Let me spin a yarn for you. It’s May 3rd, 2002, and among the group of moviegoers oozing from the aisle into their seats is the chubby, nerdy, eleven year old, Robby Anderson. Once seated, I furiously tried to open a deceivingly large bag of Reese’s pieces that seemingly has no perforated edge. The lights dim and previews begin just in time for this small butter boy to open the bag of candy in just a way that sends the brown, yellow and orange balls all over the floor, which is a total bummer because you know, that’s like…over half the Reese’s pieces in the bag and YOU KNOW that shit was like ten bucks. This didn’t bother me too much though, because I was just about to see Spider-Man, the PG-13 adaption of my favorite super hero. Sure, I loved all super hero movies up to that point in my life, (even Batman and Robin), because, well, all children are idiots with no taste until they sometimes grow out of it. Once the SONY label faded, and the intricate web of intro credits began, the proceeding two hours and one minute blew this young boy’s mind. Never before had I seen such a seemingly “adult” take on a super hero, (at this point, I had not yet seen any of Tim Burton’s Batmans). I watched, almost voyeuristically, at the film that showcased some of the grittier motifs I’d ever seen in a movie. This flick had stakes: the murder of Uncle Ben, followed by the rage-fueled chase of his killer, corporate fatheads getting fried into skeletons, wet (so wet) upside down rain kisses, and the final showdown between Green Goblin (William Dafoe) and Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), that made young Robby cover his eyes, (because he was actually afraid of the bloody beating Spider-Man was taking). Oh yes, Spider-Man changed things, not just for movies of the super hero genre, but also for the young boy who grew into a slightly taller, older man-boy, sporting a pretty all right beard (if I do say so myself).
Since 2002, Spider-Man has had an interesting go around in the cinematic world. The original Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy concluded with the lackluster, (but jazz filled), Spider-Man 3, in 2007. The series was rebooted with director Marc-“whoa his last name is”-Webb, and Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, in The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012. But after weak critical reception to the film’s lengthy two hour and twenty minutes sequel, the series was yet again put back into the think tank, (or the green gas tank that makes Goblins and Lizards, if you will). During this time, Disney acquired the film rights to the majority of Marvel’s characters, and was beginning to construct its Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), starting with 2008’s Iron Man. Eventually, Sony decided to play nice with Disney, and in 2016 we got to see the web-slinger in the MCU with Captain America: Civil War (2016), and again this past summer, with Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). Regardless of who owns the rights to the Spidey franchise, these movies have been some of the biggest blockbusters in cinematic history. Spider-Man has been a part of our culture’s comic book scene since the 1960’s, but he’s really only been in our cinematic sphere since 2002. After six major movies, two reboots and a lot of varied takes on the same red and blue costume, what makes a good Spider-Man movie?
The thematic battle of, “Who wears who?” is not a new trope to super hero flicks. Is Bruce Wayne disguising himself as Batman, or does Batman disguise himself as Bruce Wayne? In the case of Spider-Man, this question is always at the heart of the narrative: Peter Parker cannot live a full life, because half of the time he is Spider-Man. Whether it’s Peter Parker as a teen who can’t make it to the academic decathlon, or adult Peter not being able to afford rent, while also rescuing New York City: these characters are always at odds with themselves. With Spidey, this battle of identity typically manifests into the form of a loved one. When Peter is faced with the fact he can’t be with Mary Jane at the end of Spider-Man, and again in Spider-Man 2 (2004), he begins a downward spiral of resenting Spider-Man, making him give up the suit altogether. Ironically, Peter wears a suit and mask to protect his loved ones so that he, as Peter Parker, can lead a somewhat normal life, but it seems that it’s his loved ones that are exclusively in danger.
Sure, Batman loses a girlfriend before every new movie, or Superman has to spin the fucking Earth around to save that reporter Clark Kent likes, but Peter’s loved ones are repeatedly put in danger, and no amount of mask wearing can save them. All six Spider-Man movies consist of the big bad knowing what’s under those pearly white, bug eyes, this fact always leading to a loved one falling (literally) into mortal peril. “The Green Goblin is my super rich friend’s dad and he sniffed my blood at Thanksgiving and knows I like girls and now all the girls I have ever met (Aunt May and Mary Jane) are in trouble,” is a lot of what the three acts in Spider-Man consist of. This repeated motif of a damsel falling is not what makes a ‘good’ Spider-Man story. Sure, Mary Jane falling off buildings is as American as socially and politically constructed sexism, but it’s really lazy writing. Maybe it’s what audiences of the time wanted, and yes, it positioned Peter into some pretty easy predicaments, but in the case of Spider-Man: Homecoming, it’s a breath of fresh air to not have the final battle culminate around a loved one falling/being dropped off a thing.
Spider-Man 2 also features the mortal peril of the only two women Peter has ever met but does the deepest dive of the literal tug of war between Spidey and Peter that we see in a Spidey movie. In the film, before Doctor Otto “not an octopus” Octavius became a horrid, octo-esque, multi-armed enemy he told Peter:
“Love should never be kept a secret. If you keep something as complicated as love stored up inside, it could make you sick.”
The movie depicts Peter’s desire to just do normal things, like not follow around the pretty redheaded girl in your red/blue pajamas, or to see a crime happen and ignore it. The movie wants you to believe it’s Peter’s love for Mary Jane that makes his powers go through a very flaccid allegory. The film leans into this question: why be Spider-Man at all? Does great power mean a sacrifice of personal life? The greatest crime of Spider-Man 2 is that this question is never fully answered. When Mary Jane is captured by Doc Ock at the end of the movie, this is what finally brings Peter’s powers back. What was taken away from him was brought back, through the same mechanism, but this never answers the question: does Peter WANT to be Spider-Man or does he HAVE to be? These are questions that make a great Spider-Man movie, seeing Peter confront his alter ego to discover what he really wants out of his life and why he can or cannot have it.
Spider-Man: Homecoming features a Spider-Man who wants nothing more than to not only become a super hero, but also an Avenger. The flick is very different from its predecessors, (The Amazing Spider-Man largely piggybacks on what works in the Raimi movies). Homecoming’s Peter isn’t fighting to lead a dual life, he’s ready to drop out of high school and become an Avenger, (if Tony Stark ever were to ask). The conflict of that movie is very much a “Year One” story for Peter, the trouble he gets into is from biting off more than he can chew, trying to impress others, or taking on Big Bads before he’s truly ready. Of course the typical dual life-juggling act is still in the film, it’s just a little more nuanced.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a great foil to Peter’s (Tom Holland) inability to lead a double life. Peter and Spidey can never be in two places at once, but Tony and Iron Man can, mockingly so. The movie features scenes of Iron Man saving Peter’s life, while Tony is in another country giving Peter a lecture. Tony Stark is the seeming antithesis to Peter’s super hero dilemma. It is how relatable Peter is as a character that makes him so great. He’s not super rich; he can’t be in two places at once. He’s just a kid from Queens who got dealt a bad hand before getting these incredible powers. But, as we know, with great power comes great responsibility, because with a great hero comes deadly villains.
Spider-Man's rogue gallery is one of the strongest of any super hero, and though the cinematic Spidey-ventures have a few duds, the majority of its Big Bads is what brings us to the theater. As I mentioned before, every major villain across all six movies eventually find out the true identity of Spider-Man. Villains should always embody a dark facet of our hero. Green Goblin and Spider-Man were made in the same Oscorp laboratory; Green Goblin exists to challenge Peter’s heroic ideologies. When he holds the fates of children in one hand and Mary Jane in the other, he says to the wall-crawler:
“This is why only fools are heroes-because you never know when some lunatic will come along with a sadistic choice. Let die the woman you love…or suffer the little children? Make your choice Spider-Man, and see how a hero is rewarded! […] We are who we choose to be, now…CHOOSE!”
Green Goblin in Spider-Man makes for a fantastic first villain in this franchise, because he is the road Peter did not choose, and he wants to punish Peter for his choice. In Spider-Man 2, Doctor Octavius is also created from a scientific experiment gone awry, but unlike the Green Goblin, this isn’t self-inflicting. While demonstrating his experiment of a thing that shouldn’t explode but does (I think it’s a fusion reactor, it’s not important) he loses his wife to the accident, but also a piece of himself, as the mechanical arms fuse to his spine. With part of him missing, Doc Ock becomes hell-bent on doing the experiment over, even if it takes the city down with him. Before any of this happens, we meet Otto Octavius, a nice, modest man, who sees something great in Peter Parker, teaching us that it only takes one push to make good people go bad. Even though Spider-Man 3 gets a ton of hate, the idea of the symbiotic suit amplifying Peter’s ego makes for a great villain of sorts, making Peter/Spider-Man the villain and obstacle in his own path for most of the movie. The Amazing Spider-Man villains are not really anything to write home about. Lizard is basically written like a Doc Ock/Green Goblin hybrid, and I’m sorry but I don’t feel like talking about Electro (HE’S NOT INTERESTING).
In Spider-Man: Homecoming we are #blessed with Michael Keaton’s Vulture. A character that keeps to namesake, scavenging from the wreckage of previous Avenger battles to create a black market that sells super-powered weaponry to common thugs. A fantastic reimagining of the character, Vulture’s ideology is that of a working class guy trying to get his. He resents the super-powered elite, who he feels fight above the common folk, letting carnage and their own hubris crumble everything around them. Vulture a representation of the side of super hero collateral damage that you never even thought of. Also, his suit is fucking cool.
Of course, we remember villains for their characterization, but what really makes them stick in our minds long after the credits roll is the quality of their final showdown. I can only speak to my own opinion on the matter, but after watching (and re-watching) all six movies, I must say, that my favorite action sequence is the train fight in Spider-Man 2. The way the perspective changes during the fight from the top, side and inside of the train, is insane and gravity defying. The image of a mask-less Spider-Man, using his body and raw strength to stop a train is one of the most iconic in Spidey lore. The scene forces Spider-Man to use every move in his arsenal and shows the audience the literal limits of his powers. The final showdown in Spider-Man between him and the Green Goblin is also memorable, as I mentioned before, being a kid and seeing a scene where Green Goblin is just whaling on Spider-Man was gruesome. The thing I love about all of the Spidey showdowns is the battle damage the suit endures. It makes sense thematically, for a villain to know who Spider-Man is under the suit, and literally beating the secret identity out of it. It’s a visual that has always stuck with me at the end of these movies.
So, what really makes a good Spider-Man movie? It’s hard to say. Film is an evolutionary process. My favorite has to be Homecoming, because of its fresh take and nuances, but that’s because six other Spider-Man movies precede it. Amazing Spider-Man knew the greatness of the Raimi trilogy; it’s why it pays so much (too much) homage to it. That original trilogy will always hold a special place in my heart. The little, Reese’s spilling Robby Anderson I told you about at the beginning of this article would watch the Spider-Man DVD on a little portable DVD player on every car ride, and on most nights before bed. The greatest thing that movie gave me, however, was the vernacular to talk about movies. I was able to articulate to people older than me, and to friends my same age, why Spider-Man is the greatest super hero ever, and why the Spider-Man movies are the greatest super hero movies ever. Now, as a (kind of) grown up, I’ll always love these movies, but I thank them for giving me a critical Spidey-sense about film.
Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter @RoBaeBae