My girlfriend’s Spider-Man is Tom Holland. Even though she’s part of the younger millennial/cusp of gen z generation, she never engaged with the pre-MCU movies more than once. The Sam Raimi trilogy established superhero blockbusters and even the Marc Summer movies were hits but they don’t hold a candle to the force that is the current Marvel universe. She has now seen Tom Holland’s iteration across 5 movies and the Marvel press train now canvases social media as well. My Spider-Man remains Tobey Maguire as those original superhero movies were foundational to my interest in comics and movies. I hadn’t seen them in over a decade so my partner and I decided to watch both Spider-Man 1 & 2. It’s amazing how well they both hold up and also just how different they are from the current movies. It cemented why these movies still seem more essential than the Jon Watts’ versions and the shortcomings that the MCU has as a whole. (Note: I won’t be discussing Spider-Man 3 or the Amazing Spider-Man movies. One there are only two Tom Holland movies and two I just don’t have anything interesting to pull from Marc Summer’s movies. Sorry Andrew Garfield).
The MCU movies are just straight up comedies. Their aims are much simpler, telling more straightforward stories about Peter’s struggles with high school life while dealing with superhero business. The focus is on Peter growing up but more around establishing his independence and being more open emotionally with people he cares about. Also there are a litany of gags and comedic quips that make the movies much more breezy. There’s not a lot of darkness around Peter’s journey and you know for the most part he’s going to come out ok. He doesn’t really have that many hard decisions to make.
Tobey Maguire’s version is fantastical but with more grounded problems. The movies themselves play more like classic cinema (Peter is a nice guy/pushover pining for the girl) with a hero’s arc as he finds the strength to overcome his enemy and solve his personal crisis. Peter also struggles with balancing school/work with being a superhero plus his working class background. The loss of Uncle Ben is meaningful across both movies as his Aunt May struggles to pay bills in what was formerly a two income household. Peter doesn’t have the ability to help out as being Spider-Man means he can’t lock down a typical work gig. Spider-Man 2 opens with a fun sequence where Peter loses his job delivering pizzas and his paltry wage from J Jonah Jameson barely covers his rent. The most fantastical thing about the Raimi movies may be that we never see Peter having to deal with his injuries without having insurance (presumably he’s racking up lifelong health injuries by avoiding the doctor). The Tom Holland movies just aren’t interested in telling this story; he’s working class but has Tony Stark as a father figure. He’s never going to have to worry about money ever again (unlike Sam, perks of being a child superhero).
The MCU movies also removed a major point of contention right from the jump; dealing with a secret identity. Spider-Man: Homecoming does have Peter dealing with juggling a secret identity but it’s played more for laughs than actual emotional stakes. Again Tony Stark is there who can more than pave over any inconsistencies that pop up. Peter’s secret identity is a core conflict at the heart of the Sam Raimi movies. He’s all alone trying to pull everything off without the help of his loved ones. He knows that revealing who he is could lead to danger not only from his enemies but anger and worry from his family. Peter justifies his double life as a necessary sacrifice and ends the original Spider-Man on a downer note because of it. It makes Spider-Man 2 so impactful, as he learns to let people in and trust others. The scene where he reveals his involvement with Uncle Ben’s death to Aunt May hits because we see Peter grow. Peter makes the difficult choice to be vulnerable even though he knows it’ll crush Aunt May. It’s so rewarding too to see that their relationship growing stronger directly ties to his relationship with being Spider-Man. Peter understands how he was hiding and using self pity to avoid the struggle that comes with being a superhero. This internal conflict is just something the modern MCU really isn’t interested in. Superheroics isn’t tied to personal identity but rather larger abstract ideas around being a hero. Doing what’s right is usually sufficient enough to dive into action. It’s much more binary; villains are evil because they hurt people and they need to be stopped.
That last point is the real differentiator between the two; engaging villains. The Spider-Man comics are a treasure trove of exciting nemeses. His rogues gallery is probably the best in the business (I’m not an expert though and am happy to be corrected). The MCU has always had a villain problem. They consistently get good actors to deliver negligible monologues and have hazy motivations. Spider-Man: Far From Home’s Mysterio is fun as a pseudo mentor but his turn to villain is less engaging (he just wants to be famous!) it’s even worse when the villains are right. Homecoming has Michael Keaton just absolutely killing it as the Vulture but gives him motivations that in a different movie would make him the hero. He wants to get back at Stark Industries, the giant mega Corp that stole away his business. This is objectively right; Tony Stark is essentially the MCUs villain in plain sight but it’s mostly hand waved away after he stops selling weapons. That Homecoming tips its hand to acknowledge this while also making the working class the bad guys is a poison pill. The MCU has a big problem with politics and usually tries to make villains more empathetic by giving them righteous motivations. If only they didn’t go too far and hurt civilians (see: Falcon and the Winter Soldier).
Raimi’s movies on the other hand enlists top tier actors, makes the villains empathetic but also gives them clear evil motivations. The director takes his previous horror bonafides and creates monsters out of prideful scientists. The Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus both have no one to blame but themselves and their self righteous missions are what hurt people. Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn is a capitalist but they actually make him evil! He literally just wants more money and not to lose his business. There’s no real threat to him being destitute but rather that he won’t be that movie universe’s Stark analogue. Doctor Octavious meanwhile has well intentioned motivations, to create a sustainable energy source, but he refuses to listen to other people and dabbles in dangerous research. His hubris gets his wife killed and his arms permanently attached to him. He doubles down and decides that he couldn’t be wrong and the test must be run again. If people get hurt in the meantime, that’s just the cost of doing business. Both are clear cut villains and your empathy for them comes from them turning themselves into monsters. They both realize too late just what their actions have wrought. Sam Raimi shoots them both as horror villains and both movies include great grisly scenes.
There’s more to latch onto in those original movies. I don’t want to overstate how deep and complex they both are; all of these details are right on the surface. It’s just that in comparison the MCU counterparts are much more dispensable. Don’t get me wrong I do like them, but I wouldn’t reach to put them on over the originals. They’re more light entertainment, meant to give you just enough rollercoaster entertainment and leave you having had fun. The Raimi movies are much more interested in crafting engaging myths, stories of epic rises and falls and the strength to overcome personal and heroic obstacles.