A lot of discussions surrounding the topic of comic book cinema have recently been revolving around, arguably, Marvel’s most recognizable character: Spider-Man. When Peter Parker was first translated into a major motion picture in 2002, it became clear that audiences were very ready to see the Webhead on the silver screen, as that first film began a global phenomenon. It was followed upon with a very solidly received superhero sequel in 2004, but ever since 2007 the Spider-Man film franchise has seen some noticeable setbacks.
As a massive comic book fan, and like most observers of superheroes and heroines, Spider-Man is certainly one of my favorite characters. As a contributing factor to the major development of pathos in comics characters brought about by the creation of Marvel Comics mainstays at the hands of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, Lee and artist Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man explored elements of tragedy and angst in superhero comics that had never been explored before. Some major turning points in superhero comics’ developmental history, particularly with his struggles as an “everyman” superhero that had to be concerned about things like rent and damage to his costume, as well as the death of his girlfriend Gwen Stacy, shocked readers at the time of its publication and made it clear that this was a character operating on a whole other level than many other superheroes who had the benefits of indestructibility or unlimited resources.
Spider-Man is one of the most absolutely important superheroes in existence, and from my perspective, this is how his cinematic adaptations rank, from worst to first.
5) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Director Marc Webb and star Andrew Garfield’s second go-around with the Webhead is one of the single most messy and disjointed comic book films I’ve ever watched. While Garfield and Emma Stone’s chemistry as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy absolutely radiate through the screen to the audience, the screenplay for the film is a sloppy mess. With too many villains to juggle, a couple of strange and uncharacteristic performances from some genuinely fine actors, a lackluster score, and an overly-bloated run time, the high-octane action sequences and trademark character moments are drowned out by some really dunderheaded plot developments and a somewhat nonsensical dynamic between Spider-Man and Jamie Foxx’s Electro, not to mention between Spidey and Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborn.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also currently stands as both the lowest grossing Spider-Man film to date, as well as the lowest critically received. While the moments between Peter and Gwen were largely pretty great, they weren’t nearly plentiful enough to save such a lopsided and haphazard experience from being the lowest on the Webhead’s totem pole.
4) Spider-Man 3 (2007)
The final film in director Sam Raimi’s trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco, Spider-Man 3 is rightfully derided by general audiences and fans alike for being almost too irreverent for its own good. While the effects here are very impressive, the narrative again made the same mistake that Amazing 2 would go on to make seven years later by making the story too top-heavy with villains. Thomas Haden Church does a respectable job as Flint Marko/Sandman, but the character as he’s written doesn’t really stay very true to his comic book origins. This is also before mentioning that writers Sam and Ivan Raimi attempted to tie the Sandman into playing a sympathetic part in the defining moment of Spider-Man’s origin story: the murder of Uncle Ben. The result there was a plot element that felt unnatural and unnecessary, drawing too much attention to itself to really make a substantial difference to the affected characters.
Another blunder is the inclusion of the famous alien symbiote, and with that, the birth of 90’s Spider-Man icon Venom. The symbiote itself was played for laughs far too often, and Venom feels almost like an afterthought of an inclusion in this story. While the script attempts to make him a sort-of dark reflection of Peter, much of the interesting character traits that Eddie Brock has in the comics is missing since he basically “likes being bad.” Not a very good motivation for a major villain. Overall, Raimi’s Spider-Man tenure goes out on a sour note, but if the rumors were true about what his Spider-Man 4 would’ve looked like, maybe we ended up getting the better end of the deal. The “Vulturess?” Yikes.
3) The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
While conventional wisdom would often tell someone that rebooting a successful film franchise only a decade out of the original film’s release would be a bad idea, that’s exactly what Sony elected to do when Sam Raimi exited his in-development Spider-Man 4. Instead of trying to create more sequels in the world established by the first three films, a new director and new primary cast were hired to bring Spidey into the 2010s. The result is The Amazing Spider-Man, the debut of Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, and Marc Webb as the film’s director. The end result is a film that feels like a narrative step-up from Spider-Man 3, and a refreshing stylistic reinterpretation of the Spidey mythos. Indeed, its in this film that Spider-Man actually moves very much like he does in the comics with a far greater degree of fluidity granted by more advanced CGI technology, and the narrative is far more focused because it features only one major villain.
Still, its in the story department that things get a little wonky. Barring the fact that we likely didn’t need to be reintroduced to Peter’s origin story merely 10 years out from the original film, you still have a lot of amorphous pseudo-science that pushes the plot forward, along with a rash of strange conveniences that just don’t make very much sense. (Really, how likely is it that all those cranes can be lined up perfectly in this movie’s climax? That drove me nuts.) Still, solid performances by the cast in primary and supporting roles, along with a far more human relationship between Peter and his love interest still make The Amazing Spider-Man a pretty fun film to watch, and seemed like it set things up well going forward…until it didn’t.
2) Spider-Man (2002)
The movie that started it all, Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film was a major contributor to the “golden age” of superhero cinema that we’re all enjoying today. While Bryan Singer’s original X-Men film largely got the ball rolling when it hit at the box office in the summer of 2000, it was the first Spider-Man film that showed studios how much of a major success that superhero movies can be at the box office, while also clearly demonstrating the ability to show off a unique comic book stylization that can take place within a recognizable world. Tobey Maguire gets a fair amount of flack today for his portrayal as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, but his casting always seemed pitch perfect when looking at the kind of lead that this film required. Maguire does kind of look like a nerd, and someone you wouldn’t expect to be such a heroic presence: much like the character was originally intended to be back in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15.
While Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Norman Osborn/Green Goblin had a strange Power Rangers-looking costume, his performance was off-the-wall but also undeniably menacing. Unlike Venom in Spider-Man 3, Goblin’s desire to be bad didn’t really require an explanation, simplistic or otherwise. He had goals, but he also had the benefit of a special brand of crazy that makes for a great first conflict for the new Spider-Man. All in all, this is a great film to kick off the age of the superhero on film, which is likely its greatest contribution to the overall comic book film genre.
1) Spider-Man 2 (2004)
When Spider-Man 2 first came out in the summer of 2004, I remember expecting the worst. Only on rare occasions did a sequel either match or outdo its predecessor, and in my eyes the only recent superhero film that had successfully done that was the previous year’s X2: X-Men United. So, going into Spider-Man 2 brought a special kind of trepidation, but leaving the theater that day was a very revalatory experience. Not only was Spider-Man 2 a better film than the previous one, but it had also managed to successfully demonstrate how a good comic book movie and a good film can be one and the same. With some careful attention paid to influential comic book stories like “Spider-Man No More,” and a natural evolution of the friendship/rivalry between Peter and Harry Osborn, the icing on the cake was Alfred Molina’s shockingly nuanced performance as Dr. Otto Octavius, aka Dr. Octopus.
It’s not without its problems, though. Doc Ock’s sympathetic demeanor is a bit of a deviation from the comics, and the film can feel like its crashing to the end by the time that the credits roll. Still, Spider-Man 2 is a very solid example of what superhero film can do, and how sequels can be wonderful additions to successful film series without merely retreading what worked before. Like The Empire Strike Back before it and The Dark Knight after it, Spider-Man 2 is one of the best “number two” films that’s out there, and certainly one of the best superhero sequels ever produced.
So, what do you think? Do you agree with this order, or do you have your own? We’ll have to see what the future of the Spider-Man franchise holds and where its destiny lies, but one thing’s for certain: the Webhead will be gracing movie screens for a long time to come.
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