Unlike many other popular superheroes in the ‘mainstream’, Spider-Man is different in that his traits extend far beyond his two identities of civilian and crime fighter. For an early comic book hero, there is a surprising amount of depth to the character when it is done right. In fifteen years or so, we’ve seen three different actors portray Spidey in three different film franchises: Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), The Amazing Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield), and Spider-Man: Homecoming (Tom Holland). From these three interpretations of the same hero, audiences are able to effectively ‘observe’ what makes the character engaging.
One of the most overlooked facets of Peter Parker’s identity is his conventional but distinctive stance on morality. Much like Superman, Spider-Man is all for truth, justice, and the American way, which includes standing up for the little guy as well as being genuinely selfless. However, what sets the webhead apart from the man of steel is the way guilt is incorporated into his moral compass. In this regard, the original Tobey Maguire Spider-Man is the ‘best,’ as guilt over Uncle Ben’s death is what drives that story and pushes him into becoming a superhero. Compare that with Andrew Garfield’s version, in which he starts crime fighting as a means to catch his uncle’s killer and exact revenge. The new MCU Spider-Man is a decent middle ground between the two former portrayals. In Homecoming, Peter is shown as always having an iron constitution of right and wrong, upholding those principles to the detriment of his own happiness. But in the end, the audience isn’t given enough to understand the reasons as to why he fights the good fight (perhaps to save us from another origin story). Despite its age, the original Spider-Man succeeds most in creating a believable but admirable sense of morality for its protagonist. Indeed, the Sam Raimi trilogy incorporates the themes of guilt, redemption, and forgiveness to provide us with an overarching view of Peter’s moral progression and stances.
Wish fulfilment is at the core of a Spider-Man story. Everybody wishes that they could be bitten by a radioactive bug and be magically gifted a slew of awesome abilities. Because of that, all depictions of the character have included the aspect of enjoyment in his powers, dropping quips as he swings around and fights bad guys. Basically, it’s fun to watch a character having fun. While still entertaining, Maguire’s Spider-Man comes off as far more brooding and straightforward in his encounters. Some of that can be attributed to film direction, but the character leans to neither side of dark nor comedic, making his jokes feels out of place when they do appear. Garfield and Holland’s Spider-Man fairs much better in representing Peter’s eccentric personality when he’s in the suit. TASM’s (The Amazing Spider-Man’s) action scenes should be commended for their ability to depict the speed and excitement of being a kid imbued with super strength and agility. Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t feature that same kind of action, but it is by far the funniest of the previous movies, landing most of its jokes and comedic concepts. A lot of that comes from watching a youthful Peter Parker learning how to be a superhero through countless failures and missteps.
A stupid Spider-Man is no Spider-Man at all. One of the most defining characteristics of the hero is his scientific genius. However, each of these incarnations of Spidey has interpreted his intelligence in a different way. Again, Maguire is the least satisfying in the aforementioned regard. While nerdy and saccharine, the portrayal fails to effectively show Peter’s scientific mind throughout the entire trilogy. Nowhere is this more clear than in the web-shooter dilemma. The Maguire version has his web abilities organically whereas Garfield and Holland create theirs. There seems to be a general liking for mechanical web shooters, as they also serve the purpose of demonstrating Peter’s intellect and comprehension skills. Science plays a larger part in TASM than it does in the other two film series, which makes Garfield’s version perhaps the best at showing the thinking mind of Spider-Man.
The dynamic between Peter’s public and secret identity always plays a huge role in almost every Spider-Man story. Indeed, it is the interplay and relatability of his personas that make him such an entertaining character to watch and read. The original trilogy and Homecoming have both used this aspect to great effect, showing us a Peter Parker that struggles in his daily life to maintain a balance between heroism and normalcy. Homecoming‘s Spider-Man is especially effective at conveying the message with its younger version of the character, allowing audiences to sympathise with a kid who is missing out on adolescent life because of his suited obligations. The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t feature much of this character motif. Garfield’s Peter is essentially the same person inside and outside of the costume, and when he does quit, it is only for a minuscule fraction of the second film’s runtime.
In the great stories and films that have revolved around Spider-Man, the writers have always been able to create a multi-faceted protagonist that goes far beyond a simple guy who wears colourful outfits and spins webs. Of the three film series so far, I think Tom Holland’s Homecoming Spider-Man strikes the best balance of Parker’s traits. He’s morally good, witty, intelligent, and has an engaging dynamic between his hero and human identities. I’m definitely excited about the future of this Spidey in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and you should be too.