IIt seems really absurd to say this now, but in the summer of 2002, Spider-Man hit the cinema audience as a relative novelty. The superhero genre wasn’t dormant, though it wasn’t all-consuming either. The goth-kitsch Batman cycle of the 1990s had died out by then, but successful Blade and X-Men adaptations had resurrected Marvel Comics as viable cinematic fodder after direct on-video jabs at Captain America and The punish.
Blade, however, was an R-rated gorefest aimed at sectarian stamina; X-Men, while a bit more accessible to younger viewers, was still a dark, austere affair intended first to appeal to comic book loyalists. Hit the screens 20 years ago today, Spider-Man was different: a bright, goofy, youthful adventure with a wholesomeness the genre hadn’t seen since the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve two decades before.
The then 40-year-old comic book hero’s geeky enthusiasts would be happy enough with director Sam Raimi’s screen-bending origin story, but they weren’t necessarily his primary audience. Using the setting of an earlier screenplay by an uncredited James Cameron, David Koepp’s screenplay positioned the tale of young Peter Parker as a romantic teenager who comes of age first, and a fantasy of spandex wars. second – in doing so, he caught the attention of viewers who might, at first glance, deem a film about a boy in a red suit who weaves webs and fights crime in New York a little childish for them.
It worked, to the tune of over $825 million worldwide. As Spider-Man stayed and stayed and stayed in theaters that season, it attracted families and the date night crowd in addition to nerds. “It just might restore the good name of escapist cinema,” applauded Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, amid a glut of surprisingly strong reviews for Raimi’s film. Notably prone to hyperbole, Travers may for once have been guilty of understatement: even in the immediate burst of the film’s popularity, few could have foreseen how radically Spider-Man would reset the model of populist cinema. . Two reboots, seven more Spidey films, and an entire tangled cinematic universe later, the film’s underdog behavior now feels like some kind of disjointed Trojan horse through which Marvel launched hegemonic plans for multiplex dominance.
As a sophomore college student with a pretty arrogant attitude towards all of comic book culture, I was among many surprisingly charmed by Raimi’s vision: the film was honestly silly and good-humored in a way that many of this summer’s assembly line blockbusters (including new all-out releases from the Star Wars franchises, Men in Black, Jack Ryan and Mummy) haven’t. However manufactured his little-guy feeling, it was hard not to love a movie that offered Tobey Maguire — then the weird, twiggy, slightly haunted character of films such as The Ice Storm, Pleasantville and The Cider House Rules — a chance to play an action hero, who partly unmasked him not for a crucial plot, but a fainting kiss in the rain, and who briefly interrupted a key sequence of digitized urban carnage to leave the eccentric R&B belt to the Macy Gray’s huge, lanky hair a few bars of a track called My Nutmeg Phantasy.
If Spider-Man therefore works quite well as an insider movie for outsiders, it’s largely thanks to Raimi’s shaggy B-movie sensibilities. A prodigy who had made a name for himself in the macabre and biting films of Evil Dead, attempted his own stylish superhero original (with little commercial interest) in Darkman, and spent the 90s jumping between genres in adult-oriented movies like The Quick and the Dead and A Simple Plan, he was no obvious captain for a four-quadrant studio colossus on a six-figure budget. Everyone from chic stylist David Fincher to Batman savior Tim Burton to home movie dealer Chris Columbus (who moved on to launch the Harry Potter franchise instead) was considered before the Columbia president Pictures’ Amy Pascal is betting on Raimi’s sincere enthusiasm. — a virtue reflected in the film’s genial sympathy for misfits, as well as a brash, sophisticated aesthetic that aims to evoke the stylized panels of the original comics at every turn.
It was also Raimi who lobbied for Maguire’s unexpected casting as Peter Parker, due to the studio’s preference for better looking and better looking teen idol types – Jude Law and James Franco (eventually portrayed like Parker’s whiny frenemy Harry Osborn instead) among them. It was a coup that saved not just the movie, but possibly Marvel’s entire long-term agenda. Revisiting the film today, it’s Maguire’s sweet, uncanny boy-man quality – and his sweet chemistry with Kirsten Dunst, in the same way against studio expectations as his playful, sad Mary Jane – that leads to quite a few pretty tricky bits in Koepp’s storyline, most problematically among them a villain who just doesn’t have the goods. Even in 2002, despite Willem Dafoe’s most lascivious efforts, the Green Goblin seemed rigidly visualized and clumsily motivated; it was the rare superhero film where the pyrotechnic action continued to distract from a more compelling relationship story.
Raimi and his team addressed these issues in 2004’s Spider-Man 2, an altogether sleeker and cleaner affair that continued the first film’s endearing character work while replacing a richer, funnier villain in Doctor Octopus. by Alfred Molina, and aiming for a more ambitious visual majesty. – with smoother, less chintzy effects that work to boot. It remains the culmination of the extended universe of Spider-Man: Raimi’s misguided second sequel fell short, and neither did any of the subsequent reboot phases, starring Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland. both broadly attractive but carrying little of Maguire’s poignant awkwardness.
Twenty years later, the character of Spider-Man has become key property in something far less intimate and appealing than Raimi’s relatively modest 2002 blockbuster. from Marvel Avengers, all of the new individual Spider-Man movies have little time for the pleasantly mundane day-to-day concerns of turn-of-the-millennium Peter Parker. There’s not just one city to save – a priority that seemed more urgent in a film that arrived months after the 9/11 attacks, when Raimi’s film deftly espoused New York sentiments all for one and one. for all – but a whole multiverse to maintain.
By the time Maguire’s Spider-Man returned in last year’s gnarly Spider-Man: No Way Home, the quaintness of his take on the character (down to his organic web-spinning abilities on his wrist, always a more exciting development of body horror than a fancy costume) was fodder for later generations. Everything has changed, if everything remains somewhat the same: even Raimi has been brought back into the Marvel fold, directing the latest outing of Spidey’s MCU colleague, Doctor Strange, into cinemas this week. In 2002, the pressure was on the filmmaker to reanimate a dormant world of comics; 20 years later, all he has to do is keep the machine running.