Cinematic Spider-Men: Who’s The Best Wallcrawler?
Over the last 15 years, three live-action Spider-Men have swung across the big-screen. Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland each had unique takes on Spider-Man and his alter-ego, Peter Parker. With three franchises released in a relatively short period of time, any new Spider-Man film is instantly measured against its predecessors, and comparisons between the stars are inevitable. So how do all of the films stack up, and who’s the best Spider-Man?
In director Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy, Maguire’s awkward but lovable, troubled yet heroic Peter Parker struck a chord with audiences. Constantly down on his luck and torn between his responsibilities as Spider-Man and desires as Peter, Maguire fully embodied the everyman qualities central to the character. Like Maguire’s Peter, we’ve all had a high-school bully, or pined for the girl-next-door, or struggled to pay the rent. Maguire imbued Peter with a humanity that is universally relatable.
While The Amazing Spider-Man‘s Garfield also dealt with these issues, no number of science experiments could make him seem like nerdy Peter Parker. Snarky and confident, he was almost as much Spider-Man out-of-costume than in. Holland was a much more believable Peter in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). A geek even among geeks, the younger Holland believably captured a number of teenage experiences, like being the outcast at the party, or awkwardly asking a girl to the dance. Like Maguire, Holland’s Peter was forced to choose between his two lives. But while Maguire struggled to prioritize his responsibilities as Spider-Man over his normal life as Peter, Holland was the opposite, spending most of Homecoming learning how to be Peter, and not rely on superheroics as an escape from his normal life. While both approaches are interesting, we see more of who Peter Parker is independent of Spider-Man in Maguire’s take. Ultimately it’s his Peter that was most empathetic and relatable to audiences.
Winner: Tobey Maguire
By that same token, we saw less of Maguire fully embracing the persona of Spider-Man. Where Maguire had been the perfect Peter Parker, Garfield and Holland better captured the essence of his alter ego. Both Garfield and Holland brought an acrobatic physicality and sense of joy to Spider-Man that was missing in Maguire’s portrayal. Most importantly, Spider-Man’s trademark quips were on full display in these later iterations, sarcastically taunting their enemies in the heat of battle. As part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and first appearing in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Tom Holland’s Spider-Man even got to make quips in battle with the Avengers, just like in the comics! Garfield and Holland’s Spider-Men brought a sense of humor to the character that was sorely lacking in the original trilogy, which was at times overly dour.
And rather than always feeling burdened by their responsibilities, they both embraced their role as Spider-Man.
Winners: Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland
The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2 can be immediately eliminated from the running for best villains. Rhys Ifans’ Curt Conners/Lizard failed to be either sufficiently threatening or sympathetic. Jamie Foxx’s Electro and Dane DeHaan’s Green Goblin were even less compelling, with some of the weakest motivations amongst comic book film villains. Michael Keaton’s Vulture in Homecoming avoided those pitfalls, and proved to one of the better bad guys of the MCU. Where many MCU villains have suffered from lack of screen-time and underdevelopment, the Vulture had a well-fleshed-out backstory and personality, thanks in no small part to Keaton’s stellar performance.
Though it’s hard to judge how Homecoming‘s future sequels might stack up, even another villain on-par with Keaton would have trouble contending with the incredible villains of the first two Maguire films. In spite of the epic mishandling of Venom in the original franchise’s abysmal third installment, Maguire’s first two villains - Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus - are some of the greatest villains in all of superhero cinema. Dafoe’s tragic descent into cackling insanity brought the Norman Osborn of the original comics to life, and Molina’s brilliant but tortured scientist was the perfect moral foil to Maguire’s Parker.
Winner: Tobey Maguire
One area where The Amazing Spider-Man films improved on their predecessors was in the chemistry between their leads. We certainly all rooted for Maguire’s Peter and Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane, whose will they/won’t they romance was the focal point of the original films. Peter and MJ’s upside-down kiss has undoubtedly become one of the more iconic images of modern cinema.
But where Maguire and Dunst’s dialogue could sometimes feel forced, Garfield’s Peter and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy had a natural and believable rapport that made even the well-developed relationship between Maguire and Dunst seem flat in comparison. Involved romantically in real life, the genuine feelings between Garfield and Stone were apparent on-screen. Through no shortcomings of actress Laura Harrier, Homecoming’s Liz Allen was more a plot device than a genuine love interest to Holland’s Peter.
Winner: Andrew Garfield
ACTION & EFFECTS
In development in one form or another for years, the original Spider-Man first came to life in 2002, when cinematic technology was finally able to capture the vision of creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Spider-Man‘s high-flying action brought the comic book character to life in a way previously thought impossible. The films’ color palette and visual tone complemented bombastic action sequences to create a film that seemed to be ripped right from the pages of the original comics.
But at the speed technology moves in the 21st-century, it wasn’t long before the action and effects of the Spider-Man franchise became a bit outdated. The Amazing Spider-Man delivered modern CGI effects and strong fight choreography that saw Spider-Man battling foes and saving civilians in new and exciting ways. Borrowing from the grimmer tone of films like The Dark Knight (2008), the Garfield films often took on darker, noir-esque visual cues that added a level of grittiness and angst.
In comparison, Holland’s appearances in Civil War and Homecoming are marked by the MCU’s brighter, more colorful aesthetic, which is more in-line with the youthful and optimistic essence of the character. Holland’s Spider-Man has had the special effects and action sequences thus far, including the epic hero-on-hero battle at the climax of Civil War, Homecoming‘s Washington monument and ferry rescue scenes, and Spider-Man’s climactic battle with the Vulture. Though it’s still early in the franchise, all signs point to Holland’s Spider-Man participating in even more epic action both on his own and alongside the Avengers in the upcoming Infinity War.
Winner: Tom Holland
The original franchise was among the first of its kind, helping pave the way for the modern era of superhero films. For many, Spider-Man is the definitive take on the character’s origin. It established all of the key elements - the genius teen granted incredible powers from a radioactive spider bite, the death of Peter’s father-figure Uncle Ben, and the guiding lesson he leaves behind: “With great power comes great responsibility.” The theme of power and.responsibility is one of the most fundamental aspects of Spider-Man. Despite the garbled mess that was Spider-Man 3 (2007), the first two Maguire movies are modern classics because they revolve around this idea. Peter is constantly struggling to do the right thing as Spider-Man, while still trying to live life and find love as Peter Parker.
With the ubiquity of the original films in popular culture, The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2, suffered from coming too soon after the originals. Spider-Man’s origin story was still fresh in audience’s minds, and the reboot felt more like a rehash. The death of Peter’s Uncle Ben, for instance, failed to move those who already knew it was coming - it was not so much a tragedy as an eventuality. The Garfield films sought to avoid additional similarities by utilizing new villains and adding the mystery of what happened to Peter’s parents to his origin. Unfortunately, that fell flat in its resolution, and the theme of power and responsibility was not delivered on as strongly. Ultimately, the Amazing Spider-Man franchise failed to find a voice that audiences could connect to, leaving a planned Spider-Man cinematic universe (that would have included a third film and a number of spinoffs) in limbo.
Holland’s position in the massive ongoing narrative that is the MCU adds an interesting element to his stories, allowing him to work side-by-side with Iron Man and the Avengers. And Homecoming‘s plot, though fairly boilerplate, had one of the franchise’s better stories. Homecoming avoided Spidey’s origin story entirely - a smart move to distance itself from The Amazing Spider-Man, but also leaving something to be desired. The theme of power and responsibility is present, but it’s much more about Peter learning how to use his power for good than learning why. Ultimately, while Homecoming was a strong first outing for Holland, the coming-of-age superhero story can’t beat Maguire’s classic origin story and pitch-perfect follow-up.
Winner: Tobey Maguire
Spider-Man’s relatability is in his duality. He is the everyman thrust into incredible circumstances. The normal guy who’s also a superhero. Audiences relate to the character because they see themselves in Peter, and who they could be in Spider-Man. Spider-Man inspires us to be our best selves - to take responsibility for doing the right thing. Though each actor who has portrayed Spider-Man has brought different elements of the character to life, one delivers on these themes far more than the others. The best films and the best Spider-Man are undoubtedly the originals.