The 2002 “Spider-Man” film (as well as it’s 2004 sequel) is not only one of my favorite superhero films, but also one of my favorite films in general. It’s over fifteen years old now, and I still always find something new to admire about it whenever I revisit it. Part of that is because on top of being an origin story, “Spider-Man” is also a film about three different topics at once without it feeling disjointed and unfocused. It’s a coming-of-age story, since we follow Peter from the last days of his wide-eyed boyhood to the first days of his loftier, jaded adulthood. It’s a story about about father figures, their legacies and the lasting impacts they can have on their kids, as we see with Ben Parker, Norman Osborn, and Phillip Watson (who flies under the radar more than the previous two examples, since he has so little screen-time). And it’s a story about power and what people choose to do with it, since Peter Parker and Norman Osborn act as foils to each other and their opposing ideologies are pitted against each other as the main conflict of the movie.
I’d also say “Spider-Man” has excellent pacing, moving along at a brisk but calculated rhythm that rarely ever drags. The first half of the film takes its time introducing Peter Parker and his most important relationships, focusing on all the right character beats and showing his steady leveling-up into Spider-Man, while Norman Osborn grows increasingly insane and becomes more and more of a threat – the hero and villain’s arcs running parallel, unbeknownst to each other (they’re even ‘reborn’ on the same night). The film wisely only shows glimpses of their alter-egos, and it’s at the halfway point that they finally have their first confrontation in full costume. At this point, the second half of the film is a non-stop thrill ride, as the focus is now on the explosive and constantly escalating rivalry sparked between Spider-Man and Green Goblin, since neither of them are going to back down. Said rivalry only grows worse when the Goblin discovers Spider-Man’s secret identity, raising the stakes, until it eventually becomes clear that their feud is never going to end until one of them is dead. I also have to give Sam Raimi credit for not shying away from the camp of the superhero genre (since an overabundance of camp has led to many a cringy superhero film), but embraced it wholeheartedly, since it makes “Spider-Man” so much more fun to watch.
If you’re gonna adapt Spider-Man to the silver screen, it’s important that you have a good portrayal of Peter Parker, because Spider-Man is a bit different from most heroes. With characters like Batman or Superman, you have these extraordinary people pretending to be ordinary citizens as a mask to the public. But with Spider-Man, Peter Parker is the heart and soul of the character and Spidey is the mask. A large aspect of the comics is how being Spider-Man takes it’s toll on Peter’s personal life as a working-class hero, and that conflict is translated largely well to the Raimi trilogy.
Sam Raimi’s Peter Parker is the shy, introverted and put-upon nerd with a heart of gold who wouldn’t seem out of place in an 80’s movie. That doesn’t make him any less likable though, thanks in no small part to Tobey Maguire’s earnest portrayal. He has a crush on a girl who he thinks is out of his league, he’s picked on by other kids, and his best friend can be pretty wishy-washy. His life changes incredibly and irrevocably when he’s bitten by a mutated spider and gains superpowers as a spider-mutant. He grows stronger, faster, tougher. He finally has a strong body to match his sharp mind, and he feels like he’s on top of the world. Along with beating up his bullies, he gains the confidence to finally try to approach Mary Jane.
It’s a lot of fun watching Peter discover all his standard spider powers step-by-step – like strength, speed, precognition, wall-crawling and webbing – and gradually level up into the hero we know he’ll be soon. The boy is having the time of his life in this movie so the audience does as well, making him a great escapist character. All of this methodical build-up finally comes to a head in the chase scene where Peter is pursuing the mugger – swinging haphazardly from buildings, vaulting over bridges and barreling through traffic. It’s exhilarating to watch, and it’s the moment when the audience realizes Spider-Man on the big screen is not only going to work, it’s going to be great. The downside of Peter’s new abilities is that he grows cocky, arrogant and rude, and starts to take his aunt and uncle for granted until he gets his Uncle Ben shot, learning an extremely painful and long-lasting lesson about humility and responsibility.
Taking his uncle’s advice about using his powers responsibly, Peter decides to become a vigilante, while also growing closer to Mary Jane and taking his first tentative steps into adulthood by going off to college and trying to hold down a job. There’s a noticeable and enjoyable difference between Peter’s usual demeanor and his attitude as his alter-ego. It’s implied that Spider-Man is Peter’s outlet for some of his more repressed traits, letting him loosen up and become a confident, sharp-tongued daredevil whenever he dons the mask. However, it’s not long before he has to deal with a superhero’s burden: trying to stop a terrorist like the Green Goblin also means dealing with his wrath. Peter finds himself on the receiving end of the Goblin’s games and torment as the man tries to break him by targeting his friends, his family and innocent people.
There’s a small but significant scene where Peter has a nightmare about the Goblin, which reminds the audience that Peter is still just an eighteen year old dude fresh out of school who’s fighting an insane, murderous terrorist well over twice his age and that’s bound to take a psychological toll on him eventually. The climax is surprisingly brutal, especially after that reminder of how young Peter still is. Up until now, Peter has been somewhat in control of things and able to play the hero, but when he finally runs out of tricks, he gets dragged down to human level and beaten within an inch of his life by the Green Goblin. Norman almost kills him and he only just barely wins their fight due to his indomitable spirit. His victory comes at a steep, horrible price though, saddling him with even more guilt going forward, and after everything he’s experienced in this movie, Peter decides it’s best if he goes it alone – which nicely sets up the dilemma for “Spider-Man 2“. Peter started this movie as a boy, but he walks away from it as a man. A Spider-Man.
Mary Jane Watson, portrayed by Kirsten Dunst, is the school ‘it’ girl and Peter’s next door neighbor. Despite being a popular girl in a high school setting, Mary Jane is a nice person with a gentle nature, and even early on she has a sort of fondness for Peter. She’s flirtatious, outgoing and vivacious, but also more troubled than she likes to let on, putting on a cheery, party girl façade to mask a more conflicted interior to her classmates. In contrast to the dream girl Peter had been crushing on, MJ is pretty down-to-earth in person and a hard worker.
I really enjoy Peter and Mary Jane’s budding friendship throughout the film, with or without the romantic undertones. It’s a bit awkward, but it’s also earnest and sweet: the definition of teenage puppy love. Peter and Mary Jane bond by talking about their dreams and ambitions, as Peter wants to be a photographer and Mary Jane hopes to be a star on Broadway, even if they may have some difficulty achieving them. Throughout the film, they confide in each other about their problems, they try to physically and emotionally support each other whenever they can, and their numerous, cumulative shared scenes make for enjoyably quiet and tender side-trips between the main action. Mary Jane gradually falling in love with Peter and reciprocating his crush on her is also handled well, though it’s probably on your second watch that you’ll be paying enough attention to MJ as a tritagonist to notice her journey throughout the film.
It’s established early on that Mary Jane comes from a broken family and has a toxic, abusive father who has destroyed her self-esteem over the years. She’s had it drilled into her head for years that she’s worthless and she’ll never amount to anything, so she’s very self-conscious about her talents (or lack of) and her career possibilities. When she dates guys, she tends to go for guys who are important in some way – guys who are popular like Flash, or rich and upcoming like Harry. But she doesn’t really love them, and they don’t really love her: Flash thinks of her as eye candy, and Harry mostly wants someone to show off to his dad. She also develops a short-lived crush on the heroic Spider-Man. But it’s clear that out of all her ‘suitors’, Peter is the only one who really takes an interest in her beyond her looks, who likes her for who she is, who cares about her and tries to support her by making her feel valid, and who even tries to be a friend when she’s not looking for a lover. Something real and tangible blooms between them, and when she realizes she’s in actual, real love for the first time in her life, she decides to act on it – she chooses him.
Superhero love interests (like Lois Lane) are often attracted to their mighty hero personas, so I like that it’s nerdy, normal Peter who steals her heart because he’s a good man, especially as we move into “Spider-Man 2”. Unfortunately for MJ, Peter’s character arc has been moving in the opposite direction as hers – everything he’s experienced in this movie has convinced him that the two of them having a relationship is a really bad idea – so she winds up being rebuffed until the next movie in a perfect example of a bittersweet ending. Peter and Mary Jane are probably at their most likable in this first film, since arguably one of the flaws of the Raimi trilogy is that the two of them get slightly more dickish with each movie, which eventually comes to a head in “Spider-Man 3“.
Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) is a scientist and a supposedly successful businessman, one who has very high standards and more than a few secrets to his name. Norman is outspoken, frank, hardworking, ambitious and at tunes overly harsh, with some latent delusions of grandeur. He’s something of an inspiration to our main character, Peter. He pushes his son, Harry, and shows him tough love to try to make him strong and great, while also showing an interest in Peter (an up-and-coming intellectual), trying to force his way into becoming a mentor figure to him – much to the chagrin and envy of his own son.
There is more than to Norman than being a confident and successful business tycoon though; there’s a desperate, fearful and needy side that he keeps well-hidden, along with some anger issues. Norman’s company is going under rapidly, and he’s failing to convince the US military to buy his new defense project that could save OsCorp. So with time running out and no human volunteers on hand, Norman decides to test his new mad science on himself, which naturally goes horribly wrong – much to the delight of the audience. Norman’s super soldier formula ravages his mind and creates a new split personality that he funnels all his rage, aggression, resentment, vengeance and wrath into – loosening him up and driving him insane. As the film progresses, Mr. Osborn and his other self go on to have your classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dynamic, unbeknownst to all the other characters. In a sense, Norman Osborn dies the night he decides to experiment on himself and is reborn as the Green Goblin.
The villains in the Raimi trilogy are often extreme reflections of Peter’s worst traits, and that trend starts with Norman. Peter is given the incredible gift of becoming superhuman and initially tries to use it for profit and self-gain before he’s smacked down and humbled, preventing him from traveling further down that path. A similar transformation happens to Norman and the scorned man decides to make a grab for power, status and revenge. With his newfound strength, he decides to target and kill off anyone he feels has ever wronged him, gradually becoming a murderer, a terrorist and a threat to the city. In his own twisted way, he feels that nothing will ever prevent him from being seen as extraordinary ever again. I like the way Willem Dafoe portrays Norman; out of all the actors in this film he’s probably the one who embraces the camp the most, and clearly has a blast chewing some scenery.
What makes Green Goblin a great villain isn’t just that he’s gleefully psychotic – lost in his own vanity and delusions – but also how self-aware he is. The Goblin knows all the tropes and conventions of the superhero genre, lampshades them and embraces them wholeheartedly – like appealing to the hero’s pessimism for a potential team-up, or trying to fridge the hero’s love interest out of spite. It honestly makes you wonder if Norman was a comic book nerd in his youth. Appropriately, it’s embracing those tropes that also does him in. Norman couldn’t resist one last bit of ill-advised, evil gloating before trying to kill Peter, which gives him just enough time to gain a second wind, and it’s the Goblin’s spiteful, vindictive nature that winds up finishing the job. Norman tries one last time to stab Peter in the back but in a clever and satisfying example of a Chekov’s gun, he didn’t know about Peter’s spider-sense so he winds up running himself through with his own glider instead. That is some sweet, sweet karma.
Harry Osborn (James Franco) is Peter’s unlikely best friend and his closest companion for several years. While Peter comes from a working-class background, Harry’s family is pretty rich and successful, and as such he feels the pressure of his father’s judgment, high standards and expectations, causing him to become somewhat bitter and cynical. It’s apparent that Peter and Harry have had each other’s back for years before now as study buddies to deal with bullying at school, but if you look closely you’ll notice there’s some tension between them even before the main plot kicks in. Both of them have their eyes set on MJ, and Harry makes several underhanded moves with her that imply he’s kind of a dick.
Likewise, in the background of the film, Harry quietly grows jealous of Peter because he feels like Norman favors him and gives him more respect than his own son, and he knows MJ has feelings for him. Harry is kind of a daddy’s boy, so when he dates Mary Jane he’s more focused on gaining Norman’s approval than he is on being a good boyfriend to her, and as such Harry and MJ don’t last for very long. All of this tension is fairly minor though, until the ending of the film when Harry comes to believe Spider-Man has killed his father and he grows to despise Spider-Man. This development truly marks the beginning of the end for Peter and Harry’s friendship, sending Harry down a dark path that will eventually destroy him. Harry is far from one of my favorite characters in these movies, but something the first two “Spider-Man” films do well is convey his steady and tragic descent into villainy.
Peter’s boss, J. Jonah Jameson, is the most amusing bit of comic relief in this movie. As an seasoned newspaper editor, he’s stingy, loud-mouthed, cynical, quick-witted and sassy, with a habit of double-talking. Jameson bossing around his employees and his tendency to disrespect Peter but keep him around regardless is comedy gold, and JK Simmons milks all three of his short scenes for all the absurdity he can. He’s a sensationalist, he has an odd vendetta against Spider-Man, and he’s not an honest journalist (at all), but he is surprisingly protective of his employees since he refuses to sell out Peter to the Green Goblin when Norman shows up out of nowhere and threatens to kill him. I’m glad we’ll be seeing a lot more of this weird, aggro man in the sequel.
Ben and May Parker (Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris) are Peter’s aunt and uncle and his legal guardians. They’re getting on up in the years and they’re not as capable of supporting themselves as they used to be, but as Peter’s surrogate parents they’re the reason he has such a strong moral fiber. Uncle Ben is less of a character and more of a paragon of virtue, since he sits alongside Jonathan Kent as one of the most famous examples of a sacrificial lamb in a superhero’s backstory in the comic book world. Uncle Ben has a good relationship with Peter, but he worries about Peter becoming at best a jerk, at worst a delinquent, as the boy gets older and pulls away from him and May. After Ben is killed one night as result of Peter’s carelessness, he serves as an inspiration to Peter for the rest of his career as Spider-Man, while Aunt May takes on his role of providing Peter with reaffirming life advice, and she does a fine job of it.
Sam Raimi’s direction for the film has a very lite, concise and thoughtful touch; he gives just the right amount of focus to the soft, personal scenes, but he also gives us grand, sweeping, dizzying shots of New York City’s skyline whenever Spider-Man and Green Goblin take to the skies, instantly immersing us in Spidey’s fantasy world. Spider-Man is the sort of hero who always tries to use his environments to move around or gain an advantage during a fight, which can be a lot of fun to depict on the big screen. Throughout the Raimi trilogy, a lot of Spider-Man’s action scenes have a great amount of kinetic energy to them from carefully chosen, tightly-edited shots, like Green Goblin’s appearance at the World Unity Day Festival. Raimi was a horror movie director long before he dabbled in superhero films, so he gets a chance to return to his horror roots during the Goblin’s transformation – a scene that’s surprisingly atmospheric and tense compared to the rest of the larger than life movie.
While “Spider-Man” is set in the early 2000’s, it takes place in a very romanticized version of Manhattan that evokes the nostalgic feeling of classic comic books with vintage film relics (like film cameras, payphones and trenchcoats) and it almost has a noir vibe to it at times – like the scene where Peter saves MJ from being assaulted in an alleyway, or the whole cast attending Norman’s windy, grey funeral in the final scene. While he was producing the film, Raimi tried not to rely too much on CGI and opted for practical effects whenever he could, sometimes blending the two, and as a result the visual effects in this movie have aged surprisingly well. There are some times where you’ll quirk an eyebrow at the 2002 CG (like the initial wall-crawling shots during the mugger chase), but for the most part this movie is looking good after fifteen years.
I’ve stated this before, but Danny Elfman’s score for this movie is really great; it’s a large part of the Raimi trilogy’s identity and it grabs you from the very first scene. Elfman composes two distinct but intertwined leitmotifs for the main character. The first of which is a primal, daring, determined and straightforwardly heroic theme for Spider-Man that builds through strings, percussion, vocals and brass in the main titles sequence. The second of which is a quieter, noble, sometimes forlorn and sometimes triumphant theme for Peter Parker that symbolizes his heroic heart and his relationship with Uncle Ben, covering both halves of his personality.
Elfman pens a harsh, sneering and predatory theme for the Green Goblin that builds excitement and anticipation more than it does dread, especially when the Goblin attacks Times Square. Like Spidey’s theme, Gobby’s leitmotif incorporates a fair amount of percussion, and Danny’s themes for Spider-Man and Green Goblin tend to dance around each in the second half of the film – always expanding outwards. I also have a great deal of fondness for the pining love theme Elfman wrote for Peter and Mary Jane, performed on gentle strings and woodwind instruments. It harmoniously simmers away in the background of many of their scenes together – growing quietly stronger as their connection grows – until it finally boils over passionately the two times that they kiss (in the alley and at Norman’s funeral) in the last act. I find it’s very easy to get to swept up into it. I hope Danny Elfman’s score gets a more comprehensive re-release someday, since there was a good bit of material omitted from the original album.
“Spider-Man” is an incredibly strong superhero film, and a very accessible one. It works well as a standalone, and I imagine even people who aren’t already Spidey fans would still be won over by it.
* Admit it, your eyes light up when those drums fire up over the Marvel logo.
* “Don’t even think about it!” Glass houses, nerdy girl.
* Diverging from the comics, the Raimi films give Peter organic webbing instead of his standard web-shooters, which has actually led to some minor debate over which is better. In terms of practicality, organic webbing is probably much more reliable.
* “In this recombination lab, we used the synthesized RNA to encode an entirely new genome, combining the genetic information from all three spiders into these fifteen genetically designed super spiders“.
* ‘Back to formula?! Hauughhh!” Vampire Norman.
* The first time I ever saw this movie, I actually wondered if some kind of psychic link had been forged between Peter and Norman, since the camera cuts to Peter waking up on the floor right as Norman kills Dr. Stromm.
* “Even so, sometimes you know people. You can just see what’s coming” “What do you see coming for you?” “I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s something I’ve never felt before” “And for me?” “For you? You’re gonna light up Broadway” Aww.
* “This guy, Flash Thompson, he probably deserved what happened” Pretty much.
* “I know I’m not your father” “Then stop pretending to be!” Way too harsh, bro.
* “What’s your name, kid?” “The human spider” “The human spider, that’s the best you got?” “Yeah” “Oh that sucks”.
* “Hey freak-show, you’re going nowhere! I’ve got you for three minutes! Three whole minutes of playtime!” And that’s how Peter lost his virginity.
* I like how this movie makes wrestling fans look completely insane. These people legitimately wanted to see Peter get beat to death in the ring and even tried to give Bonesaw the tools to do so. Eventually, Peter realizes they’re all crazy so he just starts kicking Bonesaw in the face and doesn’t stop kicking until he goes down.
* “Nothing would please me more than to put Norman Osborn out of business” Why though? You seem to be taking this OsCorp business quite personally.
* Funnily enough, gaining spider-powers also seems to give Peter knowledge of martial arts.
* “You can’t do this to me. I started this company… DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH I’VE SACRIFICED FOR IT?!”
* “You’re out, Norman” Again, you people seem to be making this very personal for vague reasons. Was Norman a massive dick before this movie and you’re all happy to see him fail? Are you jealous of his success? Give me some explanations, movie.
* Here’s a fun drinking game that will destroy your liver and possibly kill you. Take a shot every time Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst start screaming in this trilogy. It happens quite often.
* Spidey saves the girl and drives Green Goblin away for a while, but there’s one important question that’s still left unanswered. Is Macy Gray okay?
* “Pete, what was that thing?” Your daddy.
* This movie teaches you so many lasting life lessons, like the difference between slander and libel.
* “You are amazing” “Some people don’t think so” “But you are” “Well, it’s nice to have a fan” “Do I get to say thank you this time?”
* It wouldn’t be a superhero movie if some random hysterical lady didn’t appear, screaming about saving her baby.
* Norman bitterly accuses all women of being gold-diggers and does so just loudly enough for everyone to hear him. It’s funny because we all know the Osborn men don’t need any women to waste away their money. Norman seems to have done a good job of putting OsCorp on the rocks, and Harry finishes it off in the sequel.
* “The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout, down came the goblin and took the spider out!“.
* Fun fact about Peter. He’s a cute nerd, but if you push him far enough he will maul your ass. Just ask Carradine.
* I would ask why MJ decided to confess her love for Peter at a funeral, but MJ liked Norman about as much as Norman liked her, so I guess that explains it.
* Why does no one in this movie ever recognize someone’s voice? Peter never once notices that the Green Goblin sounds a lot like his best friend’s dad, and despite Peter not even trying to disguise his voice as Spider-Man, it’s their kiss that tips MJ off that they’re the same person.
* “Whatever life has in store for me, whatever comes my way, I will always remember these words – with great power, comes great responsibility. This is my gift, this is my curse. Who am I? I’m Spider-Man” In any other context that might sound braggy or self-important, but after the last two hours of this movie Peter Parker and Toby Maguire have both earned that boast.
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