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The evolution of Peter Parker: How Spider-Man has changed over the last 20 years

January 10, 2022
7 min read time

From the power of a spider bite to the use of alien technology, Spider-Man has changed his presentation onscreen through multiple versions and reboots of films, and sequels to them. There have been different Mary Janes, Aunt Mays, Gwen Stacys and villains. With the original Doc Ock from Spider-Man 2 returning in the latest film (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and Doctor Strange’s explanation of a multiverse, it seems every Spider-Man from the live-action films of the last two decades all culminate into this one.

Okay, I don’t think I spoiled anything that wasn’t in the original trailer, and I’ll do my best to avoid that moving forward. But in case I slip, here is the standard spoiler alert: in this blog, we’re going to take a look at the evolution of Spider-Man from the perspective of the live-action films starting with the Tobey Maguire iteration, which premiered in theaters in May of 2002. 

'Spider-Man' starring Tobey Maguire

How long have the live-action Spider-Man films been going on for? In the original teaser trailer for Spider-Man, which premiered on 2001's Jurassic Park III, the marketing team created a mini-movie that had nothing to do with the film itself. And in that trailer, Spider-Man captures bank robbers fleeing in a helicopter with a web connected between the World Trade Center in New York (this trailer was recalled after 9/11).

That’s how far back the “modern” Spider-Man goes.

The original three films starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, and J.K. Simmons were directed by Sam Raimi.

In this version of Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Maguire) is bitten by a scientifically enhanced spider, which gives him the famous web-slinging abilities as well as strength and improved health, such as no longer needing glasses. Spanning across several years, we see Parker go from a high school nerd in love with Mary Jane Watson (Dunst) while keeping a rough friendship with Harry Osborn (Franco).

Oscorp has its own role throughout this series as it develops the technology used (and abused) by villains like Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), who transforms into Green Goblin, and Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who becomes Doc Ock. Harry Osborn is poised to take over the company and becomes a villain as well in the third film of the series, along with Venom and the Sandman.

The first film was an origin story, so it included Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man, the death of Uncle Ben, and the introduction to the characters’ wants and needs. While smart and a bit nerdy, Parker’s desire to take pictures for the city’s Daily Bugle and his love of Mary Jane seems to be his motivation. As he transitions to Spider-Man, he finds there are a lot of bad guys to contend with; including J. Jonah Jameson (Simmons), who wants exploitative pictures of Spider-Man for the purposes of selling papers.

Each film is about a kid trying to find his way in the world, whether it’s navigating through the awkwardness of high school, trying to make ends meet while going to college, having a social life and saving the city from bad guys, or enjoying the fame and playing along at the risk of damaging close relationships. The love interest doesn’t change as Parker longs for, gets, and loses Mary Jane, who struggles to find herself as a mediocre actress in a city filled with aspiring thespians.

These Spider-Man films have aged a little better than when they initially were released. Between the second and third films, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins premiered and it seemed the world wanted something a little different than the camp of the 1990s comic-book films. While Spider-Man was the first film to make more than $100 million opening weekend and topped out in the mid-$300 million range, each film in the series that followed grossed less than the previous, which meant the series had to make a shift to something new.

That something new became The Amazing Spider-Man, released five years after Spider-Man 3.

'The Amazing Spider-Man' starring Andrew Garfield

The highly anticipated The Avengers busted open the 2012 summer movie season in May of that year. Two months later, The Amazing Spider-Man came out in theaters. While these two worlds would ultimately collide, at this point the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Spider-Man were two separate entities.

Starring Andrew Garfield, who wasn’t as well known as his co-star Emma Stone, Spider-Man rebooted in hopes of finding the magic that other comic-book movies at the time were expressing (between 2007 and 2012 there was The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger, to name a few). Both The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 were directed by Marc Webb, similar to how the former were all directed by Raimi, and the recent ones were all directed by Jon Watts.

While some aspects of Spider-Man stayed the same  such as the death of Uncle Ben, starting with Parker in high school, and Oscorp at the center of the plot — this franchise had to distinguish itself from the previous versions.

Whereas Maguire played Peter Parker a little reserved, in the two The Amazing Spider-Man films, Garfield’s version is more animated. He also gains his powers in a somewhat different way. Genetically enhanced spiders? Check. Web-slinging abilities from wrists? No. While Maguire’s Parker is smart, Garfield’s Parker has the know-how to create web-slinging capabilities and other technology to work with his newfound super strength.

Gwen Stacy takes the love-interest role away from Mary Jane. She made an appearance in the previous Spider-Man series (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) but that was a limited role. Stone's Gwen Stacy is sharp, sarcastic, interns at Oscorp, and doesn’t shy away from professing her liking of Parker. Her father also plays a more prominent role, as he is the chief of police, and finds Spider-Man to be a direct threat to his ability to police the city.

In The Amazing Spider-Man films, the characters increase in their complexity. While Dunst was good as Mary Jane, her role was still that of the love interest in a continuous war between Harry Osborn and Peter Parker, as well as that of the occasional damsel in distress. Stone’s Gwen Stacy not only has a father in the field of law enforcement, but her employment at Oscorp places her at the center of Parker’s world.

Speaking of which, Oscorp is everywhere in this series; from how the villains are created to Parker’s history, which includes parents who flee their home and leave their son with Aunt May and Uncle Ben. The only holdover villain from the first series is Harry Osborn (played by Dane DeHaan), who becomes Green Goblin through a serum developed through Oscorp, which he takes over upon his father’s death.

Unfortunately, these two films didn’t capture the audience it sought and didn’t perform to the level of the previous series.

'Spider-Man' in the MCU starring Tom Holland

There is no origin story for Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. Unlike the previous versions, his introduction isn’t an awkward day in high school, but takes place in Captain America: Civil War and thus, his entrance into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The three latest Spider-Man films take a completely different track than the previous ones. There isn’t much talk about Uncle Ben, spider bites, or photography. Peter Parker spends all three films in high school and they really press on the problems a teenager would experience  or at least those a teenage superhero would face. Parker is concerned about saving the world, but he also is afraid to miss a test, and worries about getting back to his high school tour group, and getting into college.

Just like the previous films, each Spider-Man movie tackles an internal problem that Parker must face. For example, in Spider-Man: Homecoming Parker desperately wants to be an Avenger, but is often shoved aside by Tony Stark, who doesn’t believe he’s ready to be a superhero. Then, in Spider-Man: Far from Home, he feels the overwhelming pressure to be the new Iron Man, with a reporter flat-out asking, “How does it feel to take over for Tony Stark?”

Regarding love interests, this series shows a return of MJ (Zendaya), whose dry sarcasm, intelligence, and willingness to enter danger fits perfectly into the expectations of today’s audience and creates a compelling heroine. She’s not just a pawn in the game of good versus evil, but a significant part of Parker’s success. And then, unlike the previous versions, Parker has a reliable friend who doesn’t turn enemy. Ned (Jacob Batalon) is the sidekick who has the hacking and technology skills that help Spider-Man fight his foes. Both MJ and Ned are crucial to Parker’s success both socially and as a superhero.

Finally, several of the Avengers play prominent roles in the films, including Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and these films fit into the larger Marvel universe, with references to major plot points like “the Blip.”

Although box office doesn’t always equal quality (although these films are great), there’s something to be said about this latest set of films. Spider-Man: No Way Home became the second-biggest opening of all time, and will likely become one of the top 10 highest-grossing films.

Defining Peter Parker

There are several similarities between the three Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?). Each one starts out as the awkward teenager who finds their confidence after a genetically altered spider bites them and they gain strength. But each has their crisis of confidence. There always seems to be too many purse snatchers, bank robbers, and villains dreaming of world domination, and not enough time.

All three Parkers are incredibly smart and use their intelligence to solve problems and find that with great power comes great responsibility, as Uncle Ben shares.

Each film is more than just superheroes beating the bad guys. They’re about guilt, self-identity issues, and the burden of being a superhero while still having everyday problems involving love, family, money, and school. And there’s almost never a balance that satisfies everything.

One common aspect is that Parker/Spider-Man can’t do it alone. In some way, he needs help. Whether it’s Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 racing to overcharge Electro, Harry Osborn in Spider-Man 3 being recruited by Spider-Man to take down Venom, or the latest Spider-Man: No Way Home when…well, let’s just say Spider-Man gets a lot of help.

Finally, every version of Peter Parker has a different path forged through their respective films and yet, he’s always an awkward kid. He struggles to ask out the girl he loves, he wants to be liked, and he wants to do good  he wants to be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

That’s what really connects with audiences: the humanity of the characters.

You can catch Spider-Man: No Way Home in theaters now.

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