Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ Signaled That Comic Book Films Had Become a Pillar of Blockbuster Cinema

I hoped that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man would be a success. It was the first ever live-action film adaptation of my favourite superhero, and I wanted the rest of the world to see what I saw in him. I hoped it would be a success, but I was not sure it would be until the week leading up to its release. I had managed to score tickets to an early screening of the film and, after I saw it, I felt like the most popular kid in school. Word spread and people of every high school strata (popular girls, jocks, nerds, the whole Breakfast Club, even teachers!) stopped me in the halls or pulled me aside in class to ask me how I liked it. They all cared. They were all curious. They all wanted to be a part of the cultural event.

And what a cultural event it was. In the spring of 2002, Spider-Man seemed inescapable. Sony put its full marketing machine into gear to ensure people saw trailers, commercials, billboards, promotional tie-ins, songs and music videos from the soundtrack, comics, and t-shirts everywhere you turned. My mother wanted to see it. My sister (who has not even seen a Star Wars film to this day) called me after seeing it to gush about how good it was, how much surprising depth there was, how moved she was by Uncle Ben’s death. Not wanting to be left out of the moment, comic book retailers held the first annual Free Comic Book Day to coincide with the opening weekend of Spider-Man, hoping to capitalize on increased interest in the source material.

By the numbers, Spider-Man was the first film to make more than $100 million in its first three days of release in North America. The $114 million opening weekend smashed the record set by the first Harry Potter film just six months earlier. Even more amazing was that the record held for over four years, before being broken by the second Pirates of the Caribbean film in the summer of 2006. To put that in context, the record has been broken seven times since then, so holding it for so long was quite a feat. Opening weekends are like sprints, though. A true test of a film’s box office success is how it plays out over time (the marathon). Spider-Man excelled at both, topping $400 million in North America and $800 million worldwide. It was the highest-grossing film of the year, which is all the more impressive considering that a Star Wars film was released the same year.

If Blade got the ball rolling for Marvel films, and X-Men proved that it could achieve success on a large-scale, Spider-Man represented the full potential of a fantastic comic book film. This is the kind of success that other comic book properties would be chasing for years, and the best ones learned the right lesson from Spider-Man: a comic book introduced 40 years earlier, its success never truly waning in all that time, would be a breakout mainstream success if you simply adapt the character faithfully.

Spider-Man, created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962) and, for a superhero, he was all wrong. The common wisdom stated that no one wanted a teenager to be a lead superhero, teenagers were sidekicks! No one cared about his personal life or personal problems, those were for romance comics! Why would anyone want to be like a spider?? People hate spiders! And yet the first story was a sensation. In it, weak and nerdy Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops special abilities (strength, agility, the ability to stick to walls, a precognitive warning — spider — sense). He uses his scientific acumen to create synthetic webbing and a great costume, and does what any of us would do in that situation: tries to get famous and make money. But, when he arrogantly refuses to stop a burglar, and the same burglar goes on to murder his Uncle Ben, Peter is wracked with horrible guilt. He realizes that with great power must also come great responsibility, and thus starts his career as a crimefighter.

In 1963, with the debut of the monthly Amazing Spider-Man book, Spider-Man became an enduringly popular fixture on comic book shelves. The appeal of the character is his everyman quality. The book explores what it would be like if a regular person suddenly got superpowers and felt compelled to fight crime. Peter and his elderly Aunt May never have enough money. How can Peter keep a job between keeping up with school and saving the city? Forget about a social life on top of that. Maybe it would all be worthwhile if he was appreciated, but the citizens of New York City are constantly wondering whether he is a hero or a menace. The latter opinion is loudly propagated by J. Jonah Jameson, editor of the Daily Bugle, where Peter happens to freelance as a photographer. Peter is constantly put upon by balancing everyday life with his extraordinary mission. He’s considered unreliable at school and work, standing up dates all the time, and all, tragically, because he’s compelled to help others whenever he can. It’s an ideal many among us strive for, and we can relate to his harried, busy life. Man, I love Spider-Man.

The success of Spider-Man as a narrative is due in large part to its faithfulness to the source material, and the deeply humanistic portrayal of its main character. Not since Superman: The Movie (1978) has a superhero film spent so much time on the origin story. In the years to come, superhero origins would be criticized for being too commonplace and similar, leading to Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige announcing plans to minimize origin stories in future character introductions. But in 2002, origins had not yet grown stale. The beefed-up version events depicted in 15 pages of Amazing Fantasy #15 take up over 45 minutes of screentime in Spider-Man, and Peter doesn’t even don his familiar costume and fight crime until the hour mark. During that time, the film relishes exploring Peter’s transformation. As with Superman: The Movie, it’s depicted with enough joy and tragedy to be deeply involving.

Peter Parker is an unpopular, bullied senior at a New York high school. During a field trip to a nearby university’s genetics laboratory, Peter is bitten by a genetically-engineered spider. (Side note: Just as the general public feared the awesome potential of nuclear energy/radiation in the ’60s, people feared the unknown of genetic testing in the ’00s. Thus, the spider changed from radioactive to genetically-engineered.) Peter awakens the next day to find himself changed. He no longer needs his glasses, and his body has become toned. He can face down a bully’s attack with minimal effort. More strangely, he develops web-shooters on his wrists, can stick to walls, and can leap across rooftops with ease.

Each of these discoveries is played with a contagious joy by Tobey Maguire, who sells the underdog-makes-good elements of Peter Parker. Maguire was fresh off of excellent turns in The Cider House Rules (1999) and Wonder Boys (2000), and making a strong case for being one of the best actors of his generation. Director Sam Raimi also goes to great lengths to put the viewer into Peter’s perspective. He uses point-of-view shots of Peter trying on his unnecessary glasses and presents his initial web-slinging as a chaotic jumble of shots, for example. The film smartly uses Peter’s newfound abilities as an analogy for transitioning into adulthood, discovering and striving for your potential as you come into your own as a person. The theme is explicitly stated by Peter’s Uncle Ben in their last conversation, where Ben tries to reach out and understand Peter’s new attitude. Peter rebuffs Ben’s advice, beginning the tragic part of the origin.

Ben drops Peter off in downtown Manhattan, where Peter is secretly planning to wrestle for money. After winning handily, and subsequently being cheated out of his prize money by a cheap promoter, Peter arrogantly allows the promoter to be robbed. He soon learns that Ben has been fatally shot by a carjacker and, after chasing down the shooter, discovers it was the same robber he let go. Peter’s gifts have made him happy and overconfident, until that overconfidence led to the death of his father figure. Indeed, everything that follows in Peter’s journey can be tied back to Ben’s death. When the father of Peter’s best friend, Norman Osborn, becomes the vicious Green Goblin and terrorizes the city, Peter feels compelled by duty and guilt to stop him. When his actions as Spider-Man endanger the lives to those closest to him, namely his Aunt May and longtime crush Mary Jane (aka, “MJ”), it reinforces his decision to keep his identity secret to protect those closest to him.

Despite the heightened nature of the story, Spider-Man has a baseline humanity that’s completely relatable. We all have our own special skills, and most people struggle with determining how to apply them. Everybody lashes out at their parents or guardians in adolescence, trying to carve out their own identity and place in the world. Sadly, many people can relate to their final words to a loved one being more stinging, or at least less appropriate, than they would have liked.

On the lighter side, most people have things that they would like to change about themselves (such as no glasses, or a rockin’ bod). Everyone who has ever faced a bully has dreamt of publicly paying back their unkindness. This relatability helped open up Spider-Man to the kinds of audiences that would not normally be interested in a superhero film. Let’s be honest, geeks of every shape, size, colour and gender were going to see this film, but the non-geeks needed a way in. They found it with Peter’s coming of age story and his romance with Mary Jane (more on that later).

Besides the handling of the origin story, Spider-Man took several other important lessons from Superman: The Movie. First and foremost is the brightness and colour, which had been largely absent from comic book films since Christopher Reeve hung up his tights. Bright and colourful is not appropriate for every comic book film, but Spider-Man stands in stark contrast to the darkness of the Batman franchises before and after, and the muted palette on display in so many current blockbusters.

Like Superman: The Movie, Spider-Man also excels at filling its cast with brilliant character actors. Future Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons steals every scene as a pitch-perfect J. Jonah Jameson. And speaking of Pitch Perfect, his secretary Betty Brant is played by an on-the-cusp-of-breaking-out Elizabeth Banks. Another future Academy Award winner, Octavia Spencer, has a one-scene appearance as the employee who signs up Peter to wrestle. Future star of True Blood and the Magic Mike films (among other projects) Joe Manganiello appears as Flash Thompson, Peter’s bully. And these are just the actors not necessarily familiar to general audiences at the time. Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, Bill Nunn, Bruce Campbell and Lucy Lawless (great cameo!) were welcome sights.

Spider-Man also learned a lot from the other hugely successful comic book franchise, Batman, but these were more subtle. Batman (1989) was the first major marketing juggernaut of the blockbuster era. Twelve years after merchandisers were caught off-guard by the runaway success of Star Wars, film studios were better prepared to licence and synergize their major films to the hilt. This led to major product placement, characters or scenes appearing in product ads, and a pop music soundtrack, to name a few tricks. Spider-Man used them all, which led to the ubiquity of the film in the spring of 2002.

Spider-Man also poached Danny Elfman, composer of the iconic Batman march, to create the Claire de Lune-inspired, should-be-iconic score to Spider-Man. It was clear that Columbia/Sony was taking no chances on the success of Spider-Man. The $140 million budget — twice that of X-Men two years earlier — was a vote of confidence. That confidence is clear from the opening credits, debuting the Marvel logo, through the Macy Gray concert in Product Placement Squ… I mean, Times Square, to the pop-rock heavy closing credits. (Chad Kroeger, anyone?)

But the ace-in-the-hole for Spider-Man, the element that would hopefully put the most non-geek butts in seats, is the romance between Peter and Mary Jane. This is the last major element I will discuss because it was the one, upon rewatching the film, that surprised me the most. Surprised me because it dates the film, and marks it as a blockbuster from another age.

Peter’s opening narration states that “This, like any other story worth telling, is all about a girl.” Spider-Man follows through on that claim. Mary Jane is, directly or indirectly, the motivation for nearly all of Peter’s actions in the film. He’s bitten by the spider while taking her picture. He discovers his spider-sense, speed, and agility when he saves her from slipping in the school cafeteria. Peter creates a costume and wrestles to win money for a car to impress Mary Jane. His first truly public act of heroism, during the Green Goblin attack in Times Square, becomes mainly about rescuing Mary Jane. (Side note: the climactic rescue and the subsequent street-level view of Spider-Man and Mary Jane swinging through New York is absolutely beautiful, and maybe my favourite part of the film).

Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (IMDB)

The film’s most iconic moment is the upside-down kiss after Peter saves Mary Jane from a group of attackers. The film then creates a Superman/Lois Lane scenario, where Mary Jane falls in love with the superhero but not the man inside the costume. After attacking Peter’s de facto mother, Aunt May, the Green Goblin realizes he can only truly get to Spider-Man through Mary Jane, so he threatens to throw her off of the 59th Street Bridge along with a tram full of schoolchildren. When faced with saving one or the other, Peter saves both, but chooses Mary Jane first. In his final battle with the Goblin, Peter gains the strength to fight back only when Mary Jane is threatened again. But, the whole ordeal has matured Peter. He at once realizes that he can not be wholly motivated by his love for Mary Jane and that he must keep her at arm’s length in order to protect her. In the final scene, he chooses Spider-Man over the woman he has loved all his life.

I’m not saying blockbusters are perfect. But I can say that there has been a recent trend, or at least an effort, by large-scale mainstream entertainments to give female characters agency, dimensionality, and purpose: the basics. Not every film needs to pass the Bechdel Test. The example that always comes to my mind is Saving Private Ryan (1998), a film focused on the bonds formed between male soldiers during the Second World War. However, when appropriate, when possible, having multiple, three-dimensional female characters that are not wholly defined by the male characters is ideal.

Spider-Man has two major female characters (Mary Jane and Aunt May), and they exist solely to motivate Peter Parker. This dates the film in a way that I was not expecting. One could argue that the film is about Peter Parker, it’s totally his story, and that additional scenes to flesh out MJ or May would feel unnecessary and pull focus from the centre of the film. But really, this is a mainstream piece of entertainment that was desperately trying to appeal to every possible audience. It could have tried harder to incorporate the female characters in a meaningful way. This is something that I recall the superior sequel accomplished to some degree (but I’ll need to rewatch it to make sure). Regardless, the shallowness of the romance and thinness of the female characters would not be as widely accepted or go uncommented upon in today’s filmgoing climate.

The romance has a certain insidious quality as well. As a young man (I was 16 in 2002), films like Spider-Man taught me that, if I’m really friendly and nice with a girl, she would have to return my affection. I was entitled to that, right? I found myself bewildered and disappointed when a woman decided, of her own free will, that she just wasn’t that into me. I’m sure it caused me to act like a jerk from time to time before I learned better, and for that I’m embarrassed. In the film, Mary Jane is treated poorly by her father, her high school boyfriend, her coffee shop boss, soap opera producers, her new boyfriend and his father. But Peter just hangs in there, being nice and encouraging, until she finally gives in and declares her love for him. At the time, I and most of the film’s audience cheered them on, and were disappointed by them staying apart at the end. Sure, the lesson is nice guys finish first, but that just set up unrealistic expectations for a generation of geeky nice guys expecting two-dimensional girlfriends. Am I being too hard on the romance? Sapping its sweetness? That’s up to you.

While I’m at it, I should mention the joke in the wrestling sequence. One of Spider-Man’s unique qualities is his quippy sense of humour, which is on display through all manner of crises and fights. He never stops talking or joking, to the annoyance of his enemies and, often, his allies. This was something Raimi’s Spider-Man films failed to capture. Brian Michael Bendis, a longtime Spider-Man writer, once recalled a story of being called in to write jokes for Spider-Man. Bendis immediately pointed to the Green Goblin costume and insisted Peter would joke about it looking like a Power Ranger or something. The executives present politely explained that the suit was well-designed and quite expensive, and they did not think it should be mocked.

That kind of thinking sapped the film of its quips, but a gay joke still managed to sneak in. While wrestling Bonesaw, Peter angers his opponent by saying “That’s a nice outfit! Did your husband make it for you?” This was the moment while rewatching the film when my wife and I looked at each other and said something along the lines of “Whoa! That would not be in a movie today!” It’s another mark of a blockbuster from another time. I don’t mean to excuse or diminish it, but it’s important to put “jokes” like this into context. Audiences have evolved. We are not okay with casual gay jokes or paper thin female characters. This is what progress looks like.

Spider-Man was truly a film of its time, and not just in its treatment of female characters. The CGI still has a cartoonish, springy quality, but it feels more accomplished that many films at the time. This isn’t surprising, because the film had the full support and confidence of the studio, from a large budget to a massive marketing push. The casting of great actors throughout the comic book film was becoming commonplace. I haven’t even mentioned the great Willem Dafoe, who does a great job with the Jekyll and Hyde personas of Norman Osborn/Green Goblin. It’s a shame his uniquely expressive face is often hidden behind the Goblin mask for so much of the film.

Ultimately, the film succeeded because the filmmakers believed in faithfulness to the character, who had been popular for 40 years, and imbued the film with a deep, relatable humanity. The success of Spider-Man signaled that comic book films had become one of the pillars of blockbuster entertainment. Whereas the Superman and Batman franchises seemed like isolated successes, the momentum of Blade to X-Men to Spider-Man was a trend. Studios began hunting for any comic book property to adapt, whether it be different Marvel characters, resurrecting Batman and Superman, or grabbing lesser known properties like Hellblazer or Hellboy.

For the next several years, comic book films would live in the shadow of Spider-Man, either copying or reacting against its model. I often diminish the quality of Spider-Man in my mind because it pales in comparison to Spider-Man 2. However, in rewatching and evaluating its cultural legacy, I think I can declare this Marvel’s first truly “super” super hero film.

Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Lee appears briefly reacting to the Green Goblin attack in Times Square and pulling a little girl out of the way. It truly was the worst World Unity Festival ever.

First Appearances:

  • The Marvel logo appears for the first time before the film. It would go on to appear on every future Marvel film, no matter the studio, linking some very desperate films under a single brand.
  • Danny Elfman composed the score. He would return for the sequel, as well as at least two other future Marvel films.

Next Time: Fox adapts another high-flying New York superhero, but muddles it by trying to graft it onto the Spider-Man mold.