After dodging problems with movie rights, falling victim to the world-building bug and seeing multiple men behind the mask, Spider-Man has finally backflipped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe
It’s been fifteen years since Tobey Maguire got bitten by a radioactive spider, developed abs, and put on the red-and-blue suit to fight crime. What Maguire and director Sam Raimi also did—when Spider-Man came out in 2002—was kick-start what would become the superhero movie revolution we have witnessed in the decade since.
Of all the superheroes to receive the big-screen treatment, Spider-Man is right up there with Batman when it comes to the number of movies—and unrelated movie continuities—he has been portrayed in. But while the Caped Crusader enjoyed a little downtime between his film exploits, Spider-Man has seen three reboots in 15 years.
Where it all started
Sam Raimi’s trilogy, which also included Spider-Man 2 (2004) and the much-maligned Spider-Man 3 (2007), is still considered to have some of the best superhero films to date, despite being set before Marvel decided to take its interconnected comic universe to screen. Much like with The Incredible Hulk (Universal Pictures) and X-Men (20th Century Fox), the movie rights for Spider-Man had been sold to Sony Pictures much before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was envisioned, allowing Sony its run with the web-slinger. Raimi’s Spider-Man films had a comic-book-like vibe, with popping colours and characters who felt like they’d stepped straight out of the page. Sure, Maguire was a little older than the teenage high-schooler portrayed in the comics, but the films spent a lot of time focussing on Peter Parker, and his struggles as the incredible everyman, unable to tell the world he is their costumed saviour. Spider-Man 2, which features a broken Peter riddled with self-doubt, taking on the equally fractured Dr Octopus (Alfred Molina), is still regarded as one of the best superhero movies of all time, though Spider-Man 3 did tarnish the reputation of the series somewhat by trying to do too much. As Hollywood has proven many a time, such missteps are costly, and that was the end of Maguire’s turn as Spider-Man, and while the general consensus is that he made an excellent Parker and an okay Spider-Man, commenters on YouTube defend him faithfully to this day.
An amazing attempt
Now this is the point where a studio typically gives a character a break and prioritises other projects, but Sony had other plans. When thoughts of Spider-Man 4 and a Venom spinoff were eventually shelved, Sony went straight ahead and rebooted the franchise, and by 2012, the web-slinger was back, this time with Andrew Garfield behind the mask as The Amazing Spider-Man. This new series started a decade after the original, and the differences were plain—wearing glasses and being a ‘nerd’ did not automatically exclude you from most social circles; Mary Jane Watson, Peter’s main love interest (played by Kirsten Dunst in the Raimi trilogy) made way for Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) one of Spider-Man’s early flames. While The Amazing Spider-Man was reasonably well-received, partly thanks to Garfield bringing to life the wisecracking, snark-oozing Spidey from the comics, despite being a little too hipster cool as Peter, the second film fell prey to a common pothole in the age of connected movies, trying to set up future movies and losing its own plot. Besides the great scene towards the end, depicting Gwen’s untimely demise, the movie had little going for it, and was panned so badly that Sony called it a day, and decided to let the web-slinger go back to Marvel Studios, join the Avengers, and reap part of the benefits by sharing the character with his creators.
The result is Spider-Man: Homecoming, which is merrily racking up moolah at the box office right now. The new Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was an inspired casting choice, pretty much high-school age, athletically gifted and bringing a certain vulnerability and wonder you would associate with a nerdy 15-year-old who got superpowers. The Marvel version got many things right, ditching the origin story everyone knows and plopping Spidey straight into an Avengers fistfight in Captain America: Civil War, having him be the talented protege to Tony Stark himself, and getting a cool Stark-designed super suit in the process. Homecoming is aware that it is part of the sprawling Marvel universe, but cleverly uses more Easter eggs than set-up for future movies to make comic reading audiences recognise that this Spider-Man lives in a fully-realised universe within the Marvel continuity, seamlessly integrating him with the other, well-documented Avengers.
What Homecoming also does right is show Peter Parker as the vulnerable, approval-seeking, good Samaritan that he is. Spider-Man is constantly messing things up in this movie, which can seem a little odd at first, until you realise that he is literally a high-schooler with a pure sense of right and wrong, seeking the approval of a lofty mentor while still learning the ropes (or webs). The film is as much about Peter discovering his Spider-Man identity as the audience, making the character relatable, the way Stan Lee intended when he first let him swing onto a page. Homecoming is basically Spider-Man’s Man Of Steel—except that he destroys fences and cars (and admittedly a ferry), not an entire city—as he comes into his powers.
Sony still has its own plans though, with the Venom movie being resurrected with Tom Hardy in the lead, and talks of a villain universe in the works.
However, the current Spider-Man is now back in the MCU, and all set to suit up with the Avengers in the upcoming Infinity War.