Over the last 16 years we have seen multiple incarnations of Spider-Man, and despite the many differences between the various series, its success has been consistent. The world famous web-slinger first swung onto the big screen in 2002 with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, and the cultural phenomenon has been a consistent commercial hit through to the most recent on-screen adventure, Spider-Man: Homecoming, which debuted in 2017 and grossed $880 million at the box office.
With the exception of some choppy 80s television features, the first long-form adaptations of the Spider-Man comics were Sam Raimi’s three films with Tobey Maguire in the iconic red and blue suit after Sony finally secured the rights to some big screen action. Despite the first two movies being met with positive critical reception, a lukewarm response to the final entry in 2007 and creative differences brought about a natural end to the original series.
Five years later the franchise was rebooted with Marc Webb at the helm and Andrew Garfield donning the mask. Relativity Media, a unique next-generation studio headed by CEO Ryan Kavanaugh, has made more than 200 motion pictures, and was the driving force behind the Amazing Spider-Man, which was released in 2012. However, a year after the sequel, Marvel struck a deal with Sony, and the hit superhero was swiftly introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Tom Holland being the next to take on the role. This version of the character has appeared in two films in the MCU so far and is confirmed to appear in another three.
16 years, three Peter Parker’s, seven films and only the one iconic hero. So, how well do these adaptations match up to the comics and what are the differences? Despite all being quite recognizably Peter Parker, the three versions have variations that make them unique. Parker is a distinctive character. He’s funny, he’s outcast for his intelligence, and he has strong moral values but also possesses an (usually withheld) anger that tends to manifest itself as normal teenage angst. All three Parkers are true to these tropes in varying degrees.
Spider-Man movies are not just about the titular character though, as the world is made up of a rich tapestry of friends, acquaintances, love interests and villains. As each of these major players changed by each film, so did Peter. The different struggles driven by Harry Osborn, The Green Goblin, Venom and Doctor Octopus, the happiness and conflict set up by Mary Jane, and the domestic challenges anchored by Uncle Ben and Aunt May drastically shaped the different versions of Peter.
Tobey Maguire was a seemingly perfect pick for the role, mixing geek chic and charm with obvious intelligence. However, one substantial change was Maguire’s lack of humor. He was caring and held his values through turmoil, but quips and jokes were not a core component in Raimi’s vision. Given the enduring levity of the comics, this was quite an obvious distinction.
Next up was Andrew Garfield. The Social Network star brought about a subtle but notable change. Spidey was now outcast not for his obvious geekiness but for his countercultural attitude. He was a rebel. He was still smart, thoughtful and funny, but his nerdiness was replaced by a vaguely hipster-ish tendency. Audiences found this portrayal engaging and both Amazing Spider-Man entries fared well at the box office, but yet another change was on the horizon.
Tom Holland was announced as Marvel’s new star in 2015 and is arguably the truest to life comic adaptation. Spider-Man is young again. Not battle hardened but fresh-faced and unrefined. The previous two were never truly believable as teenage students, but as young men attempting to embrace adulthood. Holland’s Parker is rooted in college life and encounters all the challenges it brings. He apologizes if he slaps a bad guy too much and cracks a joke every second he’s on screen. The more grounded tone was supported by ‘everyman’ villain, Vulture, played by an excellent Michael Keaton.
Quite a journey then for just one character in such a short space of time, and Marvel is sure to have further development in mind as it prepares for more mainline movies and spin-offs. The masked hero is set to star in Avengers: Infinity War, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and Spider-Man: Homecoming 2 before the end of 2019.
However, whatever is in store in celluloid (or digital) form, Spidey’s core qualities of kindness and humor, and the hope he instills in new and old generations alike will ensure his popularity endures and he will remain universally loved across the globe.