EDITORIALS

Looking Back: Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man' is Still Definitive 15 Years Later

by
June 16, 2017

Spider-Man Sam Raimi

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.

Spider-Man 2002

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?

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  • Jon Odishaw
    I enjoyed the first spidey but the second one is still one of the best superhero films today.
    • kitano0
      I totally agree...the first one was great, the second one was fantastic. Alfred Molina's Doc Ock (and those tentacles!) was one of the best villains ever, and one of the most forgotten.
      • Duane
        "and one of the most forgotten". RIGHT??? I ALWAYS wonder why Molina's Ock is seemingly overlooked when it comes to great movie villains.
  • getanaccount
    They do to a point. But, just like the Donner Superman movies are dated, the Raimi Spider-man movies are starting to show their age, due to all the CGI that had to be used to make Spidey be able to move, spin webs, and so on.
    • True, but it is still way more enjoyable than Webb's ASM. Line up all the cranes guys! What a dumb idea...
    • Daniel Morrison
      The CG in Spidey 1 has dated a little, sure, but Spider-Man 2's visual effects still hold up magnificently. They sure as Hell look better than anything in Age of Ultron.
  • Jimmy Hauser
    Best superhero movie is a toss up between Spider-Man and Tim burtons batman.
  • prince alfonso
    GREAT
  • Xerxexx
    Spiderman 2 is the only worth while Raimi Spidey film, cheesy as hell but fun.
  • Daniel Morrison
    It's unquestionably the best origin movie in my eyes. It explores the origin, so that you know everything you need to know about the character, unlike Batman Begins (which I still really enjoy), the origin gels with the rest of the movie so that you don't feel like you just watched two movies glued together, and unlike Doctor Strange, you don't walk away feeling underwhelmed, and are satisfied with everything you got. Objectively, it's probably not the best Spider-Man movie (that title goes to it's sequel), but the fact that it pulled that off in spectacular fashion, where so many other origin movies can't seem to, makes it my favourite.
    • Andrew Geczy
      I disagree with almost everything you say. Batman Begins I feel is very well edited, and certainly far less 2 separate films as this is. And Doctor Strange was anything but underwhelming and a hundred times a better movie than this. For one thing Doctor Strange defeats his enemy with actually strategy and cunning and reasoning instead of just physical prowess.
      • Oy Oy Oy! Dr Strange better than Spiderman1? Where? When? How? Dr Strange was such a missed and messed opportunity.
        • Andrew Geczy
          Everywhere. God, in Spider-man he graduates high school before even halfway through the movie. Like what? Spider-man is best known as a high school kid. Why would you rush him out of that? Just to take even fucking longer for him to be spiderman? Kirsten Dunst is a terrible actress and not even that hot. I've already explained I think Tobey Maguire was horribly cast. So what exactly is done well in the first Spider man movie? The Green Goblin? His costume is fucking atrocious. The mask with the mouth that doesn't move and you can see his face behind it. It's just the worst costume ever. And William Dafoe overacts and hams the shit out of his character right up to the end. WHat about the climax. "Spiderman, you'll have to choose between the love of your life, or this tram full of kids." "Actually, I choose both! Psyche!" Like what? OKay I'm so glad he solved the climax with his leet try hard skills. Why didn't I think of that. He just had to try hard, and he can do anything. And then the scene at the end when Dafoe kills himself is so forced and conveniant and lines up just so... Like for one thing he had to of known that even if it hit spider'man it still would have impaled him. And also so glad he beat the villain, again, without any actual thought, just his lucky old spider sense. I will say, the best part of the movie is the dinner scene, and that is arguably Dafoe's best performance in the movie.
          • I see. So you're angry because Peter Parker graduated too fast for your liking. Hum...Strong argument here. Kristen Dunst is a good actress, whether you like it or not. Hot? So you judge actresses on their hottiness? Better to stick with playboy dude. Green Goblin was the best villain of the trilogy. Period. You can understand his motivation and witness his falling into madness. Doc Oc? Not that much. Why did he become crazy? BECAUSE! ;D Sorry that you don't like good movies. But hey! it's life!
          • Andrew Geczy
            It is a strong arguement. All the classic Spider-Man stories were told in high school, name one fucking reason why it's a good idea to rush him the fuck out of high school when that's the character we're coming to watch? Kirsten Dunst is a terrible actress. But of course everything you said was without any actual points or evidence so I'm sure you're just trolling me. Name one move she was good in, that wasn't Interview With a Vampire when she was 7 or whatever. And I can promise you I didn't like her performance in that movie because she was "hot", but at least if I found her attractive maybe I could look past how god damn wooden she is. Her second best performance is probably that fucking cheerleading movie with faith the vampire slayer Green Goblin is not the best villain of the trilogy period. But clearly your taste is all kinds of crazy, so whatever. Doc Ock didn't go crazy for no reason. The chip that kept his arms from influencing his mind with their evil personalities broke. Now why he programmed those arms himself to be evil is a little bit confusing but still, seeing as that is the only real Logical fallacy it's still a million times better than the hundred problems with green goblin. Also Alfred Molina hams it up a bit, but definitely nowhere as close to William Dafoe who's acting somewhere from orbit through the entire first movie. And why did he become crazy? Cause of a gas that magically gave him a split personality? How is that more logical than Doc Ock?
          • Ok. Because you grew up reading Spidey's adventures in high school is a solid reason to reject any new approach. It's because of guys like you that we will have to endure the Death Star Mcguffin for the coming 88 Star Wars movies. I can't argue with you on Dunst. It happens to me to hate an actress /actor for the same reasons. ( subjectivity). Example I can't stand Kate Winslet, no matter what would be your opinion on her. You say Doc oc didn't go crazy for no reason, yet you have no clue why he made his tentacles evil...interesting. Reminds me of Snyder's Lex Luthor who created an uncontrollable monster because...why not! Green Goblin didn't go crazy because he drank the elixir, but because he was a broken, and resentful genius who let his evil part ( that lies in each one of us ) to take over, with the help of this drug. It enhanced his physical abilities and also his mental illness.
          • Andrew Geczy
            Let me give the ultimate arguement for why Andrew Garfield is ten times the Peter Parker that Tobey Maguire was. Tobey's Spiderman wasn't good at science. He wasn't even particularly smart. In fact he was kind of an idiot. And an idiot is the last the3 the comic Peter is. The comic Peter is a genius. Look just at how they defeat their villains. Yes, the action is more dynamic in the Sam Raimi movies. Well second and third anyway, the first was getting there. But in all three movies Peter Parker basically cries his way to victory, or just fights till something happens to make the fighting stop. Compare that to Amazing Spiderman where Andrew Garfield is coming up with antidotes, and he's making plans with Gwen Stacy to try to accomplish real goals. The villains are so bad in those movies that it's really kinda hard to see that otherwise their actually great movies.
          • I can perfectly understand your griefs, even though I don't agree with you. First let me clarify something: I grew up reading Romita's Spidey ( not this modernized hipsterized Spidey in ASM of the late 90s). So to me Raimi's Spiderman hit the nail when it comes to the costume and the mood. Now, we can argue on what would be the perfect Peter Parker. Yes he was a nerd and his room was an eternal Capharnaum in the comic book, but physically, he had nothing to do with Andrew Garfield. And don't get me started with the stupid Gwen and her stupid death. Can someone explain to me why she followed Spiderman when he went to fight the not-so green goblin? Was she planning to save him or something? With what? with her blonde hair or with her heels? I hate you Marc Webb.
          • Andrew Geczy
            I have read all eras of spiderman comics. WHat you have to understand that the nerd of the 60s doesn't exist anymore. The giant glasses and braces that go outside your mouth, and science lab for a bedroom where you're pouring beakers into each other... that's all 60s stuff. The modern nerd/geek very much looks like Andrew Garfield. Fuck in many ways I'm Andrew Garfield. A little bit hipster, really introverted and have a hard time communicating in person. I dont skae board but I rollerblade. Skateboarding is very much something now that is an outlier more than something only the cool kids do. I also ave a pretty good understanding of technology and science, and I also have a system in my apartment that includes being able to control things with other things, and interconnecting of devices and like his electro door lock I dont have that but I have other things that have been me tryign to augment my place with technology.
    • Objectively? Hum... I prefer Spiderman 1 to Spiderman 2. Objectively of course. ;D
  • DAVIDPD
    I just miss J Jonah Jamieson.
    • Andrew Geczy
      Yes.
  • Andrew Geczy
    What? First of all this movie was not definitive. It was boring, way too long, and he didn't make any quips. He was a terrible Spiderman, and honestly I prefer Andrew Garfield any day of the week. The second movie was better. Doc Ock was amazing, and the fights were some of the best (And longest and most complex) we've ever seen in a superhero movie. EVen then, Tobey Maguire still suck3ed and though there was more humour it was more incidental humour and physical comedy instead of Spiderman Quips. Every movie he seems to just get ever so slightly more quippy, and yet that's supposed to be his like defining feature. He makes fun of the villain. Sometimes his jokes are awesome, and sometimes they're terrible. But he's not making them for us, he's making them to keep himself from freaking out. Anyway, I actually liked Spiderman 3 more than most. I like Topher Grace in general, and didn't find him too egregious as Eddie Brock. Also the movie came out before these movies ever really were totally comic faithful, so I always figured they'd hollywoodize Venom and I knew how much they could tell of the story in the limited time so I wasn't disappointed. We got the awesome clocktower scene which was what mattered, and frankly the way they were able to mix Green Goblin with Sandman with Venom and make it work as well as it did... I really think the movie is given a bad rap. Yes emo TObey Maguire. Yes that dance scene. But other than that, I fucking love when Harry and him team up at the end. Frankly the movie gave me something I didn't even know I wanted and all I wanted after was more of that. If they had given us a Spiderman / Harry Osborn buddy team up movie instead of Amazing Spiderman I might have been down. But then Andrew Garfield came around, and I like those two movies. I think it was a great depiction of Spider-man and he was very much the spider-man character I know. The director was amazing when he did 500 days of Summer, and he brought a great touching relationship between Peter and Gwen. Their relationship alone makes both movies very watchable and I really wish they hadn't killed her but instead given her one more movie and then killed her. And then reboot. Also then maybe we could have seen a conclusion to the Peter Parker's Parents mystery, because WHO THE FUCK KNOWS WHAT THAT WAS ABOUT AFTER TWO FUCKING MOVIES OF THEM MAKING A DEAL ABOUT IT ONLY TO TELL US NOTHING!!!!
    • You have a queer taste, and we respect that.

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