Released in the summer of 2002, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was heavily hyped, but lived up to it instantly, and along with Bryan Singer’s X-Men from two years before, is seen as a kind of Year Zero for the current generation of Hollywood’s obsession with comic book blockbusters.
Soaring ever higher into the sky, slinging between buildings in what was an exhilarating blast of CGI and backed by a cathartic score courtesy of Danny Elfman, it’s easy to forget in the light of a rebooted series that gained a mixed reception and the now groundbreaking collaboration between two studios that has led to Spider-Man:Homecoming, that Sam Raimi’s 2002 blockbuster was a massive success and was to be a trail blazer in nearly every studio in Hollywood looking to see what comic book characters they had the rights to in order to cash in on and bring to the screen.
In the small number of years that followed, 20th Century Fox would bring Daredevil to the screen while making further X-Men sequels, Sony would also release Ghost Rider, whilst Warner Bros. would finally seize upon the chance to reboot Batman under the eye of Christopher Nolan and allow Bryan Singer to put a personalised vision of Superman on to screens.
In some respects, along with Bryan Singer’s early X-Men efforts and Christopher Nolan’s 2005 masterpiece Batman Begins, Raimi’s Spider-Man would be seen as both blockbuster and a legitimately great film, gaining universally good reviews and making massive amounts of money worldwide for Sony, giving the studio a flagship movie franchise that it craved, albeit one that would somewhat fall into a massive black hole with in order to retain the rights to and try to capitalise on the success of a shared cinematic universe that Marvel would accomplish on its own, thus having to salvage their movie series by going into a partnership with Marvel Studios themselves.
Whilst the concept of a shared cinematic universe may have seemed as a sort of impossible pipe dream back in 2002, there was one man not credited on the movie, but who was involved behind the scenes and was working his way up through Marvel’s film department, keeping track of things that worked and things that didn’t with the movies based on Marvel’s properties, and would in the end make the biggest impact of all on what would soon become a major genre for Hollywood studios; Kevin Feige.
Following the trend for handing a comic book blockbuster to a director that seemingly came across as an odd choice for the property, Sam Raimi was of course famous, or somewhat infamous, for his Evil Dead series of films, which encompassed a trilogy that would end with Army of Darkness and make Bruce Campbell into a massive cult figure. Like Tim Burton, Bryan Singer and Richard Donner, this was the case of what might have seemed a strange choice, but actually being one that worked out spectacularly so, becoming the perfect union of director and character.
Raimi would put together a crew of many famous names to bring the film to the screen, with Danny Elfman contributing another fantastic score to his roster of superhero themes, Dan Burgess as director of photography, John Dysktra supervising the visual effects, and final screenplay credit being given to David Koepp, screenwriter of Jurassic Park, The Lost World and Carlito’s Way.
The road to the movie making it to the big screen was not an easy one, however. As a result of selling the rights to many of their characters to differing movie studios in the 80’s to keep themselves financially solvent, a decision which was the reason why we got the infamously low-budget version of The Fantastic Four courtesy of producer Bernd Eichinger and Roger Corman, the Web Slinger, and arguably Marvel’s biggest character, found himself swinging from movie studio to movie studio, with various Spider-Man movies in development at one point or another at Cannon Films and Carolco before finding its home at Columbia Pictures and Sony.
For the longest time James Cameron was at the helm, having developed a treatment for the film which Carolco were interested in developing thanks to the success of Cameron’s very own Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Even when Carolco declared bankruptcy and the rights were in limbo, Cameron was still very much attached to make the film, and for a while it looked as if it was going to be his next film after Titanic, but in the end the blockbuster auteur was not wanting to play in another creator’s pool, and thus he walked away when the rights issues finally settled and the film found a home with Sony.
With Cameron gone, the hunt was on for another director, with many A-List names courted as potentially helming the film, including Roland Emmerich, Ang Lee and Jan De Bont. David Fincher was also approached but was uninterested in doing an origin tale and instead was wanting to go straight to doing an adaptation of The Night Gwen Stacy Died, a move that Columbia Pictures was not interested in. Ang Lee would, in the end, put his own spin onto a Marvel property when he would end up directing the following year’s Hulk for Universal Pictures to an incredibly divisive reception, whilst Gwen Stacy’s death would eventually make it into a Spider-Man movie, but not for another twelve years.
Sam Raimi at the time was most famous for his horror fare, with his Evil Dead series being particularly notorious, with the first film in the series being effectively banned and labelled as a “video nasty” in the UK. Although those movies did have comedic elements, they were of a more violent variety, and his trilogy of Bruce Campbell-starring horror comedies had made the director a fan favourite in horror circles.
In the intervening years, he had directed his own take on a comic book movie with his own creation in 1990’s Darkman, an operatic action film that was sadly underappreciated on its release, but which featured superb lead performances from Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand, as well as a superb score from Danny Elfman.
He was a self-confessed fan of Spider-Man in his youth, as well as being adept at handling brilliant scares, wicked comedy and touching drama, he would on the surface look as if he was a strange choice to helm the film, but in the end would be the perfect choice to do so and would be the director who would succeed in actually launching the character on to a big screen canvas, and do so by superbly mixing comic book action, comedy, tender emotional drama as well as intense confrontations.
As is the case with the casting of a title character in a comic book movie, the announcement of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker was met with skepticism from many, much like Michael Keaton as Batman or Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, but in the end would come to define the character on-screen for a generation who would be introduced to the character for the first time through Raimi’s films. His somewhat geeky demeanour, but one coupled with charm and likability would make the character fly perfectly for his first time out in the role and he would gain acclaim for his performance and would go on to play the character a further two times in the sequels.
For the casting of Mary-Jane Watson, Kirsten Dunst was chosen; previously a child actress who caught the attention of everyone thanks to her superb performance in Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, she had successfully made the transition to a grown up acting powerhouse thanks to The Virgin Suicides and would continue to form a superb collaboration in other Sofia Coppola movies such as Marie Antoinette and The Beguiled. James Franco, most famous for Freaks and Geeks at the time and his acclaimed performance as James Dean, would portray Harry Osborne, whilst Willem Dafoe would be cast as his father, Norman Osborne, aka, The Green Goblin.
Most famously of all, JK Simmons would portray J Jonah Jameson, a role he would play to such perfection that there would be massive vocal support for the actor to continue portraying the role in the 2012 reboot The Amazing Spider-Man. Simmons is fantastic. His interpretation of Jameson is all cigar chomping bluster and brilliantly comedic, and would steal the show in nearly every one of Raimi’s movies.
The rest of the cast would also feature early appearances from Elizabeth Banks and Joe Magianello, Cliff Robertson bringing dignity as Uncle Ben, the first of many times we would see the character die on-screen, the starting gun on a competition between Spider-Man’s uncle and Bruce Wayne’s parents to see who could die the most times on-screen, whilst Rosemary Harris would make for a charmingly lovely Aunt May.
As this is a Sam Raimi film, there is of course an appearance from Bruce Campbell, the first of a running cameo joke involving the actor across the Raimi trilogy, and Lucy Lawless shows up as well.
The final screenplay credit would be handed to David Koepp in the final version of the film. Although his screenplay brought together many elements from Cameron’s treatments as well as from drafts written by Scott Rosenberg, it would be Koepp who would receive final credit. There would also be additional dialogue changes made by Alvin Sargent during principal photography. Interestingly the biggest change made to the powers of Spider-Man was in fact a Cameron contribution; instead of having Peter create his own web shooters, Cameron would make the ability a biological addition to the character given to him due to the spider’s bite at the start of the movie.
Eventually released in the summer of 2002, the film would become a massive global box office success, becoming the first film in US history to make over a hundred million dollars on its opening weekend at the box office, and eventually amassing $821 million worldwide. On top of that, reviews for the film were very positive and Sony would attempt to strike while the iron was hot, scheduling Spider-Man 2 for a summer 2004 release, which would be received even more enthusiastically by critics and audiences.
The first film is not without its problems. Willem Dafoe is a very talented actor for sure, but his Green Goblin does threaten to become a Power Rangers villain at times and his vocal delivery is a little too over the top, whilst some of the CGI actually looked somewhat unconvincing even in 2002, although to be fair, some of the moves that Spider-Man makes would have been impossible with a flesh and blood stunt man. These flaws are minor and the film overcomes them brilliantly by making sure its better points are truly on point.
Maguire is wonderful as Peter Parker; awkward, yet charming, funny and lovable and yet heroic when needed to be, he owns the role right from the opening moments and whilst internet memes are very quick to point him out as crying over his recasting by Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland, the truth is Maguire’s performance will always go down as important in the history of the character in live action. You truly believe he is Peter Parker and he sells the characters hopes and dreams superbly.
As the years have gone on it has become a popular thing to knock Dunst’s portrayal of MJ, but the truth is she does pretty well and one can see why Peter pines for her. Admittedly as the Raimi series would continue they would mess up her character with odd writing choices and making her kidnap fodder for the villains in the last act of every movie, but for the first film she more than holds her own and the writing of the character is somewhat respectful.
There is little of Raimi’s usually flamboyant visual touches as one would see in his Evil Dead movies, but that would change when Spider-Man 2 would roll around, but he still brings some magic to his staging of the action sequences as well as in the editing, whilst his handling of the more touching emotional moments and comedy is always wonderful.
The movie successfully got Spider-Man off the ground for movie audiences, with it becoming a firm favourite with audiences over the years thanks to is lovely combination of comedy, action and touching drama. The movie is never dull and whilst its sequel is usually seen as the more stronger film, there is no getting away how much of an impact it made in 2002.
Released just under a year after 9/11, the film did feature a key creative decision when its original teaser trailer was removed as it had featured the Twin Towers quite prominently, not to mention imaginatively, but a scene shot during re-shoots would see bystanders in New York City come to help Spider-Man during his final confrontation against Green Goblin by shouting that if “you picks on one of us you pick on all of us”.
The film came at the right time, giving audiences a blast of escapism just when we needed it, and proving to be a perfect summer blockbuster that hit the right beats in terms of offering action packed entertainment, wonderful humour and with Danny Elfman and the performances of the cast selling its emotional beats superbly.
Best of all, it set itself up for a sequel, but never forgetting to make itself stand alone, and with its poignant final moments and cathartic final sequence, this was a Spider-Man that truly soared.