3. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017)
Mercifully not an origin story, Spidey’s first solo MCU installment takes Peter Parker all the way back to his sophomore year of high school, (re)re-introducing the endlessly re-bootable web-slinger (a wide-eyed and overeager Tom Holland) as a 15-year-old pipsqueak who splits his time between anchoring the academic decathlon team and auditioning to be an Avenger. The Queens sophomore can barely bring himself to talk to the girl he likes (Laura Harrier as Liz), but once he puts on his signature red and blue suit he’s suddenly endowed with the confidence to fight crime, even if he’s not very good at it yet.
When “Homecoming” works, it does so by borrowing more from the likes of “Sixteen Candles” and “Just One of the Guys” than it does “Iron Man” or any of the other 412 previous installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It works by repurposing all that superhero stuff as a shiny new backdrop for the timeless dilemma of adolescence: How do you reconcile the person you are with the person you pretend to be?
Hilarious and human before it descends into the generic slop of its second half (the invisible plane flight might be a new low for the MCU), “Homecoming” is so much fun because it allows itself to become an actual genre film, the first of its mega-franchise ilk to recognize that superhero movies might be more interesting if they were also something else.
2. “Spider-Man” (2002)
From the opening credits to its opening weekend grosses, this is the Big Bang of modern superhero cinema. “Spider-Man” remains one of the best examples of its genre, an origin story that brought an iconic character to the big screen with wit and verve and a unique sense of self.
You can feel it in the casting of fuddy-duddy Tobey Maguire, who’s way too old to pass for a high school student (like, “Never Been Kissed” too old), but who endows Peter Parker with a more perfect and practiced innocence than any actual teenager could ever hope to give him. You can see it in the fight sequences, the cartoon stiffness of which reflects the look of the “Power Rangers” and the tone of classic graphic novels better than it anticipates the high tech spectacle of action in the MCU (“It’s you who’s out, Gobby!”). You can sense it in the actual spider that bites our budding hero, a real creature that’s been tranquilized and painted blue and red.
Like any Spider-Man saga, the film is a morally textured epic about our responsibility to other people, both loved ones and strangers alike. But, to quote the opening voiceover, it’s also just “about a girl.” And because of that, “Spider-Man” remains decidedly more human than it is superhuman, less a spandex soap opera about split identities and double lives than it is a guileless coming-of-age adventure that’s fraught with pubescent anxiety. After all, this is the only big-screen iteration of the character who ejaculates web fluid from his wrists.
That’s one of the many ways in which the movie benefits from the fact that its genre had yet to take itself too seriously. Its silliness and sensitivity are ultimately inextricable from one another.
1. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)
It’s hard to be a god, or a self-appointed savior of any stripe. Jesus was 33 before he really leaned into the role; Peter Parker only looks 33. Jesus had to carry a wooden cross; Peter Parker has to stop a speeding commuter train with just the power of his pecs. No wonder Tobey Maguire sounds so glum in the opening voiceover to Sam Raimi’s first spidey sequel. “Who am I?” he sighs. “I’m Spider-Man.”
A lot of superhero movies have paid lip-service to the burdens of self-sacrifice, but “Spider-Man 2” remains the best of them — and also the clear pinnacle of its entire genre — because it makes that weight palpable, because it recognizes that giving up the thing we want the most is heroic, but fighting to keep it can be even more so. Swinging into its story with the newfound swagger of its title character (that pizza delivery sequence is more fun and fluid than just about any action setpiece since), “Spider-Man 2” fires on all cylinders.
Peter is struggling with his own martyr act, watching MJ’s acting career flourish from afar as they each struggles to make sense of their roles and wrestle with the importance of being earnest. Meanwhile, in a film that’s consumed with the endlessly relatable difficulty of trying to be everywhere at once, all things to all people, it makes perfect sense that Harry is trying to be Peter’s friend and Spider-Man’s nemesis. Throw in Rosemary Harris’ wrenchingly beautiful performance as Aunt May, and you have a nuanced portrait of guilt and forgiveness even before you get to all that talk about tritium.
Best of all is Alfred Molina’s Dr. Otto Octavius. Doc Ock doesn’t just make for the best and most balletic fight scenes in superhero movie history, he also refocuses and refines the genre’s guiding ethos. Watching the brilliant Molina act against his mechanical arms (which sprout from his back like little metal Tremors and exude enough personality to sustain their own spinoff), it’s clear that “Spider-Man 2” isn’t just mitigating great power with great responsibility, but also positing responsibility as a power of its own. It all builds to the “Before Sunset” of Marvel movie endings, a euphoric dash of wish-fulfillment that leaves a bittersweet aftertaste. Raimi’s last shot says it all: It’s hard to be a god, it’s even harder to be a hero.