I did it with Batmen; I can do it was Spider-men. Once again, animated versions confuse matters, so I’m sticking with live action.
One big difference between Spider-Man and Batman is that the secret identity is key with Bats, but not with Spidey. Batman and Bruce Wayne are different. Peter Parker is Spider-Man. He can relax as Spider-man, but his sense of humor, outlook and general persona doesn’t change. If an actor gets Peter Parker, chances are he gets Spider-Man.
But Peter Parker is a nearly impossible character to get right as he makes less sense than Batman, and that’s saying something. OK, what’s wrong with Peter? Well, he is the Marvel standard bearer for having real world problems. He’s just a regular teenager. He’s a little nerdy, so gets bullied. He’s not cool. He comes from a lower middle class family that is just trying to get by. OK. Oh, and to go with that slight nerdy reputation, he happens to be the smartest human being who has ever existed, and the greatest engineer—the web shooters are just the start of what he creates and he made those with no money. (Really, how does he manufacture that stuff?) He’s way, way, way too smart to be a regular teenager. He would never have been just some high school student. And he’s also the worlds greatest tailor. In fact, this average kid can pretty much do everything. He’s a fantasy for adults remembering their childhood and thinking what teen’s want. He’s even witty. He’s too perfect a human for his story. He’s a superhero without the spider. And that’s just too many coincidences: the guy who happens to be bitten by a radioactive spider also happens to be able to design and produce an amazing webbing material and also happens to be able to create fantastic web shooting devices. Huh.
Part of the problem is he was made up of other heroes. He has Batman’s motivation. But he has Superman’s folksy guardians to teach him how to be good. He has to be haunted, and also not haunted at all. He’s got to be jokey and fun to be around while simultaneously being overly pure and morose. He is the biggest star of Marvel comics, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s been everything at one time or another. For a film, you just have to choose what parts to take. Unfortunately, comic book people are purists, and want it all. You can’t have it all.
So, how have the five live action versions of Spidey worked out? Let’s take a look. (Note: I’m not counting cameos for this list)
#5 Nicholas Hammond (The Amazing Spider-Man—1977-1979)
What if Peter Parker was just dull? How about solving the problem of Peter Parker being too many things by making him not much of anything. This very ‘70s Spider-Man is uninteresting in and out of costume. Not unlike the TV Captain America of the time that is also painful to watch, this Spider-Man is true blue in the dullest sense. Hammond is 27, which isn’t as big a problem as it will be up this list, as Parker isn’t a teen and he doesn’t deal with teenage problems. When not politely looking for evil-doers, he’s acting like what people with no connection to physics imagine a physics grad student might be like.
His suit isn’t anything special, but not bad enough to lower the already low level of the show. Scuttling up walls is his main power. He rarely uses his webbing. Effects were not on his side, nor was fight chorography.
J. Jonah Jameson is the only member of Spidey’s comic book support staff that makes it to the show. David White does a reasonable job in the pilot, though his Jameson isn’t as unpleasant as fans are used to. He was replaced by Robert F. Simon, who gets my vote for the second best in that role.
Superman changed the way superheros were treated on the big and small screen. This Spider-Man predates that hero, and it shows. Everything is cheap. The villains are standard criminals and spies, and it is all boring.
#4 Tobey Maguire (The Spider-Man Trilogy—2002-2007)
With the Maguire Spider-Man, they dealt with the “Spider-Man is everything” problem by dropping out Peter’s humor and wit as well as personal strength and maturity, and decreasing his intelligence to near human levels. He’s still a bit too bright for an average high school nerd, but at least he’s not inventing webbing materials or designing web shooters (although he’s still a world-class tailor). This version dealt almost exclusively with teen Peter and fantasy fulfillment teen Peter. Not only is he a teenager, but all of the themes and all of his issues are those of a teenager. His body is going through changes. He rebels and learns a painful lesson. He’s trying to find his place in the world. He feels lost, suffocated, and alone. He has a puppy love for a girl that he hardly knows (we hardly know her) merely because she is pretty and is nearby, and tries to impress her in immature ways; he then spends three films breaking up and getting back together with her. He is constantly searching for father figures that then turn into step-father figures that then turn into villains. Well, except for the villain part, that’s teenage life.
And to play that we get twenty-seven-year-old Tobey Maguire. Maguire has the uncomfortable bit down, but I wonder if he could have passed for a teen when he was one. He looks like the parent of a teen. If this guy showed up in a classroom, the teacher would either assume it was for a parent-teacher conference or she’d call the police to deal with the pedophile. I wince when in the second film a man on the train sees the unmasked Peter and remarks, “He’s just a kid; no older than my son.” I suppose that would be an OK statement in the speaker was gray-haired and retired.
Look, you can have inappropriately aged actors playing youthful roles. It’s generally a bad idea, but it can be done. But then the central theme must be something other than “Gosh, I’m going through changes.”
Maguire is not only too old, he always looks like he’s about to take a nap. He’s one of the least energetic actors I know, which is a problematic choice for a superhero.
So, too old, sleepy, and humorless. That’s not a good start. What he does have is the haunted angle. This Peter is grief-stricken and controlled by guilt. That makes him no fun at all to watch, but it does make a kind of sense and fits with all his crying. His extensive whining is another matter. If that was consistent, it would make a good After School Special or teen drama, if you happen to think those things are ever good. But this Spider-Man is also wish-fulfillment for fanboys who want their hobby to be taken seriously. Thus, Spider-Man is a sad, nerdish, outsider, without a girlfriend, as they saw themselves in high school, but he’s also cool. That last bit explains the outrage when the 3rd film does something that makes sense for the character (the Venom symbiot bringing to the surface Peter’s very uncool vision of what being cool is) but violates the fantasy.
As with Batman, my Spider-Men get graded on the company they keep and this Spider-Man does poorly. He’s got an empty Mary Jane and James Franco either not bothering to play anything at all or just playing James Franco as Harry. He’s got an insufferable Uncle Ben (yeah, I know this is a kid’s movie, but actually having him spell out the life lessons is way too much) and a stereotypically saintly Aunt May. A few of the father figures would be pluses, except they turn into villains, and the coincidences become silly. He does have a great J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons).
#3 Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man Duology—2012-2014)
And back we go to Peter being everything. He’s a super-genius, spectacular engineer, and topflight tailor. Where does he get the materials for his webbing, or for…everything? He’s also just your average, everyday teen, who is handsome, agile, and cool. He also can be funny, but that part of his character vanishes for long stretches. OK. a cool Peter can work. Not in this story, but it can work.
To go with the kitchen sink approach, this Peter is also haunted. He doesn’t weep as often as Maguire’s did and his whining is down 30%, but it is always there just under the surface. To make up for that, he’s more prone to tantrums. I don’t know who is supposed to enjoy that. He also stutters in the first film, though only the first. I guess that was supposed to be their nod to Peter not being cool.
The twenty-nine-year-old Garfield is again too old to play a teenager, but he doesn’t look like he has to shave between classes as Maguire did, so that’s an improvement.
Garfield (as he keeps removing his mask—I guess it is uncomfortable) and the CGI look reasonable in the fight scenes. It is a substantial improvement technically, although none of his actual combats are any more engaging than those in the Raimi films.
As for the company he keeps, again, this Spidey doesn’t do well, without even a J. Jonah to up the average. Uncle Ben is again sanctimonious but he’d have been a bit better if he wasn’t living under the shadow of the previous version, so constantly saying things in awkward ways to avoid quoting himself. Harry is, shockingly, worse than the James Franco version and that takes effort. Turning into Emo Goblin doesn’t help. Gwen Stacey is a generic girlfriend character but she is a step up from the previous Mary Jane, so I won’t be too down on her.
#2 Shinji Tôdô (“Japanese” Spider-Man—1978)
Considering this came out so close to when the US TV show was canceled, it is bizarre how much better it is. Unlike Hammond’s Spidey who rarely wore his costume and did little with his powers besides climb walls, this Spider-Man shoots webs all the time, swings, and leaps around like…well, like Spider-Man. He also drives the Spider-car, and operates the Spider-robot. Hey, this is Japan, and this was a kid’s show.
So long after the fact, it feels like the Japanese armored, heroes & robots, children’s shows must have always existed, but they started in 1975. Stan Lee and Marvel saw those early shows and figured there was money to be made so they cut a deal: Spidey went to Japan and some Japanese armored characters showed up in Marvel comics.
Spider-Man is no longer Peter Parker (thank God; this is Japan). He’s Takuya Yamashiro, a motorcycle racer whose “astro-archeologist” father was killed by Professor Monster while investigating an alien spacecraft. He gains his powers from another alien, the last survivor of the planet Spider. That may sound silly, but not on the level of a radioactive spider imparting superpowers. He’s heroic, with a bit of the haunted quality without becoming maudlin.
The show was shot with a sense of style, had engaging characters, reasonable FX and… OK, it’s not great. It just is so much better than the American version of the time that it seems like great art if you watch one after the other. This one embraces its status as a children’s show. And the Japanese have always had a cooler notion of what is OK in a children’s show: people die and there’s a lot of really hot women showing enough skin that eight-year-old me would have been in heaven, and twelve-year-old me would have put up with the rest for that bikini scene. Our hero over-acts to epic levels, but I suppose if you are fighting guys wearing rubber shark heads, it isn’t too out of place.
Spider-Man has an annoying little brother as was common in daikaiju films of the era, but that’s made up for by his excessively pretty sister and girlfriend.
#1 Tom Holland (MCU—2016-?)
Yeah, there is no competition. Sure, the steady improvement in CGI helps a lot in the fights, but that’s only a tiny fraction of what puts Holland on top. Finally we get a Peter who is a believable teen. Holland is still older than Peter, but he doesn’t look that much older (fifteen is hard to accept, but I’d buy seventeen without a blink). Here we have a Peter that does seem like a nerd (yes, he did develop his webbing and shooters, but we blow by that as his current toys, and his suit are supplied by Tony Stark so it isn’t constantly rammed into our faces that he is the smarter than God). He’s got nerdy friends and nerdy hobbies. He again has an immature crush on a girl he doesn’t really know, but she’s an actual character and that’s perfectly fitting for a fifteen-year-old. He’s strongly moral, but in the way a good kid can be, not in a whiny or self-righteous sense. And like many teens who look to the future, he wants to do more while desiring validation for who he is and what he does.
What really blasts him ahead of the competition is that he is likable. All the previous takes on Peter have been unpleasant. Sure, Maguire’s and Garfield’s Peters were good people, but I wouldn’t want to meet them, and only support them vaguely because they are the good guys. Emotionally, they are not engaging (and for Maguire’s taciturn version, I would make sure he was off any party guest list). Holland’s Peter is someone I’d cheer for.
And finally we have a Spider-Man who is humorous. He makes jokes and quips like he couldn’t keep his mouth shut if he tried and all those lines are funny.
This is a complete Spider-Man. He’s kind, smart, anxious, hopeful, and a load of fun. I wouldn’t put him up with Christopher Reeve as a perfect version of his superhero character, but he’s close.
As for who he hangs with, his teen friends appear as amusing, layered teenagers. And yes, that’s a good thing. As is having Iron Man as a mentor, particularly as Tony needs to learn the lessons he is trying to teach. And finally, an Aunt May who doesn’t feel like a stereotype from the 1930s. She hasn’t had enough screen time to be fully fleshed out (there’s a deleted scene of her saving someone in the neighborhood I want to see) but what’s there has been good.
It’s nice when the best is the most recent as we’ll be getting more of him, and I’m looking forward to those films, whereas I’m just as glad #3, #4, and #5 fade away.