I love Spider-Man. Just about everyone who knows me knows that about me. But besides my post about my tattoo that includes a Spider-Man logo, I’ve never actually written about Spider-Man on this site. But that ends today! Or, as Norman Osborne might say:
I recently rewatched all 9 (as of this writing) Spider-Man movies. While I’d seen all of them multiple times before, this was the first time I watched them all one after the other. And I came away with some thoughts and feelings: some of them reaffirmed what I already felt, others kinda surprised me a little bit.
Here are the movies I watched (in this order):
Yeah. That was a fun two weeks. But where to even start?!
Favorite Spider-Man Movie: Spider-Man
Hear me out! It’s not the best Spider-Man movie, but for what I admit are totally nostalgic reasons, the first Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire movie will always hold an incredibly special place in my heart. The movie came out in 2002 and I distinctly remember counting down the days to the release of the film for over a year. I was scouring the internet for news about the movie and was a regular visitor and contributor to SpiderManHype.com, a website that no longer exists because it kind of evolved into www.superherohype.com as superhero movies became more and more common. I remember seeing early pre-viz footage of Spider-Man crawling up a wall about a year before the movie came out, and waiting anxiously for the trailer to drop. When it finally did, I remember using my Compaq desktop to find the Quicktime trailer of Spider-Man, boldly clicking on the highest resolution possible on my 56 kbs internet, putting it in full screen, and committing to wait patiently for the little gray buffering bar to fully load before clicking “play.” It took FOREVER. But the bar finally loaded, I clicked play, and….my entire computer crashed! I finally did see it and it was amazing. It was that trailer that was soon taken out of circulation because it showed Spider-Man stopping a helicopter in a web strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. When the movie finally came out, I bought tickets to two consecutive showings on opening day. My mom checked me out of school early and dropped me off at the theater where, for the next 4+ hours, I felt like the happiest boy in the world. Spider-Man was also the movie that finally pushed me to buy a DVD player, because I definitely wanted the awesome deluxe set that included a reprint of Amazing Fantasy #15, Spider-Man’s comic book debut. (Fun fact, the first DVD I bought was actually The Matrix : ). All of which is to say, I love this movie. All of those old feelings came rushing right back when I watched it a few weeks ago. And I don’t think anything will ever change that.
Also, I have to give a shoutout to that final brawl between Spider-Man and Green Goblin. The editing and sound production in that entire sequence creates a fight that feels so intensely brutal. The way every punch, kick, crunch, and scream feel so painful and visceral is so unnerving and stressful. Raimi does something similar with the way the music and score just go completely silent and we’re left with jarring sound effects and screams in Spider-Man 2‘s Doc Ock surgery room scene. Another masterful sequence in a movie that is really amazing – but alas I have too much else to cover to talk about how awesome Spider-Man 2 really is.
Have you seen these scenes recently? You really should. They’re beautifully put together:
Best Spider-Man Movie: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
I truly think this movie is a masterpiece, and if animated films were regarded at the same level of prestige as live-action films, this movie would have received even more acclaim — and all of it would have been deserving. And none of it would be enough to fully account for what an amazing achievement this movie really is. Incredible animation, incredible screenplay, incredible visuals, incredible characters, heart-pounding action, hilarious moments, deeply heartfelt moments, amazing score, killer soundtrack, appearances from 8 different Spider-People, I mean, come on! Or, as the kids say these days: “no notes.” Truly, I have no critiques to offer this movie — which is a very rare thing for me. There’s always something that can make a movie better or that stands out in some weird/negative way: some strange editing choice, some stiff acting, an awkward action sequence, etc. While I’m hesitant to call any movie “perfect,” I’d say Into the Spider-Verse comes pretty dang close for me. It feels like a movie that is 100% successful in everything it sets out to do. If I remove the nostalgia factor attached to Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, this would easily be my favorite Spider-Man movie.
Favorite Peter Parker: Tobey Maguire
Tobey Maguire’s take really emphasizes Peter’s outsider status. He’s an awkward loser, a well-meaning goofball, and Maguire plays those aspects of the character really well. This Peter feels like a nobody, is oftentimes quite literally invisible to people around him, and just can’t catch a break. It can all feel very innocent, which works really well with this characterization of Peter Parker. This realization is also what made me feel much less negatively towards some of the absurdity of Spider-Man 3 with this last re-watch. I used to go right along with all of the naysayers when it comes to the “Bad Peter” sequence that culminates with dancing down the street. Need a reminder? Say no more!
Over the years and through the re-watches, however, my view of that whole sequence has changed drastically. Now, I see it as further evidence of just how good and goofy his Peter Parker really is. Like, he’s so good, kind, and innocent that all he has is his idea of what a “bad boy” would do. In other words, that whole sequence shows us the extent to which Maguire’s Peter Parker could even imagine being bad. In that light, yeah, it’s ridiculous, because Peter doesn’t know how to be a bad person. Granted, he does treat MJ pretty awfully in that movie, but I think you get what I mean. Tobey’s “aw shucks” approach works so well with Raimi’s often silly and sometimes hilarious approach to the material. Plus he’ll always be my first live-action Spider-Man.
Favorite Spider-Man: Andrew Garfield
In rewatching all of the Spider-Man movies, one of the things that took me by surprise is how much more I seemed to enjoy Andrew Garfield’s performance. Sure, those movies are pretty messy, but Spider-Man is amazing to watch. Garfield brings a sense of joy and humor to the character that Maguire couldn’t quite tap into. You get more of that feeling of freedom that comes with the anonymity of wearing a costume. All of Peter Parker’s pains and insecurities vanish and he just has fun with his powers. Part of the problem is that Garfield’s Parker doesn’t really seem like he has as many of those insecurities or feelings of being an outsider that Maguire’s did. It’s there, but just not as strongly.
There’s something else, too. One of my favorite things about any live-action Spider-Man movie is watching sequences of Spider-Man swinging through the city, running along buildings, flipping and twirling through the air, etc. I think The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2 has the best and most fun sequences of Spider-Man swinging. In addition to the cool POV shots of Spider-Man in action, these movies really capture the joyful agility and acrobatics of Spider-Man in a way that I don’t think any of the other live-action movies quite do. The way Spider-Man swings from one building to another, runs across the side, sling shots himself up to the sky, spins and twirls, or shoots a web and climbs upward as he swings to get into better position for the next web that needs to be shot. I don’t quite have the words to describe it, but I absolutely love it. And I’d like to apologize to Andrew Garfield, Marc Webb, and the whole team behind those movies for not having appreciated this more when it first came out.
Luckily, someone else already compiled all of Spider-Man’s swinging scenes from both Amazing Spider-Man movies. Thank you “MyClipsHD” ! Enjoy. It really is a thing of beauty:
Let’s Talk About Spider-Man 3
I’ll start by saying that yes, this movie is a mess. But I really don’t think it’s as bad as many – including myself – have made it out to be over the years. I think it’s a movie that just tries to do and be too many things and doesn’t quite succeed at any of them. It tries to be about an internal battle between good and evil for Peter Parker; it tries to be a movie about whether Peter was ready to put MJ’s needs before his own; it tries to bring the bubbling friendship tensions between Peter and Harry to a head; it tries to be a movie that would give Peter Parker some closure over Uncle Ben’s death; and it tries to be a movie that would awesomely bring Venom to the big screen. It’s too much for any one movie, and the natural result is that it all feels like a bit of a convoluted mess.
Two characters that really stood out to me in this latest re-watch of the film were MJ and Eddie Brock.
When it comes to MJ, I felt really disappointed with how disregarded her character became. The second movie ended with this beautiful moment of MJ making it clear that she won’t let Peter make the decision of whether or not they should be together for her. That they were going to make it work so that Peter could be Spider-Man and Peter Parker without having to choose between the two or sacrificing the love they have for each other. The third movie sets up what should have been the primary conflict beautifully: Peter tells Aunt May he’s going to ask MJ to marry her and Aunt May asks him if he’s ready to put her needs before his own. This could have been a beautiful set up to really focus on this relationship between Peter and MJ, to let us in on a beautiful, loving, supportive relationship while he deals with other external conflicts. We could have seen a different side of MJ — that fun, feisty, loving side that the comics allow us to see. Instead, she is relegated again to mainly falling and screaming and not really existing independently outside of her relationship with Peter. I actually think Peter and Gwen’s relationship in The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2 is a really great example of how beautiful, joyful, fun, complicated, humorous, and supportive their relationship could have been depicted. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are so much fun to watch in those movies, and that relationship is something that I think the Amazing Spider-Man films really got right.
Eddie Brock. Is there a superhero movie casting choice that’s received as much hate and criticism as Topher Grace in the role of Eddie Brock/Venom? And could I have ever predicted that I would be sitting here typing words in defense of this casting choice? The answer to both questions is a resounding NO. But here we are. Here are my current thoughts on Topher Grace as Eddie Brock: I don’t think it’s so much that he was objectively miscast as Eddie Brock/Venom, I think it’s that he was miscast as the Eddie Brock/Venom the majority of audiences/comic book fans had in mind. Mainly, THIS Eddie Brock:
And I think it’s important to emphasize the physicality of the Eddie/Venom people seemed to have in mind. This guy is supposed to be huge and muscular and rough and tough — literally the opposite of the types of roles Topher Grace was known for — mainly scrawny Eric Forman from That 70’s Show:
But watching the movie again, I was struck by a couple of moments in the film that shifted my view around this casting. Now I lean more towards feeling like Topher Grace is a really good casting choice for the version of Eddie Brock that they wrote for this movie. Here’s the moment that made me reconsider things:
In an earlier scene, Eddie tells Gwen’s dad that he’s her boyfriend. In this scene, it becomes clear that Eddie’s perception of his relationship with Gwen is severely warped. What he describes as an “amazing, amazing night,” she describes as just grabbing some coffee. Re-watching this scene made me consider Eddie as, to put it kinda bluntly: a weak and entitled little white boy with a warped understanding of his masculinity. He feels possessive over Gwen, feels entitled to “having” her as his girlfriend, feels deserving of opportunities he may not be entirely qualified for, feels overly assured and confident of what is probably his own mediocrity, and then lashes out when he’s called out for the ridiculousness of his assumptions. In this light, I think Topher Grace was a great casting choice! Maybe the world just wasn’t ready for that big of a departure from our comic book and cartoon memories and expectations. And, again, the movie as a whole is definitely messy.
If I could give the movie notes I would say that the movie should have focused on his most important relationships: Aunt May, MJ, and Harry. I think it should have given him a successful working relationship with MJ that would let her come into her own as a more fully dimensional character, and torn apart his friendship with Harry – like it already does pretty well at some points. I think to give these two already dense relationships enough time, the movie should have completely dropped the Sandman or Venom. OR, introduce and set-up Eddie Brock in a cool and meaningful way to have him turn to Venom in a potential sequel, and bring the Sandman in as an external villain that has nothing to do with Peter personally — just a straight up Spider-Man conflict. In other words, don’t try to retroactively tie Uncle Ben’s death to the Sandman’s story. That was a bad move. Instead we’d be left with would be two clear conflicts – one for Peter with Harry, and one for Spider-Man with Sandman – and his relationship with MJ could have been a nice constant point of positivity and support. That’s what I would do, if I ran the zoo.
Best Consistency Across a Franchise: Tom Holland
Maguire’s and Garfield’s last Spider-Man movies both suffered the same problems: trying to do too much without doing any of it super well. I’ve detailed some of the problems with Maguire’s above, and Garfield’s has some similar issues. More than anything else, I think The Amazing Spider-Man 2 struggles in its attempt to balance delivering a great Spider-Man movie with setting up a larger world of potential storylines for future movies. When you combine that with the weird character design and performance choices for Electro, and the rushed attempt to introduce Harry Osborne and make his relationship meaningful, you’re left with a bit of a convoluted narrative that kind of has two final acts – one with Electro and one with Osborne. Which is disappointing, because the tragic ending with Gwen is one of the most brutal and bold choices I’ve seen in a superhero movie. One of the issues I do have with the otherwise amazing MCU movies is their frequent refusal to commit to the high stakes loss of characters’ lives. The biggest example I can think of is how much of a mistake I think it was to not kill Rhodey from the fall he suffers in Captain America: Civil War. But Amazing Spider-Man 2 commits to that death in a heartbreaking moment that does surprisingly little to minimize the brutality and heartbreak of it all. And with Andrew Garfield’s beautiful performance, it’s one of the saddest moments in any superhero movie. But regardless, the movie as a whole is still a mess.
Not so with Tom Holland’s trilogy. The level of quality across all three movies stays pretty equal. There’s a great balance of heart, humor, and action, connections to the greater MCU narrative threads that don’t overshadow Spider-Man’s story, and each film seems to take care not to become overly bloated with too many villains, characters, or subplots. Rather, they deliver on everything they set out to do without being overwhelmed and forced to drop the ball — like Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
The Three Spider-Men: Maguire, Garfield, and Holland
As a Spider-Man fan, I often get asked my thoughts on who’s my favorite Spider-Man, but the fact is each actor brings a different take to a character that itself is given a different take in each iteration. Tobey Maguire nails the goofy, nerdy charm of an innocent do-gooder; Andrew Garfield brings home the joy, humor, and love of being Spider-Man; and Tom Holland really delivers the sheer frantic excitement that comes with being an adolescent who suddenly finds himself with more power than he has any real idea what to do with. I love them all. Tobey was my first live-action Spider-Man, Andrew consistently gave the most heartfelt and beautiful performances, and Tom was the first to coexist and interact with all of my other beloved Marvel characters in live-action. Don’t make me choose between my three children!
Coming out of this recent rewatch, what struck me was the feeling that I came out liking Andrew Garfield’s take more than I thought I did, and liking Tom Holland’s take less than I thought I did. Still love them all! But you know…there were definitely slight shifts, and in thinking through why that might be, I’ve landed on two things: 1) each character’s primary motivation, and 2) each actor’s performance.
Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker is primarily motivated by guilt. The guilt he feels over the death of his Uncle Ben is the driving force behind all three movies. It’s a powerful, albeit harmful, motivator, and one that clearly stays consistent through all three movies. His Uncle Ben embodies and represents Peter’s own moral compass, and he even continues to have mental conversations with him as a way to work through the feelings he’s going through. It’s a force that slowly eats at him, that complicates every single moment he shares with his Aunt May, that makes him feel like he’s never doing enough to atone for his part in his death, that pushes him to do better every day.
Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker doesn’t seem to carry that sense of guilt as strongly. Instead, more of his attention and emotional focus is on his parents, which this iteration tries to tie to a bigger conspiracy they hoped to slowly unravel over a much longer franchise. Yes, he blames himself for his Uncle Ben’s death, but it’s also not a plot point that gets a whole lot of attention. Instead, his primary driving force seems to be love — specifically his love for Gwen. They get together relatively early on in the first film and share a beautiful relationship that is pretty mutually respectful. If this Peter carries any guilt, it actually comes more from the death of Gwen’s father than it does from his Uncle Ben. And because that connection is a little more removed, it’s also not as strong as it could have been if it was someone closer to him. If they had continued with a third movie, I could see how Gwen’s death could have led to a much greater sense of guilt — in fact we do get a hint of that in No Way Home. But still, his main driving force seems to be love, much more than making up for a sense of guilt.
Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, well…I’m not really sure I know what his driving force is. Maybe wanting to be accepted by Tony Stark? Uncle Ben is nowhere to be seen — save for a possible passing reference in Far From Home where we see the initials on the bag he’s packing as “BFP,” which could be “Benjamin Franklin Parker.” But then at the end of the movie, Aunt May pretty unceremoniously acknowledges how his bags exploded, so that connection doesn’t really feel all that important in these movies. Similar to Amazing Spider-Man 2, Holland’s latest movie sets up a possible power in guilt over Aunt May’s death, who also – pretty brilliantly, I think – doubles for Uncle Ben. But, again, the guilt doesn’t feel like it would be the same as that devastating feeling of regret that comes with knowing you didn’t do the right thing when you had the chance and now it’s too late to do anything about it. May’s death – while very tragic – doesn’t really feel like it carries that same kind of emotional weight. But yeah, I’m really not sure what the motivating force behind Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is. In Homecoming and Far From Home, it’s probably wanting to be accepted by and do justice to Tony Stark’s legacy, respectively. But then Stark doesn’t really play into No Way Home at all, which – on this second viewing – felt a little more lacking to me than it did when I was obviously swept away by the collective emotions of watching it in a crowded theater on opening day. Not sure I have the answer here, so please leave a comment with your thoughts if you have any ideas!
Finally, each actor’s performances. One thing No Way Home made clear to me is how much stronger of a performer Andrew Garfield is compared to Maguire and Holland. He stole every single scene with what felt like consistently genuine emotions. He has an ability to express and emote in a way that feels authentic and so much fun to watch. I don’t know that I have the specific vocabulary about performances to go into more detail, but I just loved every single scene he was in partly, I think, because HE seemed to be fully committed to the role and emotions too. Tobey Maguire is always a little more subdued, and that’s fine. It works. And in No Way Home, he was the oldest and wisest, so it’s ok. Tom Holland, meanwhile, plays the part as a frantic Energizer Bunny/puppy dog who’s excited by every squirrel he sees. I don’t mean that as a negative at all! As the youngest of the live-action Peter Parkers, it makes sense that that’s the energy he brings to the character. It’s exactly what this take on the character calls for. But seeing each of his movies back-to-back, without the breaks that the other MCU movies provide, it felt like a lot. Like the excitement always being turned up to 11 could have easily crossed over to being obnoxious. I think they toe that line well, and it never goes fully into obnoxious mode, but for the first time ever, I saw that line being nearly crossed.
I love Spider-Man. I will watch every single Spider-Man movie for the foreseeable future. There will be things I will love about every single Spider-Man movie that comes out because just the fact that I’m seeing Spider-Man in a movie is already super exciting in itself. I loved seeing all three Spider-Men in No Way Home. The scenes and dialogue they shared together was hilarious, endearing, and so much fun to watch. Watching Andrew Garfield catch Tom Holland’s MJ was one of the most emotional moments in any of the MCU movies for me, and seeing that moment in a packed theater on opening day is an experience I will never forget. I’ve said so much about Spider-Man and still feel like I have more to say, but I think I should call it a day. Thank you for reading.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Fan