Spider-Man, Spider-Man. You know the deal. Queens-born teenager Peter Parker, science whiz and pathological dweebus, is bitten by a radioactive spider, conferring upon him the proportionate strength, speed, agility, and extrasensory awareness of the humble arachnid. At first Peter uses these superpowered gains to flex around high school and earn a little money, but when he fails to stop a common crook from murdering his dear Uncle Ben, he swears a vow to use his abilities for good — “with great power comes great responsibility,” he remembers, a mantra passed to him by the departed uncle — and fight crime.
Since 2002 they have made seven solo movies starring Spider-Man, with an eighth on the way. The best of these, as well as I believe the best superhero movies ever made, are the originals — Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), and Spider-Man 3 (2007) — and here I will bray my truth like a frat boy at a party and declare, flatly, that Spider-Man 2 in particular is the best superhero movie of all-time. I love how it transposes the essence of comic books into film, something that does not happen all that often despite the fact that superheroes are derived from comic books. It’s in Tobey Maguire’s doofy face and unvarnished inner turmoil; in Alfred Molina’s tragic and Shakespearean villainy; in the cause-and-effect storytelling and clearly delineated morality, the bright, wide shots of New York City and majestic action set pieces. (The first one is pretty good, too, as Willem Dafoe remains the only comic book actor capable of contorting his face into a cartoon drawing.)
Delightful films, truly, if you are into all that — the bing bang boom and sweeping drama that can make for a jolly time at the theater, or more recently, on the Saturday afternoon TNT movie slot. That said, they are just fun movies, and while I don’t mean to denigrate fun, there are many movies that have meant more to me. There is a timeline in which I saw the Raimi films, enjoyed them in the manner that one normally enjoys a thing — “good stuff, what’s for dinner?” — and left them behind in my personal history.
But in this timeline, something happened that precluded my ability to move on from the Spider-Man movies: They kept on making Spider-Man movies, and this time these movies were not delightful, but quite bad. I think you’d agree there are bigger problems, but something about the badness of these newer iterations felt indicative of a broader decline in the culture, and the emotions we’re all served at mass scale. Which sounds extreme, I’m sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Backing up a second. Twitter is just Twitter, and I hope this paragraph is the last time I will mention it, but nonetheless: Last year, the features editor of Screenrant went viral for claiming that “People dismissing comic book movies as ‘kiddie shit’ [are] completely failing to realize superhero stories are essentially a collective American mythology and the closest thing to a shared lore we have.” To which hundreds, possibly thousands of people said “No <3” along with some other mean things and for a few days it became an opinion to casually refer to and confidently deride, if you’re a person who follows these things.
Now, superhero stories are not “essentially” a collective American mythology because collective myths like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed are not bloodlessly mediated by corporate boardrooms with a burning fixation on generating profit, a wrinkle that “essentially” upends the entire premise. But given the ongoing cultural omnipresence of superhero movies in the 21st century, it’s worth thinking about —inasmuch as you can softly and quietly have a thought about it, nestled within the thousands of overlapping concerns marshaling our attentions — the role they play in reflecting and reifying societal attitudes. Less “these movies are terrible,” as they often are, and more “it’s unfortunate these movies are terrible,” because one of the most worthwhile parts of popular art is how it can galvanize disparate audiences around a shared appreciation for an idea, or even a set of ideas, that make us appreciate the commonalities of the human experience — a sorely needed thing, I think.
If you look at superhero movies as another delivery system for those collective abstractions — and how could they not be, being billion dollar industries built around very basic narratives of heroism, villainy, occasional romance, etc. that are beamed out across the seven continents — then it’s worth taking them seriously beyond portending what this or that scene means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (A question posed in a thousand worthless blogs.) The features editor at Screenrant wasn’t totally wrong, but their mistake was in not trusting the people who dismiss these movies on account of being very bad. Because the movies are bad, when they could not be, and with that comes the gradual collapse of everything we hold dear. If you want to go there with it, as I sometimes do.
The Spider-Man movies they make in 2021, which star Tom Holland and plug into the Marvel Cinematic Universe ouroboros that’s eaten up mainstream cinema over the last 13 years, are structured more like television shows than films. This is not surprising, given the encroaching dominance of television in the visual arts, but it’s jarring to watch a feature-length film that leans into its GIFability and relies on comic misunderstanding for most of its plot tension. The dialogue snaps and pops like a writers’ room’s impression of how people want to hear other people talk, depressingly capped off when Samuel L. Jackson — an actor who has been directed by Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg — quips, “Bitch, please, you’ve been to space!” when Peter expresses some misgivings about his latest escapade.
Not to turn this into a beat-by-beat chronicling of What The New Spider-Man Movies Get Wrong, because we don’t have all day. But they do fundamentally misrepresent something about Peter Parker that neuters all his pathos, his defining solidity as a character who’s been a part of culture for the last six decades — a misrepresentation that neatly sums up the entire hollow structure. Since his inception as a character, Parker has been motivated by shame — the burning knowledge that he could’ve prevented his uncle’s death, were he not so self-centered. The first Spider-Man movie contains a horrible moment when Uncle Ben, played by a marvelously watery Cliff Robertson, is trying to impart something to Peter about the way a person must be, and Peter brushes him off with the callousness of a teenager. The exchange is played quietly: Robertson reacts like an adult who realizes he needs to back off, while Maguire is temporarily embarrassed by how he’s hurt his uncle’s feelings, though he doesn’t apologize. (Much as a teenager would.)
If you are the type of person who abhors watching the elderly experience pain, the moment is firmly heartbreaking. Everyone who has had a loved one die remembers their final interaction together, and that Peter not just indirectly caused his uncle’s death, but dismissed him in that last conversation, destroys him from the inside. He returns to it throughout the film; his lingering discomfort, and his inability to tell the truth to his aunt, animates the core drama of the sequel. Cliff Robertson is so poignantly avuncular, and Tobey Maguire so earnestly wounded, that it doesn’t require too much exposition to hammer why this is such a resonant piece of his life. His uncle — his wonderful, sweet uncle who was more like a father — died, and now he must be Spider-Man. The life of a superhero is necessarily simple.
The new movies, on the other hand, dispense entirely with this formative myth. When we first meet Tom Holland as Peter Parker in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, he is already fighting crime — an understandable narrative shortcut, considering his origin story had been told twice in the last 14 years. (The less we say about Andrew Garfield’s interminably mopey turn in the two Amazing Spider-Man films, the better.) But now there’s no reason why he should be a superhero besides the fact that he has powers, as he tells Tony Stark, who replaces Uncle Ben as the paternal stand-in whose eventual death (spoilers, sorry) comes to motivate him in 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home. Only Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Stark is more sarcastic Elon Musk than anything genuinely benevolent, and the conflict Peter faces is whether he wants to become a member of the international police force S.H.I.E.L.D., a fairly depressing embrace of the security state that’s par for the course in the films. If Peter lets down Tony’s memory, he’ll be… declining to enlist as an extrajudicial cop responsible for enforcing worldwide order? As any teenager rightfully would?
In just a few movies, we go from the death of a surrogate parent motivating Peter Parker to become a local superhero protecting his native New York City, to the death of a cool best friend motivating Peter Parker to become a global policeman. The stakes are “more dramatic,” inasmuch as the world is bigger than Queens, but the feelings are all out of whack. On every scale, the clearly communicated emotions of the early films are transmuted into something cheap: Rosemary Harris’ maternal and wise turn as Aunt May becomes Marisa Tomei’s knowingly sexy, overly hip turn as Aunt May; Maguire’s well of unease is filled up, replaced by Holland’s antic quipping; the smoldering passion between Peter and Mary Jane, played by Kirsten Dunst as the eternally romantic girl next door, becomes an awkward exchange of glances and hugs between Holland and IRL girlfriend Zendaya, who fail to establish any kind of physical chemistry within the sexless crucible of these Marvel films.
What I love about comic books is how, at their best, they succinctly communicate the drives and feelings inside us all — an economy of storytelling forced by the medium’s constraints. They’re not as deep as literature, but they understand how entertainment can — and should — nonetheless contain something recognizably human, even in cartoon form. The Tobey Maguire movies remember this, and root every challenge in believable emotion, even as we’re ostensibly watching the adventures of a man who was bitten by a radioactive spider. He lives in a world, whereas the Tom Holland movies, enmeshed in a web of Marvel storytelling now encompassing more than two dozen films, only refer to the dramatics of a branded universe. Peter’s primary conflict, now, is whether he should be a Marvel superhero and team up with the Avengers. It’s passably entertaining, because the content creators at Marvel have landed on an acceptable formula, but it means nothing.
Why does a Spider-Man movie need to mean anything? Obviously, there are lots of trap doors around the present-day concept of taking popular art seriously. At first you’re thinking “Hmmm, this kind of sucks” and before long you actually do end up writing “What The New Spider-Man Movies Get Wrong” with the aggrieved tone of someone who was told by AppleCare they could walk into the store and get the part. The amount of time I have spent thinking about the Spider-Man movies is mocked by the pithy voice in my head going, “Bro, bro, bro — come on.” Better options for adults have always existed, and may continue to exist until the industry tips fully over into China flattery and/or every repertory theater is converted into a Hardee’s.
One or two bad movies does not make for an inflection point in these troubled times, true. But there is something about this accumulated slippage of quality, and the emotions and ideas presented to us, that reflects something cheaper in the culture. We have been awash in remakes of nerd shit for nearly all of the 21st century, and the loop between past and present grows tighter. Every couple of years, they give Ghostbusters another shot; three actors have played Spider-Man in the last 15 years; the charming and seminal Disney cartoons become laughably crappy live-action interpretations; there’s a fucking sequel to The Shining, which climaxes with the phantasms of the Overlook Hotel, now in CGI form, showing up to exact vengeance on the film’s villain; they did another Space Jam, one that conceptualized every Warner Bros. movie ever made — The Matrix, Casablanca, Harry Potter, etc. — as existing within the same interconnected metaverse of marketable IP.
The homogenization of Hollywood, and the race to monetize every piece of intellectual property under the sun, is nothing new. In 2017, The Ringer dedicated a week of coverage to “good bad movies,” the zany action movies and hokey dramas that are objectively sort of ass but subjectively enjoyable, and how they no longer exist. More than any referendum on taste or quality, I think what characterizes a good bad movie is the ease with which you can just… watch it. It doesn’t require any prior knowledge, any informed context. Meanwhile the highest grossing movie of 2019 was Avengers: Endgame, a three-hour film that would be completely incoherent without having memorized at least a half-dozen movies before it.
The banal credo of “let people enjoy things” that’s often trotted out to dismiss any criticism of the modern goop that I am complaining about avoids the basic reality that the only people who get to enjoy these things are the ones who don’t need to read up on Wikipedia beforehand. I think of someone like my mom, who could be your mom, or anyone else — a person who just likes to go to the movies, and watch something that doesn’t feel like it was autogenerated by an AI, or something that doesn’t require knowledge of 16 other movies to understand, or something that doesn’t joylessly stretch beyond two hours with no justification. Pleasure should be a democratized pursuit, not exclusively claimed by the nerds. The world gets worse and worse, and the very basic entertainments meant to provide some temporary distraction become more of a punishing, involved experience requiring your fealty the moment you walk into the theater. Recognizing this doesn’t require any grand conspiracy — only watching the Spider-Man they made in 2002, and comparing it with the Spider-Man they made in 2019.
One upside, though. During the pandemic, when the theaters shut down, any pretense of a lingering monocultural filmgoing experience evaporated altogether. Instead, we were all forced to make our own choices from the comfort of home, seeking pleasure on our own terms rather than settling for what happened to be in theaters on any given day, or by attempting to participate in some “discourse.” I do not write about movies for a living, and yet I became more of a film buff than I’ve been since college, afforded the freedom and time (when I wasn’t paralyzed by anything else going on) to roam a little. The choice that has slowly drained from the theater was recreated at home, and judging by the diminished post-vaccine box office returns, something has changed about what audiences will go outside for.
It would be naive to declare some subconscious desire for “better movies”; more probable is that people don’t want to get COVID. With box office success no longer a winning bet for these gargantuan productions, perhaps the studios will tilt away from trying to be everything for everyone, and seek something more modest. It doesn’t have to be anything as grand as great art. It might just be an organically fun, alive movie that asks people to enjoy it on its own terms. They’re not going to make a better Spider-Man, because there’s too much invested in the current one; besides, they did it back in 2002. (Though Maguire is rumored to reprise his role in the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home, quite literally the only thing that could’ve drawn my interest.) But it could be something else, something worth braving the theaters for.
Jeremy Gordon is a writer in Brooklyn.