Easily Marvel Comics’ most recognisable and popular superhero, unsuspecting teenage nerd Peter Parker was first b bitten by a radioactive spider and learned the true meaning of power and responsibility in Amazing Fantasy #15, which was first published in August 1962. Since then, the Amazing Spider-Man has featured in numerous cartoons, live-action movies, videogames, action figures, and countless comic book titles and, in celebration of his debut and his very own day of celebration, I’m dedicating every Friday of August to talk about everyone’s favourite web-head!
Released: 3 May 2002
Director: Sam Raimi
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing
Budget: $139 million
Stars: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, and Cliff Robertson
Academically-gifted but socially inept high school senior Peter Parker (Maguire) suddenly finds himself endowed with the proportional strength and agility of a spider after being bitten by a genetically-enhanced arachnid. After his beloved Uncle Ben (Robertson) is killed due to his irresponsibility, Peter puts his spider powers to good use as a masked crimefighter but soon finds himself tested when scientist and industrialist Doctor Norman Osborn (Dafoe) is driven to insanity after subjecting himself to a strength-enhancing formula and becoming the maniacal Green Goblin.
After achieving incredible success with the Fantastic Four, Marvel editor and head writer Stan Lee collaborated with artist Steve Ditko to create Spider-Man, whose debut issue became one of Marvel’s best selling titles at the time and whose subsequent popularity has seen him become the flagship character of Marvel Comics. Although Spider-Man enjoyed some success in animated adaptations and even had a live-action series back in the seventies, the story of his big-screen debut is a long and complicated one fraught with legal issues. Development of a Spider-Man movie can be traced back to the early 1980s, when producer Roger Corman tried to get a film off the ground with Orion Pictures. After that fell through, Tobe Hooper came close to directing a more horror-themed take on the character before the Cannon Group began financing a new script and initially brought in Joseph Zito to direct. Cannon’s financial difficulties saw the project fall apart and producer Menahem Golan took the film rights with him to 20th Century Film Corporation, where he divided the distribution, home video, and theatrical rights up and hired James Cameron to write and direct a new Spider-Man adaptation. Cameron was the one who introduced the idea of Spider-Man having organic webbing, which was just about the only element retained from his script as the film rights became mired in lawsuits and Marvel’s legal troubles. Eventually, Marvel recovered and sold the Spider-Man film rights to Sony Pictures Entertainment for $7 million; the studio turned down David Fincher’s pitch in favour of Sam Raimi, who was a life-long fan of the character. Many young, fresh-faced stars were considered for or interested in the lead role before Raimi cast Tobey Magiure, who underwent a physical transformation for the role. Raimi, whose background was more in traditional and practical effects, was convinced by visual effects supervisor John Dykstra to bring Spider-Man’s superhuman feats to life using CGI but still used practical stunts wherever possible. Finally, after decades in aborted attempts and a hasty edit following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Spider-Man released to overwhelmingly positive reviews that praised the cast and visuals while also criticising the Green Goblin’s suit. The film’s worldwide gross of just under $830 million meant that it was a phenomenal box office success; Spider-Man was accompanied by action figures, comic book tie-ins, and a videogame adaptation and also kick-started one of the most successful and beloved comic book trilogies in all of cinema.
The hype for Spider-Man was absolutely palpable back in the day; the film came out around about the same sort of time that my friends and I were old enough to travel to the next town over easily enough ad see films and the trailers and marketing were absolutely everywhere. I remember being so excited for the film just based on the brief snippets in the music video for the film’s excellent hit single, “Hero”, and I bought the videogame adaptation for the GameCube the same day that I saw the film based entirely on its trailer and how good the film was. I grew up reading Spider-Man comics from the seventies and eighties and watching the nineties cartoon, and up until this point the only live-action Spider-Man I’d been exposed to was the Nicholas Hammond version from the seventies which, while ambitious, was obviously limited by the budget and restrictions of the time. This was a big deal; a big-budget, special effects laden superhero film during the days when the industry wasn’t awash with blockbuster comic book releases and I remember being absolutely ready for it at the time.
Spider-Man is the story of Peter Parker, a nerdy high school senior who is unpopular with pretty much everyone in his school. A regular target of bully and brutish jock Eugene “Flash” Thompson (Joe Manganiello), Peter is subjected to cruel pranks and harassment on a daily basis despite being something of a scientific prodigy. Since his parents died when he was young, Peter has been raised by his doting, loving, and supportive Aunt May (Harris) and Uncle Ben, who provide for him as best they can on their shoe-string budget. He also enjoys the friendship of Harry Osborn (Franco), a spoiled rich kid who is struggling to succeed academically and to live up to the expectations and standards set by his influential father, Norman Osborn. Crucially, though, Peter pines for his neighbour, the gorgeous and popular Mary Jane Watson/M. J. (Dunst), one of the few people to actually show some kind of decency towards him despite hanging off Flash’s arm. Peter’s life changes forever during a routine science trip to a genetics laboratory; fascinated by the institute’s work in gene-splicing the various abilities of different spiders into a “super-spider”, Peter is concerned only with snapping a few photos for the school paper and awkwardly trying to find the courage to speak to M. J. Consequently, he doesn’t notice an errant super-spider biting him until it’s too late and, upon returning home, he crashes out and is subjected to vivid dreams as his body undergoes a startling physical transformation.
When he awakens, Peter is better than ever: his eyesight has improved, his body is muscular and defined and his reflexes are so attuned that time seems to slow when he perceives danger. Most obviously, he can now eject sticky webbing from his wrists and adhere to surfaces just like a spider and Peter is overjoyed at the revelation that he has gained the proportionate arachnid’s abilities. So caught up in his newfound superhuman powers is Peter that he forgets all about his chores at home and easily bests Flash in a fight; concerned about Peter’s welfare, Uncle Ben tries to reach out to his young nephew, understanding that he is going through “changes” that will come to define his adult life, but Peter spitefully rejects Ben’s advice and heads off to try and earn some money at a wrestling event. Wishing to buy a car to impress Mary Jane, Peter crafts a bright, colourful outfit for himself and takes on Bonesaw McGraw (“Macho Man” Randy Savage) inside a steal cage, easily toppling the muscle-bound braggart. However, when the wrestling promoter (Larry Joshua) stiffs him on the pay cheque, Peter willingly allows a thief (Michael Papajohn) to escape with the promoter’s money. This decision comes back to haunt him, though, when he leaves the arena and finds his beloved uncle dying in the street from a gunshot wound. Driven to a mindless rage at seeing his father-figure die, Peter puts aside his apprehension and uses his webs to swing across the city in pursuit of the culprit, only to find it’s the same thief he let escape earlier!
Heartbroken at having indirectly caused his uncle’s death by not using his great powers responsibly, Peter crafts a new costume for himself and vows to honour his uncle’s memory by fighting crime as Spider-Man. Although he quickly gains a reputation as a mysterious masked saviour, Spider-Man’s presence and motives are questioned by the pugnacious J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons), the editor of the Daily Bugle, who does everything in his power to tarnish Spider-Man’s name by branding him as a vigilante menace. This works in Peter’s favour, however, as he is able to sell Jameson exclusive and improbable pictures of Spider-Man in order to pay his way through college. However, his obsessive dedication to helping others as Spider-Man begins to put a strain on his personal life; Peter is fired from his job for being late and completely misses that Harry is now dating Mary Jane. On the plus side, this means Peter gets to interact with M. J. a bit more; since Harry is constantly trying to impress his father, he isn’t as attuned to her feelings and his solution to any problem is to spend money. As M. J. comes from an abusive home life, she wants more than frivolities; she needs to be seen as more than just a piece of eye candy for a change to have her voice and dreams heard. Although she is amazing by Spider-Man and fascinated by his mystery and abilities, Peter makes an equal impression by actually being there for her, listening to her, and offering advice, which soon comes to cause a bit of friction between him and Harry.
Amidst all of this personal drama there’s Harry’s father, Norman. An affluent and well-respected scientist and businessman, Norman is absolutely dedicated to both his research and his company, to the point where he often neglects his son and appears to be somewhat ashamed of him for not aspiring to be more. Norman takes an immediate liking to Peter and the two bond over their shared love of science; Norman even offers Peter the respect he’s never shown to Harry when Peter graciously turns down a potential job offer and soon comes to be a surrogate father-figure in the troubled teen’s life. However, Norman is under an immense amount of pressure from his Board of Trustees; his experiments and research into producing a performance-enhancing drug and a weapons-capable glider have failed to impress and, desperate to ensure OsCorp continues to receive military funding, Norman test his drug on himself. The result is a violent and painful physical transformation that also causes his mind to snap, birthing the maniacal and uninhibited personality of the Green Goblin. Succumbing to his darker impulses, Norman avenges himself against the Board as the Green Goblin and comes into conflict with Spider-Man; unlike the petty thugs and criminals he’s fought before, Spider-Man finds the Green Goblin to be just as tough and durable as he but with the added benefit of all kinds of dangerous toys and weapons in his suit and glider. The Green Goblin admires the strength of Spider-Man’s heart and conviction and initially tries to tempt him into an alliance rather than causing death and destruction in needless conflict. Since this goes against his strict moral code, Spider-Man of course rejects this offer but their antagonism only escalates when Norman (who becomes increasingly unstable the more he gives in to the Goblin’s influence) pieces together that Peter and Spider-Man are one and the same. Armed with this knowledge, the Green Goblin targets Peter’s nearest in dearest, putting Aunt May in the hospital and luring him to the Queensboro Bridge (and a final confrontation) by taking Mary Jane as a hostage.
Right away, I need to take some time to talk about Danny Elfman’s score. Initially, I wasn’t that big a fan of it; in typical Elfman fashion, it’s very dark and moody, which didn’t seem to immediately fit for a Spider-Man theme but it quickly grew on me and has since become synonymous with the character. It’s a little scary, a little ominous, but then it builds to this rousing crescendo that perfectly encapsulates the freedom, power, and fortitude of Spider-Man. It builds a sense of mystery and intrigue over the opening title sequence and is peppered throughout the film at key emotional moments but really comes to the forefront for the iconic final swing of the film, which was what sold the composition as a legitimate Spider-Man theme for me even if I hear a little too much Batman (Burton, 1989) and Darkman (Raimi, 1990) in it at times. Before I get into some of the film’s standout moments, I want to take some time to address some negatives. First of all, Maguire’s Spider-Man isn’t too great with the quips. One of the best things about Spider-Man is that he’s constantly babbling witticisms, insults, and nonsense while web-slinging and beating up bad guys. Even when being assaulted by the Sinister Six, he still has a daft comment to make and it’s one of his most enduring characteristics. Here, Peter does quip when under the mask but Maguire’s deliver is very stilted and uncomfortable (“It’s you who’s out, Gobby! Out of your mind!” stands out as a particularly low point) and, as much as I enjoy Tobey’s performance, he seems a little bit lost at times. Though he’s a great Peter and perfectly captures that nerdy, seventies characterisation of the character, it definitely took him a while to grow into the Spider-Man role and I think he just needed a little bit more direction and tutoring on how to work under the mask.
Similarly, I’m not a massive fan of Kirsten Dunst; she’s not so bad here but there just doesn’t seem to be that much chemistry between her and Maguire. She’s pretty enough and conveys a lot of layers to M. J.’s personality but she definitely improved in the sequels, though I can’t help but notice that she’s a bit of a slut (like, she’s dating Harry but flirts with Peter and then snogs Spider-Man?) Finally, some of the special effects obviously haven’t aged too well but I don’t begrudge the film for that as it basically set the standard and laid the foundation for all Spider-Man films to follow. There are also a lot of interesting and relatable themes at work in Spider-Man; crucially, the film is obviously about power and responsibility. Peter was so powerless for much of his life that he easily gets carried away by his superhuman abilities; at first, when he hits Flash, this isn’t a conscious decision on his part but he chooses to spend his day exploring his newfound abilities and to selfishly use them to try and earn money and impress a girl. While many bemoaned the addition of organic webbing to Peter’s repertoire, I always thought it was an inspired change; it made (and still makes) total sense to me that Peter would inherit that ability from the spider bite and it’s not like we don’t get that he’s a science nerd so I always thought (and still do) that this alteration was for the better and should’ve become the status quo. Plus, it plays into another theme of the movie: puberty. Spider-Man is a coming-of-age story for all three of its young characters but especially for Peter; they’re each at a crossroads, on the cusp of becoming adults, and trying to find their place in the world outside of high school but only Peter has the added pressure of actually, explicitly, becoming something else. Considering all of the pressure and confusion raging within him, it’s no wonder that he blows up in front of his uncle or that he selflessly and completely devotes himself to saving lives as Spider-Man after his tragic death.
Conversely, there are a number of amazing performances in the film; Cliff Robertson is superb as the kindly and benevolent Uncle Ben, conveying a stern, but fair, fatherly warmth and it’s utterly heart-breaking to see Peter go off at him in an adolescent rage and to then have to watch him die. Rosemary Harris is similarly loveable as Aunt May; far from the fragile, ignorant, annoying burden she is in the comics, Aunt May is a supportive, wise, and loving while still being a concern for Peter since she’s the only family he has left. Additionally, James Franco more than makes up for Maguire’s stumbles; there’s not a huge amount for him to do in this film and yet he manages to convey all of these complex and conflicting emotions and facets of Harry’s character. Harry craves Norman’s attention and affection but feels inadequate against his father, and Peter; even “stealing” M. J. from him doesn’t bring him the satisfaction he desires since, by then, Norman’s sanity is fraying and his obsession has shifted towards Spider-Man. The absolute highlight of the film’s supporting characters is, of course, J. K. Simmons as Jameson; I remember having such a smile on my face when I first saw him and, even now, he so perfectly embodies the loud, obnoxious, demanding editor. Though essentially a tyrant who uses his paper to spread his own agenda, even Jameson is shown to have a moral code when he lies to the Green Goblin to protect Peter in a surprisingly impactful moment. If Simmons was having fun in his small role then Dafoe appears to be having the time of his life! Easily the most charismatic and memorable part of the film, Dafoe expertly walks the fine line between over the top and dead serious, switching on a dime between his two personalities and absolutely chewing up the scenery every time he’s on screen. The Green Goblin is fearsome, vindictive, and deadly, incinerating the Board members (some of whom were his close friends) and endangering lives without a second’s hesitation all to satisfy himself and, later, to lure out Spider-Man.
Unlike Maguire, Dafoe also knows exactly how to use the Goblin’s restrictive suit to his strengths, altering his voice and exaggerating his movements at every opportunity, and the scene where he talks to himself in the mirror (and to his mask) are all the proof you need that Dafoe made for one of the best supervillains in the genre. I mentioned before that some of the special effects haven’t held up too well and, while that is true (Spider-Man can look a little plastic-y at times, for example), the majority of them hold up extremely well thanks, largely, to Raimi incorporating a lot of traditional, practical effects; the Goblin’s suit and glider, for example, are usually always practical, as is the Spider-Man suit. While I’m not a massive fan of the raised webbing and the mask is a little too stiff, the Spidey suit looks absolutely incredible and is a fantastic recreation of the comic book artwork. I was never really too bothered by the Green Goblin’s restrictive, military suit; he wasn’t really a villain I had encountered all that much so I didn’t really care that he’d been visually altered. Now…yeah, I can see why people would be disappointed (especially considering Raimi dabbled in more faithful designs) but I find the helmet and its permanent, vicious smile to be quite unsettling and there’s something very off-putting about barely being able to see a masked killer’s eyes through a gruesome visage. Plus, the fights between Spider-Man and Green Goblin more than make up for this and I enjoy how they escalate throughout the film from a mid-air scuffle to the Goblin threatening Aunt May and their climatic (and vicious) battle.
Having pieced together Spider-Man’s true identity, the Green Goblin terrorises Aunt May and kidnaps M. J. (since “everyone” knows that Peter has been in love with her since he was a kid) to goad Spider-Man into a confrontation. Earlier, the Green Goblin offered Spider-Man the choice to join him, something Peter adamantly refused; angered by the insult, the Green Goblin forces him to make another choice: between M. J.’s life and the lives of a trolley car full of little kids. Like any good superhero, Spider-Man finds a way to save both, though at great physical strain on his part. Thanks to a gaggle of prideful New Yorkers, he’s able to lower M. J. and the kids to safety but is violently dragged into a brutal fist fight with the Green Goblin. Assaulted by the Goblin’s superior technology, Spider-Man is bloodied, beaten, and battered, his reflexes and strength effectively neutered by the Goblin’s unrelenting assault. Spider-Man’s vicious counterattack is halted by the revelation that it’s Norman under the helmet; pleading with Peter to spare him, Norman tries to manipulate and prey upon Peter’s good heart in one last cruel effort to kill his foe. Of course, Spidey’s reflexes kick in and Norman ends up skewered on his own glider; with his last breath, he begs Peter to keep the truth from Harry, a decision that weighs even heavier upon Peter when Harry swears on his father’s grave to make Spider-Man pay for killing him. Additionally, the entire escapade has taught Peter that his powers and responsibilities as Spider-Man mean that those closest to him will always be at risk, so he selflessly chooses to walk away from Mary Jane after she suddenly professes her love for him in order to continue putting others first as everyone’s friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.
There’s something very pure, innocent, and wholesome about Spider-Man; since superhero films didn’t dominate the box office at the time, it was incredibly refreshing to see big-budget, serious adaptations being made of beloved comic book characters. Alongside Blade (Norrington, 1998) and X-Men (Singer, 2000), Spider-Man laid the foundations of the unstoppable juggernaut that we now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and changed the way audiences (and Hollywood) thought about superhero films. Fundamentally, though, Spider-Man works as a love letter to the classic sixties and seventies Spider-Man stories; like Superman (Donner, 1978), the film can be cheesy and a little campy at times but that’s all part of the charm and direction Raimi is clearly shooting for. It’s not some gritty reimagining or part of a wider, colourful world of superheroes; it’s a very focused, carefree and yet poignant action/adventure film that exists within its own bubble, one that’s very close to our world but also a little brighter and maybe a little more fanciful and exaggerated but in all the right ways and it totally works for this version of the character. Spider-Man set the standard for how superhero films were made going forward; every subsequent adaptation had an origin story, a bit of a romantic sub-plot, and a villain who was in some way connected to the hero and it took a while for the genre to shake off those trappings but, here, they’re all fresh, new, and entirely fitting thanks to its timeless themes of power, responsibility, and maturity. Furthermore, it set the standard for all future Spider-Man movies; without Spider-Man, we wouldn’t have Andrew Garfield or Tom Holland, and without Raimi filmmakers wouldn’t have the visual language for how to convey Spider-Man’s costume, powers, and moral integrity. The technology, performances, villains, and scope of the character has changed, improved, and been expanded upon over time, even in Raimi’s sequels, but it all started here with this entertaining and whimsical roll of the dice that hits far more than it misses and still holds up incredibly well to this day.
Are you a fan of Spider-Man? How excited were you for the film back in the day and where does it rank for you against the many other Spider-Man movies? What did you think to Raimi’s approach to the character? Were you a fan of Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of Peter and the Spider-Suit, and were you excited to see him return to the role? What did you think to the Green Goblin’s suit and Willem Dafoe’s performance? Do you think the film still holds up or do you prefer other filmic interpretations of the character? Whatever your opinion on Spider-Man, sign up to leave a comment or drop me a line on my social media and be sure to check back in next Friday as Spider-Man Month continues!
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