Retrospective: The Legacy of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, 20 Years Later

In light of Jon Watts’ ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’, which shattered box office records in December, the decade-old question re-emerged: Who is the best Spidey? Yes, it is impossible to deny the charm of Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland. However, to many fans who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, Tobey Maguire was the first, and in many ways, the definitive Spider-Man.

Judging by the onslaught of memes poking fun at Maguire’s Peter, it seemed for a period of time (circa. 2016) that, according to the internet, Sam Raimi’s original trilogy didn’t quite hold up to today’s superhero film standard. Although, just sitting in an opening weekend screening for No Way Home was proof enough that Maguire’s original portrayal of the web-slinger continues to hold a very special place in fans’ hearts.

“Who am I? You sure you want to know?” Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’, released in May of 2002, is the first movie I can remember watching, and it’s responsible for my continuing love for comic book media. I can still vividly envision my four-year-old self sitting innocently on my living room floor, utterly infatuated with the guy dressed head-to-toe in red and blue spandex. With this lens of nostalgia, it would be difficult to try to write a review that’s anything but glowing. I am sorry in advance, but also very much not sorry.

What Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ does correctly, from the very opening sequence, is capturing what makes Spider-Man a fan favorite: Not the suit, not the powers, but the awkward, ordinary high school kid behind the mask. The unglamorous sight of glasses-wearing Peter Parker frantically chasing after his school bus is an immediate microcosm of his co-creator Stan Lee’s approach to crafting characters: “I just tried to write characters who are human beings who also have superpowers.” As viewers, we see ourselves in Peter, whose life circulates around his aunt and uncle, school, cash shortages, an unfair boss, an estranged best friend, and romantic struggles, just as much as any superpowered foe. 

Tobey Maguire effortlessly embodies the timid and awkward nature of Peter Parker to an extent where it’s almost difficult to watch. This is evident especially when he’s trying (emphasis on trying) to talk to Mary Jane Watson, the girl of his dreams. Of the three Peter Parkers, it is Maguire’s that feels easiest to resonate with. At the beginning of the film, he couldn’t be further from cool or composed, and by the end of it, he’s not much better.

Of course, who is Peter Parker without his Aunt May? Although we have had three tremendous actors depict the character, Rosemary Harris will always be my favourite. She presents a caring, delicate yet inspirational mother figure, rightfully functioning as Peter’s consistent moral compass and the emotional backbone of Raimi’s trilogy.

To invoke the cliche, they say a hero is only as good as their villain. Whilst this is not always the case, Willem Dafoe’s harrowing performance as the scientist-turned-murderer Norman Osborn (aka Green Goblin) is as likely to send a tingle down adults’ spines as as it is to terrify children. Dafoe’s sympathetic Osborn and, by contrast, menacing Goblin presents a convincing Gollum-esque dynamic that solidifies ‘Spider-Man’ as not just one of the first brilliant Marvel films, but a cinematic classic.

‘Spider-Man’ features a plethora of memorable cast members, but this review would be incomplete without taking the time to pay tribute to J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson. Simmons’ wholly embodied the comic book character with so much charisma and humour that both The Amazing Spider-Man duology and the MCU didn’t dare recast him. Marvel Studios satisfied a fan-led online petition when Simmons played a variant of Jameson in Tom Holland’s universe in both ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ and ‘No Way Home’.

The technical elements of the film are certainly worthy of praise as well. For 2002, the CGI in ‘Spider-Man’ is rather impressive and mostly holds its own, even by moderntoday’s standards. Of course, there is that one infamous mannequin shot, but many of the CGI swinging scenes still look impressive today. For a very physically dynamic character, it should not be taken for granted how Sony Pictures Imageworks brought the comic book icon to life in live-action after nearly twenty-five years of development hell.

In addition to how it looks, ‘Spider-Man’ is made complete by how it sounds. Danny Elfman has an extensive discography of superhero scores, but his treatment of the wall-crawler is truly awe-inspiring, epic and emotional. Elfman’s crafting of a distinct musical themesscore for both Spider-Man and Peter Parker subtly yet effectively contributes to the defined dichotomy of the titular character.

Ultimately, it was the emotional triumph of ‘Spider-Man’ that made it stand out against its contemporaries in the superhero subgenre. Yes, Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’ (2000) endures as a charming allegory for the alienation of the other, but as a comic book movie, it lacks the human-focused and heartfelt narrative that Raimi’s film offers. Being widely referred to as the birth of the modern superhero flick, ‘Spider-Man’, for better or for worse, dramatically set the stage for the next two decades of blockbusters, with comic book movies becoming prime money-makers. This is particularly seen now in Kevin Feige’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which dominates box offices year in and year out. In fact, twenty years, almost to the day, after ‘Spider-Man’ hit US theatres in 2002, Sam Raimi makes his highly-anticipated return as a Marvel director with the release of ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’. It is not unfounded to question whether ‘Avengers: Endgame’  would have become the second-highest-grossing film of all time without Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ first redefining the superhero subgenre.

With lifelong Spidey fan Sam Raimi at the helm, it’s fair to assume that the film would have always gotten the core tenets of the character correct. However, it is possible that the film initially intended to exhibit a darker, edgier tone. This seems to be the case based on the film’s original teaser, which hit movie theatres in 2001. Complete with the early-2000s signature green colour grading, all footage from the teaser, including imagery of a bank robbery and the distinct iconography of the Twin Towers, was scrapped from the final product. At the time of release, ‘Spider-Man’ offered a narrative of hope and unity in the wake of the collective trauma felt as a consequence of the tragic September 11 attacks. These themes arguably helped superhero films grow as popular as they are now, presenting themselves not just as gritty action spectacles, but as inspiring stories. Reshoots after the US attacks added a crucial scene to the film’s climax, where onlooking New York civilians on the Queensboro Bridge assist Spidey in his struggle against the psychopathic Green Goblin. When you hear one of the New Yorkers yell, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us”, it’s difficult to ignore the post-9/11 rhetoric embedded within the line.

Within the film’s opening dialogue, Peter declares that his story, like any story worth telling, is all about a girl. Here, ‘Spider-Man’ instantly sets the tone of the trilogy, as Peter and MJ’s tumultuous (and often toxic) romance sits at the centre of the narrative. What is profound about ‘Spider-Man’ is how its conclusion cements its main theme: “With great power, comes great responsibility”. It is glaringly highlighted that being Spider-Man is a gift and a curse, involving sacrifice and consequences. In line with Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ structure, Peter has the opportunity to ‘get the girl’. However, the movie’s A-class character development culminates in his decision to distance MJ from the dangerous life of being a hero. One of my favourite things about Spider-Man stories is how they challenge us to be the best versions of ourselves, putting the greater good above our personal desires.
‘Spider-Man’ may have paved a revolutionary path for future superhero movies, but it also stands the test of time in its own right. To many, including myself, Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ remains not only highly enjoyable, but an endlessly inspirational tale of how, as encapsulated by Stan Lee in his ‘Spider-Man 3’ cameo, “one person can make a difference”.

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