Studies in Arachnology

Let’s rank the Spider-man films, shall we?

Studies in Arachnology
Images: Sony Pictures / Marvel Studios. Graphic: Nate Herzog

Spider-man swung back into theaters in December with Spider-man: No Way Home, the third outing for Tom Holland's version of the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In doing so, it continued the growing franchise of the classic comic book character, adding to its already lengthy time on movie screens.

This particular outing did something interesting: it broke open the multiverse for the larger world of Marvel's characters, bringing in some of the villains from the character's other films. We've seen hints that Marvel would head this way: the Disney+ series Loki played with this quite a bit, as did Avengers: Endgame, and upcoming entries in the franchise like Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (and I'm guessing Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania as well) have continued to explore it.

In doing so, No Way Home plays out a crowd-pleasing adventure romp that pits Holland's Spider-man against a whole slew of enemies that makes for great action on screen, but also finally delves into the core of what makes Spider-man the classic character that he is.

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But to understand the film (and I'm dancing around the big reveal for those of you who haven't seen it yet), it's worth going back and watching the Spider-man films that preceded No Way Home, and during the week before the film opened, I did just that. I'm going to go ahead and rank them, and talk about how this latest film fits into the bigger Spider-verse.

(Spoilers ahead)

Image: Sony / Marvel

9. Spider-man: Far From Home

Yep, this one I'm ranking last, below the much-maligned Spider-man 3. The film is ... fine. It was the first one out of the gate after Avengers: Endgame, and in the series, it fits in this weird place of having to bridge the gap between the stories that came before it, and the weight of expectations of what would follow the buildup that led to the Infinity War / Endgame finale. It's a hard needle to thread, and I think the movie ended up leaning too much into the idea of finding a successor to Iron Man, which ultimately doesn't lead anywhere.

On top of that, I don't know that trading Spider-man's usual haunts for Europe really worked here: the film ended up feeling too global and too thriller-y to really play to Peter Parker's strengths as a "Friendly neighborhood Spider-man", the kid that we saw in Homecoming who was stopping small-time bike thieves and helping people with directions.

This is a film that tackles Peter's reentry into a changed world after Avengers: Infinity War / Endgame, and it does do some good work there: he's a kid trying to get back to life as normal. But ultimately, it takes on a plot that feels far too flimsy: I think it would have been quite a bit better had Mysterio actually been a hero, rather than a disgruntled Stark Industries employee trying to take control of the company, and the entire thing ends up being a weird, generic action blockbuster that doesn't hold a ton of consequences for the character, other than to set up the finale and No Way Home.

Image: Sony Picture

8. Spider-man 3

Sam Raimi's first Spider-man was a fun romp that kicked off the superhero craze; Spider-man 2 told a great story about the responsibilities of superpowers. Spider-man 3... carried that momentum but ended up getting thrust into too many directions to make anything really coalesce into a good story. We've got Venom, Sandman, Hobgoblin, Peter and Mary Jane splitting up, and Peter's unfortunate... dance moves.

That scene of Emo!Peter dancing in the streets is goofy and probably helped to tank the film's reputation, but that while watching it, I see what Raimi was trying to do with it: show how power had gone to Peter's head, and how it took down everyone around him.

It's a good idea, but coupled with an overstuffed narrative, the over-the-top camp was just a bit too much. It might have worked, had we maybe stuck with one of the villains and some character choices that didn't come straight out of thin air for plot purposes.

Image: Sony Pictures

7. The Amazing Spider-man 2

Sony doesn't seem to have learned from its prior mistakes with this one: there are so many villains on the board there, and it's so easy to fall into the trap of splitting the story between too many of them.

It's not all bad: the first half of the film is a lot of fun: Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone really carry the film nicely, and Jamie Foxx playing the awkward Max Dillon-turned-Electro would have been fine. But Dane DeHann is just utterly flat as Green Goblin when he shows up out of nowhere, and the Rhino is shoe-horned in there for shits and giggles (and a coming-and-later-canceled Sinister Six film.)

What I really did enjoy about this is Garfield's performance: a kid who's forced to get back up over and over, and his depiction here is flat-out fun. The final scene in which he gets the suit back on after Gwen's death and takes on the Rhino is fantastic and moving, especially when he takes over for the kid: it captures so much about what the character means to everyone in the city.

The film feels like it falls into the perfect territory for a good Spider-man story: Peter Parker trying to figure out how to live two lives, and there's a lot that works nicely here, had it not been weighed down by ... everything else. Most frustrating about this one is that it's clearly designed to set up a sequel and a lot of that dictates the action, which had the opportunity to pay off for viewers ... until No Way Home.

Image: Sony / Marvel

6. Spider-man: Homecoming (+ Captain America: Civil War)

I'm gonna bundle both Homecoming and Captain America: Civil War together here, because they're two films that feel inextricably tied to one another. The MCU avoided redoing Peter's origin story (we'll find out the reason why a bit later in the series), and as we're reintroduced to the character, Tom Holland absolutely shines here. He's a phenomenal Peter Parker Spider-man, and the one that I think feels the most like a younger teenager figuring things out.

In doing so, it loses a little of the magic that the prior Spider-man films had: Peter's so tied together with the ongoing drama of the other Avengers, and never really gets to stand alone on his own. It's not nearly as bad as his outing in Far From Home, but I can't help but think that the stakes could have been a little lower.

That said, Michael Keaton's take on the Vulture is one of the better villains in the entire MCU saga: he's understandable, mean, and perfectly relatable, and the cat and mouse with him and Spider-man is fantastic.

Image: Sony Pictures

5. Spider-man

The film that kicked it all off. It's kind of funny watching this in an age where Marvel's churning out superhero films every other month. I mentioned earlier how this film (and its two sequels) captured the monster/horror elements of the comics better than the MCU, but there's another element that comes with it: it's sheer, exuberant fun.

It's a goofy film that holds up really well: the story isn't bloated or overdone: it's lean and mean. It perfectly introduces Spider-man to audiences, and does a phenomenal job setting up the basics that we're all familiar with. It also proved to be the mold for just about every superhero origin story that followed: the setup, gaining powers scenes, and how a production took the colorful characters from the pages of a comic book and into a somewhat real world-looking design and story.

It's fun, zippy, dynamic, and a little campy, but Tobey Maguire has long been a high bar for any Spider-man that followed.

Image: Sony Pictures

4. The Amazing Spider-man

I remember not liking this one particularly well when I first saw it (I think I was probably hung up on the fact that Maguire wasn't back for it), but rewatching it the other week, I was really struck by how perfect Andrew Garfield was as the film's titular character. He plays a better teenager than Maguire, and I feel like the film captures his high school existence and technical brilliance that his character is known for (I feel like this is something that's often pushed into the background. Peter's a brilliant kid. It's sort of like how everyone forgets that Batman is a really good detective) and that comes through nicely.

And, it's a good redo on the classic origin story. We know the story, but it hasn't gone stale here, and that's in no small part down to Garfield's exuberance and sheer joy as the character.

Image: Sony / Marvel

3. Spider-man: No Way Home

(Final warning: spoilers!)

C'mon, we knew that as soon as you opened up the multiverse, we'd get to see a handful of live-action Spider-mans together, right? After Far From Home, I wasn't quite as jazzed for this, until those particular rumors began to spin up. And for the first time in Holland's tenure, we actually got a good superhero story that dealt with some of the weirdness that comics have long been able to get away with.

Let's go over the basics: the film picks up right where Far From Home left off with Peter's identity revealed, and he gets Doctor Strange to whip up a spell to make everyone forget. But he messes up the spell and as a result, a bunch of villains from all over the spider-verse come crashing into the MCU world from the other films: from Raimi's films, we've got the Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and Sandman (no Hobgoblin on the account that James Franco is in cultural time out for various reasons), and from Marc Webb's films, Lizard and Electro.

That was worrisome in and of itself, because we've seen what happens in Spider-man 3 and The Amazing Spider-man 2 when you break out too many stories. But it works, because those five villains are all wrapped up in the same story: they're all in this new world and they're sort of helping one another out at the same time. It's a good example of how to balance the desire for a really wild story vs. something that's overburdened. It works wonderfully.

Part of why it works wonderfully is because it did something that I didn't quite expect: this is Peter Parker's origin story, and he finally gets to stand on his own, without the larger stakes of the rest of the Avengers looming overhead. The character is wrapped up in a moralistic tragedy, and I'd sort of assumed that that moment had already happened prior to Holland's introduction. But here, Peter learns how to be a hero through tragedy of his own when Aunt May perishes, and he learns how to perseverance, thanks in no small part to some help from the other Spider-mans.

And let's talk about that reveal: I teared up when Garfield came through the portal, and when Maguire came through as his awkward self. I had expected the film to introduce them as a bit of a cameo at the end, but they really form the backbone of the story: they help Holland's Peter become the hero he's meant to be, even at great personal cost. Spider-man, in my eyes, has always been about getting back up and moving forward, and this film not only delivered that, it injected some real personal growth along the way.

The other thing that really works here is that the film not only pulls in Maguire and Garfield's versions of the characters: it actively continues their story and narrative arcs. They're not coming in with a fresh slate here: Garfield gets his moment of redemption over Gwen's death, while Maguire's Peter serves as a sort of older brother and guide to the other two in some heartwarming ways. It's all handled really well, and it's certainly my favorite of Holland's three films, but also likely going to be a favorite from the entire MCU.

Let's also not forget the other cool reveal: Charlie Cox makes a nice cameo as Matt Murdock, reprising his role from the since-canceled Netflix series. It's nice of Marvel to show that it's not wiping the character's slate clean, and I hope that we'll see him and Spider-man on the same screen alongside one another at some point.

What makes this all the more remarkable is how a lot of this film seemed to come together midway through production, on the fly. William Dafoe didn't want to come in for a small cameo, and it seems that the presence of all three Spider-man actors helped drive home some of the core scenes that really made this film come together. It's a little frightening at how close this could have come to being a trainwreck, but it somehow wasn't.

Image: Sony

2. Spider-man 2

Spider-man 2 has long been one of my favorite superhero films – no matter what continuity or franchise. Written by Michael Chabon, it's one of those rare sequels that builds and improves on the bones of its predecessors, in not retelling the same action beats over again, and advancing the characters forward.

Maguire really did a great job here as a Peter Parker torn between the responsibilities that his power imparts on him, and on the impact that it has on his personal life. He meets his match with Doc Ock, who plays a pitch-perfect villain who was more than just a cartoon – you could empathize with what he was trying to accomplish, even if his methods weren't on the up and up.

The film never gets away from understanding what it is: a comic book film, and it leans into the goofiness and dynamics that come from the pages of a comic book where so many other films have tried to inject more realism onto the screen. It's a book that feels so much like one of the comic stories, and it remains one of the better superhero films as a result.

Image: Sony Pictures Animation

1. Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse

This is such an easy choice, my love for Spider-man 2 non-withstanding. There's so much love about this movie.

It's a story that perfectly captures what I love about the character – in all of his forms – and one that recognizes the incredible depth and weirdness of the Marvel comics universe. There's been a lot of incarnations of the character over the decadces, and I think what makes this movie really stand out is that it understands that Spider-man isn't just a comic book character, his/her/its story is a tragedy.

Peter Parker is a character endures, and this film drives that home as a central message: you might have gotten pounded into a sidewalk, but you get back up and keep doing what you're doing, because it's what's right.

It's the perfect origin story and introduction to Miles Morales, who comes across as a goofy kid that's in over his head. He doesn't know the answers, bumbles his way across the screen, and learns even as he makes mistakes.

That's just half of it: the artwork does what no live-action film can do. It pops and crackles, bursts with color and movement, thanks to some neat production tricks (Miles runs at about half the frame rate that the more experienced Peter B. Parker runs at, because it underscores that he's still new to this – chef's kiss), and a harkening back to the look and feel of the comics. Every frame of this movie rocks, and it's possibly the best superhero film ever made.

What's next?

Spider-man has been knocked down and out a bunch of times. Spider-man 3 killed Raimi's franchise, and the lackluster box office and subsequent Sony hack did the same to the studio's plans after The Amazing Spider-man 2. No Way Home blew away box office expectations beyond even pre-pandemic levels, so I think it's safe to assume that we'll see Holland suiting up for another handful of films, the next of which are already in development. That's great to see: the finale of this latest film saw Spider-man in his own new classic suit, an anonymous outcast in New York City, and with a fresh slate to play with some interesting stories. The film hints at a lot of possibilities: Ned's no longer his best friend because his memory's been wiped (and he's got some magical powers), and the post-credit scene hinted at a possible way forward for an MCU-version of Venom. Hopefully, they'll keep it small and contained.

Garfield's reappearance brought about plenty of calls for a return to his franchise in the form of The Amazing Spider-man 3. I can see Sony thinking seriously about it, given that all three have been put alongside one another, and Sony's been working on its own Spider-man universe for a while now. That's been pretty well set up at this point, with both Venom and Venom 2 doing pretty well, and with Morbius on the way next month. There's also a Kraven the Hunter film coming in 2023, along with a whole bunch of other projects in the works to fill a couple of additional slots in the theatrical schedule in 2023.

And of course, there's Across the Spider-verse, the sequel to Into the Spider-verse. That's been split into two parts, the first of which will arrive in October 2022, and the second sometime in 2023. There's so many possibilities with that franchise, and it's clear that we've got the connective webbing to have every entry featuring the characters reinforce one another, and there's a lot to draw on.

I've long been a fan of the character – films and comics –  and despite the character's ups and downs over the years, he's always been a lot of fun to watch on the big screen.