Tom Holland Vs. Andrew Garfield Vs. Tobey Maguire: Who Is The Better Spider-Man?
On the big screen, there have been several Spider-Men. Or is it Spiders-Man? I can never remember for certain. No matter, the legacy of Spider-Man and his web-slinging adventures have constantly found a place on the silver screen. It can be hard for some to determine who donned the suit best: Tom Holland, Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield. Who was the better actor here? Or, perhaps more broadly, who is the best Spider-Man? These aren't questions with easy answers.
With a multitude of people playing the web-shooting role, picking your favorite Spider-man isn't an easy task. There are a lot of factors that go into deciding who is the best, and what makes them special. Ultimately, this is a matter of personal preference, and you're welcome to disagree. (Though I doubt I need to tell you that ...) But let's break this down —as best as possible — to figure out which actor was better at assuming the responsibilities of Spider-Man.
The best thing about Tom Holland's performance is that it captures a plucky, boyish spirit that has largely been absent from the other Spider-Man movies. The character is designed to have a looser, more flexible structure, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe allowing Tom Holland's Peter Parker to appear in supporting roles in other movies like Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, in addition to headlining his own two films, Spider-Man: Homecoming and, most recently, Spider-Man: Far From Home. With five films under his belt, Holland has played the part the most.
This is the version of the character that some audiences — particularly younger audiences — might be more accustomed to. He is a bit like what Roger Moore was to the Bond movies. He played the role the most, and he wasn't afraid to let things get goofier, weirder, and a little more sporadic. Similarly, there is no denying that Tom Holland will be the actor who plays the character the most for the next several years — at least, until Marvel decides to recast the part. And when you see an actor play that part that many times, the novelties and charm can start wearing thin, unfortunately.
Thankfully, we're not quite there yet with Tom Holland, but we have seen the actor play this character five times in a four-year time span. That is a lot. And it makes one wonder if this version of the character will be stretched a little too thick for his own good? Particularly since, as seen in the amusing but slighter standalone movies, the character arc feels less concise and more wide-spread. He's no longer the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He flies into space! He fights baddies in Europe! One wonders if maybe this character is losing his original purpose and what made him sing, i.e. swing.
As An Action Hero
No superhero is worth his salt if he can't hold his own in a fight, and it's critical to our appreciation of the character if he can defeat his foes. Tom Holland's Spider-Man is most notably still trying to get his bearings. He is like a kid trying to learn how to drive; it requires a lot of trial-and-error, and he's not at the heights of his powers during his fight sequences. Hell, it was only in Holland's fifth (!) film that Spidey learned to hone his spider-sense.
That helps make this version of Spider-Man more relatable, certainly, but it doesn't make him a great action star. Not yet, at least. Similar to Andrew Garfield, Tom Holland is allowed to be stealthier compared to Tobey Maguire. Watching him grow at a more gradual-yet-skillful pace makes some of the action scenes more rewarding when we know all the hard work that went into a big punch, for example. Plus, Holland's smaller size and dexterity in the part helps to give him a select advantage in certain bouts of action, allowing the character to twirl and contort himself in a variety of different ways — much like, you guessed it, a spider! While Tom Holland still has some ways to go in the action department, it is a steady progression.
As A Romantic Partner
We've talked a lot about fighting and violence. Let's talk about love. At his core, Spider-Man/Peter Parker is a bleeding-heart romantic, and a few of his biggest tragedies have come from the fire being burnt out or the tragic loss of his girlfriend. Spider-Man shows his fierce side to his opponents, but one of the reasons why people love him is because he is a big softie at his heart, and his more emotional scenes have come from his romances. Similarly, one thing that impresses people with Tom Holland's new portrayal of Peter Parker/Spider-Man is how down-to-earth his relationships are.
There is also something very enjoyable about the fluttering romance between Zendaya's MJ and Tom Holland's Peter Parker. This version of MJ is notably weirder, more isolated and more dryly sarcastic. Whether or not these qualities try to mask her underlying teenager insecurities, it's clear this version of the character is more independent and less romantic than the previous Mary Jane, and that makes it harder for Peter Parker to win over her affections — even though they are friendly with one another. In Spider-Man: Far From Home, Peter finally starts to find the courage to profess his feelings for MJ, even though there is a lot going on for him in that movie, and the weird awkwardness of teen love is in full bloom in these movies.
Similar to Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, Zendaya and Tom Holland were reportedly dating at one point, and that maybe/maybe not relationship dynamic does inform their performances, especially in this newest film. Their maybe/maybe not relationship is cute without being overly so, and it's sweet while still being filled with angst and inner turmoil from Parker's disheveled desire to be two different identities, often at the same exact time. It helps to give their relationship the sense of anxiety and uneasiness that is often felt by most teenagers during their earliest relationships, and it makes this Peter Parker all-the-more relatable and sweet, even when he is a human spider swinging around, trying to stop villains from all across the galaxy.
As A High School Student
When it came time to make yet another Spider-Man reboot, it was clear one of the only ways to make it endearing to the public after tons of other Spidey movies was to really lean into the high school angle, and to make Spider-Man's more youthful, buoyant and charming side come to life in a major way for moviegoers. Therefore, one of the most rewarding aspects of Tom Holland's performance is that it finally makes Spider-Man feel like a real high schooler.
Therefore, there is no denying that Tom Holland is absolutely the best high schooler of the bunch. He captures the uncertain, exuberant energy of the youthful character, with a boyish demeanor that makes it a lot more realistic that he is in high school (even though Holland is now in his early 20s). As every high schooler knows, and hopefully every former high schooler remembers, it is never easy to balance your school life, your personal life and your other extracurricular activities. Imagine also being Spider-Man while all this is happening? It takes a determined young kid to make it all happen.
This Peter Parker is more unkempt and unsure how to use his responsibilities. He is a lot clumsier and insecure as a hero, and it is clear that he finds himself with way more duties to uphold when he becomes an honorary Avenger. To me, having the character be a world-saver is taking away from what made Spider-Man: Homecoming so satisfying: it was finally a chance to see Spider-Man on the ground floor, trying his best in high school and hoping to do what he can while the bigger, more adult superheroes are upholding humanity's survival on a much, much bigger scale.
Andrew Garfield had a lot of pressure put upon him. The actor was starring in a reboot of a movie that came out only ten years prior, and his version of the character was undoubtedly going to be picked apart based on his similarities and differences to Tobey Maguire's portrayal — unjustly or not. With that in mind, Andrew Garfield did the best he could to make the web-slinging performance central to his own quirks and personalities as a performer.
This variation of Spider-Man is lankier, nerdier and also more of a joke-machine than the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man. He follows the same beats as the other story, but there is a bit more attention put on the science-loving aspect of Spider-Man this time around. We know, for instance, that he comes from a scientific family, and that influence allows him to make his own web-slingers and have a more DIY vibe when it comes to making his own gadgets and gizmos.
Unfortunately, while I thought Andrew Garfield did a fine job in the role, allowing himself to be both more sullen and sarcastic than the Tobey Maguire take on Spider-Man, it's apparent to many moviegoers that his performance never really escapes the shadow of the original trilogy. It is moodier, certainly, and it can be a little more willing to let Peter Parker be a bit of a loner (and maybe a little creepy too), but there is a redundancy to these films that the actor tries to brush off but can never shake. Then, I really believe Garfield's performance sadly gets clogged in the dire straits that is The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
As An Action Hero
Andrew Garfield's version will often act the most "spider-like" in a fight, relying on his contorted body and genius-level wits to hold his own in battle. Due to Garfield's physicality and director Marc Webb's extra attention being placed on how spider-like this Spider-Man can be, this particular version of the character feels the most like what a real spider-person would be like in the middle of a fight. He bends, twists and moves in a variety of different ways, and it makes his physical movements a little more unique and distinctive when you see this variation of the character in the midst of his fights.
It doesn't necessarily produce the most invigorating fights, unfortunately, and it doesn't help that Marc Webb's action sequences were often perhaps a little too goofy sometimes. While it's nice that Webb wasn't afraid to let things get silly, the overabundance of CG-addled fights made the character's action moments seem removed from reality, and it was hard to get invested in some of these scenes. There's something to say about how it's maybe the most like what you'd expect from an actual man-spider. I wouldn't know for certain, though, since I have had very little interactions with man-spiders in real-life. If I happen run into another one sometime soon, I'll be sure to follow my journalistic duties and report with my findings.
As A Romantic Partner
There's really something to be admired about the real-life relationship on display with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Both their romance and their chemistry feels more honest and realistic than the one we saw in the previous trilogy, and it is also more willing to explore the messier side of relationships, where things don't work out and one person isn't willing to let things go. That results in some of the creepier elements of Amazing Spider-Man 2, where Spider-Man is stalking Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy. But there's no denying that the third act is an emotional punch to the gut, notably when it comes to Stacy's untimely death when she's in the middle of Peter's fight with The Green Goblin. Easily the wonky film's best scene.
While the execution of the scene isn't as strong as it could've been (I still cringe when I remember that little web hand reaching out for Gwen Stacy), the raw emotion that Andrew Garfield brings is devastating, and you can feel how brutal and impacting it is to see Stacy die so suddenly. It is a heartbreaking moment, and for all the sequel's many faults, it gets this particular reaction absolutely right. Who knows what Amazing Spider-Man 3 would have done with Mary Jane Watson, who was reportedly going to be played by Shailene Woodley, but it'd be hard to follow up this particular romance.
As A High Schooler
Outside of the Tom Holland movies, nobody really feels like a high schooler in the Spider-Man movies. That becomes alarmingly more apparent in Marc Webb's two-part film series. While it was always weird to see people in their mid-to-late-20s playing backpack-wearing high schoolers in Sam Raimi's movies (I'll get into that more in just a bit), the Footloose syndrome of 20-something young actors playing characters half their age was even more glaring in The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2, particularly with the British actor being around the age of 30 when he notably played a 15-year-old.
While the high school characters were seen graduating from high school at the beginning of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, there was always something quite weird about how noticeably adult every high school actor was in their respective roles. While Emma Stone was closer to believability, it was very apparent that Andrew Garfield was an adult in boy's clothing, and it made the core concept of Spider-Man being a high schooler far less believable.
It always helps to be the first! When moviegoers think of Spider-Man, they're often remembering Tobey Maguire's trendsetting role as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, particularly when he's swinging from web to web across the New York City backdrop. Considering how it became the actor's biggest break, Maguire definitely made the most of his star-making role. He's by far the most beefed-up variation, despite being vegetarian, and he's the one who helped to sell the idea of a nerdy Peter Parker becoming the confident, big city-saving hero known as Spider-Man to the world.
Benefitted enormously by Sam Raimi's fantastical direction, which really brings the pop and wonder to the early days of comic book adaptations, Tobey Maguire carries the "aw shucks" sensitive side of Peter Parker with the traditional macho heroics of this personification of the character. Truthfully, this version of the character is perhaps the least like the original comic book character when it comes to his looks and super-heroics, since this more muscle-bound version feels like it's honoring the superhero conventions of pre-established heroes like Superman than Spidey at times. Maguire really helps to sell the sly earnestness of this version, letting us know that behind his red suit, there's a gentle, loving, deeply caring boy who wants to do good.
Sometimes, that almost-too-earnest portrayal makes people think Tobey Maguire is a bit too much of a Boy Scout in the part, and there's something to be said about that. Yet, Maguire's work can also be underestimated when it comes to introducing this pivotal comic book character to the masses. It is often through Maguire's likable performance the general public had a better understanding of the character and his mythos. And it is through that understanding of the character that I would assume they grew to appreciate and respect the following movies. (Or at least some things about them.)
As An Action Hero
As mentioned earlier, Tobey Maguire is the more traditional action hero of the three Spider-Men (Spiders-Man?), often relying on punches and kicks and what-have-you to beat his baddies. His action style might be more basic compared to what was done in the following reboots. But through the wonderful buoyancy of style produced by director Sam Raimi, there's a great bit of pulp and thrills provided by these particularly rousing action beats.
Often, when I think back to my favorite Spider-Man fight sequences, I'm transported back to seeing that really great scene with Spider-Man, Aunt May and Doc Ock during the middle of Spider-Man 2. It's rousing, suspenseful, exhilarating and briskly-told. It captures the style and the sensationalism of the character, but that's not to dismiss the train sequence in this movie (which is a scene I could write about all day), or the scene where Spider-Man must somehow save both Mary Jane and a fleet of strangers at the same time, or even the Sandman battle in Spider-Man 3. This trilogy has the most memorable Spider-Man fight sequences. While they rely on lots of punches and kicks, Sam Raimi is tremendous at making these scenes stand out.
As A Romantic Partner
I really enjoy the simplicity of Tobey Maguire's chemistry with Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson. It is a very sweet, homey relationship that does not contain too many shocks or surprises, but it's what you want from two on-screen lovers. It's sly, winsome, heartfelt and enormously passionate, if in a goodie-two-shoes type of way. It's arguably the most wholesome relationship we've seen from a Spider-Man movie, though I'd entertain an argument about Tom Holland's romance.
There is something very lovely and old-fashioned about how the relationship plays out, particularly with Peter Parker eventually breaking up with Mary Jane, getting back together with her and learning to find the courage to propose to his love. Although it doesn't have the same nuances and touches of realism that were found with both Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone and Zendaya and Tom Holland, it does have a soft, warming beating heart that makes it feel truly invigorated in the right burning moments, and Sam Raimi's beaming flashes of style and passion enliven this relationship as well.
As A High Schooler
As it has been mentioned already, in the original trilogy, it was always weird to see clearly 25 or 30-year-old actors trying to pass themselves off as characters practically half their young age. The high school elements are taken out after the halfway point when the characters graduate, but there was a desire to see high school Spider-Man flourish, and that was something that was ultimately absent in the otherwise often-satisfying movies.
High school plays such a teeny, tiny part of the original Spider-Man trilogy (only half a movie at most) that one would be extremely hard-pressed to argue that it's high school elements are where the movie excels. For as much as Sam Raimi got right about his movies, this is one crucial area where his movies ultimately fall short, and it would seem even more apparent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe how little these movies represent high school.
The Best Spider-Man Actor
This one is tricky. Again, there are a number of factors that go into this decision, and ultimately, I ended up with a bit of a tie. I feel like Tobey Maguire is the more traditional action superhero, while Andrew Garfield got the better romantic arc, while also having more physicality in his performance. But while Tom Holland has been moving farther and farther away from his hometown of New York, much to my distress, I got to give him the credit here.
Though I consider Tobey Maguire's trilogy to be the strongest set of films (including Spider-Man 3, fight me), there is a magnetism to Tom Holland's performance that is hard to ignore. He is able to carry the fluctuating tones, moods and emotions of the character and the movies exceptionally well. And it's clear that while he is a young actor, he is able to convey a tremendous set of range, while also still capturing the smart boy-like earnestness of this character's conceit. It's an extremely tricky balance, and Tom Holland makes it look so natural. Therefore, I must recognize that above the others.
In my heart, Tobey Maguire will always be my Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield's performance is one of the strongest aspects of his respective films, and the work that went into his performance is often under-appreciated. But Tom Holland took a character that many audiences thought was totally exhausted by now and turned it into something that feels fresh, vibrant, energetic and fun-loving, all while conveying the emotions of the character too. It is an exceptional performance, if one that might need to rest for a little while, and I must say that he gives almost certainly the strongest performance.
Do you agree or disagree? Both options are valid if you can provide your own personal explanations. Let us know in the comments what you think.
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Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.