By 2002, the superhero genre was making a solid recovery. Blade had done well, but it was 2000's X-Men that really jump-started it. Not only did it more than double Blade's financial success, cracking the box office top ten for the year, but it was a genuine step forward for the genre. Without sacrificing the powers and silliness inherent to the genre (mostly), it effectively grounded superhero films in the best way: by connecting it to powerful real-world themes, something only The Crow had really managed effectively before. It was a compelling exploration of a group of people downtrodden and excluded from society, working as a metaphor for racism, homophobia, or anything else of the sort. The characters, too, for all their wild abilities, felt like real humans, albeit larger-than-life ones. It was a comic-book movie that relied less on style than on strong writing and acting, even if it did have a solid smattering of style to boot.
But if X-Men started the engine, Spider-Man floored it. It absolutely destroyed box office records, and became the first film to best a Star Wars film in its year; since then, only Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers has managed the same feat, during the same year. (Unless you're counting the Clone Wars film, which, of course, was bested by 80 films in its year, including the Jason Statham / Paul WS Anderson Death Race 2000 remake.) The ceiling for the genre was blasted into outer space, and the floodgates opened. The next several years saw a deluge of comic-book superhero films, and probably no film is more responsible than this one.
Its success comes partly because Spider-Man remains one of the most popular superheroes for good reason - he's immensely relatable. His fights are all about the struggles of everyday life. He's especially relatable to nerds - he's odd, and feels like an outcast. But he's also got rage, and selfishness, and all manner of deeply human flaws. His struggle with life itself is then exploded into a spectacular fantasy story; his powers and fights represent everyday problems. He is, in that sense, the ultimate Marvel superhero; where DC's superheroes are built as epic aspirational figures first and have their humanity seeped into that, Marvel heroes start with the humanity and express it through their powers. The result, when done right, is powerful melodrama of the best kind wrapped in thrilling action tales. Spider-Man exemplifies this, and consequently has long been up there with DC's trinity of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman as one of the most popular superheroes. Just making a good-looking, well-marketed adaptation was probably a slam dunk to begin with.
But more importantly, the filmmakers nailed it. Spider-Man is far from a perfect movie, but it's a perfect Spider-Man movie, capturing everything so appealing about him in a wildly entertaining yarn. Director Sam Raimi and David Koepp did this largely by taking a novel approach: actually stay faithful to the comics. Not excessively so, but the first third of the movie stays fairly close to the original Spider-Man story, not so much in dialogue as in spirit and outline. It captures everything Spider-Man is, everything that makes him a great hero, in spectacular cinematic fashion.
Most importantly, they focused in on the character's motto: with great power comes great responsibility. With this theme at the core of the movie, every scene is infused with genuine power.
Raimi opens the film with a terrific opening credits sequence, swooping through 3D CGI webs and set to Danny Elfman's fantastic score. The power of a great opening credits sequence seems to have been largely lost; modern films tend to, at most, throw up a single title card. Some have inventive end credits sequences, but those almost feel like wasted effort to me; the movie's over, man. I mean, have some fun with it, but going full Bond opening at the end while ignoring the beginning always seems odd to me. Whereas an opening credits sequence can work as a prelude, where abstract imagery and sweeping music combine to draw you into the story on a gut emotional level. Spider-Man's is a strong take on it.
Elfman's score deserves special praise, as well. At the time, it was criticized for not matching his score for Batman; but while that's true, Batman remains the finest superhero score ever written. His Spider-Man score is a classic in its own right. Elfman opens with just a touch of fantasy and tragedy in tense strings, before unleashing those strings in a soaring series of increasingly layered ostinatos, backed by percussion and choir, before brass punches across the rising main theme. It's grand series of rising and falling chord progressions, alternately optimistic, sad, and suspenseful, that perfectly embody the highly emotional Peter Parker. His main theme closes with his best theme for the franchise, a beautiful, powerful falling representation of the film's core: Peter's struggle with responsibility. This music, and the cool visuals accompanying it, launch us into the film proper having already been knocked flat.
Koepp is maybe the best writer in Hollywood when it comes to crafting blockbuster first acts. First of all, he's a master of efficiency; he can set up complete, compelling characters with a minimum of fuss, and get the conflicts and world set up without wasting time. To wit, Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider at the 10 minutes mark (including credits!), after the film has already established:
- Peter is a photographer for his school paper, and a total science geek
- Peter is a loser, feeling like the butt of the universe. He has to chase his school bus down the street, and the driver only bothers to stop for him when MJ gets on his case.
- His relationship with MJ - the girl next door on whom he has a crush, but with whom he feels he has no chance and who probably barely notices him, while she likes him just fine.
- We see MJ with her boyfriend, jock Flash Thompson
- His relationship with best friend Harry Osborne, a rich kid stuck at a public school due to poor grades. Harry himself feels like a bit of an outcast simply by being the rich kid surrounded by others, and he and Peter clearly relate to each other's feelings of loneliness in the world. But Harry, while knowing that Peter is into MJ, takes the opening that Peter fails to once Peter's had his chance, and shamelessly uses things Peter just told him to seem smart.
- Harry's deeply-rooted insecurities underneath his laid-back confidence clearly have a lot to do with his strained relationship with his father, Norman Osborne, who truly wants to be a good father, but is distracted being both a scientist and the CEO of Osborne Industries, and has his own ego problems, all of which make him struggle to relate to his son.
- Peter has been introduced to Norman, who will become the villain.
And it keeps moving quickly. The experiment gone wrong that turns Norman Osborne into the Green Goblin happens at the 17-minute mark. Peter's powers are revealed gradually, as a series of weird little things that escalate until he's kicking Flash Thompson's butt in self-defense. But gradually is relative; at the 25-minute mark, he's climbing walls, jumping buildings, and swinging on webs, as thrilled as we are.
But it doesn't lose sight of its themes in any of this. The subtext of Spider-Man's powers representing puberty are briefly pointed out ("Big change!"), but they wisely keep it largely subtextual. More importantly, the theme of responsibility with power is as effectively woven into Norman Osborne's story as it is Peter's. Norman is both wealthy and brilliant, but also egotistical and greedy. When the human testing with his military hardware has a failure - specifically, the performance enhancers vastly increased aggression in one subject - he tries to overrule his fellow scientist to ensure he keeps the contract. After becoming the Goblin when the aggression is turned up, he first murders the generals who had threatened to cancel the contract due to the failure. When his power is threatened by his board of directors merging the company with his rival and kicking him out, he responds, too, by murdering them, and not caring in the slightest about the collateral damage. But Norman's problems with responsibility don't end there; he effectively convinces himself that the Green Goblin is a split personality that he can't control. But the climax makes it vividly clear that he's been in charge all along, and just deluding himself, so he can pretend he's not responsible for the vile acts he does. When he tries to convince Peter to join him, he goes all Ayn Rand on him, talking about the commons raising the "few exceptional people on their shoulders". Even when trying to do good, he often does harm; without meaning to, he shows a more fatherly nature to Peter than to Harry, only increasing both characters' insecurities.
Peter's struggle with responsibility is dynamic in a different direction. Uncle Ben, trying to have a heart-to-heart, tells him "With great power, comes great responsibility." Peter responds in a typically teenagery fashion: "Are you afraid I'm going to turn into some kind of criminal? Quit worrying about me, okay? Something's different. I'll figure it out! Stop lecturing me, please!" He lies to Uncle Ben about where he's going (not the library, but to an undergroundish fighting ring so he can win some money to buy a car and thus impress MJ), then vengefully refuses to stop a thief who just robbed a guy who ripped Peter off... which leads directly to Uncle Ben's murder. This shocking set of consequences for his selfishness and failure to act inspires him to use his powers for good. Yet he still struggles with his choices throughout the film, sometimes making the right choice, sometimes the wrong one, leading to his final act, where he sacrifices his own personal happiness to ensure his loved ones stay safe.
All this melodrama could get to be a bit much if it wasn't so much fun. Sam Raimi, finally given a massive budget in a genre film after decades of tiny budgets, has a blast with all the technology in his hands. Peter's first moment of Spidey-Sense is expressed with a camera wildly roving around a hallways frozen in time, flying from extreme closeups of a fly to a spitwad blasting out of a straw. The action scenes swoop through every kind of special effect, from huge sets collapsing to miniatures to elaborate (if highly uneven) CGI, though the best action moments outside of the better swinging sequences are definitely when the fights get down and dirty. Even the less obviously flashy touches are fun: the wrestling fight sequence features his Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell having the time of his life as the announcer, who gives Spider-Man his name. (it also features a brief early appearance from Octavia Spencer!)
Speaking of which, the casting here is dead-on. Tobey Maguire embraces the inherent dorkiness of Peter Parker. He's shy, and weird, and his crying is ugly. He feels very much like a guy who just doesn't fit in, or get how to fit in, but despite his loneliness, he has less interest in doing so than in following his passions. Peter Parker is likable because we absolutely understand him, even in those moments where he's being a jerk. He's clearly deeply proud of himself when his repressed nerd rage drives him to let the thief go, because in his mind, he's the cool badass. He's quickly disabused of that notion, to his horror.
Willem Dafoe gets to absolutely devour the scenery in magnificently unhinged fashion, but the complexity of Norman lets him give some real heart to it. His scenes talking to himself in the mirror and, later, to the mask itself, are immensely silly, but Dafoe invests them with such conviction that they work like a charm. James Franco's quietly off-kilter nature is effectively used, making Harry's wealthy oddness feel credible. Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris are wonderful as Uncle Ben and Aunt May. And JK Simmons as the delightful James Jonah Jameson may be the finest piece of casting in any comic book movie ever. JJJ is a delight every moment he's onscreen; he would be a highlight even if he did just berate everyone in spectacular fashion when not dropping out-of-touch non-sequiturs with total confidence ("Meat! I'll send you a nice box of Christmas meat!"), but he gets a great moment of complexity, when Green Goblin threatens to kill him if he doesn't give up Peter, and he absolutely refuses (and then turns right back to berating everyone).
Kirsten Dunst is immensely appealing as Mary Jane Watson. MJ is fairly well-written in general, clearly having her own life and desires outside of Peter; at times, the story does struggle to figure out what to do with her other than just damsel in distress, but when it does figure it out, it's wonderful. The big kiss sequence is an unforgettable, iconic moment of cinema history for good reason.
The film's heart is so strong and so perfectly in the right place that it helps the film power through some very real flaws. While the effects are mostly impressive, and when the CGI Spidey is on-point, it creates a real sense of freedom of movement, there are a number of times when the CGI Spider-man is far too cartoonish to accept. This is oddly less of a problem now than it was at the time, since every movie seems to have some shots like that, but it still creates an unintended distance from the hero and blows a number of action moments. The Green Goblin mask doesn't work at all; their original concept didn't come off, effects-wise, but going for a slightly more restrained, armor-y look might have smoothed it over. It doesn't make sense at all why Normal would create or use such a mask, even in this context. As mentioned, there are times when MJ feels more like a prop than a character.
The climax is very much a mixed bag. With Koepp, that's not entirely a surprise; while he's great at first acts, and solid at second acts, he has a tendency to kind of drop the ball on character arcs and themes at the end and just has a big action sequence. It's not as big of a problem here as in some of his other films, but the climax still doesn't entirely land. The Green Goblin starts by trying the ol' Batman Forever trick of dropping an elevator full of kids off one side of a bridge and MJ off the other, giving Spiderman a choice of who to save. This doesn't really feel rooted in either character, and reeks of "We need a big evil plot for the villain, let's just rip off the last giant blockbuster" in a film that's usually smarter than that.
(By comparison, in Batman Forever, choosing between Chase and Robin was very much an expression of Bruce's conflict between a life as Bruce Wayne and the darkness of Batman, and the mockery of that conflict was a very Carrey-Riddler move to make. Yes, I just said a positive things about a Schumacher Batman movie. I'm well aware that's illegal on the internet, but I'm a rebel who doesn't play be the rules.)
It's competent, but a hollow and unconvincing threat. The scene is saved by the genuinely great moment when the New Yorkers start pelting the Green Goblin with whatever garbage is lying around in a show of city comradeship; it's a moment of well-earned inspiration. And the back half of the climax, the final fight between Spidey and Green Goblin in an abandoned house is inventive and effectively brutal. And when Peter finds out the Goblin's true identity, it leads to a perfect moment for both of them:
NORMAN: I've been like a father to you. Now be a son to me."
PETER: "I had a father. His name was Ben Parker."
Norman's funeral brings the film to an effectively ironic close. Harry thanks Peter for being such a good friend while vowing vengeance on Spider-Man. MJ realizes and confesses her love for Peter just as he's decided he can't be with MJ, because, at this moment, he believes the only way to be responsible with his power is to keep her at a distance so she stays safe. "The ones I love will always be the ones who pay." But Peter embraces his newfound identity, and swings through the city, following the deeply emotional melodrama with a rousing finale.
And so, Spider-Man, in the end, while not a great film, remains a very good one, with many great elements that connected with a massive audience and whose ripples are still felt today. The MCU wouldn't start until this third cycle of superhero films had wound down. But Spider-Man would fit very well in that company, and those films likely wouldn't have succeeded if it hadn't drawn so many people into the genre... and hadn't paved the way so well.
Director: Sam Raimi
Producers: Laura Ziskin, Ian Bryce
Writers: David Koepp
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, JK Simmons
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence
Budget: Officially $139 million, though the actual number was probably a bit higher.
Box Office: A genuine blockbuster. $400 million domestic, and just as much internationally. At the time, that made it the 5th-highest grossing film of all time in the US, 7th worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, the domestic number is $637 million, fourth-best for a superhero film after only The Avengers, The Dark Knight, and Black Panther.