying to do with the character. It’s whether or not that interpretation tends to work for you that’s likely to inform your own personal preference. With that in mind, here’s my take on how they stack up against one another.
5. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
In plenty of respects, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a decent, well-made action film: anchored by the strong chemistry between lead actors Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, and filled with well-shot and entertaining action sequences. But as a Spider-Man film, just about every decision it makes in terms of plot and character is the wrong one, leading to a film that doesn’t so much misunderstand the core themes of Spidey as take one look at them, laugh cynically, and throw them out of the window.
It’s true that in his earliest appearances, Spider-Man was something of a cocky and arrogant character – a strong through-line in those early stories was the idea of Peter Parker as an embittered nerd, picked on throughout adolescence for simply trying to be a good and studious guy, suddenly liberated by being able to be energetic and powerful while hiding behind a mask. But it’s an equally key part of his character that he learns pretty quickly that he can’t be the bully, or punch down – that since (as we all know) with great power comes great responsibility, a big part of that is simply being a better person.
But the Garfield Spidey seems to have been going through that process in reverse: already, the first film had established Peter as somewhat more confident outside the mask anyway, but in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 it’s quite startling just how much of his screentime sees him occupying a position of smug superiority.
This is thrown into sharp relief by the plotline involving Max Dillon/Electro – someone who, just like a younger Peter, is a largely-shunned outsider: a science nerd with obvious social problems who, thanks to a quirk of circumstance, ends up getting terrifying powers that he didn’t ask for. But instead of sympathising with Dillon, or trying to help or rescue him, Peter’s solution is to come up with a plan that literally involves blowing him up. Not attempting to capture or even cure him, but simply to kill him.
Is this what we want from Spider-Man? A reinforcement of the idea that might makes right? Or, worse, that the weird and unusual, the people we don’t understand and who don’t understand us, are the enemy? Or, to cite another example: a Peter Parker who flat out refuses to help his dying best friend, while giving neither Harry nor the viewer any actual reason?
It’s the biggest problem with the latest film, but it’s far from the only one. The tweaks to Peter’s backstory might seem like something only the most hardcore of nerds would get upset about, but again, it’s a thematic problem rather than just being annoyed at change for change’s sake. Peter gaining his powers as a direct result of his blood being used in the experiment that created him (an experiment devised by his genius father) detracts from the idea that he’s just an ordinary kid in the right place at the right time. He’s no longer ‘the hero who could be you,’ he’s another instance of the ‘chosen one’ convention that’s infected films of this type in recent years (see also Man Of Steel).
It’s also baffling that an entire Spider-Man film should pass by with barely a mention of Uncle Ben – Peter instead finding time to agonise over both his father and Captain Stacy, but not the man whose bringing-up and moral code inspires the most important aspect of Spider-Man’s personal ethos. We can only be thankful that a planned scene in which Richard Parker was actually revealed to be alive was left on the cutting-room floor.
The frustrating thing about The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is that several talented people have got together to make a film that’s highly technically accomplished (albeit with several moments of flat out stupidity and coincidence in its plotting) – but all that talent and quality is being wasted on entirely the wrong story. Its single standout scene – the death of Gwen – is superbly realised, and is a rare example of the series taking a direct cue from the comics. But even that was a poor decision – carrying over an outdated plot element simply because it’s famous and memorable, rather than it having any relevance to this version of the character. It’s indicative of a script that, at its heart, has no heart – it’s cynical, and nasty, and as such the opposite of everything a Spider-Man story should be.
4. Spider-Man 3
Comfortably the weakest of the Sam Raimi trilogy, but does Spider-Man 3 deserve the pretty shonky reputation it’s held ever since it was released? Well… yes and no.
It’s true that the film is badly compromised by the inclusion of far too many characters and plot elements – any one of the Venom, Sandman, or Harry Osborn arcs could have worked on their own (well, maybe not the Venom one, but we’ll get to that). But thrown together in the space of one bloated running time, with little to no thematic links between them, none of the plots are able to fully land. Yet in their own way, each has at least something to recommend it.
It’s Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman that’s the most poorly-served by the film, and on several occasions it feels like he’s wandered in from another narrative entirely. Giving Spider-Man the opportunity to actually confront someone who was – it turns out – involved in his uncle’s death is something of a misstep (it’s akin to what Tim Burton’s Batman did with Jack Napier/the Joker) but otherwise, Sandman works because, like the previous film’s Doctor Octopus, his wrongdoings are driven by a sense of purpose that he at least feels is moral, and that is rooted in loss.
All things considered – if we ignore the awful costume, surfboard and ‘Night Surfer’ name that somehow got attached out of apparent fear of just making him the second Green Goblin – the best plot arc is the conclusion of the Harry Osborn story. It’s surely no coincidence that it’s a story that had unfolded through all three films, and across the trilogy is also the one that’s closest to straight up adapting a storyline out of the comics. But the moral ambiguity of Harry’s situation is played really well, his relationship with Peter is complex and believable, and arguably the film’s one true punch-the-air moment comes when the pair finally team up in the closing act.
If the Sandman and Harry stories were the ones that Raimi wanted to tell, however, then the most contentious part of the film is the inclusion of Venom. It’s overly simplistic to say that it was a studio-based decision that ruined the film – in better circumstances, Raimi could perhaps still have made it work, despite it being a villain he had no interest in including – but it’s so clear that it was never intended to be a major part of the film.
Topher Grace as Eddie Brock barely gets a chance to feature at all, so his eventual revenge plot and transformation has none of the resonance of the similar story with Harry; and the introduction of the Venom creature itself comes far too late in the film for anyone to really care when there’s already so much plot going on elsewhere.
If there’s an upside, it’s that the material with Peter and the black suit actually takes the character in a welcome new direction – and we might be alone in this, but we’ll defend the ’emo Peter’ sequence to the death, because the whole point is that it’s supposed to be terrible, and it’s funny. But you have to wonder why they didn’t just set up the black suit in this film before then moving on to Venom in a theoretical fourth movie instead. As it is, very little about the strand works at all.
So it’s clear that Spider-Man 3 is a jumbled mess of too many plot elements (and we haven’t even got around to talking about the utter waste that is bringing in Bryce Dallas Howard to look fantastic as Gwen Stacy but not actually get to do anything of note) – and it also seems to have little idea how to combine them into anything like a coherent tone or style. James Franco’s constant scene-chewing, as fun as it is (“So good!”) doesn’t belong in the same film as Haden Church’s angst-ridden villain-on-the-run; nor does a dark and violent portrayal of Venom sit well alongside Bruce Campbell’s admittedly hilarious turn as a John Cleese-aping French waiter. And that’s even before you get to several scenes that simply don’t work on a technical level – there are frequent displays of ineptness don’t measure up to Raimi’s reputation as a filmmaker of class and renown.
Still and all, purely for the fact that it at least knows how to nail the thematic heart of a Spider-Man movie (and for a handful of genuinely great moments), we’d put this above The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But it’s still hard to consider it a particularly good film in its own right.
3. The Amazing Spider-Man
While the second The Amazing Spider-Man film may have quickly forgotten the lesson of the series it was replacing, by having almost as many competing plot threads as Spider-Man 3, Marc Webb’s first take on the wall-crawler was as determined as possible to distinguish itself from its predecessor. It’s a cleaner, slicker, shorter film, with only one major villain and a pretty clear and straightforward narrative. Its biggest problem? That narrative had already been done pretty definitively less than a decade previously.
Never quite sure in the early days of The Amazing Spider-Man‘s development if it was meant to be a full-on reboot or simply a ‘soft’ continuity shuffle of the sort familiar to comic readers, some viewers may have anticipated that the origin would be re-told by the film – but if at all, we assumed, it’d be quite a quick whizz through, maybe even told in flashbacks to bring the five people who don’t know the basic beats off by heart back up to speed. Instead, the time spent actually retelling Peter’s origin from the start makes up a significant chunk of its running time, without adding anything particularly new or interesting to the mythos – save for the ill-advised subplot of Peter hunting down Ben’s killer (a warning sign, perhaps, that the makers of these films really didn’t understand how the Spidey story should work thematically).
Of all five films, meanwhile, it’s the one that suffers for a lack of a decent villain (indeed, it’s ironic that other entries in the series suffered by having too many villains – but at least in all cases they were actually good ones). Had this merely been a soft reboot, giving us a Spider-Man with his origin and early days already behind him, then perhaps focusing on a character like the Lizard would have been less of a problem (indeed, given the way Dylan Baker’s version of Curt Conners was painstakingly set up throughout the Raimi films, that was clearly the intent there). But as the first major foe to be tackled by this new incarnation, he’s sorely lacking – unconvincing whether in the form of a mess of CGI or a disinterested Rhys Ifans.
For all of that, there’s a healthy amount that works about The Amazing Spider-Man, even as it’s struggling to fit itself around a compelling story. Webb’s energetic direction is at its best during the web-slinging sequences, which is one of the rare cases of the second set of films improving the originals – and of course, there’s that strong lead pairing in the cast. Andrew Garfield’s Peter is less mumbly and irritating here than in the second film, and while in costume he absolutely fizzes, completely nailing the wisecracking Spidey we all know and love. And Emma Stone begins the process of making the viewer wish that these films were more about Gwen than Peter.
It’s just a shame that these good qualities weren’t put to better use: if the film really had to be a reboot, then it could have done so with more conviction; but there are so many great Spider-Man characters and stories to draw from that nobody would have batted an eyelid if this had simply been a James Bond-style fresh start. Neither one thing nor the other, it never really convinces you of its need to exist.
(But the bit with the kid in the car, and the mask? That bit is wonderful.)
Nowadays, the cinematic debut of Spider-Man is looked upon significantly less fondly than it was at the time – its flaws, perhaps, have been amplified by the way the comic book movie genre has moved in a different direction in the years since. But when all’s said and done, it remains one of the most pivotal entries in the genre’s history, and in its telling of the origin story in particular, is a gold standard for how that kind of story should be done.
Spider-Man has one of the most iconic origin stories going (probably sitting only behind ‘parents shot by a mugger’ and ‘rocketed to Earth as a baby’), but Sam Raimi’s film is sure-footed enough to take its time in hitting the major emotional and thematic beats. The spider bite, the powers discovery, the wrestling match, the death of Uncle Ben – these moments all work, and they all resonate. It’s easy to grow tired of superhero films that take nearly an hour to first give us the hero in costume – but it’s also easy to see why so many of them are tempted to do it, when the results (if done right) are as good as this film manages.
Where the film tends to attract criticism is in having a tone that’s perceived as ‘cartoonish’ – and this is particularly evident in its second half, when Spidey is established and the Green Goblin is brought in. But this accusation owes much to the context of what came after it – specifically, a certain bat-shaped shadow that would loom over the genre only a few years later. At the time, nobody was complaining that Spider-Man so revelled in its ‘comic book’ status (the box office records it smashed at the time should tell you that). Bright and colourful – and loaded with cheesy dialogue – it may be, but very little of it does active disservice to its source material in the way that, say, the Schumacher Batman films had done. And in its healthy mixture of wit and action, it’s far more of a precursor to the Marvel Studios films than many would care to admit.
But it’s hard to argue with the criticism of the Goblin: as brilliant as Willem Dafoe is as Norman Osborn (and as well-defined as the complex relationship between him and Peter is), everything goes to heck as soon as he puts on that green Power-Ranger-villain costume. While we’ll admit to thinking he looks pretty cool at times when actually flying around on the glider, every time he hits ground level and starts speaking it’s just a disaster – hitting the nadir with the rooftop “Join me!” scene, which might actually be the single worst moment in the entire franchise. Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane, too, is generally more of an irritant than a benefit to the film.
Whether or not you really get on with the film may depend on your take on the casting of Tobey Maguire – but he still makes for an excellent Peter, with just the right amount of gawky naivety mixed with the steely determination in the aftermath of Ben’s death. He’s maybe lacking the cocky wit of Garfield’s portrayal, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris make for a suitably iconic Ben and May – and of course, perhaps Raimi’s strongest asset is J K Simmons, who within five seconds of first appearing onscreen makes himself irreplaceable for evermore as J. Jonah Jameson.
(Seriously, Marvel/Sony: just bite the bullet and bring him back for the next one. Nobody will care. They’ll be happy you did it, honest.)
It’s easy to take Spider-Man for granted, and in a post-Marvel Studios world there are ways in which it already looks dated and a bit hackneyed. But it’s still a massively enjoyable romp of a film, and its importance can’t be understated.
1. Spider-Man 2
Having taken the care to get (most of) the early steps of the franchise right, Spider-Man 2 was where Raimi and company were able to confidently cut loose a bit more. And it really shows. It’s a leap above the first film by several orders of magnitude, making it far and away the best entry in the series – and it still stands as one of the greatest superhero movies ever made.
Plenty of this is down to the villain. Having already established Peter and Spider-Man in the first film, there’s more time to spend on setting up the antagonist: and having chosen arguably the greatest supervillain in comics in the shape of Doctor Octopus, the film does justice to him both in the writing and in the performance of Alfred Molina. ‘Science gone wrong’ villains are a stock-in-trade for Spider-Man, but there’s a reason they work so well as an alternative reflection of Peter himself – and we actually get to see Otto Octavius’ story as a tragedy, rather than simply being told about it. Like Peter does, we admire and like him in his early appearances, and so despite everything that follows there always remains that glimmer of hope that he might redeem himself.
Ock’s abilities, too, are superbly realised: Raimi and his effects team chose to rely as heavily as possible on actual practical (foam) tentacles, which give the appendages a sense of genuine heft and menace that would be lacking if the CGI used for more dramatic longer shots were also deployed in close-up. There’s a clever sound design choice, too: the team specifically chose not to use servo noises while the tentacles were moving around, making them feel like a more organic extension of Otto’s body rather than a separate, mechanical entity.
But it’s not all about Octavius – even though plenty of it is – and there’s still room for a healthy expansion of Peter’s character and problems. Because one of the things that’s always made Spider-Man an appealing character is that he keeps on doing what he does, despite having all manner of crap piled upon him as a result. “With great power comes great responsibility” isn’t just about choosing to be a superhero in the first place: it’s about sticking with it afterwards, too.
So the ‘Spider-Man no more!’ plot strand is a crucial phase in his development – the next major turning point after Ben’s death, even. It’s where he learns his second major lesson: that he would definitely be a happier person if he weren’t Spider-Man, but that he can never truly allow himself to go and get that happiness. The film plays with this arc well, and offers us the genuinely shocking moment of Peter witnessing a mugging and walking away. Ouch.
Bolstered by the first film’s massive box office take, the higher budget for the second film allowed for more flexibility when it came to crafting bigger, better set-pieces. There may not be any one shot that’s as widely iconic as the first film’s upside down kiss, but say Spider-Man 2 to anyone who’s seen it and chances are the first thing they’ll respond with is “the bit on the train!” It’s an astounding sequence, thrilling and energetic without it ever being unclear what’s going on – and a great example of a superhero fight sequence that’s been designed to fit with both characters’ abilities. A word, too, for the film’s other most memorable scene: Ock waking up in the hospital, a nightmarish flurry of violence that sees Raimi cheekily evoking his Evil Dead roots.
Indeed, that scene maybe best exemplifies Spider-Man 2‘s biggest asset: its sheer confidence. The other films in this list all seem to have some way in which they’re slightly lacking in the conviction to really just go ahead and tell a Spider-Man story, and so they’re each compromised as a result. Spider-Man 2 doesn’t have that problem: buoyed by the success of the first film, it has the freedom to do what it wants, and the knowledge that it will probably succeed. It never mocks the material, playing the conceit straight while also steering clear of going too full-on ‘dark’ – successfully capturing the mixture of exuberance and pathos that makes Spider-Man the most consistently engaging character in superhero comics.
The fact that Raimi – and a team of scriptwriters, with Alvin Sargent pulling everything together from earlier drafts by Michael Chabon and Alfred Gough & Milles Millar – seems to so effortlessly nail the perfect Spidey film makes you wonder why neither he nor anyone else has managed it on any other occasion. Hopefully a bit of the Marvel Studios magic might rub off on the character next time around – it’d be about time.