Looking Back: Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man' is Still Definitive 15 Years Later
It was the summer of 2002. The superhero genre was at a much different place than it is today. This was before "shared universes" were a known phrase in anyone's vocabulary. It was before superhero movies were even a sub-genre unto themselves. A little movie ("little" even though it cost ~$130 million to make) called Spider-Man would spin its web into cinemas and explode onto the scene. It was a big hit, at the time, with the biggest opening weekend of all-time (earning $114.8 million which, back then, was a huge achievement) and it started a cultural zeitgeist that has pervaded pop culture ever since. With Sony's latest iteration of Spidey, titled Spider-Man: Homecoming, swinging into theaters starting July 7th this summer, let's take a look back at the original film that helped define what we've come to know today as the superhero movie.
In the late 1990's and early 2000's, superhero movies were but a blip on the radar of most Hollywood studio executives' minds. Batman & Robin (1997) had nearly killed the Batman franchise in 1997. Lesser known properties like Barb Wire (1996), Spawn (1997), and Steel (1997) were dead on arrival. Blade then arrived in 1998 and was fairly successful, proving you can do a comic book story justice. Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie arrived two years later and helped lend credence and legitimacy to superhero films. However, when Sam Raimi's Spider-Man swung into theaters on May 2nd, 2002 it was a different beast altogether.
Columbia Pictures and Sony had been trying to develop a Spider-Man movie for years. At one point, James Cameron had even written an outline for a proposed Spider-Man movie that would've starred Leonardo DiCaprio as the webslinger. It wasn't until Sam Raimi, known for his Evil Dead films, spun a take on the popular superhero that would finally convince Hollywood executives to take a crack at the beloved Marvel hero. His spin? Raimi wanted to focus on the Silver Age version of the character, eschewing modern comic-book portrayals and instead focusing on Peter Parker as a fledgling high school student struggling to fit in. It would be an origin story, and we wouldn't actually see Spider-Man until more than an hour into the film.
Now, Raimi of course didn't invent the superhero origin movie. Richard Donner famously explored Clark Kent's origins in 1978's Superman: The Movie, but it had been quite some time before any filmmaker attempted to emulate that approach since then. Tim Burton's Batman was a fully formed hero in his debut movie. Blade was already a vampire hunter in the first Blade movie. The X-Men were already formed at the onset of X-Men. As crazy as it might seem now, a superhero origin movie where the costumed hero doesn't appear for an hour into the film was a risky move at the time. Even riskier? Casting someone like Tobey Maguire over heart throbs Leonardo DiCaprio or Jake Gyllenhaal. Maguire was just coming off The Cider House Rules and was known for playing quiet, introspective characters. Raimi had to fight for Maguire for the role, and it wasn't until he bulked up in later auditions that the studio warmed up to him for the part.
Raimi adopted Donner's approach in other ways as well. He filled out the cast with incredible supporting actors, such as Willem Dafoe as the nefarious Green Goblin/Norman Osborn and Rosemary Harris as Peter's trusted Aunt May. By starting out with Spider-Man's origins, Raimi was wisely able to endear audiences to Peter Parker before he even donned the suit. Spider-Man is arguably one of the greatest superhero origin stories ever told in the live-action medium. It works because Raimi and his writers took their time with the characters and the narrative. When a crucial moment happens in Peter's story, such as when he lets a robber go and that results in the death of his beloved Uncle Ben, it carries emotional weight. Peter learns what it means to be a hero, making mistakes and figuring things out as he's going along.
It was also a movie that came out at an important time in our history. On August 23rd, 2001 Sony released a teaser trailer for Spider-Man. It started with a bank robbery, misleading audiences into thinking this was just another generic summer blockbuster. Then, as the robbers flee in a helicopter, they are stopped. The helicopter suddenly rockets backwards, ending up hanging perilously between two buildings. As the camera zooms out, a giant spiderweb becomes visible. It wasn't until the appearance of the web that audiences knew this was a Spider-Man movie. I'll never forget watching that teaser in theaters, as audiences gasped when the web appeared then started clapping when Spider-Man started swinging through the streets of New York.
Then, on September 11th, 2001, tragedy struck our streets like it never had before. The two buildings that appeared in that trailer - the World Trade Center towers - were attacked. After 9/11, that teaser was banned and removed from theaters. It's still available online (as shown above), but the events of that day would have a long lasting impact on our nation. So when Spider-Man finally swung into theaters on May 2nd the next year, it was an event movie that audiences desperately needed. This was a hero who wasn't infallible like Superman or super rich like Batman. Peter Parker was just an average kid doing the right thing. The fact that Spider-Man's home was New York also probably had something to do with the film's overwhelming success at the time as well. When the Green Goblin is attacking a tram car alongside the Queensboro Bridge, a bunch of New Yorkers start throwing rocks and other objects at the Green Goblin, screaming “If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” It could be considered a corny moment now, but back then? If you were watching the film in a theater that summer, audiences cheered every time. Spider-Man was more than just a summer blockbuster. It was a reaffirmation of the human spirit for so many Americans after 9/11.
Raimi's original Spider-Man also left an indelible impact on the superhero genre that can be felt even to this day. Even though superhero films have been popular consistently for nearly two decades now, the formula for the superhero origin movie has remained roughly unchanged. Which makes Norman Osborn's line "Back to formula?" have a meaning that's almost meta now, given how superhero films were essentially going back to formula with Raimi's movie. Christopher Nolan would later adopt the formula for his Batman origin movie, Batman Begins. When Marvel formed its own studio and started making their own movies, like with 2008's Iron Man, it would still roughly adhere to that formula. Sony would even reboot the James Bond franchise, which was unthinkable for decades, with its own take on Agent 007's origin story with 2006's Casino Royale, which is still considered one of the best James Bond films to date.
In a similar fashion, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man still holds up to this day. So what makes Spider-Man such an endearing classic? Well, for one, besides casting talented actors (and not flavors of the week) and focusing on developing Peter Parker as a real character before introducing the "Spider-Man", Raimi had the good fortune of making a superhero movie before the onset of the "shared universe." He didn't have to worry about connecting his movie with something that came before, or worry about setting up a million different character and plot threads that would be explored later on. I'll examine The Amazing Spider-Man movies in future editorials, but it's no secret those movies were hurt in part because the studio was so adamant on copying the "Marvel Studios approach", hamfisting cameos, references and set-ups for future movies (such as a planned but later abandoned Sinister Six movie) that ended up never taking place.
Sam Raimi's movie also works so well because it is unabashedly a Sam Raimi picture. As successful as the Marvel Studios movies are, they have received criticism as of late for feeling like products coming out of an assembly line. They have the same colorist for all their movies, sometimes giving their films a pedestrian and similar aesthetic. They also worry less about the music in their movies, as their movies sometimes suffer from a lack of memorable musical leitmotifs. Can you hum Thor's theme? What about Captain America's? You probably do remember Danny Elfman's iconic Spider-Man theme, though. Raimi's Spider-Man doesn't have these problems. The film is full of Raimi's signature wit and style, including action sequences that are dynamic with Raimi's fluid camerawork. The YouTube user "Films&Stuff" created a great analysis for why Spider-Man holds up just as well, if not better, than a lot of superhero movies today. Watch here:
He breaks down the ending fight scene between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. It's rough, brutal and it literally doesn't pull any punches. It also has a moment that you would probably only find in a Sam Raimi movie. As the Green Goblin is about to kill Spider-Man with his glider, Parker's "Spidey Sense" activates, alerting him to the glider behind him. He jumps, and the glider rockets toward Norman, as he utters a slightly surprised "Oh" before the glider violently pierces him in the abdomen. It's stomach churning, and it's the kind of unfiltered ruthlessness that would probably be watered down in a Marvel Studios movie. That reaction from Norman added just the right amount of believability in that moment, balancing dark humor and violence in a way that Raimi has mastered time and time again with his horror movies.
Even with his flourishes, "Sam Raimi's Spider-Man" is still fundamentally a Spider-Man movie. He adapts moments sometimes straight from the comics, such as the aforementioned fight scene. He stayed true to the spirit of those characters, not turning Spider-Man into a smoldering hunk or a sullen, depressed antihero. It's a testament to Raimi and the film he made that it still works so well 15 years later. While Warner Bros / DC Comics have struggled to find their footing with their recent cinematic endeavors – Wonder Woman aside – and Marvel often gets burdened with their own formulaic trappings, Spider-Man is an untarnished gem in the superhero movie lexicon. It's a blueprint for how to treat these characters properly, all the while showing how you can make a good, standalone superhero story that can resonate with pretty much anyone.
Raimi would go on to continue to define the superhero movie landscape with Spider-Man 2 in 2004, which I will explore next week. Until then, I highly recommend you check out Spider-Man if you haven't seen it in a while. It's not a perfect movie, with some gimmicky moments and questionable CGI in places. As far as superhero origin movies go, it's undoubtedly one of the greatest. It was a movie audiences desperately needed at the time, and it is a movie whose web is still just as strong and reliable as ever. Marvel and Sony hope to make you remember how much you love your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man when Spider-Man: Homecoming drops next month. Before you do, it can't hurt to give Sam Raimi's original superhero classic another spin. What are your thoughts? Do you think Sam Raimi's Spider-Man still holds up?