Worst to First: Ranking the Spider-Man Movies
We’re looking forward to tonight’s release of the new Spider-Man movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming with another of our “Worst to First” articles. I’m not sure I’ll offer too many surprises on the top end here, but there might be a little bit of suspense in the lower half. Since most of us will not have seen the new film, we’ll only be ranking the existing five for the time being. If you have seen the newest solo Spider-Man flick already, feel free to share your non-spoiler thoughts here in the comments section.
Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man is one of the very most beloved and most important characters in the history of super hero comic books. He doesn’t have the longevity of any of the classic DC characters like Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman. In fact, he’s not even the originating character of the Marvel style that became so dominant shortly after its inception in the early 1960s. Heroes such as Captain America, the Sub-mariner, and the original Human Torch actually predate Spidey by a good two decades, originating in 1939-41 when the company was known as Timely Comics. It wasn’t until Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a series of super human heroes with real life personalities and problems who appealed to older readers and the company rebranded as Marvel that it started to become the giant it is today. Spider-Man wasn’t even the first of this new brand of heroes. That distinction goes to the super family, the Fantastic Four, who predate the wall crawler by a good nine months. But when he finally did make his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 it eventually became obvious that Stan Lee and co-creator Steve Ditko had a hit on their hands.
There is some disagreement about the origins of the character and how he was created, but there is no dispute that despite his publication history lagging behind the Fantastic Four and the Hulk at first, Spider-Man became the embodiment of the Marvel age of comics. Peter Parker was not a masculine ideal hailing from another world, he wasn’t a billionaire, and he wasn’t the offspring of the gods. This was a teenager with family and friends and girl trouble who was definitely not the big man on campus. These are big reasons why he appealed so strongly to real life teenagers with their own troubles and insecurities.
By the time I was a kid in the 1970s Spider-Man was already a cultural icon, complete with a daily comic strip, a Saturday morning cartoon series, popular toys, and just about any product you could think of with his face plastered on it. He was used to sell Hostess treats and even made frequent appearances on the Electric Company alongside Morgan Freeman.
Previous attempts to offer a live-action version of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man were met with pretty limited success. A late ’70s television show on CBS won strong ratings, but was cancelled after just 2 seasons due in part to high production costs and critical fan reactions. A James Cameron take of the subject never took off because of continued legal wrangling over the rights to the character and underwhelming targets for the leads. Still, as soon as those legal rights and special effects saw significant advances, Marvel’s most iconic character was a natural for a big screen production. So far, we’ve had five installments with two different casts. The third incarnation opens in wide release tonight, but we’ll just be covering the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb films here.
It’s always fun to see Spidey in action, and Garfield and Stone continued to lend charm to both Peter and Gwen effectively here, but the final product is just a huge unwieldy mess. Much like the final installment in the Raimi films, Amazing Spider-Man 2 collapsed in part due to an over-ambitious story that couldn’t develop any thematic focus and because of studio interference. Unlike that example, however, I’m not sure these problems fully explain the utter failure that resulted. The studio was in such a hurry to expand it into a multi-movie universe, as Marvel had started to have so much success with at the time with its Avengers-centered films, that they couldn’t seem to be bothered to develop the central characters with any patience. Instead, their focus was on trying to get audiences ready for a Sinister Six follow-up. Unfortunately, one of the primary victims of the movie’s uncertainty with what it is comes in the ridiculously over the top performance of the usually excellent Paul Giamatti, whose hyper psychotic Russian thug (who eventually becomes a mechanized version of the Rhino villain) is one of four villains in the movie, most of which bear little to no resemblance to the source material. And here is where the film earns its spot at the bottom below even the last Raimi film. Apart from its lead actors, I wasn’t left with any impression that anyone involved had a strong understanding of the core of the Spider-Man story and characters. As a result, what should be an exciting and emotional adventure turns into a confusing and unengaging entertainment that screams, above all, “PRODUCT!!!!”
4. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
It’s possible that this installment has avoided the bottom rung in this list simply because it was playing on the very solid ground which Sam Raimi and company had established in the first two Spider-Man movies. By now we knew and loved these characters and were anxious to see more. For this same reason, I’m very open to arguments that this is actually the worst of the Spider-Man movies because it managed to squander most of that good will and hard work. I don’t think it’s any surprise to find that one of the culprits in making this a poor third episode is its inclusion of too many villains. You’d think movie studios would have learned that lesson by 2007, but…nope. The heart of the movie was originally intended as a conclusion to the multi-faceted relationships between Peter, Mary Jane, and Harry Osborn with the latter emerging as a new version of the Green Goblin. That story could have been effectively told with detail and nuance with one other villain in the mix, but when Raimi gave in to studio demands to include the popular Venom character along with his own choice of the Sandman, the film became very crowded very fast. This resulted in neither the Peter/MJ/Harry or Venom story receiving the attention it required. The fact that Raimi didn’t really care about or understand the Venom symbiote or its eventual incarnation bonded with Eddie Brock (a miscast Topher Grace) was pretty obvious and resulted in the widely reviled “Emo Parker” dance sequence. Meanwhile, Dylan Baker is still standing there as Curt Connors waiting to turn into the Lizard, a villain who could easily have supported a Spider-Man movie on his own. Of course the re-boot of the Spider-Man property five years later would double down on wasting that promising character.
3. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Look, I’m not going to argue that The Lizard didn’t have some pretty silly incarnations at times in the comics, and some of those stories were obviously the inspiration for how the character was used in this reboot. But there have also been some very emotionally effecting stories focused on Dr Curt Connors and his tortured Jekyll/Hyde type story, given emotional weight in part due to his genuine friendship with Peter Parker. In these stories The Lizard is a pitiful, if frighteningly dangerous, beast with Connors’ personality buried deep beneath. Sam Raimi was clearly developing this angle on the character instead of the more ludicrous reptile supremacy angle from some of the other books. The simpler, more emotional Connors story could have made a very effective one indeed if paired appropriately with other events and intrigues in Peter Parker’s life. As it is, the character was completely misused. The fact that this fumble was presented alongside a re-telling of the Spider-Man origin story while introducing a more confident and socially adept Peter Parker and cramming in an additional misunderstanding of the Captain Stacy plot makes this a seriously unsteady introduction to the world of the wall crawler. While I held out hope that the filmmakers could right the ship with some minor adjustments, this movie didn’t fill me with confidence on that count because it just didn’t remind me much of the Spider-Man I grew up on. It turned out I was right to be concerned. At the time it felt like Sony was making a new Spider-Man movie mostly so they could retain the rights to the potentially powerful box office property. While I understand this from a business standpoint, as an audience member there has to be a better reason for making a movie.
2. Spider-Man (2002)
Consider where the world of super hero movies, especially those based on Marvel properties, stood fifteen years ago. The X-Men movie had been a mild surprise on a modest budget, but the comic book giant had had a seriously spotty record with presenting any of its properties off the page. Characters such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Captain America were generally well-known by the public at large, but none of them was yet considered in the same breath as classic DC characters such as Superman and Batman who had both already seen some success on the big screen, but had disastrous final installments to that point. Fans of the Marvel books had been pretty forgiving of the faults of the first X-Men movie in part because they were so happy just to see it get made competently after the company’s near implosion in the ’90s and poor performance with screen versions of their characters. A measure of that same forgiveness was bestowed on this first Spider-Man movie, but also because director Sam Raimi so obviously understood the spirit, history, and characters of the source material. Despite some grumbling over the organic rather than mechanical web shooters, he was clearly a fan who knew who these people were supposed to be. The iconography of the books was lovingly reproduced in many spots, and much of the casting was spot-on. This felt like the work of someone who had read the exact same Spider-Man books I had read as a teenager. It was a little too cartoony in spots and that Green Goblin costume pointed out some difficulties in adapting some of that source material effectively, but this was a good first step that left most Spider-Man fans optimistic about what could be achieved going forward.
1. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
For several years it could very easily be argued that Spider-Man 2 was the very finest super hero movie yet put on the big screen. That might not be the case anymore, but I’d still rank it in the top five without blinking. With Spidey’s origin story out of the way, and some of the key character relationships established, Raimi was able to present a confident, entertaining, and nearly seamless story that continues to get most of what was important very right, while adding interest in spots where the original books had been happy with simpler characterizations. The “Hero No More” plot line borrowed from the fifth year of the comics seems a little shoehorned in here, but Raimi’s understanding of stylized horror and Alfred Molina’s supremely satisfying take on the visually compelling Doctor Octopus help to make this a thrilling experience for anybody who grew up on Spider-Man. The action scenes take a huge step forward here and the story pays off emotionally on multiple fronts. It’s a masterfully structured entertainment that is emotionally effective and tightly conceived enough that I don’t even mind when it stops for a couple of moments to let Peter eat a piece of chocolate cake. Let’s also be clear about something: JK Simmons and Rosemary Harris both outright lay claim to the roles they play. No other actor will ever embody J Jonah Jameson or Aunt May the way these two did. Those are the characters. Any other take on them will be second best tops.
I don’t expect a huge amount of disagreement on the overall rankings, but maybe you guys will surprise me. Vote below, discuss in the comments section, and we’ll be back before long with the final results of the poll. Simply click and drag the movies into your preferred order, putting the best movie at #1 and the worst movie at #5.
Posted on July 6, 2017, in Movies, Super Heroes, Worst to First and tagged Alfred Molina, Andrew Garfield, Doctor Octopus, Emma Stone, Green Goblin, Marc Webb, Sam Raimi, Spider-Man, The Lizard, tobey maguire, Venom. Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.