Since his debut in the pages of Amazing Fantasy 50 years ago, Spider-Man has been a fixture of the pop culture world, appearing in cartoons, television shorts, films and an almost infinite number of comic books. There are dozens of people who have taken up the mantle of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man since then, and while some have turned in performances that breathed new life into the character, others have been truly abysmal and better left forgotten — until now.
Spider-Man is a complicated role to play; an actor has to be able to seem young, in their late teens or early 20s, but he’s almost always played by middle-aged men. They bring a varying degree of pathos to the character, depending how close they are to the death of Uncle Ben; they sometimes read as the grown men they are instead of a teenager, newly burdened with superpowers, who has to discover what it means to be a superhero and an adult. The role is truly a challenge for an actor (as any superhero should be, really), and where some have risen to the occasion, others have crashed and burned spectacularly. Starting with some of the all-time worst, we’ve ranked 17 of the most famous depictions of everyone’s friendly neighborhood webhead.
17. JACK BLACK
For those of you who were watching the MTV Movie Awards in 2002, this one might be familiar to you; for the rest of you, it might be worth your while to remain blissfully ignorant. It’s a set-up gag for the Movie Awards program, casting Sarah Michelle Gellar as Mary Jane Watson (who’s also still Gellar, it seems like?) who is on the hunt for her co-host.
Luckily, a radioactive spider with Jack Black’s terrifying visage bites Tobey Maguire, who becomes Jack Black with spider-powers. Essentially, if you liked Tenacious D and wanted to see more of their crude jokes in a Spider-Man movie: you’re in luck. If a short where Sarah Michelle Gellar turns into Wonder Woman and Jack “Spider-Man” Black tries to grab her grope while she pilots the Invisible Jet sounds like your cup of tea, you’re welcome to this short.
16. PAUL SOLES
Let’s rip this bandage off early: as meme-able as it is, the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon was not a good cartoon. The animation is choppy, and even worse, it’s cheap — every sequence of Spidey swinging reuses the same cels of the actual swinging motion over a looped block-and-a-half’s worth of New York City skyline. They don’t even bother to try and make the background loop sync up, so you can see it chop and shudder all the time.
But that could all be… well, not forgiven, but brushed past, if Spider-Man was well-performed and fun to watch. The sad reality is that he isn’t. Soles voice for Spider-Man sounds closer to a voice for J. Jonah Jameson, or really any other 60-year-old in New York, and instead of being open and friendly, he always seems creepy and guarded in conversation with other characters.
15. DANNY SEAGREN
Before there was a live-action Spider-Man movie or television show, Spidey showed up in an unlikely spot — The Electric Company, an educational program created by the Children’s Television Workshop as a follow up to their first and biggest success, Sesame Street. In The Electric Company‘s fourth season, they introduced a short skit called “Spidey Super Stories,” in which Spider-Man (played by puppeteer Danny Seagren in a bodysuit) would get into scrapes with hoodlums, and some of the minor members of Spidey’s rogues gallery.
As an educational component, the show portrayed Spider-Man as having no mouth and therefore having to display his dialogue as text balloons, like a comic; there were even interstitial uses of comic panels as transitions when budgets got tight. Unfortunately, with no snappy patter, there’s no way this could rank as one of the better Spidey’s — even if the narration was usually provided by Morgan Freeman.
14. TED SCHWARTZ
In 1981, Marvel Productions launched with the premiere of Spider-Man, a successor series to Marvel’s previous series, 1978’s New Fantastic Four and 1979’s Spider-Woman. Spider-Man was one of the first Marvel series to feature a dramatic throughline — as the series went on, there was an overarching plot about Doctor Doom trying to take over the world while Spider-Man aided a rebel faction against him.
The series faced production difficulties, including the fact that the network would not allow a closed fist to be used when Spider-Man punches people, but the biggest stumbling block was that the voice of Peter Parker, Ted Schwartz, was way off for a university student — maybe as a continuing education Peter Parker, going back at age 45 for another degree, but not as a 19-year old.
13. NICHOLAS HAMMOND
1977 was a watershed year for nerds everywhere, with the release of Star Wars changing the way sci-fi fandom impacted society and vice versa — it was also the first time Spider-Man would be given a live-action television show. While The Electric Company technically featured the first on-screen live-action Spidey, from their “Spidey Super Stories” sketches in 1974, the debut of Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker and Spider-Man in the film-length Spider-Man (a backdoor pilot which was released theatrically before the premiere of the show), brought a realism to Spider-Man that had never been achieved before.
12. DAN GILVEZAN
Alongside 1981’s Spider-Man cartoon, NBC aired Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, a cartoon in which Spidey teamed up with Iceman and a new character, Firestar, as the Spider-Friends, crime fighters extraordinaire. In a somewhat rare move for a cartoon at the time, both series included periodic acknowledgments that they were sister series taking place at the same time, in the same world.
Dan Gilvezan’s performance as Spidey is superior to Ted Schwartz’s performance on the concurrent Spider-Man as Gilvezan brings a youthfulness to the role that Peter Parker needs. The only thing keeping it from being a truly good performance is how quiet Spidey is when he’s crime-fighting in this show — his long silences are more apropos to Batman, rather than the chatterbox that is usually Spider-Man.
11. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS
2003 brought Spider-Man: The New Animated Series to television on MTV. The series was developed by Brian Michael Bendis, whose star was on the rise from his Ultimate Spider-Man comic, and followed Peter in the wake of the events of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man: the Green Goblin is dead, and Peter is an Empire University student, trying to balance school, Spider-activities, and a relationship with Mary Jane Watson (played by Gen X icon Lisa Loeb). The series has charm in the vocal performances, but unfortunately, the visuals are horrible.
The series is computer animated, and it looks like ReBoot, without the smooth edges — everything is a polygon, on a lazy background, which doesn’t really help sell the acrobatics of Spidey’s fighting style. And, for some reason, Harris chose to pitch his voice down to play Peter, when his normal speaking voice would have been about the perfect pitch.
10. RINO ROMANO
Spider-Man Unlimited is a fun, forgotten gem of a show; produced in 1999, it faded into obscurity in the wake of the Pokémon and Digimon rage. In the show, Peter Parker ends up on Counter-Earth with John Jameson (J. Jonah’s son, and Man-Wolf) after Venom and Carnage stow away on his shuttle, and it becomes a show about Peter trying to blend in while also fighting alongside Jameson against the High Evolutionary.
Rino Romano’s performance as Peter works well — he has a very nasal and whiny affect to the voice, which sort of gives him the vibe of Luke Skywalker at the beginning of A New Hope. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled before it could get any real footing in a plot or the ratings, but it is well worth digging up on YouTube.
9. DRAKE BELL
2012 saw Marvel bring Ultimate Spider-Man to the small screen, nominally adapting the eponymous comic book for a younger kids audience; interestingly, it was more rooted in mainstream continuity, with Nick Fury “hiring” Spidey as an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. to learn how to be a superhero. Peter Parker was voiced by Drake Bell, formerly of Drake and Josh and currently of a pop music career, and while his approach to the role is serviceable, the series as a whole is wacky enough to appeal to kids, but the writing was a bit lacking.
Even with writers like Brian Bendis, Paul Dini, and the Man of Action crew (creators of Ben 10) on board, the series was eventually cancelled to make way for 2017’s new Spider-Man series, in which Bell was recast. Bell has one of the longest track records for portraying Spidey, but unfortunately, it just didn’t deliver.
8. JOSH KEATON
Spectacular Spider-Man was a surprisingly great entry in the Spidey canon — developed for TV by Greg Weisman, the creator of Young Justice, the show was a throwback to the tone and style of the original Lee/Ditko Spider-Man stories. Along with that, the show featured Josh Keaton as Spider-Man; he brings a youthfulness to the role, and a sense that his Peter Parker wants to learn and get better, which is a refreshing take on Spidey.
Keaton has a long association with the Spider-Man franchise, having originally been considered to voice Peter Parker in the 2002 video game based on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movie (Tobey Maguire stepped in to record his own voice work for that game), and he has since gone on to play everyone’s favorite webhead in Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, Edge of Time, and Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
7. SHINJI TÔDÔ
Another incredibly meme-able Spider-Man, Shinji Tôdô portrayed Takuya Yamashiro, a young motorcycle racer who receives spider powers from the alien Garia, last survivor of Planet Spider, who crashed to Earth in his spaceship, Marveller, in the 1978 live-action Toei series. There are a lot of gems in this Spider-Man; from the fact that Spidey is fighting a planet-killing bad guy named Doctor Monster (of the Iron Cross Army) to his ability to fly around in Marveller and transform it into a giant sentai robot named Leopardon, what’s not to love? Yamashiro’s Spider-Man costume shoots out of a watch and overlays it on top of him to let him “transform” into Spider-Man.
The series ran for a respectable 41 episodes (plus a movie), and inspired some amazing moments in Dan Slott’s “Spider-Verse” storyline in 2014, but otherwise this show is mostly remembered for the memes, not the performances.
6. CHRISTOPHER DANIEL BARNES
The early ’90s were a watershed moment for Marvel superhero cartoons; the landmark X-Men series was produced on Fox alongside Saban Entertainment, who went on to create Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and to follow it up, they launched Spider-Man. Another perfect distillation of the 90s aesthetic, Spider-Man featured a theme song performed by Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and Christopher Daniel Barnes as the titular hero.
You may recognize Barnes as the voice of Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid, or perhaps as Greg Brady in the live-action reboots, The Brady Bunch Movie and A Very Brady Sequel. Barnes’ performance remains one of the best renditions of Peter Parker or Spider-Man over the years, with an appropriate amount of pathos, teenage angst, and plain old fun with the role.
5. ROBBIE DAYMOND
After Ultimate Spider-Man finished its run with the series finale, “Graduation Day,” Marvel was quick to fill the void again by launching the 2017 animated series, Spider-Man. Voice actor Robbie Daymond plays Peter Parker in this installment (opposite Patton Oswalt as Uncle Ben), and even at the tender young age of 35, Daymond brings a sense of fun and inexperience to Peter’s adventures that is refreshing to see.
Daymond often does voiceover work in dubbed anime as well, voicing Tuxedo Mask in the Viz redub of Sailor Moon as well as the new episodes of Sailor Moon Crystal, and Mumen Rider in One Punch Man. Daymond’s work in Spider-Man was so strong that Capcom also brought him in to voice Spidey in Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite.
4. TOBEY MAGUIRE
This one’s a gimme. The first big-budget, live-action Spider-Man, Maguire will go down in history as one of the major faces of Peter Parker — and that’s a good thing. Maguire still scans as slightly too-old for the part (of Peter, at least), but he’s got a babyfaced innocence to his performance that made that first Spider-Man movie sing. Maguire’s Peter Parker has the effect of the comic book version, he’s a mope and he’s a goof most of the time, but he has a heart of gold, and just wants to save people — from abusive boyfriends, from dangling train cars, you name it.
As the movies went on, his performance went downhill — although there are those of us at CBR HQ who will still defend Spider-Man 3 stridently — but his work opposite Willem Dafoe will forever be one of the great pairings of heroes and villains on-screen.
3. DONALD GLOVER
#donaldforspiderman didn’t exactly pan out the way fans had hoped — with the rebooting of the Spider-Man film franchise on the horizon, fans pushed for a young black man to be Spidey; unfortunately, the films continued to play it safe with Andrew Garfield. But Glover’s push for the role inspired the creation of Miles Morales, a half-black, half-hispanic teen who took on the role of Spider-Man after the death of the Ultimate Universe’s Peter Parker.
Things finally came full circle when the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon did a storyline influenced by Dan Slott’s “Spider-Verse” storyline — as Peter is gathering Spider-heroes from other dimensions, he finds Miles Morales, voiced by Donald Glover, to help him. Glover’s performance is top-notch, even if it is only for the third season of the show.
2. ANDREW GARFIELD
Andrew Garfield had the distinct bad luck of being an amazing Spider-Man — pardon the pun — trapped in a really mediocre Spider-Man movie. At the time, he was one of the youngest to ever step into the blue-and-red-webbed boots, and you could feel it watching the movie — he felt like a kid who discovered he had some of the coolest superpowers on the planet, but he still had to go to school.
While Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel had a lot of really impressive CGI web-slinging and rock solid performances from the lead actors, the storylines of the movies were a hot mess, creating more dangling plot threads than they tied up; it’s no small wonder that they made the decision to reboot the franchise only five years and two movies in, it’s just a shame they couldn’t find anything better for Garfield to do.
1. TOM HOLLAND
That’s right, even though he’s the most recent Spidey and still the freshest in our minds, he is the best Spidey so far. Tom Holland brought a lot to the roles of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, not least of which is the fact that he was still an actual teenager when he originated the role.
With Avengers: Infinity War and the as-yet-untitled Avengers 4 on the horizon, and Holland contracted to appear in both, we’ll be getting a lot more of this version of Spidey before the decade is out, so there will be more time to really analyze and pick apart the performance. But as it stands right now, maybe the secret all along was that there were great teenage actors out there who could have been Spider-Man, and all the producers had to do was look.
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