There was once a time when superhero movies weren’t so widespread. They would pop up now and then, and when they did, it would either be a big hit or a disappointing venture. Today, superhero movies are the gold standard of the summer blockbuster which sees massive turnout, record-breaking box-office sales, and the numerous sequels yet to be made. They are fun, and the fans love getting their tickets early enough to catch the first screening. With that being said, I’m about to say something that may stir some controversy, but rocking the boat is all part of the conversation.
I’m tired of the endless number of superhero movies, television shows, toys, and everything surrounding the people who wear a cape to fight the bad guys. It was nice when it was a seldom thing, but everything has exploded to the point that I’m just vying for something different instead of watching the typical cliched story that always ends the same way. Something original and fresh would be nice, although Matt Reeves achieved this with his immersive vision in The Batman.
One of the best examples of watching a great superhero movie is the first Spider-Man, released twenty years ago today. It was May 3, 2002, when the world got to see our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man arrive on the big screen after it squandered in development hell for over twenty-five years. With numerous scripts written and many directors attached to the project, Spider-Man was finally greenlit after two particular Marvel-owned properties were turned into entertaining and box office successful movies. Those movies were Blade and Men in Black. Spider-Man would ultimately redefine the summer blockbuster and open the door to the more successful superhero movies that would follow to this day.
After twenty years and two additional actors portraying our web-slinging friend in the live-action adaptations of this comic book character, what makes Spider-Man such a unique film for this genre? How has the film aged when comparing them to the other Spider-Man movies? And which actor is the best, Spider-Man?
Everyone by now knows the story. A high school kid who loves photography and can’t urge himself to ask his crush out on a date gets bitten by a radioactive spider while on a school trip. This kid is named Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), and his crush is Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). The story takes place in New York City, which serves as a significant character in the movie. After the bite, Peter continues his day until the bite appears to be infected, which causes a dramatic transformation. Peter awakens to discover that he doesn’t need to wear his glasses, his muscles are toned and fully formed, and he has abilities that would make any gymnast jealous. Plus, he later discovers that he can climb walls of buildings by simply placing his hand on the wall and can even shoot a spiderweb out of his wrist. Wow, this is all crazy!
Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) is the CEO of Oscorp Industries, specializing in developing new technology for military use. Desperate to prove his strength-enhancing serum is ready for military use and goes to test it on himself, which produces a negative result. The effect of his serum causes him to have a mental collapse that sees Norman’s alter ego in the form of The Green Goblin, a sadistic and cruel man who sees Norman as a weak, feeble man who must destroy and instill fear to get what he wants. It’s only a matter of time before Peter Parker and Norman Osborn’s worlds collide.
Peter lives with his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who genuinely care for Peter, and after his transformation, something tragic happens. Uncle Ben is killed during a carjacking which spawns the rage inside Peter to exact revenge. Before this event, Uncle Ben has a conversation with Peter in one of the most memorable scenes of any superhero film, that infamous line that everyone quotes, “with great power come great responsibility.” It’s a scene that everyone remembers, and no one forgets it.
J.K. Simmons portrays the classic J. Jonah Jameson, the Daily Bugle publisher for which Peter later freelances. Additional characters include Harry Osborn (James Franco), who is largely ignored by his father even though Norman acts as a father figure to Peter before their worlds collide. This particular role was intended to be played by Stan Lee. Every actor in this movie is an absolute treat to watch, especially Willem Dafoe in a split role. He is absolute perfection.
You should know the rest at this point. What makes Spider-Man such a joy to watch is the story itself. It reminds us of the days when we would open those comic books for the first time and fall deep into the story as each page was turned. Credit goes to screenwriter David Koepp, who received sole writing credit even though the script closely adheres to James Cameron’s version. The story is easy to follow, and the actors appear deeply invested. According to an interview with Dafoe, he thought it would be fun to do a comic book movie even though his friends found the idea to be silly.
One key ingredient to note is that Spider-Man generates his webbing naturally from his body, which didn’t occur in the comics. During production, director Sam Raimi changed this to include the idea that a teenager in high school wouldn’t have the time to make the cartridges that the comic book character did. It made more sense to see it come from Peter naturally instead of reloading the cartridges when he needed to. Some viewers and fans objected to this change, but personally, it wasn’t a problem for me, and it’s such a minor detail that anything else would simply be nitpicking.
While the special effects during some sequences show their age, there is one moment that never will age poorly; the iconic theme from Danny Elfman that played during the opening credits gave everyone goosebumps. Hearing that theme set the tone for the movie, and to this day, I haven’t experienced that goosebump feeling when viewing a superhero film. Let’s call it a Spidey sense that tingles when the music plays.
Comparisons to Garfield and Holland
Spider-Man may have opened the door for future movies in this genre, especially the two latter sequels, but this redefined what superhero films are all about. Granted, Richard Donner’s Superman from 1978 can be considered the catalyst and the superhero genre, but Spider-Man set the tone for the future. It felt like a comic book film, even though some changes were made. It was a movie that was made for summer blockbusters. It was entertaining, the action was exhilarating, and it was just a movie that excited you and made you feel great about going to the movies.
It was 2012 when Andrew Garfield stepped into the shoes of the titular character in The Amazing Spider-Man. While both movies were decent outings, they played closer to the comic book character, and Andrew Garfield was superb as Peter Parker. Emma Stone was equally excellent as Gwen Stacy. Together their story was reminiscent of Maguire and Dunst, even though the romance in The Amazing Spider-Man movies was a more significant plot point. The films may not have been the best, but they were the finest examples of bringing the comic book character to the big screen.
On the other hand, we have Tom Holland, this generation’s Spider-Man. While I am not the biggest fan of his movies, Tom Holland portrays the character well. In truth, Tom Holland doesn’t feel like a singular Spider-Man character as he is situated alongside The Avengers. What Tom Holland does get right is his youthfulness in bringing Peter Parker to life. The romantic element isn’t a big factor, but his quirkiness and high school feel are appropriate and authentic. Additionally, there is more character development for Tom Holland’s Spider-Man than for the previous two actors considering he has more movies portraying this character under his belt.
Who is the Best Spider-Man?
This isn’t an easy question to answer. There are many factors to consider. Let’s start from the top with Maguire.
Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man is the one story that most people remember, and even though he was the first to portray the character, he made the most profound impact. Tobey Maguire felt like an everyday man who no one would’ve suspected was the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Maguire brought the awkwardness to the character, and we even see his struggles along the way especially trying to win the prize money in that infamous wrestling match.
Andrew Garfield is undoubtedly the best actor to play the titular character. He wasn’t as muscular as Maguire or Holland, but he resembled the body of a teenager. His range and emotional tenacity made for a compelling Peter Parker, and even though the movies weren’t that great, he is the closest two resembling the comic book character that we read when we were kids. It’s also the only movie that focuses on Gwen Stacy as his first love interest.
Tom Holland brings youth and energy to the character. His physicality makes the action sequences more believable. Even though we have seen more of him as the titular character, he doesn’t feel like a singular Spider-Man character because he was already established within the MCU in his debut appearance in Captain America Civil War. This is in no way to diminish his performance, and Tom Holland is the youngest actor to portray the character, and it matches the teenager’s thinking and actions that Peter Parker would make.
I asked many of my friends and colleagues who they thought was the best Spider-Man. Most people always mention Tobey Maguire as the best, considering he was the first. I concur with this simply because he brought the character’s vulnerability, struggles, and entertainment value. He may not have been the closest adaptation to the comic book character, but his story is the one that everyone remembers. I thought Andrew Garfield was the best actor to play Spider-Man because the movies got the character right, and Garfield himself had the emotional range to remind me of the character that I grew up with. My mind says Garfield, but my heart is with Tobey Maguire. He was the first Spider-Man and the memory of seeing my web-slinging friend for the first time on the big screen is something that I’ve never forgotten.
You may have noticed that I did not discuss the events in Spider-Man: No Way Home. This isn’t the time to talk about that moment, even though it was a genuine scene that left audiences smiling and cheering. This piece is about remembering the one that started it all, and without Toby McGuire and Sam Raimi, we wouldn’t have the superhero genre that most of us have come to love and enjoy. Let today be a day that we return to remember the film that enticed us, thrilled us, and paved the way for making superhero films a fun time at the movies!
You’ve heard my opinion on who is the best Spider-Man, so I will leave you with two responses from my colleagues. Indeed, we will see Spiderman again but never forget the first movie that allowed the rest to happen.
“I prefer Holland’s Spider-Man but literally only because I haven’t seen Maguire and Garfield in their own respective films. But I really love how Holland comes across as quirky, down to Earth, and goofy. This makes him one of the more relatable Avengers in my opinion as I feel like he’s written to be average and human—he’s one of us.” -Briana Luck
“My go-to Spider-Man will always be Maguire; hands down, he is the one to introduce me to the comic world. I grew up with Maguire, and in my opinion, nobody played Peter Parker as he did. Holland is great. I love how quirky he was and felt more like he was Peter Parker, but Tobey Maguire is still one to beat.” -Cassandra Reichelt