Thursday Comics Hangover: Choose your Spider-Man

When it comes to Spider-Man, you're either a fan of the Ditko take on the character, or you prefer John Romita. Ditko, of course, created Spider-Man — with some assistance from Stan Lee — but Romita took over the series from Ditko and codified it into the Spider-Man we know today.

It breaks down like this: Ditko's art is weird and a little off-putting and gorgeous. Romita's lines are much cleaner and less complex and more outright heroic. Ditko's version of Peter Parker sulks off to the side of his schoolyard while everyone else socializes. Romita's version is much more mainstream and friendly. Ditko's Spider-Man was paranoid and weird and always in danger of getting angry and hurting someone. Romita's Spider-Man is on all the licensed Underoos and bedsheets, as unthreatening in his own way as Mickey Mouse.

You can probably tell from my description where I stand. I much prefer Ditko's take on Spider-Man, which feels to me like a more realistic portrayal of adolescence. The teen years are lumpy and awkward and infuriating, and Spider-Man should reflect that.

By far, the two best Spider-Man movies to date are Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 starring Tobey Maguire and the new Spider-Man: Homecoming, which opens tonight in theaters everywhere and stars Tom Holland. Of those two, I prefer Raimi's edition, which to me more accurately reflects Ditko's take on the character. Maguire was a mildly creepy Spider-Man; he always had a bit of a leer on his face, and he felt more dangerous than cuddly.

But if you like the Romita Spider-Man, odds are good that Homecoming might be your favorite Spider-Man flick yet. And you'd have good reason to fall for it. This is a funny, entertaining, thrilling superhero movie with great performances anchored by a stellar Tom Holland, and some of the best direction we've seen in a Marvel movie.

Jon Watts, who previously only had one movie — the pulpy thriller Cop Car — to his name, does incredible work here. Watts isn't afraid of pulling the camera waaaaaaaaaaayyyyy back and giving us a long shot, say, of Spider-Man running down a street, or of him goofing around with his webs, or of Peter Parker walking down the hallway of his high school for gifted and talented students. Watts allows things to look a little mundane, which is smart: it humanizes Spider-Man and puts him on our level. We can't help but root for him.

I don't want to give away too much of what little there is of the plot, but suffice it to say we don't dwell on origin stories here. Instead, we just follow Peter Parker around on a few important days in his life, and we watch as he interacts with his hero Tony Stark and a birdlike villain played by former Birdman Michael Keaton. The set pieces are suitably big but happily lower-stakes than most superhero films. (Only the last action sequence falls prey to the too-many-blurry-closeups school of superhero storytelling, and even then the film manages to stop itself before it goes too far down that road.)

You'll see some folks try to claim that Homecoming is a tribute to John Hughes movies, but that's stretching it. While the film does focus on the relationships between Peter Parker's peer group (say that five times fast), it's by no means a romance, or a quiet, character-driven story. Instead, it deepens and investigates the Marvel Universe's impact on ground-level citizens in a meaningful way. Keaton's bad guy has an honor to him, and though he's not as fully developed as Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus was in Spider-Man 2, he's certainly one of the better Marvel villains.

But while the film has at least one huge homage to a Ditko moment, it's Romita Spider-Man through-and-through. Parker is portrayed as a nerd, but aside from one comic-relief bully, you get the sense that he's still respected by his classmates. His relationship with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, wildly charming) is healthy. He doesn't feel like too much of a freak when he teams up with other superheroes. (Remember, Ditko's Spider-Man tried to join the Fantastic Four in his first issue, but when he found out that they didn't pay well, he threw a hissy fit and acted in an otherwise very unheroic manner.)

I wasn't super-impressed with the last few superhero pilot outings from Marvel. I thought both Ant-Man and Doctor Strange were perfectly respectable, if relatively bland, outings. Homecoming is much better than both those films, though it does certainly feel like yet another installment in a never-ending story.

That's okay, though. Whichever Spider-Man you prefer, Ditko's or Romita's, you have to admit that both are well-crafted comics. It's kind of the same thing here: after a dry spell of three bad movies, it's heartening to see a talented group of artists get their hands on the character again. Even if this Spider-Man is a little too friendly for your liking, you have to at least love him a little bit.