In honour of Spider-Man: No Way Home's release in theatres, I thought I would revisit the original film trilogy that made me fall in love with the character growing up. Read on for detailed, sometimes nerdy and maybe one or two emotional reviews of two completed trilogies featuring this iconic masked hero (apologies Andrew Garfield fans, there will be a follow-up article in the first half of 2022 featuring the Amazing Spider-Man and honestly insanely good animated Into the Spider-Verse films!).
I've also put a track from each film following its review as optional background noise as you scroll. If anything you read resonated with you, share it in the comments below :-)Jump to sections below:
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words: "With great power comes great responsibility." This is my gift, my curse. Who am I? I'm Spider-man.
In the lead-up to Tom Holland's 3rd Spider-Man solo film, No Way Home, I decided to re-watch the classic Spider-man movies from my childhood - and surprisingly, they don't just hold up but exceeded my expectations.
Spider-Man is one of the best superhero origin stories, period. It definitely has a 2000s vibe in its music and editing choices, but establishes its own tone that allows for superhero action and one-liners alongside emotional depth and development, a trademark that carries through for the rest of the trilogy. Tobey Maguire is almost perfect as the nerdy, introverted Peter Parker who's luck changes mightily (along with his body) after the now-famous experimental spider bite. Harris and especially Robertson literally define the cinematic versions of Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and Jameson isn't just hilarious but also positively honest in a scene where he defends his photographer's life. Kirsten Dunst surprised me as a love interest with her own arc and interests, and I can't fault Dave Franco's performance as Peter's rich best friend with daddy issues.
Speaking of which, Dafoe eats this script up and absolutely delivers as a technological and modern take on the Green Goblin. Equal parts meme-worthy and terrifying, his Norman Osborn starts as a desperate scientist and becomes an unhinged villain with split personality issues not unlike Gollum/ Smeagol from The Lord of the Rings - also unexpected given this film's release year coinciding with that of The Two Towers! I was also taken aback at how similar Gobby and Spidey's relationship is to the Batman and Joker in The Dark Knight, with lines paying homage to their endless comic rivalry. This leads to some great action scenes, and a condensed version of all the classical superhero dilemmas from the comics - burning buildings, choosing a love interest or the public, and abandoned warehouse showdowns.
The score swings as our protagonist does, with Elfman doing an excellent job grasping who Spider-Man is at his core and what it feels like to be him. I can't fault the voiceovers either, they just fit the tone and give us a direct window to Parker - like that of the thought bubbles or captions of a comic book pane. Can Spider-Man 2 top this?
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Am I not supposed to have what I want, what I need? What am I supposed to do?
Having not watched this film for at least a decade, I was knocked off my feet at how good it still is - and arguably exceeded my expectations! This is honestly the best Peter Parker movie, delving deep into his character and providing such an emotionally satisfying arc that acts as a through-line for the movie's plot. This is of course backed up by the supporting cast, and Raimi's much more than just an exploration but rather definition of the comic book movie genre.
With only a feature-length runtime to tell its story, Spider-Man 2 wastes no time in showing us the struggles of being Peter Parker. Whether it's failing Joe's Pizza Delivery guarantee, being late and therefore not allowed in to your crush Mary Jane's Broadway musical, struggling with rent or missing Dr. Connors assignment deadlines, Parker's personal problems pile up (ha, see what I did there?). While we as an audience are captivated by his web-swinging antics as Spider-Man, internal issues start arising with Peter's biggest obligation as New York's hero. In doing this, Spider-Man 2 is unafraid to dig into the themes of sacrifice and hope that define who this character is.
The supporting cast shines, not only further pressuring our protagonist but also having lives of their own off-screen. Mary Jane is dating another man, J. Johah Jameson has hilarious family arguments, Harry Osborn is struggling to grow Oscorp in the weight of his father's death and despite being evicted Aunt May has some poignant words from her neighbour's son about being a hero. Even New York city has character, with humorous scenes such as the classic theme song being plucked on a violin and Spidey in an elevator, as well as emotional moments like the well-remembered train sequence.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Dr. Otto Octavius, one of the greatest live-action Spider-Man villains and a different-natured yet more than worthy but follow-up to Dafoe's Goblin from Spider-Man. The tentacle's introduction scene is famously shot like a horror movie, but Molina's performance introduces and maintains a sense of humanity throughout the very comic-book-like antics including stealing money from a bank and building a secret weapon in an abandoned laboratory.
There is action between the dialogue, and it still holds up today. The camerawork is fantastic, giving us wide and tight swinging shots of our titular hero and also providing snarling face close-ups during fist-to-fist encounters. Elfman's score definitely assists in this department, but also underscores all the emotional moments in this film - there are two or three tear-worthy exchanges, and the overall sense of heart and uniqueness in this film just elevates it on the whole for me.
Whilst the ending threatens to unravel itself with editing, closing off plot points and creating new ones for an inevitable third chapter, it really does capture who Spider-Man is as a whole and pushes Peter Parker's story in an exciting direction. As the movie concluded, I was left to reflect for a few moments upon just what this movie achieved. When Spider-Man 2 first came out, it really was a spectacle - comic-book movies were just emerging properly, growing from being obscure nerd-only films to mainstream blockbusters. The amount of times this, and the other Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four movies were replayed on cable television especially internationally really emphasised how big of a deal these were. In 2021 as I write this review, Kevin Feige's Marvel put out four films in theatres and five television projects, with literally every other major film and even streaming studio having at least one super-hero project in development or released. I'm not saying Eternals or especially Spider-Man: No Way Home are not massive spectacle events, but Spider-Man 2 really was released in a vacuum where we had to wait years for cast announcements, trailer shots and posters before shuffling into a movie theatre to watch our comic-book heroes come to life. Whilst we are blessed to be living in a Golden Age of comic-book movies, these movies paved the way for the non-stop franchise train of today with a sense of real passion, creative risk and cinematic heart, and it's important to remember those aspects as we churn out many more such movies in the future.
Directed by: Sam Raimi
But he wouldn't want us living one second with revenge in our hearts. It's like a poison. It can take you over. Before you know it, turn us into something ugly.
Ooh boy, after all the criticism I was apprehensive on this one. Despite loving it as a child, I can see its flaws as an adult, but overall Spider-Man 3 is a successful end to Maguire's era as the character.
Initially the plot seems to pick up directly where Spider-Man 2 left off, with Harry Osborn wanting revenge for his father and Peter now attempting to ask MJ to marry him. I did not mind this love triangle amongst the other hectic storylines running in the film, especially as it develops and each actor plays off each other in fear, anger or love. The Sandman plotline was highly visually interesting, although likely did not need the Uncle Ben linkage there - it felt like a bit of a stretch and poor way to frame a personal connection between Peter and Marko.
Then there's the Gwen Stacy/ Eddie Brock triangle with Peter. After a tease at the beginning, the first appearance of Spider-Man's black suit is an absolutely awesome moment. However, the rush to use Venom and admittedly poor characterisations of Gwen and Eddie drag down an already stuffed film (but not to the point of damnation!).
These storylines present Spider-Man with an abundance of power and confidence, which was the right move after the previous two films. This obviously pushes Peter into meme-able territory at times, but also provides some satisfying justice in the grand final battle. But with behind-the-scenes issues mostly revolving around studio interference, Mary Jane is yet again reduced to a damsel-in-distress among other script issues. Whilst the rest of the supporting cast tries, no actor/ character is up to the task of replacing Dafoe's Green Goblin or Molina's Doc Ock. Therefore whilst there is emotional payoff, Spider-Man 3 remains the most visually spectacular but unfortunately weakest entry in Maguire's trilogy.
Note: Unfortunately the Spider-Man 3 album was never actually retailed, so I can't embed any Spotify tracks here (although it would have been the black suit theme!)
Directed by: Jon Watts
Can't you just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?
I gave this movie 4.5/5 when I first watched it in 2017, ecstatic that Spider-Man was now firmly part of a larger universe just like the pages of the comics. I did not care that he had a smaller responsibility (it was the right move after the bombastic Amazing Spider-Man 2, and this was the MCU after all - there were countless other heroes to take up the spotlight). I loved that they really dug into the high school aspect of the character, and in my eyes Holland could do no wrong as the Peter Parker.
Most of these points still stand, but with a bit of time, maturity and a re-watch of the Maguire trilogy, Homecoming is not the near-perfection I initially thought it to be. It is still a solidly entertaining and great Spider-Man starting story, but Parker's character suffers from being too often (and willingly) at the mercy of Tony Stark's brash personality. This especially bleeds into Spider-Man's conflict with the Vulture and his supporting cast which sneaks in minor comic villains Shocker and Tinkerer. Whilst Keaton plays a truly great and often terrifying street-level characterisation of what could have been a farcical villain (with a killer end of Act 2 twist), Spider-Man fights him in an almost morally-blind fashion. The upside of these issues is that they highlight how young this iteration of Parker is, and how early in his journey this film takes place. Every mistake made (even those the script fails to recognise) leads to a greater Spider-Man in the follow-ups.
On to the rest of the good stuff (there is a lot!). Parker truly is a high school nerd, in a modern education environment with an almost perfect mix of age, ethnicities and social hierarchy/ awkwardness in the supporting cast. The skipping over of the origin story was also the right move, despite the small nerd pains within from not mentioning Uncle Ben at all past dubious clothing references. It was great to see so many MCU references, and smart to put web-swinging into unfamiliar settings such as the suburbs, the tall Washington Monument, a Staten Island ferry and a camouflaged Quinjet! Whilst I had more issues with the advanced tech suit and Karen during this viewing, I loved the transition to and usage of Peter's first "home-made" costume. And there is a certain unforgettable Amazing Spider-Man comic cover visual homage, complete with half-mask reflection, that encompasses who Spider-Man is as a character.
This was definitely a small-scale, Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man start to Holland's tenure as the titular character which also establishes his place in the wider MCU. The fanboy inside of me died at having this Spider-Man not just be a part of the film universe's Civil War event, but the gigantic spectacle that was Avengers: Infinity War/ Endgame. It truly did feel like Homecoming was an appropriate title for this film, and I don't just love Feige's audacity in his naming, but completely trust him with the character (not Sony).
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Directed by: Jon Watts
People, they need to believe. And nowadays, they'll believe anything.
Spider-Man: Far From Home is not a perfect Spider-Man movie, but it is honestly not a bad one. In effect, this was the movie that broke Holland's portrayal away from being dependent on other MCU characters, and instead establishes his brand of standalone Spider-Man - which is Peter-Tingle drone-smashing action!
After the truly traumatic events of Avengers: Infinity War/ Endgame, I loved how the script contrasts humorous examples of the Blip's impacts with brief but sufficient mentions of Peter's grieving. Like in Homecoming, I respect Marvel's intentions in putting Spider-Man in the fresh environment of a Europe exchange bus-trip, but can empathise with fans who want more than a few minutes of NYC web-swinging. Visually, this movie has it all with intense action sequences and many suits - although it is slightly problematic to see Parker's reliance on Iron Man's technology despite trying to define his Spider-Man.
Unfortunately, the plot is the weakest part, especially regarding Stark's EDITH gift and the long-term implications of Mysterio's plan (and one could argue, his backstory). It is cool to have Nick Fury and SHIELD show up, and the plot twists and turns a few times in great homage to this supporting character's espionage nature. However, I far more enjoyed the romantic time spent with Michelle and teen hilarity of Ned not as a bachelor in Europe, but Betty's boyfriend.
The conclusion of this film is spectacular, but despite some visually stunning sequences the plot struggles a bit to get there, instead relying on the rotating highlights of its European settings. However, with THAT post-credits scene ending (which honestly makes sense in the context of the previous movies we've seen) we are in for a truly surprising and exciting third chapter in this "Spider-Man: Home" trilogy. It seems like Marvel is trying to out-do themselves with ridiculous and new placements of Spider-Man's character now that they have some creative control of him, but it is important that they don't lose sight of not just the costume but the man inside it, Peter Parker. Holland is doing a fantastic job in the role and should be given the struggles of a growing adolescent boy who is also a super-hero, not an overly-empowered global traveller.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Directed by: Sam Raimi
The problem is you trying to live two different lives. The longer you do it, the more dangerous it becomes!
I mean, it is so hard to talk about this film without a) acknowledging all the spoilers and unfortunate but super-hyped plot leaks, b) reflecting on the fact that Holland has played this character 6 times in 5 years, and c) recognising that this is a solid Peter Parker story, potentially the best since Raimi's Spider-Man 2 effort in 2004.
I did not know I wanted this movie. After the public reveal of Peter Parker's identity as Spider-Man at the conclusion of Far From Home, I thought I knew and wanted the story to go in a certain direction. Whilst that may have initially been the plan, upon seeing not only the box office success but audience resonance with this film, I think what Marvel and Sony did do was the best move for this character and franchise at exactly the right time. There was some viewer apprehension after Far From Home, and some have not been fans since Homecoming. However, No Way Home settles aL MCU-Parker doubts (and a little bit more) as Holland puts forward his best, most emotional and most powerful Peter Parker performance on the screen.
Watts also delivers here - there is some truly fantastic camerawork, and some action sequences are just visual treats. Unlike Far From Home's tracking of movement, No Way Home's shots actually highlight each individual character's unique abilities, and there's some great varied colour to boot. Speaking of characters, this film has a lot. Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme Wong (lol), FIVE villains from the past two Sony Spider-Man franchises (satisfyingly one from each movie!), J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson and an honestly well-fleshed out Aunt May, Michelle and Ned. Due to Marvel leaning on the audience's memory regarding the villains especially, the supporting cast do not detract from what is ultimately Peter Parker's story. Unfortunately, in certain other aspects the plot can feel like it skips a few key character steps, or that we actually want more from certain individuals (including one key missing Marvel reference!), but I can't bring down a half-star from just what a cinematic and fanboy achievement this film was.
I mean there are some great (extended) cameos and MCU references, but at its core this film truly tests Peter Parker and puts him in those classical moral and life-management situations that Spider-Man is known for - but with a touch of magic and multiverse to increase the stakes. After the entire behind-the-scenes debacle that occurred between the Mouse House and Sony in 2019 (whilst I fully trust Marvel over Sony to handle this character and world, I don't want to see Disney completely monopolising the film industry), it does feel like this film sets up a way out (No Way Home?) for Holland's Peter Parker in the MCU. However, I think that the story's strength is that I am so excited to see where the character of Spider-Man goes next after this love letter to his live-action portrayals.
Final Thoughts & Ranking
So what's my overall final ranking of each movie? Well first, I think it's important to understand each trilogy on the whole.
Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3 really does cover an extended time period as Peter Parker goes to college, falls in love and becomes his own hero. They end in a way that closes the arc on his character and really ensures he is remembered as Spider-Man. Tom Holland's Home trilogy is really an extended origin story, and you can't forget that in-between these movies his Spider-Man was part of the Civil War and Infinity War/ Endgame conflicts. The change in writing team and story focus for Holland reduces his Spider-Man's overall thematic cohesion when compared to Tobey's trilogy on responsibility, sacrifice and power. On the other hand, I really appreciate Feige's long-term vision in providing fans everything we want from Peter Parker in the MCU - not rushing to give us MJ, and taking the time to show him in high school as well as fresh settings and interesting team-ups.
Whilst I am excited to see where Tom Holland's Spider-Man goes next, Tobey's trilogy is a lot stronger on the whole, and much more definitive - likely because he and Sam Raimi had the first proper stab at bringing this character to life on-screen. Hopefully in the next decade we get to see MCU Spider-Man 4, 5 and 6!
My final ranking of the films from these two Spider-Man trilogies:
- Spider-Man 2 - 5/5 ⭐
- Spider-Man: No Way Home - 5/5 ⭐
- Spider-Man - 4.5/5 ⭐
- Spider-Man: Homecoming - 4/5 ⭐
- Spider-Man 3 - 3.5/5 ⭐
- Spider-Man: Far From Home - 3.5/5 ⭐
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