If the positive hype around “Homecoming” tells us anything, it’s that Spider-Man will never get old because Spider-Man is always in the process of growing up. In a genre where so many of the most popular heroes speak to each other like countries instead of characters, arguing about civic philosophy in a way that has no practical application to any of our lives, Peter Parker is a superhero for the rest of us. He’s relatable.
Spidey has squared off against some of the superhero genre’s best villains (and some of its worst), but it never feels like he’s saving the world. On the contrary, his greatest struggles are recognizable as our own — self-sacrifice, forgiveness, repurposing his guilt into something productive.
Spider-Man is a friendly neighborhood hero in an age of foreboding cinematic universes. It’s nice to guard the galaxy, but somebody has to keep an eye on Queens. Of course, the smallness of his character has a tendency to clash with the Hollywood ethos that bigger is better. Whenever Spidey’s web has started to sag under its own weight, the studios have felt free to just wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. It’s easier that way. And while that has made for some frustrating stops and starts along the way (and three different Spider-Men in the span of 14 years), it almost works to the character’s advantage. After all, what is Peter Parker if not a kid who’s trying to figure out who he is, who he needs to be, and how he’s supposed to fulfill the expectations placed upon him?
“Spiderman: Homecoming” marks the sixth dedicated Spider-Man movie since 2002, and it’s a fascinating next step for a superhero whose movies have represented the highest highs — and the lowest lows — of his genre. Here they are, ranked in order from worst to best.
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6. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014)
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” probably isn’t the worst film ever made, but it deserves a seat at the table. Miscalculated in every respect, this misbegotten sequel is a gleaming symbol of everything that’s wrong with modern Hollywood (and not only because it grossed $709 million and still barely eked out a profit). No human has ever actually made it through the entire thing, but I’ve analyzed notes left behind from those foolish enough to try, poring over their desperate words like a historian examining the pages of Shackleton’s journal, and I think I’ve been able to piece together why this movie doesn’t work.
Director Marc Webb wastes little time exhuming the most tiresome elements of his previous installment, reasserting his preference for mythology over character with a profoundly unexciting plane crash sequence that serves as a metaphor for the rest of the movie to come.
An 150-minute parade of bad decisions, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is a masterpiece of missteps, the “Singin’ in the Rain” of tripping over itself. There are still so many unanswered questions. How did anyone let Electro happen? Who convinced these people that shoehorning Harry Osborn into the story would steer it in the right direction? Why is the great Sarah Gadon playing a building? Did we all die when Peter Parker said that he does “web designs,” making the last three years of life on Earth a collective hallucination like in “Jacob’s Ladder?” And seriously how did anyone let Electro happen?
A classic case of terrible food and such small portions, the worst part of sitting through “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” might be that the Herculean effort is all for naught; in an unprecedented moment of Hollywood cruelty, the movie ends with the promise of a sequel in which a demented Paul Giamatti will terrorize Manhattan from inside a giant mechanical rhinoceros. That promise remains unfulfilled.
5. “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012)
The first installment of Marc Webb’s spectacularly ill-fated reboot series swung into theaters with all the enticing freshness of that sweaty leftover meat you should never have put in the microwave, and audiences turned out for it because modern Hollywood is pretty much just an unholy union between Stockholm Syndrome and air conditioning. All the same, it’s still a fascinating piece of corporate product for how it contrasts with the Sam Raimi film that previously told a very similar origin story. The latter was made for a world where superhero movies had yet to go nuclear, and the former was made for a world that was absolutely soaked in radiation. “Spider-Man” is so much fun because it didn’t have to be cool; “The Amazing Spider-Man” is such a slog because it couldn’t afford to be anything else.
As limp and lifeless as the Coldplay song that it uses to score a flirtatious early scene between Peter Parker (a miscast Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), Webb’s take on such time-honored material is safe to the point of sterility. Awkward but never vulnerable, this Spidey is a brooding genius with a mysterious past even before he gets bitten by a bland CG arachnid, so it’s real tough to buy him as the local dweeb, and borderline impossible to care about him as the neighborhood vigilante.
Don’t even get me started on the movie’s plastic glow-pop aesthetic, or its weightless CG action, or the fact that its villain looks like he was cut from the “Super Mario Brothers” movie for looking too stupid. Think of all the great bad guys in movie history. Now think of how many of them tried to attack the hero by climbing through the toilet of a high school bathroom.
Worst of all is that “The Amazing Spider-Man” never cops to the fact that virtually everyone in its target audience had already seen it a few years prior, when it was less amazing but much better. It was like the studio was calling for a mulligan after hitting a hole-in-one.
Somewhere between a reboot and a cover version, “The Amazing Spider-Man” had no reason to exist (even the financial calculus was a bit wonky). Say what you will about our current obsession with interconnected franchises and cinematic universes, but at least “Homecoming” has the clear objective of weaving Peter Parker into a larger story. At least Marvel isn’t just hitting the reset button, asking us to pay for a glossy photocopy of something that was never much of an original in the first place.
4. “Spider-Man 3” (2007)
People, the evil Peter sequence is good. It’s the best part of the movie. It’s emblematic of everything that made Raimi’s trilogy special and that continues to help it stand out from the glut of superhero movies that it inspired. Deal with it.
It’s the rest of “Spider-Man 3” where we run into problems. The film’s fatal flaw is one that’s endemic to the third chapters of blockbuster trilogies: It tries to raise the stakes rather than deepen them (something that even Raimi himself has admitted). Overstuffed with villains and far too busy to meaningfully expand upon the extraordinary choice that Peter and MJ make at the end of the previous installment, Raimi’s third swing anticipated all of the things that would later sink the likes of “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Star Wars: Episode IX” (just brace yourself for it now).
The Symbiote was a potentially interesting way of driving a wedge between Spider-Man and the love of his life, but the story overcomplicates itself to the point of obnoxiousness, incorporating everything from amnesia to pumpkin bombs and Topher Grace on its way towards exhausting our interest in this franchise. Still, as bungled as Harry Osborn’s motivation might be here, his fate is handled well, and in a way that makes good on the previous two movies. Also, in hindsight, it’s amusing to see how Eddie Brock’s role at the Daily Bugle crystallizes the trilogy’s preoccupation with…fake news. Spider-Man, who has always loved to pose in front of billowing American flags, is nothing if not a product of his country.
The list continues on the next page.