Spider-itis, or Donovan explains his take on the Spider-Man films

So for the last few months I’ve been re-watching the Spider-Man movies in a peculiar order as training for a podcast special on Earth-2.net called “Flickchart Forum”. Hosted by ginger Leicesterian Ian Wilson, the forum has a panel list their preferred ranking of a series of films by quality, generally from worst to best, and rate them by combined point system based on their placement on the list. For instance, if most people on the panel start out agreeing that…let’s say, Die Another Day ranks at the bottom of the James Bond series, that film garners zero points by the end. But if one person ranks it second-to-last, it earns at least a point. The higher the placement, the higher the points. This is a segment pioneered by the self-professed “statistician” (I’m in no argument, I sucked at math in high school) that has been recorded a few times a year since 2018, and with almost a dozen lists, have covered various collections of movies from Christopher Nolan’s filmography to the Halloween franchise. This year, in honor of the character’s 60th anniversary, it was decided that a Flickchart Forum special would cover the Spider-Man film franchise.

(Earth-2.net The Show Episode 1129)

In some ways I feel as though I’ve willed this special into existence, having really wanted more space to talk about Spider-Man: No Way Home since being thrilled by it last December, and hoping for the opportunity to finalize my opinions on the three Spidey-actors once and for all. If loyal continuity fans of my podcast career recall, I tried to force the debate during the review of Spider-Man: Homecoming back in 2017, foregrounding much of the discussion with questions comparing Tom Holland’s freshman film to the previous incarnations. “Crazy” Chris Linas said at the time that it was too soon to make any calls, and after listening back to the episode before recording with Ian and Christian Honore (host of this year’s new Earth-2 podcast Part of Your World), I saw that he was obviously right. Holland’s films zig-zagged in its pros and cons in his appearances to come, as the man would have five outings as the Web-Slinger in Phase Three of the MCU alone. But as Spider-Man has been favorite character since I was five years old, in competition with Batman who’s been my favorite since before I can remember, I always feel a burst of mental energy to discuss him at length. Maybe it’s long-term withdrawal from podcasting about him exclusively, as my online career began with several Spider-Man themed shows since 2010 (the last one, Clone Saga Chronicles, finally ended this year with its mission surprisingly completed). More likely, with the shifting fandom of the character – from the 2000s era where the Raimi movies cemented him as a true pop culture icon for a generation, the Garfield movies fought to make its place alongside an adolescent MCU, and the Holland movies made him a Gen-Z darling, embodying many things that drive me up the wall – I sought to know once and for all my takes on everything Spider-Man media related…save for the last two cartoon series.

The following is my personal ranking of the Spidey flicks, from least favorite to favorite. It does spoil how my list ends up on the podcast, but there’s two other hosts that I bounce off of in that special, and our lists do vary quite a bit. We all had different films ranked at the bottom, and there’s a BIG disagreement from one of us for the top spot. If you have four hours, check it out, it was a helluva fun time recording with those boys.

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

This was never gonna be a surprise to anyone that knows me, while I on the other hand remain surprised at how high this ranks for most people. The first Spidey film to cross a billion at the box office, riding high off of the exhilaration of Avengers: Endgame, we were still in new territory with these movies. (I remember adverts of Holland warning people that the various trailers would have spoilers for Endgame, which had only come out two months prior.)

As such, the MCU Avengers-y-ness of it would presumably cement the movie as doomed under my scorn from the outset, but it’s not really that which I’ve got my issues because, at the end of the day, I like Spider-Man existing in the Marvel Universe, and him on his own feels weird. It’s the approach to everything this movie is about. Peter’s insecurities about his feelings towards MJ and being caught between wanting to hang out with his classmates and feeling put upon by Nick Fury to help save the world are all valid ideas, but everything is ensconced in this unwavering insincerity. A key problem of the movie is Peter’s yearning to connect with his peers, like his classmates, like MJ, like Quentin Beck. But the film is moving too fast to stick any tactile vulnerability on us for any of it to matter. The movie begins with a bizarrely sarcastic dedication to the fallen Avengers before whiplashing to Peter declaring his love for a character he barely spoke more than one line of dialogue to in the last film. We next see that the cliffhanger of Aunt May finding out his identity meant nothing, as she’s high-fiving him in the costume and playfully insisting that he bring his suit with him on the school trip. Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan – an antagonistic force in Spider-Man: Homecoming, now engages in a summer fling with Marissa Tomei’s Aunt May that’s depicted as fun joke but distracts each time it’s referenced. Peter’s classmates and teachers talk at him with a gag a minute, but Peter rarely responds or interacts. He repeats “I want to spend time with my friends,” ad nauseum, but this isn’t the Stan Lee run where his supporting cast provided the makeup of his world more than the other Marvel heroes. Whereas Maguire’s Peter always had scenes with James Franco’s Harry, and Garfield’s Peter shared scenes with both his Harry and Flash Thompson, Holland’s Peter is kept away from them through hijinks Nick Fury nonsense. There’s also a sense that the high school characters are beneath Peter, with one-dimensional comedy and scenes of humiliation. Flash is the butt of several jokes (and he’s awesome, Tony Revolori actually nails it as a less athletic but no-less butthead foil for Peter), but so are his teachers, and Ned and Betty. They aren’t real people to be invested in, because if they were then this movie wouldn’t be fun. I guess.

Iron Man surrounds Peter’s world…and the MCU’s.

And Peter’s frustration throughout the film comes off as mere whining. The world just died and resurrected, but none of that weighs on him. Pressure to become the next Iron Man (who haunts the movie through artwork in various scenes) is all well and good, but he just plain doesn’t want to do anything at all in the costume. And only after getting his ass kicked by Mysterio does he express external pressure to step into Tony Stark’s shoes, but failing to live up to expectations wasn’t his concern. He didn’t want to do anything at all. Again, it’s one thing for him to feel conflicted over living of normal life vs. responsibility, that’s the essence of Spider-Man. But couched in insipid juvenile pangs of “I just want to hang out with my friends” after everything that happened in the previous Phase 3 movies, there doesn’t exist a chain to pull on him, it’s more of a voice down the hall telling him to do the dishes.

The movie’s biggest saving grace is Mysterio, played gleefully by Jake Gyllenhaal. After the mid-point reveal, not only does the film pick up (because God almighty did I not give two shits about anything happening on-screen up until that moment) but it feels as though Jon Watts and the filmmakers embrace the Spider-Man-ness of the villain. Acting as a self-centered director-bro, Gyllenhaal thrives on the pure douchebaggery of the character, but not without containing an ounce of two or nuance. He genuinely has affection for Peter, and although he grows to hate him and explicitly wishes to see him dead, that’s through the frustration of the demented goals he laid out for himself, which were never going to work. Unlike The Vulture, who was almost an anti-villain, Mysterio might actually be insane but believably so. Maybe prison-therapy could’ve helped him like it did Emil Blonsky over on She-Hulk, but the violence of his mania works to make a great supervillain. He’s easily the best new antagonist in a Spider-Man film since Doctor Octopus.

This movie has a lot of fans, and perhaps that’s fueled my annoyance at it. Might be a Spidey fanboy snob thing, but I don’t care. It bothers me less after No Way Home, but even when returning to it I never thought I’d change my mind on it, not really. The flaws only became clearer with the second viewing.

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

This was the first film I remember carrying immense hype in the culture. A year later The Dark Knight would surpass it, but that was still a year away. Spider-Man 2 took over the summer of 2004, and in a move unprecedented by superhero films at the time, both Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire would be returning for a three-peat as director and star. As a kid of the 90s where we had a new Batman actor in every movie from 1995-2005, this felt truly new. Plus, VENOM. By now the pressure from producer Avi Arad to Raimi is well known (and back then it was never really a secret), but make no mistake: we all wanted Venom. Over thirty years later and he still regularly tops the trifecta of Spidey’s greatest enemies, alongside Green Goblin and Doc Ock. And he would be appearing in a film franchise that has twice proven itself spectacularly. I recall being on the message boards and expressing some caution on whether this could live up to the hype, but every fact I just wrote above came in the responses to rest easy, this would be a sure thing.

Fifteen years later, and I’m sad that this film ranks so low for me. I’ve never hated it, not once. I own it (I own all the Spider-Man movies except Holland’s first two), and watched it on TV a few years back and was surprised how – in the action rhythm of today’s super hero films – this held up so well. As I’ll go on to say with his previous Spidey movies, Sam Raimi has a baseline of directing ability and strength of quality that even his weakest effort is still, ultimately, good.

Problem is that the script isn’t very good. David Keopp penned the first movie’s screenplay, while Alvin Sargent co-wrote the second with Raimi. This one’s done by Sargent again, but has both Sam and Alvin Raimi working, and the results aren’t great.

For starters, Mary Jane’s depiction in these films was always polarized the fanbase, but after this movie people downright hated her. It’s not helped that the story gives her bad outcomes from scenes of insecurity and jealousy that result in her being used as a pawn between Peter and Harry, not to mention the fact that her propensity to cheat on her significant others is 3-for-3 by this point. While re-watching, I like the idea that MJ’s feelings in inadequacy mirrored Peter’s in Spider-Man 2, and her hard work to eek out a meaningful existence kept the grounded tone that the series maintained throughout to give these people a felt reality. Her journey from stage actress to Broadway singer to waitress singer is a realistic one, and contrasts nicely as the city has by now fallen in love with Spider-Man. But the scenes between her and Peter are painful to watch. As our emotional core for the series, we want to feel relief when we’re with them. They’re the two most honest characters in the cast. But MJ is in her feelings and is given terrible dialogue to express them, making her genuine sadness sound petulant. It’s also very obvious that Kirsten Dunst is over the role by this point.

And Peter is completely dense, resorting to humble-bragging and hardly ever comprehends how she feels.

That’s actually my biggest problem with the film – Peter’s characterization as performed by Tobey Maguire. Not the emo-stuff, those scenes are a laugh a minute and hold up wonderfully. But whenever he’s meant to be “normal”, he doesn’t feel like he is. Scenes like him trying to counsel MJ by mentioning himself and cheerfully saying “They love me!” before accepting the key to the city are just odd, and highlight Maguire’s atypical acting style. It makes Peter, ultimately, a dweeb, and after three films I’d had enough with dweeby Peter Parker. I could rant about his characterization in the comics (listen to the special for that), but above all else it took me away from the character as he started to feel beneath me in relatability. It’s not a wrong move for the filmmakers to make, but as a fan it put me off and made it hard to find scenes where Maguire’s Peter acting isn’t difficult to sit through.

And again, none of that involves the emo-stuff. Granting that Bully Maguire is a meme-factory, it should be noted that the dorkiness of Peter turning him into an outright tool is not only funny, but keeps in mind the fact that the symbiote turning him bad (a characterization created by the 1994 Spider-Man cartoon series, alongside several elements carried over to this film) could only do so much because Peter is inherently a good guy. Except, the Peter of the comics wasn’t as dweeby, and when he turns bad he really is fearsome, and not just ridiculous. Watch the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon’s version of the events for an iteration I prefer.

There are some very good scenes however. Aunt May, ever the stalwart, has wonderful moments and though she doesn’t get an arc like she does in Spider-Man 2, helps keep the world of Peter Parker achingly human. One scene I enjoy in particular is Mary Jane visiting Peter in his apartment after he learns that Flint Marko is the real killer of Uncle Ben, and – as both his girlfriend and his friend – sets their personal problems aside and tries to be there for him when he’s visibly furious about the revelation. There’s no music, Dunst and Maguire’s acting is soft and pained, and it exposes some sweet guilt Peter felt over the previous guy he pursued in the first movie. I also love the image of Peter using a police scanner and waiting in his costume to chase after him. I think it’s the most “Spider-Man” scene in the movie, and one of Raimi’s best scenes in the trilogy.

What else, what else…villains? Everyone says there are too many villains in the film, and that’s not unreasonable. Personally I’ve never harbored that opinion against a movie, because as Batman Begins proved, it merely comes down to screentime and exposure. Sandman’s involvement is the best realized, with a decent performance by Thomas Haden Church, but I always disliked the retcon. He continues the trilogy’s Silver Age flavor, but if it were me I would’ve shelved him off and focused on the darker characters in Harry and Eddie Brock. Of the three, Harry gets the most of the plot and Eddie gets the least, but Sandman disappears in the back end of the second act, and his third-act appearances feel unmotivated. As for Venom himself, while Topher Grace does a fun job as a weaselly version of Peter, I gotta have my body-builder version from the comics. Venom is meant to be scary, and I do think the CGI effects work well for him (not for much else though, the CGI in this dated poorly). A tougher version of Brock could’ve anticipated the final fight with tighter suspense, but it’s almost purely on Venom’s aura that he works at all. His powers of camouflage and evading Peter’s Spider-Sense are present in the movie but are never explicitly commented on, and he comes and goes way too quickly. And he DIES! WTF?! I guess it’s not as bad as Doc Ock’s death in terms of being unnecessary, but Raimi seemed to have it out for villains knowing who Peter was. Save for the Sandman, they all get it in the end (though GG’s was from the comics, so no harm no foul).

It’s sad, I genuinely do not dislike this movie, but the flaws did make me down for a reboot to be honest. Not a full-on start over, but a soft reboot with a different direction. Ultimately that may’ve been a mistake given how things went, but even though I enjoyed this flick okay, I didn’t mourn the trilogy after this. I was ready to say goodbye to Tobey and pals, at least for a few years.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

I remember walking out of this film opening night, scrambling for my thoughts, and before they could form a picture in my brain my brother – who had attended the screening next to me – said “I could tell there were things in this movie you did not like.” That’s always stayed with me, as we both definitely share similar reasons for loving Spider-Man (and Batman), but weren’t communicating our thoughts on the film during the viewing, as opposed to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which we had a ball ripping apart.

Now I watched these movies in a peculiar order, going from actor to actor singularly and switching back. For instance, I started off the re-watch with Spider-Man, then dove into The Amazing Spider-Man, then Spider-Man: Homecoming, then Spider-Man 2 then The Amazing Spider-Man 2, etc. So each re-watch necessitated not only zeroing in on the pros and cons of each direction and actor but also getting used to the changes that came with each new vision. Right away the changes are felt with this film, and I did presage it by re-watching Holland’s introductory scene in Captain America: Civil War.

I like the first act a lot more now. We see a typical day in the life of Peter Parker, having been Spider-Man for almost a year and tasting the first hit of MCU action. He goes throughout his school day attending chemistry, gym class, picking up some food and having a normal life, but the moment school let’s out, he’s the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. Not the most stupendous opening sequence, but good economy to introduce Holland’s world and a version of Spider-Man’s cast translated from the early Steve Ditko days, with Liz Allan, Flash Thompson, Betty Brant and the teachers. Peter’s decidedly younger in this, so unlike Maguire and Garfield’s high school scenes, these scenes have a younger, newer energy. We also see a Spider-Man existing in high school, where the previous two graduated.

But some things are amiss. Midtown High’s depiction is very, very strange. We’ve got the morning announcements done with an awkwardness and uncomfortable tone that feels almost derisive. We’ve got Chess Club kids presented as the conclusion of a joke. Gym teachers/Detention monitors don’t take punishments seriously. The whole thing operates on a shallow border that doesn’t do anything to fix Peter in a world he needs to escape from. He’s sneaking around and dodging his classmates and responsibilities so he can play Avengers, and it feels all in service of fun rather than duty. The stakes don’t land, they stay in the air, out of sight until the third act. Even then, it’s through the sheer awesomeness of Michael Keaton that brings Jon Watts’ directing to life.

More than anything, I think Homecoming and Far From Home represent approaches to Spider-Man that plainly chafe a man of my age. This gets brought up in the special, but there’s a real divide between people who truly see Spider-Man as the child of the Marvel world, perpetually in high school yearning to grow up, and those who know him as the young but no-less mature crime-fighter burdened with responsibility, struggling to balance two lives. With the youth aspect, the maturity and seriousness of Spider-Man takes a backseat to thrills and gags like an amusement ride, but Peter Parker’s life isn’t really fun. Not really. It may betray an inherent contradiction with the character, but while Spider-Man has always been a kid-friendly superhero, the character’s personal history is wrought with grief and death. These two “Home” movies may be the biggest example of that representational disconnect, and Jon Watts coming to terms with how to best bring those contradictions together. It also heavily contrasts with the next film on the list.


4 thoughts on “Spider-itis, or Donovan explains his take on the Spider-Man films

  1. Your explanation here (and on the episode) of MCU Spider-Man really hit home for me, that essentially, because you have the Avengers making up Peter’s world/community, his actual world/community is considered secondary. That definitely puts a finger on why the school is characterized so blah, especially when compared to — at least my memories of — the original Spider-Man movies. The Raimi films almost felt overwrought with how much world there was.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I remember reviews of Homecoming congratulating it for feeling the most like the comics because of the school setting, but Peter has zero relationship with Flash or Betty or any of his classmates. It’s all just window dressing, and the persistent sense that he’s above all of them is really anathema to the majority of Spider-Man media content out there. Spectacular Spider-Man – which doesn’t need me tooting its horn – has probably the best presented balance of Peter’s supporting cast and how they affect his life when he’s not Spider-Man that reflects the comics of the Lee, Ditko and Romita days.

      Like

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