I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve gotten into arguments with friends about which actor played Batman the best in the movies (Christian Bale is the best Bruce Wayne, Keaton is the best Batman, FYI). It’s a simple fact that geeks love to debate each other about inane bits of trivia, be it Kirk vs. Picard, Ewoks: good or bad, or RoboCop vs. The Terminator. Thanks to the arrival of The Amazing Spider-Man in theaters, however, a new debate has arisen: Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield? Both have gotten terrific marks and fan appreciation for their performances, but who makes the best on-screen web-slinger?
To figure out an answer to this question in the most logical fashion, I have divided the character of Peter Parker into six different personality traits established in the comics and previous incarnations, and have put the two actors head to head to determine which one is better at portraying particular qualities. Read on to find out who comes out on top!
Midtown High’s Professional Wallflower
For those that don’t recognize the expression, this was how Peter Parker’s fellow students described him on the title page of “Amazing Fantasy #15,” the first comic that Spider-Man ever appeared in. In just about every adaptation and version of the character Peter is seen by his peers as a total nerd/geek/spaz/whatever other high school insult you want to include here. It’s an important quality for him to have because in works in contrast with how he is presented as a hero after the spider bite (more on that later). But who played up this angle of the character better, Maguire or Garfield?
Before he gets his special spider bite, Maguire’s Peter Parker is a true blue loser. We’re first introduced to him as he is chasing down the school bus on his way to class, and not only are all the other students laughing, but so is the bus driver. Even once he catches up to the bus he can’t find a damn seat because even the other losers don’t want him on the other side of their bench. He gets regular hazing from Flash Thompson and his buddies and basically relies on Harry Osborn and Mary Jane Parker to do his fighting for him.
Garfield is a different kind of outcast. He’s a loser in the eyes of his classmates, but a much less helpless one. In Garfield’s first scenes on the high school campus he rushes to defend another student who is being abused by Flash (which happens to result in Peter taking the other nerd’s place). It’s a new take on an old idea, and while Maguire’s version may be a more accurate version of the comics, Garfield’s is more interesting in this respect.
Advantage: Andrew Garfield
The Science Genius
As with more kids who get picked on for being a geek, Peter is as brilliant as they come, particularly in the field of science. He is regularly building pieces of machinery and technology that can help him better defeat his foes, and because so many of his enemies are science-based, he needs to keep up in order to better understand them and fight them.
In fairness to Maguire on this one, Sam Raimi kind of screwed the pooch on this category when the idea for organic web-shooters was hatched. In the original Spider-Man trilogy we constantly hear about Peter’s intelligence from other characters, be it Harry talking to Norman Osborn or Dr. Curt Connors talking to Dr. Octavius, but he’s never seen using his science knowledge in a practical way.
In contrast, Webb puts Garfield’s geekery on full display. Without organic web-shooters a big part of the “Becoming Spider-Man” montage is Peter building his wrist-based devices and he is seen regularly nerding out with Dr. Connors about formulas and research. You’’ find some evenhanded categories in his feature, but this isn’t one of them
Advantage: Andrew Garfield
“With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s a lesson that all of us can apply in our daily lives: if you have the ability to do something incredible, then you damn well better use that ability right. For Peter Parker specifically, however, it means that if you have the powers of a spider then you damn well have the responsibility to be a hero. In the movie adaptations the approach to the concept is complex and different in both versions of the character.
Maguire’s performance in Spider-Man 2 may be one of the most perfect examples of the journey of heroism ever put to screen. Set some time after Peter has become Spider-Man, the movie allows the character to begin questioning his own motives for being a hero and has him struggling with the desire for a normal life where he can be with MJ and live happily ever after. It affects him on a deep, psychological level, to the point where his powers actually begin to fade and malfunction, but when he finally puts a strong focus on what he wants he discovers who he really is: Spider-Man.
Because the reboot is a retelling of the origin story, the hero concept is a bit shallow in comparison. Garfield’s Spidey does have to overcome feelings of anger and the desire for revenge, but the transition into helping the troubled citizens of New York comes fairly easy to the young man who was rescuing dorks from bullies even before he had superpowers. I’m not saying the new interpretation of the character isn’t a hero, but the impact isn’t as strong as it was previously. It may be unfair to Garfield at this point because he’s only had one movie while Maguire had three, but the truth is that the younger actor has a lot to catch up to.
Advantage: Tobey Maguire
Spider-Man is a funny character. He has a knack for making villains want to hurt him just because they’re so goddamned pissed off about all the snarky comments and quips that he makes. Web head’s sense of humor is legendary, so how does it come across in both Raimi’s films and The Amazing Spider-Man?
Raimi’s Spider-Man movies were largely beloved by fans because of their fidelity to the character, but something just went plain wrong here. Sure, Maguire managed to frustrate his enemies, but it was rarely because of a taunting phrase or wisecrack. Once under the mask the actor’s dialogue was basically limited to lines like, “It's you who's out, Gobbie. Out of your mind.” Not exactly Oscar Wilde.
The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t reach the levels of, say, Spider-Man: The Animated Series from back in the 90s (which was legitimately hilarious at times), but there is definitely more of an effort made to give the wall-crawler a sense of humor while in costume. The perfect example of this is Spidey’s encounter with a car thief early in the movie. He makes fun of the burglar for dressing like a burglar, pins him to the wall with webbing in all kinds of interesting ways, and isn’t even afraid to go for the crotch shot on occasion. Garfield may not have consistency down just yet, but he’s definitely funnier than Maguire.
Advantage: Andrew Garfield
Spider-Man doesn’t have the brute strength of a character like Hulk or Thor, but he is still a damn good fighter. Equipped with his patented spider-sense, ridiculous agility and super strength, he is a challenge for any foe, be it The Lizard, Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, or Sandman.
Raimi didn’t have much experience in the action genre prior to making his Spider-Man trilogy, but you would never guess that while watching the films. “Maguire’s” Spider-Man (let’s face it, in these movies it’s not the stars who are doing most of the fighting) is quite capable in combat, as seen in the last Goblin fight in Spider-Man, the subway scuffle in Spider-Man 2 and the final battle of Spider-Man 3. The fights are gritty and intense and we believe them.
“Andrew Garfield’s” Spider-Man is just as skilled a fighter as “Maguire’s,” but the melee sequences in The Amazing Spider-Man simply aren’t that strong. Physicality comes into play – Garfield is much skinnier than Maguire – but the movie also lacks any really long, extended battle scenes, instead choosing to quickly cut from location to location. There’s potential for Garfield to be a strong, physical Spider-Man, but his debut doesn’t really have it.
Advantage: Tobey Maguire
It’s not just about the flying fists for Peter Parker, as the character has his softer side as well and has proven to be quite the ladies’ man at times. Over the decades Peter has had many beautiful women on his arm, from Betty Brandt to Gwen Stacy to Mary Jane Watson. While we’ve never seen a romantic relationship between Peter and Betty on screen (poor Elizabeth Banks), how do Maguire and Garfield compete when it comes to Spider-Man’s dating skills?
It’s strange to say, but one of the best parts of Raimi’s trilogy was just how tragic the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane is. Every ending, including 3 has a sad element to it and while the upside-down kiss in the rain is iconic, it’s one of very few bright spots in their time together. It’s handled well and with a sense of reality, but it’s also one of the biggest bummer relationships in the comic book movie genre.
Prior to taking on The Amazing Spider-Man, Webb’s only other directorial feature effort was the romantic dramedy (500) Days of Summer, so it actually makes total sense that the relationship between Peter and Gwen is one of the best things about the new webhead movie. Garfield and Stone share terrific chemistry (better than Maguire and Kirsten Dunst) and story gives the relationship time to breathe while also slowly pulling them closer to each other. It’s such a natural pairing that by the end of the film you’re rooting for the love story as much as you’re rooting for Spidey in the battle against The Lizard.
Advantage: Andrew Garfield
If it weren’t for Tobey Maguire we probably wouldn’t have as many great actors playing superheroes as we do. He was one of the originals and he was a great Spider-Man. But the truth is that Andrew Garfield does an absolutely brilliant job with the part in The Amazing Spider-Man. It’s not one of the best superhero movies we’ve ever seen and therefore some parts of the character aren’t as well done as others, but there is incredible potential for Garfield in the future of the franchise. We can’t wait to see how he does next time.
NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.
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