With great power comes great responsibility. And the power of getting to don Peter Parker’s beloved red and blue tights has been bestowed only on a few. Despite it seeming like a new Spider-Man movie is coming to theaters every year—and to be fair that’s not too far from the truth—just three actors have played the character in live-action on the big screen. When the web is slightly widened to encompass television, the number of live-action Parkers increases, but they’re comparatively obscure.
Truth be told, there have only been a handful of Spider-Men, and each has left a strikingly distinct and unique spin on the old Web-Head. For that reason, we’ve decided to look back at the most renowned wallcrawlers and reexamine what each one brought to the table.
The first live action Spider-Man came from a place you might not expect: an educational series from the same people behind Sesame Street. The Children’s Television Workshop created The Electric Company in 1971, a show meant for kids who had outgrown Sesame Street but could still benefit from learning about reading skills in fun ways. In 1974, they acquired the rights to Spider-Man from Marvel Comics, and used him for a series of comedic skits called Spidey Super Stories.
Told in live action comic book style, Spidey Super Stories was meant to further the show’s mission of helping pre-teens learn to read. Played by puppeteer and dancer Danny Seagren in a comics accurate costume, Spidey was never shown as Peter Parker, and never spoke a single word, instead communicating via onscreen thought bubbles for the audience to read.
“I had a number of Spider-Man poses and a distinctive way I would shoot the web (that resembles an underhand pitch),” Seagren recalled in an interview with 13th Dimension. “I was a fan of Spider-Man and I had seen the animated series, a lot. Plus, I was a professionally trained dancer. So I had some moves and a grace, which is important because Spider-Man has a grace about him, slinking around. Before the first show, I had spent some time trying some things to do with my body so that I would have a repertoire of Spider-Man moves.”
While Spidey Super Stories might not be the first thing that fans associate with the wall-crawler in live action, and the shorts are a curiosity for modern audiences, Seagren deserves his place in history.
Nicholas Hammond (and Fred Waugh)
Maybe you know him as Friedrich Von Trapp in 1965’s The Sound of Music. Or perhaps sitcom fans of a certain generation know him as Doug Simpson, the big man on campus who Marcia Brady has her eyes on before a football mishap involving her nose in a 1973 Brady Bunch episode. Or maybe you were just really drawn to his brief performance as Sam Wanamaker in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Nah, we all love Nicholas Hammond as the first live action Peter Parker in 1977’s far too short-lived The Amazing Spider-Man TV series.
In his late 20s when he was cast, Hammond’s Peter was a grad student and freelance photographer who felt very much in line with the Spider-Man comics of his era. Hammond gave us a charming, even dignified Peter, who still had to deal with the “ol’ Parker luck” even though he never had to battle any of the comics’ costumed baddies. He cut a trim and athletic figure in the suit, too. And yes, Hammond DID wear the costume when stunts weren’t required. “I always wore the suit if there was a scene interacting with other actors,” he recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “I didn’t think it was fair for the other actors to work with nonactors.”
But one stuntman in particular stands out as one of the great Spidey performers: Fred Waugh. The show’s stunt coordinator was the one who made the series’ limited network TV budget go the furthest. The Amazing Spider-Man is famous (perhaps infamous) for its lo-fi special effects, with Spidey relying on rope web-shooters or casting nets at his opponents. But it also featured some absolutely eye-popping stunts. No CGI here, Waugh would actually swing between buildings, balance on high ledges, and scale skyscrapers …in one case quite literally scaling the side of the Empire State Building for a scene. And he occasionally did all this with a camera rig on his head for some dizzying POV shots.
The Amazing Spider-Man has never been given an official DVD, Blu-ray, or streaming release, a travesty we wrote more about here. And if you can look past some of the ’70s stock TV plots and occasionally shoddy production values, there’s a truly special performance by Hammond and some genuinely superheroic stunt work by Waugh.
Shinji Tōdō (and Hirofumi Koga)
The Japanese Spider-Man live action TV series, Supaidāman, shares almost nothing in common with the Marvel Comics character other than a name and a costume. But just because this ain’t Peter Parker, it doesn’t mean that it ain’t Spidey! As Into the Spider-Verse and No Way Home prove, there’s room for infinite Spideys in the multiverse, and Shinji Tōdō’s Takuya Yamashiro is as valid as any of them. Screw getting bitten by a radioactive spider, Yamashiro gets his powers (and some killer tech, like a Spider-Mobile and an awesome giant robot called Leopardon) from a dying alien from the planet Spider who gives him a blood transfusion.
If the idea of a teen who transforms into a tech-assisted superhero to fight an assortment of nameless alien foes commanded by a single big bad each episode sounds like a forerunner of the Power Rangers franchise, that’s because it is. And while Yamashiro is a motocross racer by trade rather than a freelance photographer, there’s a bit of hapless Peter Parker comedy in Tōdō’s performance, as well as the appropriate amount of melodrama and angst when called for.
Running from 1978-1979 and 41 episodes, Supaidāman is unlike any version of the Spidey legend you’ve ever seen, but it’s colorful, fun, and like The Amazing Spider-Man above, full of some tremendous stunts and fight choreography. Some of the best, most convincing wall-crawling ever put on film is here, thanks in no small part to Hirofumi Koga, a gymnast who often performed stunts up to 40 meters in the air without a safety rope attached!
The series is currently unavailable by conventional means in the US and UK, but there’s a wonderful episode of the Marvel documentary series, Marvel’s 616, that details the complete history of the series with plenty of fun footage available to watch on Disney+ (we wrote about it here). Here’s hoping Disney sees sense and puts the entire series up on there soon, too.
Ah, here’s the sentimental favorite for anyone between the ages of 20 and 35. Tobey Maguire, the first Spider-Man to swing on to cinema screens, and in some respects still the best.
When Maguire was cast in his now most famed role, it seemed like an odd choice to typical industry watchers. Many more traditional “leading men” in his generation, at least in the then-thriving teen movie market, were considered by the studio, and Freddie Prinze Jr. even publicly campaigned for the role.
But Tobey Maguire? The sensitive and introspective performer who brought poignancy to Ang Lee dramas like The Ice Storm (1997) and Ride with the Devil (1999)? He was a serious actor (and far from a superhero given the reputation of his and best buddy Leonardo DiCaprio’s teen entourage in the ‘90s). Even his most commercial fare saw the young actor play oddballs who are obsessed with syndicated TV (1998’s Pleasantville) or are literary savants (2000’s Wonder Boys).
Yet that poignancy and oddness is what director Sam Raimi wanted. Together, the filmmaker and star keyed into Peter Parker’s perpetual sense of self-sacrifice. If Spider-Man stories are, as comic book artist John Romita Sr. mused, a soap opera where a fight breaks out, then Maguire would make audiences acutely feel the pain of that soapiness. Here’s a young man who just wants to do the right thing, and to be with the girl next door, and he is constantly denied happiness due to making the hard choice. At a time where superhero movies still weren’t taken particularly seriously, here was one that imagined how unglamorous such a lifestyle could be.
Fans of the comic book character are justified to note that Maguire never really captured Peter’s motormouth snark when he puts on the mask. But purely through his doleful blue eyes, he articulated with a glance the character’s innate nobility better than anyone else.
What could have been. On paper, Andrew Garfield should be the definitive Spider-Man. As a classically trained British stage and screen actor who grew up adoring the webslinger, here was a renowned thespian who won a Tony for doing Death of a Salesman on Broadway in the same year he first played Spidey.
Yet due to a multitude of factors, Garfield’s Spidey duology of The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) are generally considered to be the weakest cinematic incarnations of the character. Even so, Garfield’s passion unmistakably comes through. Playing the role fresh off his Hollywood breakthrough in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), Garfield, director Marc Webb, and likely a legion of Sony executives attempted to differentiate his Peter from Maguire’s.
If fans were unhappy about the character’s lack of wit or playfulness in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, Garfield would be dropping putdowns on criminals as rapidly as his punches. And if Maguire portrayed Peter as a bit of a sad sack, then Garfield’s Peter would be hip, moody, and ride a skateboard.
The truth, however, is the character had so many dissonant elements thrown into the script that it was hard to get a good read on who really was breathing behind the mask. Even that aforementioned sense of humor came off as more cruel and condescending than fun and lighthearted. Similarly, his motivations for becoming Spider-Man are muddled since he starts wearing the mask out of a sense of revenge and then inexplicably becomes a superhero.
And yet, Garfield’s own personal joy could break through both scripts’ multitude of problems, and Garfield could exude a physical giddiness at playing the character—plus a genuine sense of romantic longing. Indeed, the palpable chemistry Garfield shared with Emma Stone, who played Gwen Stacy, might make theirs still the best romance ever told in a Spider-Man movie.
When James Gunn first saw early footage of Tom Holland as Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War (2016), he said, “[Holland] is to Spidey as Downey is to Iron Man, Ledger was to Joker, Pratt is to Star-Lord.” It’s high praise, but in the sense of making the role entirely his own and defining it for the next generation, well Gunn’s not whistling “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
Holland, who made his acting debut at London’s West End and in the coveted title role of Billy Elliot the Musical, is an extremely gifted actor, dancer, and even gymnast. Indeed, it was his own ability to perform Spider-Man-like acrobatics on audition tapes that helped land him the part. Before playing Spidey, he was still fresh out of the BRIT school for Performing Arts and had broken through on-screen by earning major critical raves for his turn in The Impossible (2012).
Nevertheless, Holland was more unknown than Maguire and Garfield, even in the industry, when he was cast as the most youthful Spider-Man to date. Whereas the previous Spidey actors were in their late 20s when they played Peter as a kid about to graduate high school, Holland was just 19 when cameras rolled on Civil War. Over the course of six films, he’s thus depicted Pete as an honest-to-Thor teenager who’s perpetually in over his head.
Holland’s Parker also captures the happy-go-lucky joy that eluded the previous two actors. In fact, there’s very little of the tragic (yet) to his interpretation. Neither Uncle Ben nor Peter’s missing parents are mentioned, he rarely suffers social consequences for his adventuring, and the kid’s even on the fast-track to become a billionaire with Tony Stark willing Peter the most expensive drone program in the world. It’s certainly a different interpretation of the character, but a welcome one given Holland’s irresistible rascality.
As perhaps the single most animated superhero in history, it would take a whole ‘nother article to detail all of the amazing, spectacular talent who have given voice to the web-head across countless cartoons and dozens of video games (and if you’d like to see that article, let us know in the comments!). But there are a handful who practically defined the character for their generations, and deserve special recognition.
Paul Soles was the first actor to give voice to Spider-Man, in the famous Grantray-Lawrence Spider-Man animated series that ran between 1967-1970 that gave us the most iconic music associated with the web-slinger.
For ’80s kids, Dan Gilvezan is the definitive Spidey thanks to his work on Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends which ran from 1981-1983. Gilvezan’s Peter and Spidey are arguably the first in ANY screen incarnation to truly capture the full spirit of the comics character.
Christopher Daniel Barnes is the Spider-Man of the 1990s, playing Peter across 5 seasons and 65 episodes of Spider-Man: The Animated Series. Like Gilvezan, this is one of the most definitive Spidey performances of all time.
Josh Keaton deserves a place on Spidey Mount Rushmore, even though the brilliant Spectacular Spider-Man had its web line cut after only 26 episodes, and he also voiced the character in several video games.
And while this article is primarily Peter-focused, Shameik Moore deserves a special mention for bringing Miles Morales to perfect life in the flawless Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s only a matter of time before Miles swings over to live action, and in a few years we may need one of these articles chronicling all of Miles’ various screen incarnations, too!
Who are your favorite screen Spideys? Let us know in the comments!