Spider-Man film mania is reaching new levels of excitement with the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home and Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and the revelation that the latest Spider-Man film will introduce the previous cinematic universes of older Marvel films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This was seen with appearances of the Spider-Man villains from the original Spidey films, which heralds many highly anticipated crossover events for future MCU films. With all this hoopla it is time to take a look at the original Spider-Man film trilogy that was directed by Sam Raimi from 2002 to 2007.
The very first film based on Marvel Comics’ most popular superhero, Spider-Man, helped usher in a new age of superhero films at the turn of the century that eventually changed the cinematic landscape.
For the longest time it seemed as if there never would be a live-action film about Spider-Man. Marvel Comics, then later Marvel Entertainment, had the hardest time properly adapting their properties into respectable films or TV shows. The best they achieved was The Incredible Hulk TV show from the ’70s. Then things turned around with the releases of Blade (1998) and X-Men (2000). With those film successes it was only natural for Marvel to turn to its flagship superhero.
Before Marvel was acquired by Disney, the film rights to their characters were sold to major and minor studios. This created a legal mess when it came to Spider-Man as it prevented a film from being produced. The best known effort was a film to be directed by James Cameron. Rumors had it that Leonardo DeCaprio was slated to play Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and the film would have deviated wildly from the famous comic book source. One of those changes was that instead of crafting web shooters, Spider-Man had the ability to shoot his own organic webbing. This turned out to be one change that survived in the eventual Spider-Man, released on May 3, 2002 and directed by Sam Raimi, known by fans for his Evil Dead and Darkman films.
Spider-Man is a largely faithful adaptation of the Marvel Comics story about Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a lonely and nerdy teenager in Queens, New York, who is bitten by a genetically altered spider during a class field trip at a laboratory. This updated the origin in that the spider was not radioactive as in the comics. During the ’60s radiation exposure was the cause du jour for how characters gained super powers. Of course, most people know better today that such exposure would have been fatal to living organisms such as humans!
Naturally, Peter developed spider-based powers because the venom from the spider’s bite changed his DNA. While he is elated with his new powers and physique he is pining for his next-door neighbor, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). She comes from a troubled home but hides her pain by exhibiting an outgoing and friendly demeanor. While the two seem attracted to each other she has a boyfriend with his own car. Being that he doesn’t have a lot of money, Peter decided to enter a wrestling exhibition to win money to buy a car.
He’s dropped off near the exhibition by his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), who tried to counsel Peter about his growing pains, but the teenager disregarded him. For the wrestling match, Peter adopted a flashy costumed identity that covered most of his face and called himself the Human Spider. The announcer (Bruce Campbell in the first of many humorous cameos in these films) renamed him Spider-Man and watched in disbelief, along with the audience, as Peter took out his far larger opponent.
Looking for his reward, Peter is instead ripped off by the wrestling promoter, who refused to pay him over a technicality. After Peter left his office, the promoter is immediately robbed at gunpoint, and the robber was able to escape because Peter refused to stop him. This decision would later haunt him as the same robber killed Uncle Ben in a carjacking. Afterwards, Peter bitterly recalled his uncle’s message about “with great power comes great responsibility” and decided to use his powers for good as Spider-Man.
During Peter’s emotional journey, Spider-Man examined the story of Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), a billionaire industrialist and head of his company Oscorp. Facing competition and deadlines as a military contractor, Osborn subjected himself to an experimental chemical that enhanced his strength, durability and reflexes, but was driven insane. Peter and Osborn’s paths are intertwined as Peter’s friendship with Osborn’s son, Harry (James Franco), develops. Harry is also dating Mary Jane, but is aware of the mutual attraction Peter and Mary Jane have for each other. Meanwhile, Osborn adopted the armored identity of the criminal Green Goblin, and soon came into conflict with Spider-Man.
After so many years of waiting, fans were instantly enamored with Spider-Man since the character finally received a big-budget, quality treatment by Hollywood. Some of that enthusiasm was admittedlyexcessive since many overlooked the film’s faults.
Sam Raimi was an inspired choice to direct the film but it feels a bit too hammy at certain moments and too on-the-sleeve with its emotional beats. Then again, his inventive and kinetic directing style fits perfectly with Spider-Man and evokes the feel of the original comics by the superhero’s creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. For instance, there are several times Raimi uses imaginative screen swipes to transition between scenes that call back to the very first comics. Raimi developed a distinctive look for the film that feels timeless as the New York Spider-Man and his cast of characters occupy doesn’t quite gell with reality and seems almost dreamlike. This look turned out to be the best way to convey Spider-Man and his superpowers in the city.
Like a modern-day Tarzan, Spidey effortlessly glides through the concrete canyons of the Big Apple with his webbing in tune to Danny Elfman’s stirring score that evokes circus acrobatics. His feats of web swinging and agility are often well presented and convincing, though its a bit dated compared to modern films. The same goes with the Green Goblin. When he is on his glider, it is easy to see some of the scenes were rendered through CG, along with Spider-Man’s feats.
While the look of Spider-Man was generally accepted and considered faithful, even with the raised webbing design of his suit, the design of the Green Goblin was and still is derided. Unlike the comics, the Goblin wears a green suit of armor and a helmet with a stylized goblin look. The result is is that the Goblin looks more like a Power Ranger and the fact that his face plate is not emotive does not help. The filmmakers defended their design of the Green Goblin’s face in that they could not come up with a plausible explanation for why Osborn’s mask would be expressive like in the comics. Hopefully this look will be updated to be more faithful to the comics in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Dafoe does his best while in costume and his voice acting adds a lot to the menacing nature of the Green Goblin. He is actually brilliantly cast as Norman Osborn as he vacilates between a tortured businessman who tries to connect with his son and an unchained maniac. Dafoe was so skillful that his scenes never go overboard, which left audiences with one of the best realized supervillains on film. It is great to know that he will reprise his role in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Actually, the entire cast was exceptional and captured the feel of the early Spider-Man comics, especially Tobey Maguire. His Peter Parker may come off as too self tortured and dorky, but his performance is a spot-on interpretation of the self-doubting hero in the Lee/Ditko stories. Kirsten Dunst was able to add depth to her role as Mary Jane and made her more dimensional, but sadly her character was reduced to being a screaming damsel in distress in the second half of the film.
Of course, the biggest scene stealer was J.K. Simmons who ran away with his role as the muckraking newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson. From his rapid-fire line delivery to his gruff behavior, Jameson was very animated and colorful. Thankfully, Raimi and other saw the acting gold they had with Simmons and gave him a meatier role in the next Spider-Man film. In fact, Simmons casting was so perfect and irreplaceable that when Jameson made his MCU in Spider-Man: Far From Home, the filmmakers in their infinite wisdom did not bother to recast the role and brought Simmons back to play an updated version of J. Jonah Jameson.
At the time of its release, Spider-Man was hailed as one of the best superhero/comic book films ever made. Although there have been many films since then that eclipsed it, Spider-Man still holds up. It is exciting, emotional and joyful classic Lee/Ditko tale brought to life. Of course, there were deviations that some were not pleased with such as the look of the Green Goblin or Spidey’s organic webbing, but on the whole, the film was and still is a blast to watch and an excellent primer for the colorful world of Spider-Man.