Because now that we’ve met our third Peter Parker since 2002, a comparison post is the only logical thing to do. Also, spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen the films.
Thanks to studio contracts and Hollywood’s ongoing hesitation to branch out to fresh material, we’ve experienced three different Spider-Man franchises within the last 15 years. Never before has any film franchise been subjected to so many big-screen reboots in such a short span of time, from Spider-Man in 2002, The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012, and Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017.
Despite being a tad ridiculous, this obsession with reboots does offer one silver lining: We the viewers are rewarded with a fascinating look at Hollywood’s process of missteps, successes and adaptations when it comes to bringing Spider-Man to life.
And now that we have a Spidey who fits snugly into a very well-established Marvel Cinematic Universe, the time seems right to compare them all.
Looking back at our hero’s first big-screen debut, it’s certainly tempting to write off Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man based on its simplicity. After all, it comes from a time when the industry was still new to the concept of quality superhero films; consequently, the formulaic plot lines and now well-established tropes of the superhero film were still fresh.
In addition, it suffers from some dated CGI effects and a vibe that generally feels too much like a comic book (especially compared to the grittiness and hyper-realism of more recent superhero films).
Of course, as the first to portray Peter Parker on the big screen, Maguire will always hold a special place in our hearts as Spider-Man. In fact, as one of the first wildly successful superhero films of the modern age, this film helped launch the comic book movie genre that’s given us countless quality cinematic adventures in the past decade. For me personally, Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) were my first, most memorable introductions to the idea of comic book films, and — although neither of these films are the best in their franchise (Spider-Man 2 and X2 hold those spots, in my opinion) — I’ll always have nostalgic affection for them.
Yet, sentimental value shouldn’t blind us to some flaws. Most notably, although his wide-eyed, shy and earnest Peter Parker was the perfect way to introduce audiences to Spider-Man, Maguire generally lacks the charisma necessary to accurately embody Peter Parker.
I’m certainly not saying that I dislike Maguire’s debut performance; he succeeds in presenting us with an endearingly awkward and introverted webslinger that many audiences (myself included) found likeable. Still, one of Spider-Man’s traditional defining qualities is his sprightly sense of humor, usually expressed through a quick wit and plenty of corny one-liners; unfortunately, Maguire’s soft-spoken Peter falls a bit flat when compared to the character’s more recent iterations. And the jokes/one-liners he does attempt feel forced enough to induce some serious eye-rolling.
The same can be said about Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn: his Green Goblin and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man are two sides of the same cheesy-character coin.
For most of the movie, Dafoe tends to lean a little too heavily on the “insane evil villain” side of his character, spending far too little time establishing himself as a father or a corporate businessman.
But while the devil is in the details, there’s a reason why Spider-Man still remains relevant in any Spider-Man movie discussion: It effortlessly balances the magic of a superhero origin story with an apropos sense of seriousness, and is thus emotionally compelling without feeling too dark or heavy.
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Upon its release in 2012, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man was met with immense skepticism — with Spider-Man 3 having been released just five years prior, most people generally saw the reboot was an unnecessary cash-grab by Sony Pictures (probably a true accusation).
But despite Amazing Spider-Man‘s merciless rehashing of the original, Andrew Garfield’s performance marks the first time we’re introduced to a much more true-to-form Peter Parker. Youthful, headstrong, and brandishing an attitude much more suited to that of a real-life teenager (sorry Tobey), Garfield’s Spider-Man is just pure fun to watch.
Garfield does lose some points for channeling the teenage angst a little too hard throughout the film, and also for failing to convincingly play a nerdy character. As Caitlin Busch of Inverse aptly puts it:
Yes, he was a “nerd,” but in a hipster kind of way that worked well for 2012. And he wasn’t so much an outsider as he was a troubled loner who stood up to bullies and who had a camera, a skateboard, zero friends, and a good dose of social anxiety.
And whereas Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin was over-the-top cheesy, the villain in Amazing Spider-Man is just sadly rather forgettable (full disclosure: remembering Rhys Ifans’ Lizard took me a much longer time than I’m willing to admit) — The movie’s careful character-building of Dr. Curt Connors at the beginning of the film quickly turns into wasted potential once his Lizard-self begins hurling cars into the river and trying to turn the entire city’s inhabitants into a race of lizard-people.
Still, Garfield’s performance (with the help of co-star Emma Stone) justifies the movie’s existence: Despite a -blah- story, he lights up the screen with chemistry and fresh energy, giving us an intensely enjoyable, deeply emotional, and undeniably heroic Spider-Man.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming started off as another victim of the “seems too soon” reboot — It was released just three years after The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (which only stood out because of strong performances by Garfield and Stone). Here, Sony took a chance to more carefully mold the Peter Parker that would fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
With Tom Holland, they’ve finally found success. And luckily, although the weaker elements of this film stem from numerous not-so-subtle reminders that, yes, everything integrates seamlessly into the existing MCU, most of it works.
Notable examples include: the film’s opening scenes in which Peter hilariously chronicles his inclusion into the “Stark internship program”; Captain America’s lecture series in school video tapes (one of which causes a gym teacher, played by Hannibal Buress, to remark, “I’m pretty sure this guy’s a war criminal now, but”); and various scenes featuring the overly-eager Holland being a constant source of irritation for Jon Favreau’s perpetually grumpy Happy Hogan.
Plus, since we’ve already seen Tom Holland’s Spider-Man flying around in 2016’s Avengers: Civil War, we thankfully avoid the tired “bitten by a radioactive spider” and “Uncle Ben dies” plot lines in favor of a fresher take on Peter learning about his powers and himself. This freshness extends to the rest of the film, as director Jon Watts wonderfully balances lighthearted fun with the heaviness of responsibility.
One of the best examples of this balance is displayed through Michael Keaton’s Vulture. Reeking of gritty realism, Keaton is able to successfully portray every different shade of Adrian Toomes, from disillusioned blue-collar worker to goofy family man to determined villain who’s willing to do whatever it takes.
The thing is, despite his glowing eyes and metal flight suit, Vulture never feels truly “bad.” Keaton brings a level of authenticity to the character that keeps him from reaching the level of cheeseball-evil embodied by previous Spider-Man villains. Even in the car outside of the school homecoming dance, his threats to Peter come off as intimidating but desperate attempts to appeal to Peter to keep his secret.
All of this makes him incredibly compelling, and the perfect counterpart to Holland’s Spider-Man, who is the perfect mix of dorky, energetic, reckless, insecure, and wonderfully, naively determined — and he balances all of this through his perfect portrayal of a teen with superpowers.
Mix all that with a healthy dose of corny one-liners, throw in a plethora of awkward mannerisms, and you’ve got yourself a Spider-Man who’s objectively the most accurate live-action version of everyone’s favorite webslinger. Regardless, I think I speak for all of us when I say that the stage is set for some great things in the Spider-Man universe, and I can’t wait to see it all play out on the big screen.
Regardless of character accuracy or story line, we all inevitably have our own favorite portrayal… Who’s your favorite Spider-Man? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!