Look Out! Here Comes the Spider-Man
In case you haven’t heard, there’s a tiny little film coming out soon by the name of Captain America: Civil War. Among what are sure to be some really shocking twists, turns and plot points this film will also introduce the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Spider-Man. I’m excited about this as I really want to see Spidey hang around with Captain America, Iron Man and all the rest. Comic book crossovers are always fun so bringing him into the fold in the way is definitely a good thing.
The flipside of this is that we have to see the third unconnected version of this character we will have seen in cinemas in 14 years. Rebooting something twice in such a short space of time is just madness no matter what way you look at it. Spider-Man is my favourite superhero so this constant stop/start with the adaptations really irritates me.
Since we are about to be reintroduced to this character I have decided to do a retrospective on the previous cinematic versions of Spidey and compare them to decide which I consider to be the best overall. I know that the Nostalgia Critic did this at one point but I really wanted to do my own take on it and comparing the two seemed like the best way to do it. Anyway, here we go.
There wouldn’t be much of a Spider-Man story without him. He’s all of us; he’s none of us and there’s a lot of things in life for him to juggle. Such a simple yet complex character is very hard to pull off and both versions did it very differently.
Sam Raimi Version
I’ll break this down by directors to make it easier for my comparison. The version of Peter Parker played by Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi’s trilogies was pretty close to the early comic issues brought to us by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. He’s intelligent to the form of brilliance, socially awkward, naive and has a tragic edge about him. He’s about the last person you’d expect to be capable of such grand heroics and that’s what makes him perfect. The original idea for Peter Parker is that he represented all of us and allowed the reader to question what they would do if they suddenly found themselves gifted with super powers.
Peter Parker learns a hard lesson shortly after gaining his abilities when his uncle is killed and he is indirectly responsible for it. A criminal runs past him but because he’s annoyed at the fight promoter who cheated him out of money he chooses to be selfish and does nothing about it as payback. It’s a purely spiteful thing to do but how many of us can honestly say they wouldn’t have acted the same way? This is a departure from the comics where he simply doesn’t care enough to stop the criminal but I think this way is just as valid. When that criminal murders his uncle, Peter is directly confronted with something he could have prevented and this inspires him to make sure that he never turns a blind eye again. It’s a powerful motivation and it speaks to how profound a lesson he learned if it fuelled his entire mission to fight crime.
In the second film he finds that his life is falling apart because of the time he spends as Spider-Man. He carries the weight of the world -or at least the city- on his shoulders and thinks that it is his responsibility to protect everyone. As a result he rarely attends class, constantly breaks promises, fails to deliver pizzas on time and is generally seen as a flake by everyone who knows him. Being Spider-Man crushes his life as Peter Parker to the point of him questioning if it’s really up to him to protect everyone. He is haunted by the memory of his uncle that tells him in dreams that he needs to keep going even though it feels like the opposite of what he wants to do.
Ultimately he decides to quit and is happier for a time but things keep steering him back towards his masked identity. Underneath everything he wants out of his life the desire to help people is too strong and there’s nothing he can do to get away from it. This results in him reclaiming his identity as Spider-Man and doing what he can to help. There’s also a subplot about him losing his powers for psychological reasons but I felt that it was unnecessary as being torn between what he wants from life and his perceived responsibilities was a powerful enough story without adding a loss in powers to the mix.
Maguire’s Peter Parker is consistently relatable throughout all 3 films though he does get a little goofy in Spider-Man 3 to show that he’s become a little arrogant because he is well thought of throughout the city. He confronts his darkness here when he learns who actually killed his uncle and is out for blood as a result. The desire for revenge that he thought he had put behind him in the first film returns and is amplified by his exposure to the black suit. While under the influence of the black suit he attacks Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) with the intention of killing him. He does the same to Harry Osborn (James Franco) and just carries on from there without feeling any apparent guilt. Of course both villains survive but the point is that he was willing to do it. The black suit was only amplifying what was already there so I believe that his feelings on that were genuine.
The black suit represents wish fulfilment for him. He wants to be more confident so he tries to act that way, he has a desire to stop villains more permanently so he does and his need for revenge is so overpowering that he almost does things that he would regret for the rest of his life.
A lot of people criticise the dance sequence and fair enough it is ridiculous but I also think it’s somewhat perfect if you consider the character of Peter Parker. He wants to be “cool” but since he’s a geek he has no idea what that is so he does what he can. The reactions of the people in the street tell you pretty much everything you need to know about his attempts at success. In a lot of ways it is embarrassing to watch and I think that is exactly the point.
Tobey Maguire was a great choice for Peter Parker as he successfully brought out the qualities that I would expect as a fan of the character. When looking at him I always saw Peter Parker and I never stopped rooting for him to succeed. His performance could make him seem strong or vulnerable depending on the needs of the story at that point and both were just as valid. The idea of having an unlikely candidate of being a superhero as the star of the film really shines through with Tobey Maguire so the casting was completely on point as far as I’m concerned.
Mark Webb Version
Andrew Garfield plays a very different version of Peter Parker to the Tobey Maguire version. He’s still intelligent to the form of brilliance and comes across as socially awkward but not in the same way. Where Maguire’s Peter Parker was an outcast because nobody liked him I get the impression that the Andrew Garfield version remains an outsider through choice. There’s a massive emphasis on Peter Parker’s parents and it’s clear that he suffers from severe abandonment issues as his parents left him with his aunt and uncle then were never seen again. He had a loving upbringing with his aunt and uncle but he still doesn’t know what happened to his parents so that’s something that really haunts him.
I get the impression that feeling abandoned has caused him to remove himself from those around him out of fear of getting close to people that might end up leaving him. As such, he’s essentially that “weird kid” at school that people feel uncomfortable being around but that can also be seen as mysterious which explains Gwen Stacy’s (Emma St0ne) interest in him. This doesn’t stop him getting hassled by resident bully Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) but there’s less emphasis on how much of a “geek” he is. I imagine he gets bullied because he’s considered weird more than anything else.
Personally, I have no idea what “cool” is because I’m definitely not that but I get the impression that this version of Peter Parker is “cool”. He’s handsome, well dressed, reasonably athletic in that he can skateboard before he gets his powers and that air of mystery around him seems to appeal to some people. By the time we get to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 he has become a complete smartass who exudes confidence and takes any opportunity to crack wise.
Peter is shown to be a good person right from the beginning of The Amazing Spider-Man when he sticks up for another student being bullied even though he knows the focus will be shifted to himself. He has a strong sense of right and wrong and that constantly comes through no matter how angry or vengeful he is. His potential to be a hero can be seen from very early on and it
is something he develops into once he realised that he can make a difference.
He’s a very ambitious character who takes a lot of risks once he gets his powers. There are a lot of scenes of him testing his limits and figuring out how to use his powers to get the results he needs. Essentially he takes a scientific approach to figuring out how his powers work and what they can do for him which makes sense considering his interest in science.
Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker also makes the mistake of not stopping the criminal that kills his uncle. He does this out of spite after a shop clerk gives him a hard time for not having enough to pay for a drink. When the shop is robbed Peter refuses to help because it’s not his policy. This ends up resulting in his uncle’s death when the thief shoots him for trying to stop him. This kickstarts a long mission of vengeance for him as he goes after criminals matching that description. He never finds the man who did it but realises that he can make a difference to the lives of others after saving the life of a young boy. After coming to this conclusion his desire for revenge seems to disappear and his replaced with his commitment to saving people simply because he can.
In The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Peter struggles with the promise he makes to Gwen’s father, George Stacy (Denis Leary) to leave Gwen out of his life so that she doesn’t find herself in danger. He cares about her so doesn’t want her to get hurt but also doesn’t want her out of his life. This is combined with him finding out more information about the fate of his parents and understanding the reasons that they had to leave him. Knowing those reasons offers significant closure to the feelings of abandonment that haunt him. Up until that point he had feared that his parents might have been bad people given their involvement with Oscorp but hearing a recording of his father confirming that he was a good person helps him put this behind him a lot.
This turmoil is replaced by the guilt he feels over the part he played in Gwen’s death. He tried to save her and, in doing so, actually caused her to die. It wasn’t a situation that he had any choice in but it’s more than enough to make him doubt his ability to protect people and he has no idea how to continue without her. A pep talk from his aunt helps him put his feelings into context and move on with renewed enthusiasm for helping people.
It could be argued that Peter is quite selfish, particularly in the second film as he spends a lot of time worrying about what things will mean for him. Gwen moving to England only concerns him in terms of how that will affect him and he seems ignorant to the problems of others around him as shown when he looks for guidance from Gwen when she has a big interview on her mind. He’s not a bad guy but has a tendency to only think about himself and generally act like a bit of an ass around others. The way he acts at graduation is fairly unacceptable behaviour for example but since it’s “cool” and “rebellious” the film seems to frame it as a good thing. Peter still has a lot of growing up to do by the end of the second film but he does slowly realise this.
I’ll go with the Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire version in this case. I think his tortured persona is a much better fit for Peter Parker. He was still able to have fun but there’s a lot bubbling beneath the surface that he struggles with and he is clearly just trying to make the best of his situation despite the odds being stacked against him. Maguire’s performance is consistently relatable and everything he learns always comes to him the hard way. I do like the way the Andrew Garfield version moves forward in his own way rather than simply reacting to what happens but outside of that he acts far too cool to be Peter Parker for me as well as being kind of an ass at times. Maguire always comes across as kind and considerate while retaining that awkward edge that makes the character work so well for me. Both versions definitely have merit but point goes to Raimi.
What do you mean Peter Parker and Spider-Man are the same person? This article is ruined! Despite Peter Parker and Spider-Man being one in the same there is a big difference in how that persona is portrayed. In the comics Peter acts differently when in costume as a way of disguising his identity as well as putting his own fears to rest. He cracks wise to distract his enemies as well as cover up how terrified he is plus there’s a sense of liberation for Peter as he can act however he wants since nobody knows who he is. Both versions in the films tackled this differently.
Sam Raimi Version
This version of Spider-Man was more of an extension of Peter Parker rather than being a separate persona. Peter becomes Spider-Man when reacting to a situation before returning to his civilian identity when he has a chance. He is mostly silent during any fights that he has with the exception of a few one liners with his actions doing most of the talking for him. It ties into the overall theme of Peter Parker being a hero in these films as it tends to be his personal relationship with the villain that informs his victory. For instance, he unmasks to appeal to Doctor Octopus’ (Alfred Molina) better nature as a scientist to solve the problem rather than rely on what Spider-Man could do. Ultimately the relationship that Peter forged with Otto Octavius was what let him win. Similarly his friendship with Harry was what allowed him to move past his vendetta against Spider-Man.
The people of New York were inspired by Spider-Man as an idea rather than his presence as a public figure. They see someone looking out for them and doing what he can to ensure their safety so respond well to that. He is saved from certain death by random civilians in Spider-Man which shows that they recognise him as one of their own and pay him back for all he has done by protecting him. A similar thing happens in Spider-Man 2 when he is weakened by finding a way to stop a train and the passengers all stand between him and Doc Ock as well as promising not to say anything about what he really looks like. It could be seen as overly optimistic but the overall message is that the people will protect him out of gratitude for all he has done to keep them safe.
One major change from the comics is that Peter Parker produces organic webbing rather than using wrist mounted web shooters. My guess is that this was done to save time that would be spent on him developing the devices as well as the webbing formula. It essentially means that running out of webbing isn’t an issue for him though that does get simulated when he is losing his powers.
Just as Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker is closer to how he was written when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created him, the version of Spider-Man is along those lines in terms of costume design. The eyes are fairly small and the costume is very colourful. The web wings under his arms weren’t present and the logos on his chest and back were also different but other than that it’s clear that Sam Raimi was going for recreating as well as updating the early appearances of the character as much as possible.
Mark Webb Version
This version really plays up the idea of Peter Parker adopting a different persona. When Peter puts on the costume it allows him to be completely free spirited as there are no consequences to him acting the way he wants. As a result he frequently insults the criminals that he takes down and is always armed with a one liner to suit every situation. They aren’t always good but that’s sort of the point of the character. His quips are supposed to be hit or miss if he’s using them as a defence mechanism to hide how scared he is. That doesn’t really come across but it certainly suggests that he really enjoys being Spider-Man.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 depicts him as being -for want of a better word- heroic. He goes out of his way to be a public figure and doing things to bring his personality across such as yelling “hello pedestrians” as he rapidly swings past a group of them. This will help people trust him as he interacts with people to show that there is a human being underneath the mask. There is another scene where he saves a young boy from being bullied, fixes his home-made wind turbine and walks him home which shows his commitment to being a positive role model in New York City.
This even extends to the villains he takes on as evidenced by him trying to talk Electro (Jamie Foxx) into surrendering and showing support for him by simply listening to him. Spidey recognises that someone has been a victim of an accident and doesn’t necessarily want to hurt anyone. As such he gives Electro the benefit of the doubt and very nearly solves the problem without throwing a single punch. It is the police that ruin that for him but the fact that Spidey tried to do it speaks volumes about his commitment to actually saving people. Instead of simply reacting to a situation he is trying to find a way to prevent it from getting worse.
In The Amazing Spider-Man we can see the beginnings of this when he unmasks to put a scared kid at ease so that he is better able to save him. By removing his mask he proves to the kid that he’s just a normal guy and manages to establish a connection with him that makes saving him a lot easier because he is far less terrified. It was a clever use of the unmasking trope and showed that Peter doesn’t consider his secret identity to be more important than someone’s life.
Spider-Man uses web shooters like in the comics though it doesn’t really inform his character all that much. He finds them broken in the first film and has one taken out of commission during one of the action sequences in the second. He relies heavily on his webbing during combat so it does handicap him slightly but beyond that there are no instances of him running out of webbing or being unable to think of another way out of a situation.
There are two costumes across both films and both of them are very different. The costume he wears in The Amazing Spider-Man looks pretty home made but is still recognisably Spider-Man albeit with a really muted colour scheme that ties into the darker themes of that film. The second film featured a much more traditional take on the costume that drew from later versions where the eyes were a lot bigger. It’s a much more colourful costume than the first film to suit the lighter tone and takes advantage of the variety in the artwork over the years.
It should be obvious considering that I had so much more to say on one of them but I’ll go with the Mark Webb version in this case. The reason being that I find it to be much closer to my ideal comic book depiction of Spider-Man. There aren’t a lot of differences between Peter Parker as he appears normally and the Spider-Man persona in this version but the fact that he has a defined personality when he is in costume puts it ahead of the Raimi version for me. I like that he goes out of his way to set an example and behave in a heroic way to help inspire the public. It’s also good to see the wisecracks in full force during the action sequences. Raimi’s version is good but I’m not as big a fan of him simply being an extension of Peter Parker and being more reactive to situations rather than working to improve things proactively. I also think that Tobey Maguire’s voice coming out of the Spider-Man mask doesn’t sound right where Andrew Garfield’s voice suits it perfectly. Between the two actors you actually have a definitive version.
Behind every good man is a good woman and Peter Parker is no exception in that regard. Both versions had prominent love interests that factor into the story in very different ways but which one was better?
Mary Jane Watson
Mary Jane as played by Kirsten Dunst was Peter Parker’s love interest through the entire Raimi trilogy. She is the girl next door that he worships from afar but doesn’t actually have the courage to speak to. As the first film opens she is the girlfriend of the resident school bully Flash Thompson (Joe Manganiello) but still a nice person as shown by her making the driver stop the school bus when Peter runs after it while everyone laughs at him.
Peter never quite gets around to pursuing her which means that his best friend Harry gets in there first and they have a brief relationship that ends shortly before Harry’s father dies. Mary Jane then declares her love for Peter but he rejects her because his responsibilities as Spider-Man put her in far too much danger.
Once he gives up being Spider-Man he decides to have a go but she is engaged at the time so rejects him until finally leaving the man at the altar after realising that she should be with Peter. It all makes sense to her once she finds out that Peter is actually Spider-Man.
Spider-Man 3 sees her frustrated that her acting career is collapsing around her and she is irritated at Peter acting selfishly due to the success he is enjoying as Spider-Man. She finds herself feeling lost and lonely which causes her to make mistakes like kissing Harry and break up with Peter after being threatened.
Mary Jane isn’t strictly a character who has her own story and motivations, she mostly exists to represent the tragedy of Peter Parker never being able to have that kid of companionship. In essence she is the physical embodiment of the unattainable and is only really defined by her relationships to others. It’s mentioned that she wants to be an actress and we even see her do that but for the most part it’s meant to illustrate the point that Peter breaks promises and upsets people.
She is very different to the comic book version of the character who starts out as a fun loving party girl and transitions to a very strong and driven partner for Peter Parker. Those traits don’t really come across in this Mary Jane because she is never properly developed as a character. Kirsten Dunst does a good job with what she is given but sadly doesn’t really have very much to work with.
There is some chemistry between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst but it isn’t massively believable most of the time. I think it stems from the fact that they don’t spend much time together and when they do it’s to further some plot point rather than simply let their relationship develop naturally. We are often told that they have feelings for one another but don’t really see it.
Gwen Stacy as played by Emma Stone was Peter Parker’s love interest in both of Mark Webb’s films. Like Mary Jane she starts off as the girl that Peter doesn’t have the courage to go up and speak to but worships from afar. She is immediately shown to be a nice person when she saves Peter and another kid from being bullied.
Throughout the first film Gwen is clearly attracted to Peter because he seems very mysterious which intensifies after he gets his powers because Peter acts more mysterious. I also get the impression that she is really worried about him once his uncle died due to his really erratic behaviour.
Once she finds out that Peter is Spider-Man she uses her wits and intelligence to become a valuable asset to him as a crime fighter. In the first film she prepares the serum that can stop the Lizard as well as making sure Oscorp is evacuated. In the second film she uses her knowledge of the power grid to help Peter stop Electro as well as figuring out a way to stop his electricity destroying his web shooters. She even calls him out on being protective of her by reminding him that she knows more about this than he does and that he needs her help.
Her agency as a character extends far beyond what she does to help Peter fight crime. She is incredibly ambitious to the point that Peter has to step aside and let her do her own thing. Her main arc in the second film involves her applying to be put on a really impressive course and being determined to succeed no matter what that means for her and Peter.
Their relationship is something she takes control of as well. In the second film she breaks up with Peter because she has had enough of him changing his mind over whether they should be together or not so makes that decision for him and ends things. Gwen is so much more than your standard love interest and refuses to put up with the nonsense that Peter puts her through no matter how much she cares about him.
Outside of all that she is intelligent to the point of being a genius. It is even mentioned that she is smarter than Peter who is generally established as also being a genius and it’s made clear that her future is very bright because she creates opportunities for herself consistently.
Gwen is very similar to the comic book version but she is a lot more proactive. Gwen Stacy was very much a character of her time who only had so much agency but otherwise served as the concerned girlfriend. This version feels like an appropriate update of that and extends her qualities into a really interesting character wonderfully played by Emma Stone. When she dies in the second film it feels appropriately tragic because we have gotten to know this character well and are fully invested in her survival rather than her simply needing to die because her comic book counterpart is known for doing that.
Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have excellent chemistry which makes sense given that they were a real life couple. Their scenes together rise above some of the terrible dialogue due to their performance and it gets to a point where I feel like I’m intruding on a private moment by watching them together.
Gwen Stacy takes the crown by a long way. She is a fully fleshed out character who is often more interesting than Peter Parker whereas Mary Jane only exists to represent whatever that scene needs her to. Both characters were played by capable actresses but Emma Stone had so much rich material to dive into and make her own. Face it Mary Jane, Gwen just hit the jackpot.
Both versions had a collection of supporting characters that came and went as the films went on. Some of these also appear as villains but I’ll try to keep that part of their character separate. I’m not going to go through the characters in detail because that will take forever but I’ll give a general overview of how both versions handle supporting characters.
Sam Raimi Trilogy
These films had a lot of supporting characters that interact with Peter at various points. The most prominent one is his best friend, Harry who appears in all 3 films and has an arc of his own around his hatred for Spider-Man and the belief he has that Spider-Man killed his father. Their friendship feels organic and real due to the chemistry that Tobey Maguire and James Franco have on screen. In some ways, the trilogy is very much Harry’s story as he has a defined beginning and end point that runs parallel to Peter’s story.
Other characters are featured to varying degrees such as Peter’s Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) who dies in the first one but appears as that set of ideals that Peter has to live up to. We see him as a character for long enough in the first film to know that he’s morally upright and would give Peter those powerful life lessons. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is a prominent presence in all 3 films as the caring mother figure who supports Peter as well as challenging him in different ways. She’s a very strong character and uses that strength to help Peter through his obstacles. When Ben dies, she is the one who picks herself up and gets on with things where Peter takes a little longer.
Peter’s boss, J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) comes and goes usually when some comic relief is required. It’s pretty much perfect casting for this character and all of his scenes are an absolute blast. Pretty much every line he has is hilarious and delivered perfectly. Simmons actually makes the audience forget that Jameson is a pretty one note character in these films due to how engaging his performance is.
There are other supporting characters such as Dr. Curt Connors (Dylan Baker) who appears in two out of three films and berates Peter for his laziness, his landlord Mr. Ditkovitch (Elya Baskin) who constantly asks him for late rent but lets him away with it because he likes him. There is also his daughter Ursula (Mageina Tovah) who has a crush on Peter and sneaks him food.
In these films there’s the real sense that Peter Parker lives in a thriving world where people have lives outside of him. The supporting cast are entertaining in very different ways and enhance the films with their presence. Many of these characters are lifted directly from the comics as well so there’s plenty for fans of the character to chew on.
Mark Webb Films
The Mark Webb films take a very different approach to supporting characters in that there are far less of them. It’s clear that the intention was to focus on Peter and Gwen with as few other people being a part of that as possible.
Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) are still there and take on much the same role they did in the Sam Raimi version. Ben is around for much more of the first film than in the Raimi version so he is fleshed out by showing his flaws and giving some insight into his past as well as his relationship with Peter’s father. Aunt May’s main role is to worry about Peter but she is always shown to have the right advice for him exactly when he needs to hear it.
Another significant character is Gwen’s father, Captain George Stacy who is a barrier to Spider-Man in the first film as he disapproves of what Peter is doing as Spider-Man because he feels that he is getting in the way of real police work. He also doesn’t approve of Peter at first because of his views on vigilante justice and doesn’t see him as a good match for Gwen. This changes when he learns Peter’s identity and realises that he is trying to do the right thing but he dies shortly after that. This is an important thing for Peter to see because it shows the real danger associated with what he does and he is asked to promise to leave Gwen out of it which haunts Peter through the second film.
Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) also features in these film but isn’t introduced until the second film and reveals through dialogue that he has a pre-existing friendship with Peter from years back. His story is more around him finding a way to cure the hereditary disease he has and make peace with his father’s death. Other characters like Felicia Hardy (Felicity Jones) and Alistair Smythe (B.J. Novak) make brief appearance but don’t factor into the plot all that much.
His parents, Richard (Campbell Scott) and Mary (Embeth Davitz) have some screen time in both films but don’t ever interact with Peter due to them being dead by the time the bulk of the narrative is set. They represent a mystery that Peter has had hanging over his head his entire life and they are the parents he never knew.
As I said the focus is more on Peter and Gwen’s relationship so the supporting characters are kept to a relative minimum. It does allow the relationship to appear stronger but also makes the world they live in seem a lot smaller.
The Sam Raimi trilogy is superior in this regard simply because there are a lot more supporting characters who all have a defined role in the films. Jameson is there for comic relief, Harry is his best friend, Dr. Connors makes him feel guilty about missing class and Aunt May is there to support him through every major decision he has to make as Peter Parker. The others not mentioned have defined places as well and it means that they don’t need to be tremendously well fleshed out because they serve a specific purpose. It’s a collection of characters that really work and make the world feel large and lived in.
Mark Webb’s films have a much clumsier approach with a real sense that they don’t know what to do with the other characters. Aunt May is involved in a nonsensical subplot involving her becoming a nurse that does nothing more than add a few lines of dialogue to the film, Harry is all over the place in terms of characterisation and the connection he has to Peter certainly isn’t felt through their interactions. George Stacy and Uncle Ben come off fine but they don’t appear beyond the first film so their potential is cut off pretty early. Without these side characters the world just feels small and confined which makes it harder to fully invest in.
The origin story is something that is covered in the first film of both versions and a different approach is taken by each. Nothing changes in terms of the basic story but the details are radically different.
Sam Raimi Trilogy
This version largely copied the comic book version with Peter getting his powers when a spider bites him during a visit to a lab, deciding to use his powers to make money through wrestling, failing to stop the criminal that ultimately kills his uncle and promising to never let that happen again.
It’s very slick and easy to follow with Peter Parker’s motivations always being clear at every point. The arc he follows makes sense as many of us would immediately try to use our powers for personal gain but the one mistake he makes ends up defining him and he dedicates his life to atoning for it.
Having his need for a costume be tied to his desire to create a character for wrestling makes a lot of sense and gives an organic reason for the costume to exist in the first place. His rudimentary home made costume being what he uses at first is a nice touch as well. It’s almost as if he didn’t have the talent to bring the design he drew to life. Eventually this gets swapped for the more traditional suit but seeing the transition gives a sense of progression.
The emotional beats of the origin are all really well handled. Peter’s final interaction with his uncle being an angry one really ends their relationship on a sour note that continues to haunt Peter throughout his career as Spider-Man. He obviously blames himself for what happened both by being late back to meet him and refusing to stop the criminal that killed him because he was annoyed at the guy who short changed him. It’s a believable reaction and works really well as a small action that has huge consequences. We also see him enjoying his powers and enjoying helping people but never forgetting what drew him to do this in the first place.
His reaction to finding the criminal and realising who it is was really well done. Tobey Maguire perfectly conveys the horror Peter experiences when he looks the man in the eye and realises how easily this could have been prevented. It perfectly underscores what Spider-Man will stand for and makes the hero journey believable.
Mark Webb films
This version takes a very different approach that doesn’t follow the comic story as closely. There is no science exhibit where he is accidentally bitten for example. He is bitten when snooping around in Oscorp and gets his powers that way. Using his powers to make money through wrestling isn’t something he attempts either. Peter does experience the mistake that costs his uncle his life but initially goes about atoning for it in a very different way.
His reaction is to go after similar looking criminals looking for the tattoo that the man he is after had. This gets him beaten up a lot as he antagonises several dangerous criminals but he also gets a few of them off the streets while he’s at it.
There is a really distressing suggestion that Peter is planning to kill the guy when he finds him. He is definitely angry and out for blood so it’s conceivable that he plans to take the man’s life in retribution. We never do find out as he abandons the chase when the Lizard appears and realises that he can make a difference another way. His rescue of the young boy is when he realises what Spider-Man can mean to people and he lets go of his desire for revenge to dedicate himself to saving others.
A lot of time is spent with him cultivating the Spider-Man persona. He decides to wear a mask when a criminal threatens him by saying he knows what Peter looks like, he bulids webshooters to help him get around, the form fitting costume is made because he needs to be far more aerodynamic when swinging around and he constantly tests the limits of his powers to see what he is really capable of.
This is a really close call but I’m going to give the point to the Mark Webb films. The Raimi Trilogy approaches the origin story in a much more traditional way but there’s a weird gap between Peter stopping his uncle’s killer and suddenly appearing on the scene as Spider-Man. The Webb films choose to dig into that time frame and show the process of him becoming Spider-Man slowly. It plays out like a montage but we understand exactly why he has the costume and what informed the creation of it. It’s a little clumsy that he simply forgets about his uncle’s killer but I actually found the realisation that Spider-Man can be a force for good that brings people hope to be far more powerful. His uncle’s death still inspired him but it was actually helping someone that gets him all the way there to becoming a hero. I also liked seeing him test the limits of his powers and learn how to do certain things through trial and error. This doesn’t happen in the Raimi films but feels like such a natural thing to do for someone who is learning what their new reality means for them.
As with all criteria on this list both versions took a very different approach to telling their stories that succeed and fail in different ways.
Sam Raimi Trilogy
These films take a very simple approach to telling their story. In all 3 films Peter Parker starts off with a status quo that is disrupted by the arrival of a villain that he has to deal with. He does his best to navigate through his life and stop the villain before they do too much damage.
The simple approach works really well as it makes the films easy to follow. All of the characters are well defined relative to their role in the story, the obstacles in Peter’s way are clearly presented and the whole thing moves along at a swift and entertaining pace more or less.
Arguably this can be seen as a little formulaic but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the films use that formula well and create a good story with it which they certainly do in this case.
Tonally, all 3 films are a lot of fun. They have their darker elements but generally speaking they are a superhero romp designed to entertain. The tone really works as it feels very comic book in a good way and there’s a light hearted, optimistic feel to the whole trilogy.
Mark Webb Films
A more complex approach is taken by these films as they attempt to tell a more non linear story. There is a big emphasis on the past as Peter is curious about what happened to his parents so relentlessly tries to find out the truth behind it.
Gwen also has her own story running alongside Peter’s that gets plenty of attention and develops in its own way. Their relationship weaves in and out of her development as well as Peter’s responsibilities as Spider-Man.
The second film is a little bogged down by attempting to plant the seeds that would grow into a shared universe with Spider-Man in the middle of it. These scenes slow the pace down considerably and ultimately detract from what the film should be about. In this case an attempt to be more complex doesn’t really work and makes the films feel a bit messy when watching them.
Tonally, the two films differ very heavily. The first film is much darker, it has humour in there but everything seems fairly bleak to match Peter Parker’s slightly unsettling personality. This changes in the second film that is almost cartoonish in how light the tone is. It works for some of it but when it tries to verge into more serious territory it feels disconnected from the rest of the narrative.
For Spider-Man storytelling, simple is much better. The Raimi films aren’t concerned with building a shared universe or developing unconnected subplots; they just set out to tell a compelling story about Peter Parker and all 3 films do that to varying degrees. Having a light tone helps keep things fun and light hearted.
The Webb films are too bogged down by universe building and pointless subplots involving Aunt May becoming a nurse or Harry trying to cure his hereditary disease. None of those feel like they belong and the attempt to answer the question about Peter’s parents falls flat on its face due to being uninteresting. There are also far too many things told to us but never shown. Dialogue tells us that Peter and his aunt struggle for money but it never factors into the story, Peter apparently takes pictures for the Bugle but he never goes there, he’s at university but we never see him attend and other things designed to tick the box for that character without making it part of the story.
What would a hero be without the villains? Love them or hate them, they are necessary to keeping things interesting and giving him someone to fight. Both versions share some villains but there are differences too. I won’t go into massive detail but I’ll quickly summarise what each of them had.
Sam Raimi Trilogy
These films featured 5 villains across all 3 films and most of them were pretty memorable. Willem Defoe’s Norman Osborn aka The Green Goblin was the first supervillain that Spider-Man faced and immediately kicked things off as being a force to be reckoned with. His costume was a little goofy with the comparisons to it looking like something out of Power Rangers being completely valid but Defoe plays the role with plenty of menace in a tongue in cheek way that makes him incredibly entertaining to watch. His connection to Peter makes their rivalry all the more urgent and the fact that Norman acts as something of a surrogate father to him gives the conflict more weight.
Doctor Octopus in the second film was similarly compelling. He was driven insane when his experiment failed and his wife died. His objective is simply to create the experiment again to prove that he wasn’t wrong. Ock ends up hating Spider-Man when he gets in the way one too many times and looks to bring him down as a result. Ultimately he gives his life when he realises that his experiment will kill people after being reminded of his own advice by Peter. He’s a complex character and Alfred Molina has a lot of fun playing him.
Spider-Man 3 features Sandman as another sympathetic villain. All he wants to do is get enough money so that his sick daughter can get the treatment she needs. This looks possible when he is given super powers after a science based accident so he turns to crime again. A connection to Peter Parker was forced by him turning out to be Ben’s real killer. It was an accident to help him remain sympathetic but it was an unnecessary connection. Being motivated to help his daughter was powerful enough so didn’t need anything else. Thomas Haden Church was good in the role though probably among the least memorable of the villains since he was sharing a film with two others.
Eddie Brock aka Venom (Topher Grace) is introduced in Spider-Man 3 but has a background presence. He starts off as a photographer to rival Peter and is similar in built do suggest that Peter could have been Eddie if he had a different life. When Peter discredits him Eddie finds himself bonded with the black suit and becomes Venom so uses his powers to bring down Spider-Man. Venom is a big deal in the comics but here he more represents the consequences of Peter’s actions while wearing the black suit. He embodies the bad things that he did and gives him a way to stop them.
Harry Osborn develops as a villain through all 3 films but doesn’t go after Peter until the third one. They fight twice while Harry is still under the mistaken impression that Peter killed his father. Eventually he realises that Peter always has been his friend and helps him defeat Sandman and Venom, giving his life in the process. It’s a defined character arc that makes him the most complex villain character. Harry’s motivation could always be understood and his death was appropriately tragic.
Mark Webb Films
These films had 4 villains across 2 films so it was all pretty busy on the villain front. Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) was the villain in the first film. He was the scientist who experimented on himself and experienced results beyond his control. Becoming a mutant lizard is the result of his lack of patience when conducting his experiments and the lizard brain completely takes over the good man that was Curt Connors. His eventual plan to turn the entirety of New York into Lizards doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense but it gives Peter a ticking clock to race against as well as giving him a close personal connection to the villain who knew his father and was working on experiments with him. Peter feels a measure of responsibility for helping to create this situation so he takes it upon himself to stop him.
Max Dillon aka Electro is the main villain in the second film but he is largely underdeveloped. It is established that he feels like an outcast because nobody notices him in day to day life. People walk past him on the street, ignore him at work and generally don’t treat him very well. He is shown to be obsessed with Spider-Man to the point that he has a shrine to him in his apartment and carries out pretend conversations with him proving that he is at least a little insane. When he becomes Electro he lashes out at people because they persecute him for being different and blames Spider-Man for stealing his thunder. He goes from being somewhat relatable to completely insane in such a short period of time that it feels really clumsy.
Harry Osborn becomes the Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 but he is also underdeveloped. When he is cast out of Oscorp he too goes insane and tries a radical compound to cure him of his terminal illness. This results in him mutating into the Green Goblin which gives him the power he needs to go after Spider-Man. He hates Spider-Man because he refused to give Harry his blood. The blood might be able to save his life but Peter doesn’t trust him with it so refuses and Harry hates him after that. Harry’s one fight with Spider-Man results in the death of Gwen which increases his threat level a bit and he is shown to begin to build a team of villains at the end of the film.
This team of villains starts with Aleksei Sytsevich aka the Rhino (Paul Giamatti) who appears early in the second film as a criminal that Spider-Man stops before he reappears with a robotic Rhino suit at the very end of the film. Beyond being a criminal little is known about this character but he represents Spider-Man recommitting to his mission to save the city.
The villains in the Raimi trilogy are far more memorable than the Mark Webb films. In a lot of ways they are very simple characters but their role in the story is very clear and they are fleshed out exactly as much as they need to be for the most part. There’s a larger than life quality to all of them which fits into these films perfectly and allows for some great one liners from them.
A big problem with the villains in the Mark Webb films is that almost no time is spent really developing them. The Lizard is fine as villains go but felt like an inferior copy of the Green Goblin in terms of his connection to Peter Parker. All of the villains in the second film were just underdeveloped and weak. Not all of them need to have a connection to Peter Parker but their objective needs to be well defined and they need to stand out in their own right. None of the films in the second film accomplish this so they remain largely forgettable.
Where would a superhero movie be without action sequences? Spider-Man lends himself to visually impressive action because of his speed and agility but which set of films did it better?
Sam Raimi Trilogy
These films weren’t short on action. Looking back now some of the effects are pretty ropey but when they came out I hadn’t seen anything like it in film before and was blown away by Spider-Man being completely brought to life on the big screen.
The first film had the least technically impressive action sequences when compared to the other two but they were still dynamic and exciting because the stakes were clearly established and there was plenty of tension thrown in. As the films went on they got so much more impressive such as the excellent train fight in Spider-Man 2 and Doc Ock’s escape from the hospital that plays out like a horror movie with his tentacles acting like a terrifying force of nature.
Spider-Man 3 as no slouch either with Peter’s 2 fights against Harry being well put together and having emotional heft because we know their friendship has broken down. Peter and Harry’s team up against Venom and Sandman is impressive to look at as well and has the added bonus of their friendship being at the root of them working together.
Since these kinds of visual effects had never been done before these films they can be forgiven for taking a bit of time to find their feet. They always looked great in my opinion but there was a noticeable improvement between Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 in how Spider-Man was animated. His movements were much quicker and his agility was showcased far more. These films definitely set the standard for fast paced aerial action in superhero films.
Mark Webb Films
The later films had the benefit of the advancements in CGI to make the sequences really fast paced. Spider-Man’s movements are really quick and fluid and he interacts with the environment a lot.
Using environmental factors allows Peter Parker’s intelligence to be an asset to him in battle. This can be seen as early as the first film where he continually uses Liquid Nitrogen to slow down the Lizard so that he can even the odds against a superior enemy.
Tension is created in different ways such as his first fight with Electro where most of it is spent trying to talk him out of hurting people. We all know it’s not going to end well but for a while it looks like Spider-Man will be able to win without even throwing a punch. It’s a different form of action and it works really well.
Peter’s Spider Sense comes into play in a big way during that sequence as well. When Electro throws a car we see how Spidey assesses the environment by taking note of the car and the two people about to be killed by touching an electrified handrail. We are also reminded that one of his webshooters is broken and then we see him deal with it. It’s really creative and shows a different spin on how he uses his powers in combat.
Another memorable sequence is the chase at the beginning of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 where Spider-Man juggles getting people out of the way and trying to stop the vehicle itself. It’s really quick and exciting as well as having plenty of humour such as when he has to catch the Plutonium before it falls out the back of the truck.
Such a close call again but I’m giving the point to the Sam Raimi Trilogy. The Webb Films definitely had more technically impressive action that in many ways eclipsed the quality seen in the previous trilogy but the Raimi films had more to invest in.
Since the villains were overall better developed it adds a layer of urgency that isn’t present in the other films. When Spider-Man takes on the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus the stakes feel high because we know these characters well and know exactly what they want to do. In the Webb films you don’t get that because their motivations are really flimsy at best. Knowing more about these characters makes it a lot easier to invest in what is going on rather than simply watching a fight for a few minutes.
Both sets of films definitely have their merits in the action department but I find myself thinking about the sequences in the Raimi films a lot more. Nothing beats that amazing train fight.
This was a lot closer than I thought it was going to be but the Sam Raimi films cross the finish line by one point. I’ll admit that I hadn’t seen the Webb films in so long that I had simply assumed that they were terrible but that’s definitely not the case. As you can see from the comparison I’ve made they do a lot of things well but lose a lot of points for sloppy storytelling and bad films. Attempting to set up a shared universe was definitely a bad idea and the subplot about Peter’s parents wasn’t as engaging as it needed to be. Basically there was too much going on and if a simpler approach had been taken then they would have been better than the films that preceded them. Andrew Garfield was a great choice for Peter Parker but he was cast at the wrong time and the writing of his character could have been better. Emma Stone completely steals the show in both films though and I have no complaints about her character.
The Raimi films are remembered fondly because they feel like Spider-Man movies. The normal human problems that Peter Parker faces are something that we can all relate to and it puts across the world that it sets up really well with interesting characters, a cohesive narrative and excellent pacing for the most part. We get a real sense of who Peter Parker is and what he stands for. Every aspect of his life is seen and it’s clear how being Spider-Man impacts on everything he does. The villains are a lot better developed and far more memorable. As a package these films just handle things a little better and that’s why I prefer them to the Mark Webb films
We are about to be introduced to a new version of the character played by Tom Holland. By all accounts this version will be around 15 or 16 years old which puts him right back at the start of his career as Spider-Man. Hopefully this will be the one that gets both aspects of the character right and we can actually see him progress to the point where he takes different directions in life. I’d like to see a Spider-Man film eventually where he adjusts to being a husband and prepares to be a father. I also hope we won’t have to sit through the origin story again because it has been done enough that we know the story. In a lot of ways the origin is the least interesting story about the character for me as there are better stories that can be told with an established her.
In the hands of Marvel, I am confident that we will finally get the definitive version.
As a bonus, one of our own – Gwen Penvellyn experimented with a different art style to create the following piece that I am going to share with you. Thank you for that Gwen.
The banner image at the top of the page was created for me by frequent commenter Ivy Cooper. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that it looks great and sums up my intentions for this article. I’ll close this off by thanking her sincerely for the work she put in.