Throughout nearly two decades of web-slinging, rebooting, reversals of fortune, immersions into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and sporadic reappearances by the Spidey-hating J. Jonah Jameson, the “Spider-Man” movie franchise has been wildly inconsistent, yet remarkably indestructible. “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the latest episode, likely will stoke even greater enthusiasm for the series with its canny mix of redemptive evolutions, abundant Easter Eggs, emotional impacts, state-of-the-art special effects — and sly hints at a back-to-basics approach in films to come.
Naturally, the character also continues to attract diehard Spidey-fans to animated TV series and direct-to-video product, all-star MCU group gatherings — and, yes, the comic books that started it all. But the nine theatrical features (including an Oscar-winning animated one) — movies in which Spider-Man is the star, not an ensemble player — are our focus here in this revised least-to-best ranking.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
The longest (until “Spider-Man: No Way Home”) and least of the Spidey movies is a ponderously overstuffed misfire only partially redeemed by the chemistry generated between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Having learned nothing from the debacle of “Batman and Robin” (1997), the filmmakers cram no fewer than three classic comic book villains — Electro, a reimagined Green Goblin and, fleetingly, Rhino — into a padded narrative, demonstrating once again that, yes, more can be less. Originally intended as the gateway to an extended universe of Spidey sagas, complete with Sinister Six spin-offs, “Amazing 2” instead led to a second franchise reboot.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
If you watch all three of director Sam Raimi’s Spidey movies back-to-back, it’s impressive to see how smoothly each flows into the next. Alas, the flow was stemmed fairly early in this disappointing threequel, as Tobey Maguire’s moody web-slinger wobbled between smug swagger and vengeful wrath while battling an indifferently conceived supervillain (Thomas Haden Church’s underwhelming Sandman) and his own Venom-fueled dark side. Even some diehard Spider-fans couldn’t help guffawing while the “Bad” Peter Parker tried to strut and smooth-move like someone suffering from “Saturday Night Fever.” Others could only wonder: Does being bitten by a radioactive spider really turn you into a grandstanding jazz pianist?
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Fairly or not, Andrew Garfield likely will be recalled as the George Lazenby of the Spider-Man movies, given his relatively short stint as the second star of the franchise. (Spoiler Alert: He eventually gets some big laughs with a few wink-wink, nudge-nudge allusions to his status in the Spidey-Verse.) But give him due credit: Garfield strikes the right balance of callowness and cockiness throughout the “origin story” of this reboot, and he’s downright charming as director Marc Webb (“500 Days of Summer”) dramatizes the first blush of romance between nerdy Peter Parker and Emma Stone’s equally brainy but intimidatingly attractive Gwen Stacy. (A nice touch: Gwen is the slightly better science student.) On the debit side: The conspiratorial subplot involving Peter’s deceased scientist father is a great deal less than fully baked, and the villain of the piece (The Lizard, played by Rhys Ifans while in human form) is too obviously a CGI construct.
Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
In a post-“Avengers: Endgame” world, Peter Parker must press on without the mentorship of a now-deceased Tony Stark — but with the high-tech resources of Stark Enterprises (represented by Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan) and the gruff encouragement of S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Unfortunately, while there is ample excitement to be savored during this follow-up to “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” a dandy villain in Jake Gyllenhaal’s
Mysterio, and with some charming give-and-take between Tom Holland’s Spidey/Parker and Zendaya’s MJ Jones, the movie continues the MCU trend of steadily transforming Spider-Man from a solo super hero who relies on his own grit and brains to defeat bad guys to an under-achieving team player who must don an Iron-Manly outfit before he can fight the good fight. For all its considerable merits, this may be the first Spider-Man film that will appeal more to relative newbies than long-time fans of the original Marvel Comics. On the other hand, it’s amusing to see at the end that J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), merely an anti-Spidey newspaper editor in earlier films, has been effectively reconstituted as a ranting-and-raving multimedia Spidey hater.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Winner of the Academy Award for Animated Feature, this dramatically and visually exhilarating Spidey adventure is at once respectfully faithful to its comic-book roots — with a wink-wink here and there, of course — and exuberantly free-wheeling in its incorporation of other pop-culture influences both multifaceted and multicultural. The underlying conceit: Each parallel universe gets the Spider-Man it deserves and needs. (Obviously, radioactive spiders are a constant everywhere.) So when there is a passing of the mask from veteran web-slinger Peter Parker to eager novice Miles Morales in our world, he’s able to draw on the assistance of such other-worldly Spideys as a hardboiled Spider-Man Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage) and an out-of-shape but game-for-action Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson). It is meant as high praise to say the screenplay credited to Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman would have worked just as well in a live-action film.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
The creative folks behind the second franchise reboot score points for eschewing a conventional “origin story” — obviously, they figured everyone who buys a ticket to a Spider-Man movie already knows how the dude got his super powers. (And those who didn’t surely were brought up to speed when Spidey cameoed in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.”) Better still, they audaciously jumpstart the running-on-fumes movie mythos by re-imagining the man behind the mask as a boy — specifically, an eager-but-awkward 15-year-old Peter Parker (Tom Holland) who has a lot to learn from Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) when it comes to doing derring-do. But wait, there’s more: Michael Keaton earns a place of honor in the pantheon of Spidey villains by effectively playing The Vulture as a fortuitously empowered blue-collar type raging with class resentment directed at one-percenters like, well, Tony Stark.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Director Sam Raimi and Original Gangsta Spidey Tobey Maguire made lightning strike a second time in their first sequel to the groundbreaking 2002 franchise kickoff. Although it may be difficult to appreciate now, after the massive expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this film’s canny mix of super-heroics, human drama and (by then-contemporary standards) cutting-edge special effects still had novelty value going for it when “Spider-Man 2” first hit theaters. And the passing of time has done nothing to diminish the entertainment value of Maguire’s engaging portrait of the superhero as a fallible young man. (Even more fallible here after a temporary, psychosomatic power loss.) Co-star Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (Harry Osborn), and Rosemary Harris (Aunt May), along with comic-reliever J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson), remind us just how perfectly cast they were in the previous movie. And Alfred Molina triumphantly upstages the CGI trickery employed to enhance his character as the demented Dr. Octopus, arguably the greatest villain in the entire Spidey franchise.
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
It’s practically impossible without spilling scads of spoilers to fully explain why this third Spidey film featuring Tom Holland as the resourceful teen webslinger is so excitingly entertaining, emotionally affecting and abundantly satisfying for both relative newcomers to the Marvel Cinematic Universe — including those who know relatively little about the friendly neighborhood hero prior to 2002’s “Spider-Man” — and those of us who have been Spidey fans as far back the first issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” wherein a cash-poor Spidey broke into the Baxter Building in the hope of auditioning for a high-paying gig with the Fantastic Four. (No, I’m not making that up.) Suffice it to say that director John Watts and scripters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers cleverly sample and scramble many elements — along with heroes and villains — from earlier episodes in the franchise while constructing the cinematic equivalent of a legendary entertainer’s “Greatest Hits” LP, an inspired mashup strategy that stands in marked contrast to the maladroit inclusivity of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” (A nice touch: J.K. Simmons’ Spidey-hating J. Jonah Jameson lives down to expectations by going full Alex Jones here.) But wait, there’s more: They also ingeniously bring the character — and the franchise — back to Ground Zero, evoking a time when Spidey couldn’t rely on support from mentors like Iron Man or Dr. Strange, and even had to sew his own Spidey suit.
Much like a first kiss (or, in this case, an upside-down smooch) always seems the sweetest, the first “Spider-Man” movie remains the most purely enjoyable movie in the franchise. Indeed, there’s something not entirely unlike an air of innocence wafting about the entire enterprise as Tobey Maguire miraculously obtains, initially misuses, and ultimately focuses his superpowers, all the while pining for (and, briefly, winning) the seemingly impossible object of his desire, Kirsten Dunst’s girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson. A few diehard Marvel Comics fans quibbled about some evocations of artistic license — in the world according to director Sam Raimi and scripter David Koepp, Spidey’s web is natural fiber, not synthetic additive — but “Spider-Man” as a whole proved largely faithful to its source material, particularly in its repeated questioning of whether the hero might ever catch a break. And that contributed generously to its huge success. Pay no heed to the nitpickers who might complain that the once-awesome special effects now appear a tad dated. The only thing still worth debating is: Did Willem Dafoe actually intend to sound so much like Gilbert Gottfried while playing the villainous Green Goblin?