Anytime a new incarnation of a long-running property comes out, we’re compelled to look back. This week, it’s worldwide icon of page, stage, screens large and small: Spider-Man, in Marvel’s first Kevin Feige-approved Spidey entry, Spider-Man: Homecoming. All of us at The Geekiverse are very excited about this, and I have the privilege of taking that look back at the wall-crawler’s previous on-screen outings here.
Spider-Man is a special character. He’s inherently fascinating, always relatable, easy to root for, it’s enjoyable to watch him uniquely traverse his hometown metropolis of NYC, and he has one of the most interesting and colorful set of villains and supporting casts in all of comic book history. He’s always been an important character for me too, of course. Growing up as a small, dorky kid and seeing the Sam Raimi Spider-Man film for the first time when I was 15 left an indelible mark on me. So today I’m proud to unveil my personal ranking of all the live action Spider-Man films (with the exception of the Japanese version, which I couldn’t find a copy of).
6 – The Amazing Spider-Man TV Movie Trilogy (1977-1981)
Long before Sam Raimi brought us Tobey Maguire in the role, Nicholas Hammond was the first to bring Peter Parker to life. Not for the big screen though, as this trilogy of movies from the late 70s/early 80s were actually combined episode arcs from the Amazing Spider-Man television series. Beginning with Spider-Man, continuing in Spider-Man Strikes Back and concluding with final episode arc The Dragon’s Challenge, this series was a low-budget but earnest attempt at bringing the web-slinger to life.
While the villains tended to consistent of common criminals, sometimes ninjas, but usually nefarious guys in business suits rather than proper Spidey villains, these entries are more faithful translations than you might expect for the time. Peter, his dual identity, his job with the Daily Bugle and even much of the stuntwork for Spider-Man displays a surprising adherence to the source material. It doesn’t really hold up next to all the modern big screen adaptations we have now, but I for one was pleasantly surprised at the effort given with this late 70s-era production.
Geek bit: The brief but impressive sequence of Spider-Man actually swinging from one building to another was filmed from many different angles so it could be repurposed multiples times throughout future installments.
5 – The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
This film is one that was steeped in skepticism from the beginning. It arose from the sudden cancellation of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4, and many fans were uncomfortable with rebooting the character so soon after the previous Spider-Man films. Personally, while I adore Raimi’s movies, I was always up for something fresh for Spidey. It was obvious Raimi’s 4th entry wasn’t coming together, it had been 10 years since the original Tobey Maguire Spider-Man debuted, and it was time for a new take on the comic icon.
Marc Webb, director of the fantastic 500 Days of Summer was brought in, along with Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Rhys Ifans as Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy and Dr. Curt Connors, respectively. The final product was a little unfocused due to studio interference (I.E.-the “untold story” angle that early marketing advertised, which was then nowhere to be seen in the finished film), but the movie succeeding in telling a more moody and grounded version of the Spider-Man story.
While this movie falls short with plot developments, it delivers great action, an interesting atmosphere, and some truly stellar performances and relationships between the characters. Dr. Connors is tragic and well-played but underdeveloped, however Peter, Gwen and Aunt May are performed beautifully, and their relationships reach a depth and believability in this movie and its sequel than any characters from the Raimi movies were able to.
Geek bit: Among the early contenders for the role of Peter Parker for this remake were Aaron Johnson, Anton Yelchin, Jamie Bell and current young Han Solo actor Alden Ehrenreich.
4 – Spider-Man 3 (2006)
Over 10 years later, and this movie is still a controversial subject. After the masterwork of Spider-Man 2, fans had high hopes for Peter’s next chapter. Behind the scenes though, studio interference (largely from producer Avi Arad) and screenwriter change-ups would take their toll on the eventual final product. Sam Raimi did his best to balance a fresh, thrilling story with a changing crew and a forced Venom arc. What we got in the end, you could say, was disappointing. Was it the offensively awful and worthless trash that forum-dwellers and angry fanboys would have you believe? No. Personally, I wouldn’t even say that this movie is bad. It’s the most flawed of Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, but it’s ultimately a pretty good entry despite that.
After overcoming many personal issues and finding love with Mary Jane in Spider-Man 2, Peter has found a good balance between life, love, school and Spider-Man (whom the city finally adores). But all this is challenged by Harry’s desire for retribution for his father’s death, a new villain that (unnecessarily) ties into Peter’s past, and an entirely separate menace that wreaks havoc on Peter’s life at a deeply personal level.
Does that sound a bit too complicated? Well yeah, it is. As I mentioned earlier, the entire symbiote/Venom element to the story was forced in, as Sam Raimi had no interest in adapting the 90s-era Spidey villain in his movies. On top of that, the original screenwriter left the project, leaving Sam and his brother/creative partner Ted to finish writing the movie on their own. It shows, as it’s mostly not as well-written as either of its predecessors. Plus, the number of subplots leads to everything being underdeveloped. And of course, there are certain sequences where Raimi may have gone a bit too far off the beaten track.
I’m all for the silly montage of Evil Peter being a jerk to everyone and unknowingly making a fool of himself in the process (as it fits the tone of the trilogy, and it’s a reasonable extension of the wonderful “Raindrops” montage from Spider-Man 2), but the jazz dance number is admittedly just too far. But despite its flaws, like it or not, the movie has good elements. The initial dark turn Peter takes when he becomes fixated on vengeance is truly compelling, Mary Jane is far more authentic and three-dimensional a character than she is in either of the previous installments, and the on-screen translation of the iconic scene from the comics when Peter escapes the symbiote’s grasp in a church before it finds its way onto Eddie Brock in just about perfect.
Plus, nearly every sequence with Sandman is fantastic. His empathetic angle is underdeveloped, but his character is still interesting, his creation scene is still awe-inspiring 11 years later, and the resolution to his conflict with Peter is bold, different, and stands apart even today.
Geek bit: Sandman turning out so well wasn’t incidental, as he was a villain Sam Raimi planned on using from the get-go (along with the Vulture, possibly played by Ben Kingsley, who would’ve met up with Sandman in prison).
3 – The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
It’s tough for me rate this, as it’s truly a tale of two movies. It contains some of Spider-Man’s best on-screen moments to date, and some of his worst. It succeeds with characters, relationships, inspirational moments and inventive action, but fails in developing its villains, balancing several plots, and confusingly marrying grounded drama with near-Schumacher levels of camp.
After the hardships endured in the previous movie, Peter and Gwen are graduating high school, their relationship is troubled due to Peter’s continued guilt of seeing Gwen after promising her late father he wouldn’t, and forces beyond Peter’s control seek to crush Spider-Man in their bid for personal gain.
This movie is by far the most flawed of all Spider-Man films. However I ranked it higher on this list because, although when it screws up it does so quite badly, when the movie does Spidey right, it absolutely triumphs. Perhaps that should even out and result in a lower ranking for a median of mediocrity, but what sticks with me about this movie is its rewatchability and those moments of triumph I just mentioned.
Among said triumphs are, like the previous entry, its characters and relationships. Peter, Gwen, and May feel authentic and their relationships are full of emotion and chemistry. Even though the villain side of the cast falls short in development, some of it works well. Peter and Harry, despite this version of their characters appearing on-screen together for the first time, give a sense of history to their relationship. This is due to these wonderful actors giving depth and authenticity to their parts. Electro could have been stronger if they would have leaned more on the mental instability of Max Dillon that’s present, but he unfortunately ends up being more of a villainous caricature instead.
Despite this though, the nature of Electro’s powers are pretty thrilling to behold. The way his powers escalate to almost becoming like an angry god towards the end of the film is very exciting. Overall the action is spectacular, combining great CG effects with sequences that are well-choreographed and shot/animated in new and interesting ways. The movie’s score is also great and interesting, in a way that most superhero movie scores these days aren’t.
Besides some other flaws like the series’ continued focus on the supremely-uninteresting subplot of Peter’s parents, the film mostly succeeds in building emotional arcs from Peter’s relationship with Gwen and May, as well as his relationship to New York City. These are crucial elements of Spider-Man’s character and they’re pulled off so well here. The recurring appearance of Jorge, the bullied child Spider-Man interacts with, along of course with the heartbreaking death of Gwen Stacy, give the movie a massive emotional payoff. This is all used to deliver an ending that is immensely inspirational and nearly perfect, which at the end of the day is what matters to me more than its many shortcomings.
Geek bit: Actress Shailene Woodley was cast as Mary Jane Watson, and even filmed scenes with Garfield for the small role she had in the original script. All these scenes were cut to streamline the story though.
2 – Spider-Man (2002)
Shortly after Bryan Singer’s X-Men was a success and ushered in a new age for superhero movies, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man brought the burgeoning sub-genre to new heights. In a time when superhero films were still wary of being taken seriously, Raimi wasn’t afraid to have a colorful, earnest adventure that remained true to the core of the character. Much of why this movie was so successful wasn’t just how well it was made and how dedicated the filmmakers were to the source material, but also the social climate when it debuted. America was still reeling after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 less than a year before, and not unlike Star Wars in 1977, this movie delivered an emotional, escapist fantasy in a time when people really needed it. While this movie was improved upon in every way by its sequel, I might consider this movie to be the Superman: The Movie or 1989 Batman of its generation.
The first time Spider-Man’s origin was presented on-screen (since 1977, anyway), Sam Raimi and company elegantly delivered all the classic beats of the hero’s debut, along with the birth of classic Spidey villain the Green Goblin, played wonderfully by Willem Dafoe. The seminal Spider-Man tragedy, the death of Uncle Ben, will perhaps never be done quite as well as it was in this movie.
Early Peter Parker love interests like Gwen Stacy and Liz Allen were skipped in favor of Mary Jane Watson (who, in these movies, is somewhat of an amalgamation of the comic portrayals of MJ and Gwen). Sam Raimi always set out to make “Peter Parker” movies moreso than “Spider-Man” movies, and his films always succeed in that. It portrays to ongoing struggle between Peter’s dual lives that is straight out of the old Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics, and the colorful earnestness and stylistic flair these movies carry was firmly established in this premiere entry.
A classic story told in a timeless way, with a memorable and stirring score by Danny Elfman, an iconic cinematic kiss scene, the definitive live action J. Jonah Jameson and so much more make this a contender for best superhero origin movie of all time.
Geek bit: The original poster and teaser trailer for the film both involved NYC imagery that included the World Trade Center. As this film was being marketed during the 9/11 tragedy, the poster and trailer were pulled from circulation after the event.
1 – Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Hot off the blockbuster success of Spider-Man, Raimi and company went to work on a sequel, eager to outdo their previous work. They were intent to better develop the script, the CG and practical effects, and maintain that the best shot in Spider-Man would equal the worst shot in Spider-Man 2. Not only that, but director Sam Raimi was given further creative control in this installment.
All this paid off in the end, as the final product wowed audiences at the time, providing a thrilling, endearing, classic, definitive on-screen Spider-Man tale that has yet to be surpassed. I’d even go so far as to say it’s on the shortlist for best superhero movie ever made, even up to 2017.
His career as Spider-Man in full swing, Peter is stuck in balancing his troubled personal life (love for Mary Jane and friendship with Harry, the man who wants Peter’s alter ego Spider-Man dead), and struggling to succeed in college while making ends meet, all of which is made more difficult by his responsibility of being Spider-Man. On top of this, an ambitious scientist Peter admires named Otto Octavius suffers a tragic lab accident that changes him into Peter’s newest villain, Doctor Octopus.
Doc Ock is my favorite Spidey villain, so this movie already had leg-up on its predecessor. But the excellence of this movie cannot be denied. The villain starts as a very likable mentor for Peter, and evolves into a powerful maniac. The quality of the computer and practical effects take a big leap from the previous movie, which are used to bring both Spider-Man and Doc Ock to life in a way that stands the test of time 13 years later. The fun, creative brilliance of Sam Raimi is brought out in full force to serve the unique style and aesthetic of the movie, delivering an all-time great depiction of one of the great superheroes of our generation. And with Peter balancing dual lives, secret identities and struggling to be a role model for his city, it’s the classic superhero formula, fully and masterfully realized.
Geek bit: An early draft of the screenplay featured a younger Octavius who not only developed the genetically-engineered spiders that gave Peter his powers, but also falls in love with Mary Jane.
So there you have it, the worst to best Spider-Man films, through my own subjective lense. I’m eager to see how the long-awaited Spider-Man: Homecoming stacks up amongst these rankings. It’s looking to be pretty fantastic, but for me it’ll be hard for anything to top Spider-Man 2. But then again, a Spidey film that takes its cues from the teenage comedy and drama of 1980s-era John Hughes movies sounds so perfectly up my alley that it just may have a fighting chance.
Seth Zielinski is a slight, nerdy, nimble guy with glasses (sound familiar??). His Spider-Man fandom is challenged everyday by Pete Herr (“The Grumpy Geek”). Pete considers himself The Geekiverse’s biggest Spidey fan, but his grumpiness has consumed him and he’s become Seth’s latest sympathetic villain. Follow Seth on Twitter!
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