The six Spider-Man movies have grossed $4 billion over the last 15 years. But with that history of amazing success comes a legacy of spectacular failure. The first trilogy ended on a sour note, then evaporated into the failed promise of a face-saving fourth film (with Anne Hathaway, maybe?). The rebooted films became the first failed experiment of Hollywood’s Cinematic Universe age, a sequel-spinoff saga that barely got past the origin story.
It’s appropriate, I think, this tradition of failed promise and broken ambition. Peter Parker was the original beautiful loser, a striving nerd who could rescue New York a hundred times but never pay the rent. And as the superhero genre drifts further into its socialite era, all superteams of well-funded demi-gods, the six Spider-Man films continue to feel tapped into something vital about the legendary Marvel comics that inspired it. Stan Lee was your friendly neighborhood storyteller — and Steve Ditko was your decidedly-less-friendly brilliant loner. It’s a duality that defines the character; he’s the funniest bantering superguy, and he’s a freaky masked man who sprays webs out of his wrist.
The Spider-Man films blend every idea about the character together: The throwback sci-fi mutations, the local-boy sitcom humor, the romance, the most modern digital effects, the most old-fashioned ideas about what New York city looks like. The newest film, Homecoming, gives Peter a new connection to his super-friends in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film’s a massive success. Await the next failure patiently.
6. The Amazing Spider-Man
Sony’s marketing team infamously released about one-fifth of the movie online before the film’s release. Which is merely the most obvious reason why Amazing had a been-there-seen-that quality when it hit theaters in 2012. Less of a reboot than a shameless do-over, Marc Webb’s first Spider-Man film tells a more protracted origin story, with half the fun and twice the self-importance (the film earns a rare dead-dad hat trick.) There’s also a learning-the-powers montage that involves skateboarding and Coldplay, but the worst thing about Amazing 1 is how it even faithfully repeats the bad parts of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man: Here again, the bad guy’s an unconvincing-looking green dude, driven mad by science and attacking people on a bridge. Worse than bad, it’s inessential.
5. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Bad but essential, the second Amazing movie is a mess of misconceived worldbuilding ambitions. There’s no there there: Intended as a dark-dramatic sequel, it plays more now like a prequel to several unmade spinoffs. In their second film together, real-life paramours Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone still can’t strike sparks onscreen: He’s too mopey, she’s trapped in the role of someone patiently waiting for her boyfriend to chill. As the villains, Jamie Foxx and Dane DeHaan are trapped in Z-movie outfits and motivations – Foxx is a Spidey fan driven cuckoo by eels, DeHaan’s Harry is basically a vampire. But there’s a lush quality to Amazing 2. It’s shot on 35 mm in real New York locations, with an unexpectedly swagger-y score (by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell, and a supergroup called “The Magnificent Six.”) I mean this as a compliment and a critique: This is the most GIFable Spider-Man movie, great in 16-frame segments, lacking all the connective material that used to be what movies were.
4. Spider-Man 3
A botch job of oppositional motivations practically disowned by its own director, the messiest Spider-Man movie is a near-constant tonal misfire, simultaneously more serious than its predecesors and more willfully goofy. The misfires are many — Topher Grace’s Eddie Brock and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Gwen Stacy seem painfully wedged in as fan service, and it’s frequently difficult to tell the difference between what’s purposefully silly and what’s just accidentally funny. But Raimi’s visual imagination reaches a new peak with the Sandman character. And there’s an endearingly shaggy side to this film, all the more shocking given its then-record cost. James Franco officially enters his weird phase when he swears the pie is “so good.” For no obvious reason, Raimi fits in a few dance numbers. At the center of this indifferent strangeness, Kirsten Dunst gives her best performance in the series, as Mary Jane falls from Broadway heights to lounge-singing lows. Spider-Man 3 isn’t a good movie, but it’s a real movie.
3. Spider-Man: Homecoming
And is Homecoming a real movie? What is a movie anymore? The first Spidey film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe era iterates off the problems and solutions of past films, adding back all the comedy that the Amazing films lost and refocusing Peter’s adventures with outer-borough particularity. Tom Holland’s Peter has a favorite bodega, chases bad guys through back yards, and struggles to mix superhero-ing with the academic decathlon. Homecoming‘s been praised as a genuine high school movie, which is only half-true; it’s also a weird exercise in MCU world-building, depending on regular once-per-half-hour check-ins from Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark.
This last bit is either what you love about Homecoming or the most annoying part of the movie. It seems to me that all the Marvel stuff gets in the film’s way — that what could have been a sensitive human comedy about Spider-Man’s neighborhood and his high school keeps getting hijacked by the broader necessities of continuity. (The last and worst action scene literally takes place on a plane carrying Avengers detritus.) But the cast of characters at Spidey’s high-school is an all-time ensemble. The stage is set for a brilliant sequel! Which is teased in a post-credits scene that plays out almost exactly like the post-credits scene from Amazing Spider-Man 1. The more things change…
History judges Raimi’s first film for the janky special effects and the first (of three!) terrible Green Goblin outfits. But the first Spider-Man feature film boils over with genre-launching ambition. Like the first X-Men film, it plays in hindsight like an imperfect but fascinating big swing, an attempt to bring all the variable tones of a character’s comic book history together onscreen. Raimi’s impulses as a comedian run smashing into his impulses towards retro melodrama: Spider-Man’s “debut” is like a WWE spoof, and that segues right into the theatrically dramatic death of Uncle Ben. But the film overflows with a childlike wonder, a comic-strip dream of girls next door and nerdy weirdoes growing muscles with puberty. The scene of Spider-Man kissing Mary Jane upside-down in the rain has been oft-imitated but never really bettered – it’s still the series’ high point for romance and weirdness, and it’s a reminder of how strange superhero movies were when superhero plots still swirled around secret identities. (Late in this first film, Peter finds himself at two different points of a romantic triangle.)
Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn has all the defining problems of the franchise’s villains — he seems like a full-blown lunatic from the very beginning. But he gets a great exit. And don’t underrate how perfectly this first film captures something about Spider-Man’s central tragedy. By the end of the film, his best friend hates Spider-Man but loves Peter, and Mary Jane loves Peter but they can’t be together because of Spider-Man. Superpowers have rarely felt less empowering. Spider-Man practically invented the modern-day superhero movie, but it’s also a downbeat road not taken.
1. Spider-Man 2
There’s a new theory brewing that superhero films are best when they pick a tone, whether it’s grimdark DC serious or sitcom Marvel funny. A film like Logan earns raves for its heavy-man profundity (with megaviolence!), while a lighthearted romp like Homecoming gets extra credit for turning everything into a cameo-comedian laughline.
And then there’s Spider-Man 2, a sumptuously silly-sweet adventure that riffs on mad-scientist horror, Old New York noir, and some of the High Tropes of the romcom era. Peter delivers pizza through an anti-realistic Manhattan, full of downtown elevated trains and sinking waterfront warehouses and moody Gothic penthouses where a sadsack billionaire heir plots vengeance. There’s a chainsaw, and there’s a montage set to “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Spider-Man suffers something like an existential crisis, and he’s passed around unconscious by New Yorkers arms spread out like a Christ figure. Mary Jane gets engaged to an astronaut, and she leaves him at the altar.
It’s a rollicking film, the best evidence that Raimi’s mash of tones can produce genuine cinematic wonder. Alfred Molina doesn’t solve this franchise’s villain problem – the tentacles drove him crazy? – but his Doctor Octopus is a great visual creation, his squiggling robot arms as grotesque as anything in a Guillermo Del Toro film. And this is Maguire’s best showcase: The Peter we find in this movie is both a sincere nerd and a desperate man, trying to hold off his better angels in an attempt to live a normal life. You can’t really reduce Spider-Man 2‘s achievement; there are moments that approach spoofdom and moments of high drama. At its core, it’s a pure cinematic romance, unbounded by the necessities of cinematic universes or fandoms or big plans for Phase 4. As our critic Lisa Schwarzbaum said at the time, “Spider-Man 2 shimmers with love of New York, love of boys on the verge of adult self-awareness, love of young love, and, most of all, brimming, happy, unaffected love of comic books.”