Worst to Best
The Amazing Spider-Man
(2012) Sony (or Avi Arad, or both) assuming it would be as easy as (delicious) pie to reboot their hot Marvel property as soon as Sam Raimi exited in a storm of Vulture feathers was hubris of the highest order. Even more so, thinking the lure to make this iteration stand out would be an ungainly Spider-arc mythology (the baton subsequently handed to the titans of ungainly mythology, Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci). On first viewing, Amazing Spider-Man is just underwhelming. On revisit, it’s closer to a chore.
The plot is at best weak, at worst downright bad, with a retold origin that tends to the perfunctory (Uncle Ben’s death) or obfuscated (there are numerous deleted scenes, one of which implies Andrew Garfield’s Peter being modified as a bairn and the bite being no more than a trigger: “It’s working quite well on you. Did you ever stop and wonder why? Do you have any idea what you really are?”) As it is, we’re asked to buy that Oscorp has been trapped in developmental limbo for a decade until Peter pops up, providing his dad’s algorithm to Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). I’m all for mixing things up if it adds something to the telling, but the all-about-Oscorp focus and Norman’s illness don’t, really, particularly when the producers don’t seem entirely certain if they want to stick to their guns.
Teacher: Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Parker.
Peter Parker: (to Gwen) Yeah, but they’re the best kind.
Talking of traditional elements, Peter is duly burdened with a shed-load of guilt regarding the death of Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), but then proceeds to renege on his agreement to George Stacy’s (Denis Leary) dying wish that he stay away from Gwen (Emma Stone), as if this is something to be proud of. Garfield’s fine as Peter – he certainly delivers the ready ripostes in a manner Tobey Maguire didn’t – but there’s something slightly off about him too, with his too-tall Spider-gangle and never quite seeming youthful enough to pass for a teenager (since he was 26, that should be no surprise). Sure, he and (then girlfriend) Stone have great chemistry, but Stone has great chemistry with everyone (Leary charmingly so). Indeed, on this evidence, they should have just pushed Peter to one side for a few years and run with a Spider-Gwen trilogy.
Besides the plotting, Amazing stumbles in the mostly pedestrian execution. The picture’s design work is dreadful, particularly the Lizard; the iconic snouted version of more recent appearances has been rendered closer to Steve Ditko’s version by way of a Goomba. It looks, like so much of the movie, utterly generic (even the classic reptile-in-lab coat only appears in one scene, before being shredded). Director Marc Webb delivers a more tangible, grounded New York than Raimi’s, but one wonders how much that’s down to his having no ideas. He has zero thoughts on how to relay Peter’s heightened abilities (the basketball sequence could have been a Teen Wolf outtake), typified by a workout montage at a shipyard, and the director’s grounding/ lack of confidence in Peter’s super skills rather invites one to focus on how difficult it would be for him to swing about New York the way he does.
Is there anything the movie does well? Well, the Lizard, for all its design flaws, is a believably superior threat to Spidey, and while the action is frequently choppy and lacking in flair, there’s a solid confrontation between the two at Peter’s school. There’s also a really good Stan Lee cameo (obliviously listening to music while battle rages behind him). Generally, though, this is both bland in the production and slightly irritating in the conception, messing about with the formula for the sake of it and entirely failing to justify retelling Spider-Man’s origins.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
(2014) I must have been one of the few to have had a good time with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on its release, despite acknowledging its myriad problems. A repeat visit has not been kind, however. While marginally more engaging than its predecessor, it’s also stacked high with the kind of overwhelming elements that adversely impacted Spider-Man 3, only without the accompanying charm.
Indeed, one thing a return to the Amazing duo brings home is how aesthetically unpleasant they both are. In this case, Dan Mindel was the DP, and I’m generally a fan of his work (particularly in collaboration with JJ Abrams), but every cinematographer isn’t suited to every project (just look at Janusz Kamiński, although one increasingly wonders if he’s suited to any project). It isn’t just the jarring lensing, which makes New York look like someone set off a firework display during The French Connection (or on the set of the short-lived ’70s Spider-Man TV show), but everything else as well.
The singular aspect Marc Webb brings to Spider-Man is that he has no singular vision, aside from needle-drop music montages whenever possible. There are over-elaborate but kinetically underwhelming slow-motion set pieces, disorientating use of handheld, and a Spideycam providing aerial shots from the superhero’s POV. The web-slinging graphics are increasingly deft, but to repeat myself, Garfield is just too distractingly tall for the part (I know spiders have long limbs, but still).
Then there are the villains, as hopelessly redesigned as the Lizard previously; the Green Goblin looks like a reject from Fright Night (the original), while Blue Man Group, hoodie-wearing Electro is about as well-conceived as the last blue supervillain to grace our screens (clue: there were also bat nipples).
Add to that a typically over-conceived and undernourished Kurtzman and Orci Happy Meal screenplay – somehow still getting work after Into Darkness: see Discovery for the latest barrage of mythology and empty continuity at the expense of content – and you have a movie that actively encourages you to take a dislike to it. The Parker family history is revealed, that Peter’s dad used his own DNA in the spider experiments at OsCorp; I don’t know if this is a retcon of the original idea (see above), but it’s both less interesting than Peter being directly experimented on (even if that’s very Ang Lee Hulk) and more tenuous. But this new origins isn’t even a house of cards; it doesn’t pass muster even at first glance.
The score arrives courtesy of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL and thrashes about aimlessly, including a wacky-loon theme for Max Dillon before he turns; Jamie Foxx is fairly bad as Max, but I suppose his character is at least memorable, in a Dwayne Dibbley kind of way (Electro’s genesis, via a tank of electric eels, is… well, no need to say any more). Dane DeHaan, doubtless cast as Harry off the back of Chronicle, where he’s very good, is a case of a decent actor suffocated by an awful part; he has one solid scene where he puts the OsCorp board in its place but is otherwise reduced to whining or screaming or looking sickly. Colm Feore makes a better (corporate) bad guy than either of them.
In my Far From Home review, I commented that Peter’s spider-sense had been forgotten for far too long, but it does show up here, briefly, when he realises Max Dillon is on the rampage; the subsequent Times Square set piece is one of the few notables of the movie (you can readily see here how insanely over-expensive this picture is, while simultaneously failing to wow in any way).
Other elements continue to work, just about – I’m not sold on Garfield, but his Spider-Man is appealingly inclusive for the most part, particularly as a friend to kids, and his and Stone’s chemistry sees Peter and Gwen through a rote on/off relationship arc (until its permanently off). I also still regard Marton Csokas’ OTT Doctor Kafka as the best character in the movie. But this is a picture trying to build strands and create an ongoing arc and failing miserably, one with oodles of cash but a helmer who doesn’t really know how to transform those resources into epic storytelling. No wonder there was no. 3.
(2018) Yes, I know, Spider-Man doesn’t actually appear in Venom, but it nevertheless feels appropriate to include Peter Parker’s 1980s-spawned alien symbiotic Spider-verse nemesis on this list while it doesn’t Avengers-verse entries Civil War, Infinity War and Endgame. Knives were out for this movie as soon as it was announced, often via those maligning the edgelord character’s most ardent fanbase. The trailers did little to temper the blows. And then the critics trampled it. And then it only went and made more than either of the Amazings. Which might be because it’s a lot more enjoyable.
It’s also nothing close to a great movie, but very vitally, it can boast a great dual performance from Logan Marshall-Green Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock/Venom, the former a grubby, nervous reporter with a touch of the Dustin Hoffmans, the latter absolutely inscribing the tone as a gleefully twisted, humorously malevolent/morally ambivalent CGI force. There’s nothing much to write home about with regard to director Ruben Fleischer’s work on the picture – reportedly he favoured a more serious approach and so clashed with Hardy: Hardy was absolutely right in this case, though – and the rendering of the title character is arguably less convincing than it was nearly a decade earlier in Spider-Man 3. However, Hardy very nearly persuades you none of that matters.
Indeed, probably the biggest positive to take away from this messy, half-cocked affair is that the sequel will surely be much more assured.
Spider-Man: Far From Home
(2019) In a way, you have to admire writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers for tempting fate and not resting on their laurels, stacking the deck with potentially difficult elements, ones they’d have to strive their utmost with to ensure they paid off in a satisfying manner. That they didn’t wholly succeed doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have tried, but there is a sense that they bit off more than they could chew.
Because, as aids to sustaining dramatic tension, dealing with a larky school field trip and utilising the clever-clever but no so dynamic villain Mysterio are both asking for trouble. Accordingly, Far From Home doesn’t come into its own until about halfway through, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s villain never really delivers as a bad guy the way Keaton did previously; the virtual hell he unleashes on Peter makes for an extraordinary sequence, but it doesn’t actually make Quentin Beck particularly engaging, nor his sob-story about why he’s turned to Machiavellian manoeuvres.
That said, Tom Holland’s high school Peter Parker, and the colourful characters that surround him, makes for the breeziest, most easily approachable embodiment of the character on the big screen to date. Even when there isn’t much to command your attention, the proceedings are never less than amiable. You can’t not have a good time with his Peter, which after the rather over-studied Garfield, is a godsend.
(2007) Crippled by studio (or Avi Arad) diktats, disowned by Sam Raimi and roundly slated by critics and fans of the previous instalments, Spider-Man 3 is nevertheless still, unadjusted for inflation, the most successful Spider-Man movie (Far From Home will probably eclipse it). Which is obviously no kind of vindication, but while it’s much too uneven to deserve reappraisal as unjustly maligned classic, it’s also much better than its rep suggests.
A lot that is to do with Raimi, despite not getting Ben Kingsley as the Vulture and having Venom foisted on him. He somehow manages to push the most off-the-wall subplot in the Spider-verse past those meddling studio execs, in which Peter, hopped up on a symbiote suit, turns into Emo Peter, which mostly involves wearing his fringe in his eyes, answering back when previously he’d have cowered, and doing so-uncool-they’re-cool-again dance moves under the hapless assumption he’s a hit with the ladies. Oh, and finally giving Harry Osborne what-for, a long time coming. While much of this is very funny – obviously depending on your mileage – it also just wouldn’t work, or nearly as well, with a portrayal of Peter less beta than Tobey Maguire’s (so even if Raimi needed persuasion to introduced Venom, it actually plays into his take on the hero rather well, to a point).
Elsewhere, though, 3 suffers from too many ingredients and too little payoff. Flint Marko, sympathetically portrayed by Thomas Hayden Church, despite being lumbered with an entirely unnecessary retconning of Uncle Ben’s murder, makes an early impact during a masterful Sandman origin sequence. But then no one really seems to know what to do with him. Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is well drawn as an anti-Parker, but only becomes Venom with half an hour to go, so there’s no chance to get to grips with the villain. Ironically, it’s Harry and his shit-eating grin who is served best, since it feeds directly into the angsty Peter plotline and concludes a three-movie arc (he’s rubbish as a super-villain, though).
The grand climax is a bit of piffle too, but Spider-Man 3 still offers much to enjoy, if you can get past it being significantly less elegant than the previous parts of the trilogy.
(2004) Commonly cited as one of the best superhero movies period, and yes, it’s very good, but Spider-Man 2 also rarely offers surprises. Raimi delivers a succession of fine set pieces (the becoming of Doc Ock, the attempt to detach his tentacles, his attack on a diner attended by Peter and MJ, the subway train fight), even if the CGI-doubling is occasionally on the unflattering side. He also progresses the Peter-MJ-Harry character work engrossingly, ensuring Maguire’s Parker is the most painfully put-upon of his various incarnations.
But Doc Ock, despite Alfred Molina’s initially subtle performance, is another spin on the super-powered scientist gone bad, and insufficiently interesting with it. And the hero refusing his calling was the most annoying part of Superman II, so why Raimi thought it was a good idea to go there is beyond me (why retreat on your hero’s skills no sooner has he got them; it seems like nervousness over what to do with him once he’s bestowed).
In terms of achieving what it sets out to do, though, Spider-Man 2 is probably the most accomplished of the series. It just loses a point for being ever-so-slightly formulaic with it.
(2002) It’s easy to look at Spider-Man and hammer it for the areas that haven’t aged well, mostly on the front of virtual doubling and web-slinging effects, but Sam Raimi, out to prove something with his (surprising) selection for blockbuster duties, is much more diligent about what he can and can’t achieve than subsequently, so in some respects the restraint in execution ensures it has aged better. That doesn’t mean the Green Goblin mech suit is any less of a design failure, though.
James Acheson’s Spider-suit is great, though. Willem Dafoe is still, by far, the series’ best villain, enjoying himself immensely and playing up the warring sides of his nature. It’s been said of the MCU that the villains tend to be the weak spot, while ever since the Burton Batman it’s also been a truism that his adversaries are more memorable than the lead. Here, though, you want to spend as much time with Norman Osborne as possible. The Thanksgiving dinner is a marvellous set up – you just wish it hadn’t been cut short and we’d got to sit through the entire uncomfortable event.
Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker is very much an introvert nerd take, which is fine – he’s a fully formed character – but it does mean his Spider-Man is rather lacking on the wisecracking scale (Garfield, in contrast, brings an element that’s almost too cocky, with it left to Holland to get the balance right). James Franco and Kirsten Dunst also stand out in their respective roles as Harry and MJ. Blowing them all off screen, though, is JK Simmons as the perfect encapsulation of J Jonah Jameson. So good, they had to do a Judi Dench as M and carry him over to the MCU.
(2017) Jon Hamm may be no visual virtuoso à la Sam Raimi, and his/Kevin Feige’s vision of the webslinger may lack some ingredients that really ought to be there – cityscapes to swing through, for example, and even if not a reliance on, at least a mention of his spider-sense as a counter to Tony Stark’s gadgets – but in Tom Holland they’ve finally found the perfect Peter Parker/ Spider-Man, one armed with a ready supply of repartee and brio.
There’s been much reaction against this Peter’s lack of an Uncle Ben guilt-factor informing his essence as Spidey, and I can certainly appreciate the argument that this is essential to his character. At the same time, it’s as tiring a device to harp on about as Batman’s “darkness, no parents” fixation, and has been done to death; we’ve had it focused upon in two cinematic origins stories in twenty years, do we really need another?
It’s the same with those decrying how his adventures are no longer standalone, with Tony or SHIELD showing up to berate him or send him on a mission. It’s actually a positive to break out of the mix-and-match villain and Harry Osborne arcs that have preoccupied previous Sony Spideys. And Tony really does come across as an arsehole here, as much as Peter keeps messing up, so there’s an effective push-pull with the attraction to the greater MCU. Notable too that the entire “gives up being Spider-Man” plot of Spider-Man 2 is dealt with here, but in about three minutes (of course, it’s then dealt with again in Far From Home…)
Homecoming also has particular merits all its own; the John Hughes-meets-superhero vibe is perfectly judged, from the overtly so – the Ferris Bueller homage race through neighbourhood gardens, Martin Starr’s deadpan teacher (“What did I tell you about using the bell for comedic purposes?”), Zendaya’s Ally Sheedy-like MJ (she turns up at detentions for the hell of it) – to the assortment of friends and bullies. Jacob Batalon and Tony Revolori as pal Ned and class nemesis Flash Thompson are distinctive characters, laced with humour, albeit respectively awe (“Do you lay eggs?”: “What does Hulk smell like? I bet he smells nice”) and contempt (“Penis Parker”). At home meanwhile, Marisa Tomei makes for a very fresh, rejuvenated Aunt May.
Even the villain, the MCU weak spot, has a distinctive twist. Hamm should be ashamed of wasting Tom Hardy Logan Marshall-Green on a bit part (as the first Shocker), but Michael Keaton’s blue-collar Vulture is entirely motivated and memorable. Sure, it would be nice if big-screen versions could get past having to tech-up their bad guys (this is nearly Green Goblin redux), but Adrian Toomes gets one of the great twists of the MCU (let’s face it, he wasn’t exactly thronged by contenders) and boasts his own villain’s code of sorts, which makes a change from the usual scientist turned monster.
And I know I said Watts was no Raimi, but there are several perfectly-executed set pieces in this picture: fighting “the Avengers” during an inept bank robbery; rescuing his classmates at the Washington Monument; and attempting damage limitation resulting from his Statten Island Ferry destruction derby. Only the rather familiar air heist climax disappoints. But Homecoming works so well principally because it’s a great high-school movie with a character who happens to be a superhero, and the moments where nothing much happens (Peter trapped in a warehouse all night, chatting to Jennifer Connelly’s AI) are often Homecoming’s best.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
(2018) “This a pretty hardcore origin story” observes Spider-Man Noir (Nic Cage) of Shameik Moore’s Miles Morales’ predicament. It is at that. It’s also almost impossibly good. From a versatile, self-reflexive screenplay by Rodney Rothman and the Disney-dumped Phil Lord, one that brings together a selection of alt-Spideys while always maintaining a focus on the one who has just come into being, to the masterfully stylised, comic book-evoking, eye-popping animation overseen by directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey – both having honed their skills with DreamWorks – and Rothman, this is an outstanding achievement, and it didn’t even require the nurturing of the Feige-overseen MCU.
Indeed, one has to wonder about the decision made regarding the “official” Spidey line, to make the multiverse an invention of Quentin Beck (at least, if he’s wrong, they’re going to have to come up with some new alternate Earth numbers), since on the evidence of the possibilities here, Sony – moribund, desperate Sony, who poured quarter of a million into The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and ended up with egg on their faces – are proving the more vital, inspired, creative comic book force.
What’s most impressive is the way in which the picture manages to be both hugely irreverent – as you’d expect from Lord and Miller – and utterly sincere. Miles’ arc to self-belief is entirely affecting, as is the bond he forms with his past-his-best-but-still-virtuous mentor (as opposed to his flawed uncle) Peter B Parker (Jake Johnson). Indeed, while the other Spidey-luminaries – Nic Cage’s Noir (every line a classic: “Where I go, the wind follows. And the wind, it smells like rain”), Spider Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) and… okay maybe not Peni Parker/ SP//dr (Kimiko Glenn) as she’s only ever anime style in search of a character – are all distinctive and a huge part of the movie’s appeal and flourish, it’s the core relationship between the older, disappointed, gone-to-seed alt-Peter B and his young protégée that gives the movie its heart.
Even the main villain (Liev Schreiber’s Kingpin) is motivated beyond simple mass destruction (that’s merely a side effect), adding to the sense of substance beneath the admittedly beguiling, fizz and flash of the animation. Yes, the “We are all Spider-Man” message is a bit pat (I mean, we’re emphatically not), but combined with the Stan Lee end-credits quote, you can’t really argue with the intent behind it. On first viewing, I pulled up short of giving Spider-verse the full five stars; I was wrong.
Addendum 13/09/22: Here’s the current ranking based on more recent entries (again, including only solo Spider-verse entries):
11. The Amazing Spider-Man
10. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
9. Venom: Let There Be Carnage
7. Spider-Man: Far From Home
6. Spider-Man 3
5. Spider-Man: No Way Home
4. Spider-Man 2
2. Spider-Man: Homecoming
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse