Why we needed another Spider-Man
Posted July 7
Updated July 8
For a lot of diehard comic fans, this weekend’s release of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a dream come true. The opportunity to see ol’ Webhead sharing the screen with other heroes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is something that, just a few years ago, would have seemed almost impossible — no less so because Spidey's brief appearance in last year’s “Captain America: Civil War” marked the second time in just four years that the character had been rebooted.
With three distinct versions of the character having now appeared on the big screen in the space of less than 10 years (and at least one more on the way in animated form), for non-diehards, things can get understandably confusing.
So here’s a quick guide to the multiple takes on Spider-Man, where they went wrong, where they meant to go and why they needed to reboot Spider-Man not once, but twice.
Back when the MCU was still just a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye, and the only other modern superhero movie was Bryan Singer’s “X-Men,” director Sam Raimi launched what remains one of the most successful superhero series of all time with 2001’s “Spider-Man.”
Grossing more than $2.5 billion all told, Raimi’s trio of Spidey movies starred an unlikely Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker — Raimi had had to fight for him, according to Variety; the studio favored a more conventional lead like Heath Ledger or Josh Hartnett, both of whom had been offered the role but turned it down — with Kirsten Dunst as his love interest, Mary Jane Watson, and James Franco, who had initially auditioned for the title role, as best friend Harry Osborn.
When “Spider-Man” finally crawled into theaters, it was after more than two decades in development — two decades that saw directors as diverse as Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) and James Cameron (“Avatar”) attached at various points.
Especially compared to some of the earlier versions of the script, Raimi’s "Spider-Man" was remarkably faithful to the old-school comics, capturing the essence of the character as a relatable nerd who struggles not just with a panoply of colorfully named supervillians, but also with things as commonplace as his crush on Mary Jane and the stress of balancing work and college with extracurricular activities.
However, Raimi and company did make some noteworthy changes, including ditching Spider-Man’s mechanical web-shooters in favor of organic webbing that shoots directly out of Peter’s wrists.
What went wrong:
After a record-setting first installment and a sequel (co-written by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon) that many still consider one of the best superhero movies of all time, 2007’s “Spider-Man 3” managed to be simultaneously the biggest box-office hit of them all and the movie that destroyed the franchise.
Despite earning $890 million worldwide, the general reaction to “Spider-Man 3” was mixed, at best, due to an overstuffed lineup of villains, a disastrous third act, sloppy writing, phoned-in performances and, oh yeah, emo Peter Parker dancing.
Raimi himself has since called the third movie “awful” and, speaking with Chris Hardwick on the Nerdist podcast, admitted that he “didn’t really believe in all the characters” — presumably referring to Venom (played by a horrendously miscast Topher Grace), a character he was allegedly pressured to include by the studio. “If the director doesn’t love something,” Raimi told Hardwick, “it’s wrong of them to make it when so many other people love it.”
Middling reviews alone wouldn’t have derailed the franchise, though, and for a long time, “Spider-Man 4” seemed like a definite thing — there was even talk of an entirely new trilogy, all helmed by Raimi with Maguire in the lead. What exactly happened that caused those plans to fall apart — and led to Raimi, Maguire and Dunst all quitting — remains a matter of some speculation. The official story was that Raimi left because he didn’t think he could meet the studio’s planned summer 2011 release date. However, according to Daily Mail, there may have also been arguments about budget with Raimi reportedly demanding $300 million to realize his vision for the sequel.
What we almost got:
“Spider-Man 4” is one of the big “what ifs” of comic book movies. According to an interview with Vulture, after the debacle that was “Spider-Man 3,” Raimi said he was determined to end on a “very high note” and make “the best ‘Spider-Man’ of them all.”
A fourth Spidey movie would have seen ol’ Webhead facing off against the Vulture (no relation to the aforementioned website), played by John Malkovich. Anne Hathaway was being eyed for the role of Felicia Hardy (aka Black Cat, although it was rumored that her alter ego in this movie would have been called “Vulturess” instead). And there were rumors, as well, that Dylan Baker, who had played Dr. Kurt Connors in all three of the previous movies, would have finally gotten a chance to transform into one of Spider-Man’s other villains, the Lizard.
The Amazing Spider-Man
Instead of James Bond-ing it — i.e. hiring a new director and recasting the lead roles but continuing with the same storyline — on the same day news broke that Raimi had left the franchise, Sony announced it would hit the reset button on the entire Spider-Man movie universe.
The result, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” swung into theaters in summer of 2012, introducing a younger (but not by much), angstier Peter Parker played by British actor Andrew Garfield. Handling directing duties was “(500) Days of Summer's” Marc Webb.
Tonally, “The Amazing Spider-Man” aimed for a slightly darker, more grounded universe.
Instead of Mary Jane, the movie featured Spidey’s original comic book love interest, Gwen Stacy, played by Oscar-winner Emma Stone.
And instead of organic webbing, “Amazing Spider-Man” reverted to the classic mechanical web-shooters.
The biggest change, though, was a back story involving Peter’s scientist parents, a mysterious man in a hat and some shady plot involving genetic experimentation — all of which was only hinted at and would presumably have been resolved in the third and fourth installments if they had ever gotten made.
What went wrong:
Despite the undeniable chemistry between its leads, Garfield and Stone (the pair were dating in real life, as well), from the get-go, “The Amazing Spider-Man” struggled to justify its existence.
It was still an origin story about a science nerd with a crush on a classmate who gets bitten by a spider, gains super powers, blames himself for the death of his uncle and struggles to reconcile his personal life with the sense of responsibility he has to use his powers for good, ultimately facing off against a scientist who had injected himself with experimental chemicals.
Nevertheless, the first “Amazing Spider-Man” was enough of a hit that Sony opted not just to move forward with a sequel, but to start aggressively building towards a full-fledged MCU-style Spider-Man universe, beginning with a spinoff featuring the Sinister Six, a who’s-who of Spidey’s biggest bad guys, including the Green Goblin (Dane Dehaan) and Rhino (Paul Giamatti), both of whom appeared in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and also a Venom standalone.
Suddenly, Sony’s far-reaching, overly ambitious plans for a Spider-verse seemed like hubris, not foresight, and the whole thing imploded.
What we almost got:
“The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel dropped Easter eggs right and left and seeded all kinds of potentially interesting plot threads (what happened to Peter’s parents? Who’s the man in the hat? What is Oscorp’s endgame? Did a radioactive spider really give Peter his powers, or was it his dad’s genetic tinkering?, etc.)
But according to actor Denis Leary, who played Stacy’s dad in the first movie, a third “Amazing Spider-Man” would have gone in some unexpected directions involving Peter playing mad scientist and resurrecting dead loved ones.
Based on comments by actor Chris Cooper, who briefly appeared as Norman Osborn in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” before the character dies of a hereditary disease, he also would have come back — quite possibly as the Green Goblin.
Rebooting a character for a second time in the space of four years is, to put it mildly, a risky move, no matter how popular the character is. However, when British actor Tom Holland popped up as Peter Parker/Spider-Man for the first time in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” his portrayal of the character turned out to be one of the highlights of the movie — and one of the most exciting things to happen to the MCU since Samuel L. Jackson walked onscreen in the first “Iron Man.”
After "The Amazing Spider-Man 2's" disappointing box-office haul, it was clear something had to change. And that's where MCU architect Kevin Feige stepped in. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Feige said, "It really came down to me telling ('Spider-Man' producer Amy Pascal) in her office that I think the best thing for this character is: Sony has the rights, that's not changing. Have Sony pay for the movie, distribute the movie, market the movie. Just let us make the movie and incorporate him into our universe."
The rest, as they say, is history — and probably hundreds of hours of negotiations between each studio's legal teams.
Unlike the first movie in either of the previous two Spider-Man series, “Homecoming” isn’t an origin story. It doesn’t start with Peter as a normal, shy high schooler and show him getting bitten by a spider, watching his uncle die or any of the other key moments in Spidey’s backstory.
Also, this Spider-Man is young — as in 15, according to director Jon Watts.
Tonally, "Homecoming" eschews both the comic book-iness of Raimi's movies and the angsty grittiness of the Garfield Spider-Man. Instead, it was pitched as a superhero movie as if made by "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club" director John Hughes.
Obviously, though, the biggest difference is that this version of the character shares a city with other superheroes, including Iron Man, Captain America and the rest of the Avengers — not to mention Daredevil and the Defenders.
Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downing Jr.) features prominently in “Homecoming,” but that’s not the only team-up fans can look forward to. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the as-yet-untitled “Homecoming” sequel (“Spider-Man: Senior Prom”?) will have a different MCU hero teaming up with everyone’s favorite wall-crawler, although who that will be remains a mystery.
Before then, though, Spider-Man will also play a key part in both upcoming Avengers sequels, 2018’s “Infinity War” and the untitled 2019 sequel, which will see him crossing paths with pretty much every character in the MCU, including the Guardians of the Galaxy, so here’s hoping for a Spider-Man/Groot team-up.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website TheMovieScrutineer.com.