This year we are on the cusp of our seventh solo Spider-Man film — and our third live-action Spidey actor — since 2002. What Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, and Spider-Man: Homecoming gave us were three wildly different versions of Peter’s story, and wildly different versions of Peter Parker himself.
There are so many ways to talk about these three movies: the aesthetics, the narratives, the actors, the villains!
When Tobey Maguire was cast as Peter Parker, Spidey fans had all but given up hope ever to see the webhead on the big screen. Rights issues and development hell had besieged the character for years, so when Spider-Man finally made it to theaters, audiences were thrilled. That goodwill extended through Spider-Man 2, but when Spider-Man 3 came around in 2007 … there was some frustration. Five years later, Andrew Garfield swung into our collective conscious as the Amazing Spider-Man. Then, in 2014, Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out, and the less said about that one the better. Finally, Marvel Studios got their most popular character back to make a home in the MCU, and in 2017 Tom Holland made his solo debut in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Before we even launch into any plot threads or characterizations, we have to discuss the suits. There are strong opinions out there, but here's the correct order: Spider-Man > Homecoming >>>>>>> Amazing. Sorry not sorry.
One of the biggest differences that Homecoming brought to the cinematic Spider-story was that they passed right by Peter’s iconic origin story. There was no death of Uncle Ben, there was no flippant Peter using his powers for personal gain. Both Spider-Man and Amazing committed to this — admittedly with iconic actors in the role of Uncle Ben: Cliff Robertson and President Bartlet himself, Martin Sheen, respectively. (If Homecoming ever does cast a Ben Parker for flashback purposes, multiverse purposes, whatever, please consider Timothy Olyphant. He’s the Ben Parker the MCU deserves, thank you.)
The uneven power balance between Spidey and the adults in his life really works in Homecoming and Amazing to an extent, but Garfield’s Peter Parker is bogged down by an aggressive commitment to teen angst (Amazing is painfully maudlin). Kotaku staff writer Joshua Rivera encapsulated it best with a riff on Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”:
Andrew Garfield’s Peter is sad. All the time. No one can watery-eye like Garfield. It feels like a version of Peter Parker that was written as a direct result of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. Peter is edgy, awkward, and a loner. On the other hand, in Raimi’s Spider-Man, which is clearly a love letter from the director to Spidey, Maguire comes off as beige when he’s not in the suit. His Peter is so muted, and so much more free when he’s got the mask on. No wonder MJ goes for Harry first! Homecoming arguably excels at balancing the outsider, bullied aspects of Peter with his very earnest, eager-but-inexperienced side. MCU Peter feels like a high school kid making bad decisions because he’s a kid. It’s the first one that really handles a teen Spidey story for what it is: coming of age.
In both Amazing and Homecoming, Peter attempts to let an authority figure know about a threat and they shoot him down, ignore him, or keep him in the dark. It’s a highly used trope in young adult fiction, and it works as an impetus for Peter to take matters into his own hands in both examples — whether it’s Tony moving on the information but keeping Peter out of the loop or Gwen’s father throwing him out of the precinct and ignoring Peter’s Lizard intel to his face. The difference is that eventually Amazing’s Spider-Man is forced to take on the Lizard but wouldn’t succeed without Captain Stacy’s help, whereas Homecoming is about Peter having to handle it on his own. He gives himself his own pep talk! It allowed for the story to become about Spider-Man’s journey, rather than just getting a plot moving forward to set up a sequel. And it felt very comics-inspired that goes beyond just bringing a panel to screen. It got at the heart of a Peter Parker who tends to be a hero in isolation.
Despite these differences in the way Peter Parker is portrayed, all three movies have a decent handle on Spidey himself — he’s quippy, young, and super annoying to the bad guys he’s fighting off.
Speaking of which …
What works for Goblin (Spider-Man) and Vulture (Homecoming) is they exist wonderfully within the context of their movies. Goblin is so comic-booky and absurd. And Vulture is a great counter to the MCU’s Peter because he’s such a realistic villain. We can see him existing, and we can relate to him in an uncomfortable way. But Rhys Ifans as the Lizard never quite hits the mark (much like Amazing’s Peter) because he’s a just a little too cartoony-villain in a movie that takes itself too seriously. His Gollum-ing at himself in the sewers doesn’t have the same effect as Willem Dafoe employing a similar tactic. And if we’re being very honest, neither one holds a candle to Michael Keaton’s eyebrows.
It is interesting that in all three movies the villain manages to figure out who Peter is. In both Spider-Man and Amazing it’s because Peter himself tips them off through being too forward, or bad timing, or leaving behind his camera with his NAME ON IT. In Homecoming it’s out of his control, which feels much more in line with the character’s history — though in Homecoming he has the added benefit of knowing, with certainty, that Adrian Toomes is the Vulture.
There’s no grand scale with Homecoming’s Peter Parker because his place is existing within the world as he knows it. He’s not ready for the big leagues yet. Unlike his predecessors, there’s not a single shot of him swinging through the buildings of New York City. But there’s also not really a moment where Homecoming’s Peter Parker connects to anyone outside his own peer group. Something that Amazing does get right is the potential connection between Spidey and the people he saves. The scene of Peter in the car with the kid he saved is so great. He finds a small moment of connection, which is part of what works so well with the character (see also Spectacular Spider-Man #310, or Hannah Blumenreich’s Spidey zine).
The last thing to touch on is Peter’s love life. All three movies take on three iconic Spider-Man female characters: Mary Jane Watson, Gwen Stacy, and Liz Toomes (arguably a stand-in for Liz Allen). Both Amazing and Spider-Man have Peter breaking up with Gwen and MJ respectively because he's making the decision for these women, and it is frustrating as hell. Even when Amazing’s Peter points out that his promise to Captain Stacy was likely to be broken, it’s still his decision, not Gwen’s. Holland’s Peter is never forced into that position in Homecoming. When he leaves Liz at the dance it’s because he knows his responsibility is to take down the Vulture — but he never makes the call for Liz. (Also shout-out to Marvel for not putting Tom Holland in lifts when he stands next to Laura Harrier and letting her be taller than him on screen.)
This won’t be the last iteration of Spider-Man we see on screen, but in the last 17 years we’ve gotten a wide range of Spideys from these three different franchises — there’s something for everyone! Homecoming feels like the strongest tie to comics Spider-Man, thanks to both the deal that Marvel made with Sony and truly excellent casting. But Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man both had great respect for the webslinger and his comics origin, and they’re still fun to watch! Here’s hoping that in another 17 years we can have this conversation about all the great version of Miles Morales we’re getting.