Spider-Man on Screen: A History of Web-Slinging Movies

By John Gaines

Spider-Man, Marvel Comics’ most popular character, has a very long history of appearing on screen compared to many Marvel characters, but his later film appearances are much more present in our library’s collection than his earlier television ones. Perhaps the best-remembered piece of early Spidey media outside the comic books is the 1967 animated series, which is beloved for its memorable theme song, cheesy animation, and some wonderfully bizarre scripts.  Some episodes were even created by animation legend Ralph Bakshi!

Another memorable early appearance for Spider-Man happened entirely outside the United States, in the form of Toei’s live-action Japanese Spider-Man series. This series can best be described as an “in name only” adaptation - although Spidey is still recognizable, he is not Peter Parker in this continuity; none of the classic villains from the comics appear; and the action does not occur within the broader context of the Marvel universe. However, it does feature a flying car and a gigantic robot that was the precursor of the Power Rangers’ Zords! This series is a unique and enjoyable take on the character for anyone looking for a truly different Spidey experience.

It took quite a long time for Spider-Man to debut as a mainstream film character. There were at least 2 failed attempts of note - a late 80s drive by The Cannon Group that ended when the company went bankrupt and a mid-90s attempt to finance a James Cameron-directed blockbuster that would have featured Electro and Sandman as villains. Neither of these attempts came close to even being cast, although scripts were completed for both, and the 90s version featured a final battle sequence on the World Trade Center. It would take until 2002 for a Spider-Man movie to actually be completed and released.

2002’s Spider-Man was first revealed to the public via a buzzy trailer where the web-slinger caught some crooks via a massive web suspended between the Twin Towers. The trailer was made before the tragic events of 9/11, but the towers were left in the completed film as a tribute. This was the first super blockbuster made from a Marvel title, and it featured exciting action scenes, imaginative visuals (the upside-down kiss is frequently referenced as a memorable scene), and a great score by Danny Elfman. 2004’s Spider-Man 2 was even more acclaimed, featuring an ingenious performance by Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus and a memorable battle sequence on a train. Sadly, the quality of Sam Raimi’s work dropped with 2007’s Spider-Man 3, his final installment in the series. Executive interference by Sony Pictures in Raimi’s preferred methods forced drastic changes to his original concept, which focused on a “Fall and Redemption” arc for both Peter Parker and the Sandman. Venom, a fan favorite villain whom Raimi disliked and wished to avoid as much as possible, was shoehorned in, and Peter’s bad behavior in the original script was explained away as being a result of the Venom symbiote corrupting his mind. The plot was also forced to shoehorn in motives for three main villains at once (Sandman, Venom, and Harry Osborn), and fans were left with a rushed, unsatisfying product. Raimi did not return for a possible fourth film, and the series fell into stasis.

As a result of Disney’s 2010 buyout of Marvel, studios producing Marvel-based films were forced to continually put out new entries to avoid the rights reverting to Disney. After several minor delays, Sony was able to get 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man into theatres. This movie lacked the memorable score and villains of the Raimi entries, although Andrew Garfield’s performance as Peter Parker was quite good. Sony quickly followed it with 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a film that combined the worst aspects of the Amazing series (less interesting action scenes and cinematography) and the things that killed the films in the Raimi era (a script overstuffed with villains). Most of the story was framed around Peter’s quest to find out why his parents died, perhaps the least interesting aspect of his character since Uncle Ben was always treated as his “real daddy” in the comics.  The film underperformed, killing yet another attempt by Sony to make a Spider-Man live-action film series.

As a response to diminishing returns at the box office, Sony effectively gave up control of the creative aspects of live-action Spidey films to Disney, allowing them creative control and scripting over the entries, starting with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Sony still wanted to retain some sort of creative control over Spider-Man films it made, so it greenlit an animated Spidey film, Into the Spider-Verse, as a way to retain some level of independence from Disney/Marvel.  This film was viewed with great suspicion and skepticism by the Marvel fan base because of its announcement for being outside the MCU canon and for being animated by Sony Pictures, a studio infamous for poor decisions, such as turning down Genndy Tartakovsky’s (Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars, Hotel Transylvania) Popeye movie and greenlighting The Emoji Movie.  Against all odds (and likely due in part to the work of screenwriter Phil Lord), Into the Spider-Verse ended up being perhaps the best Spider-Man movie ever made, with brilliant visuals, wonderful voice acting, and an exciting new concept that put previously neglected character Miles Morales front and center. The visuals were so ingenious that the “multiverse Spideys,” like John Mulaney’s Spider-Ham and Nicholas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir, were all rendered in their own animation styles. The film was so acclaimed that it even won Best Animated Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards, making it the first true critical success for Sony Pictures Animation. With entries like this, there will always be a future for the wall-crawler as a movie character, be it as a live-action or animated one.