Stillanerd’s Retrospective: Spider-Man (2002) review


A re-examination of the first live-action, big-budget Spider-Man movie. But after fifteen years, does the film still hold up?

You may think it inconceivable that Hollywood ever thought that a superhero movie, regardless of quality, was no guarantee for box office success. But fifteen years ago, that most definitely was the case. Yes, both Blade (1998) and X-Men (2000) were hits, but superhero films overall were still considered risky investments after the stink that was Batman and Robin (1997).

Then along came Spider-Man (2002), the topic of our second retrospective of the wall-crawler on film in the lead-up towards Spider-Man: Homecoming.

When Sam Raimi’s cinematic love letter to Marvel’s flagship character debuted on the silver screen, the praise from audiences and critics was unanimous. It’s opening weekend grossed more than $100 million, a first in cinematic history. To this day, Spider-Man still ranks as one of the top 50 highest grossing films of all time. If Blade and X-Men convinced the film industry that superheroes could still make money, then Spider-Man exposed an untapped gold mine.

It’s difficult appreciating this today, especially since, in some respects, Spider-Man hasn’t aged all that well. In several scenes, the CGI looks unpolished. Film critic Roger Ebert correctly points out how Spidey “looks like a video game figure” whenever leaping and swinging. You can also see the heavy influences from Batman (1989) and The Matrix (1999), not to mention the real-life September 11th attacks. And the less said about one-hit wonder Macy Gray as the headlining musical act, the better.

Moreover, the script isn’t all that spectacular. Screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, 2017’s The Mummy) heavily cribbed from James Cameron’s uncredited script treatment. Much of the dialogue does sound clunky and unnatural. Also, the film’s second act is uneven compared with the rest of the film.

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from Spider-Man (2002)

…while re-watching [Spider-Man], it reminded me just how sincere, charmingly goofy, and–most important of all–likable [Tobey] Maguire is [as Peter Parker].

But this, by no means, retroactively makes Spider-Man a bad film. At some points, it almost reaches cinematic greatness. The film’s first hour is still one of the best adaptations of a comic origin story ever made. The climactic battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin brims with suspense, tension, and, for a PG-13 film, is quite vicious. The wrestling scene is pure action-comedy brilliance. The closing uncut shot of Spidey swinging through New York still captures the feeling of being Spidey himself. And who can forget the iconic upside-down kiss in the rain?

Of course, much of the movie’s strength also comes from its performances. Today, we mock Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker as a mopey dweeb, or complain about how his Spider-Man barely has wisecracks during fights. But while re-watching this film, it reminded me just how sincere, charmingly goofy, and—most important of all—likable Maguire is. He perfectly embodies Peter’s youthful “everyman” qualities which are so essential for the character. Without him, Spider-Man wouldn’t have been half the success it was.

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from Spider-Man (2002)

More from Movies

Then there’s Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn / The Green Goblin. In contrast to Maguire, Dafoe doesn’t shy away from chewing the scenery, and has the physicality and emotional range to pull it off. The conversation he holds with himself in the mirror of his private study greatly illustrates this; so, too, does the Thanksgiving dinner scene. Unfortunately, the ridiculous Power Ranger-esque Goblin costume obscures Dafoe’s face—and the very intensity he brings–for a third of his total screen time. If only the filmmakers went ahead with the original concept they developed for the Goblin’s mask.

Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Mary Jane Watson gets a bad rap, but you wouldn’t know it from just this film. Granted, her character is far closer to the comic book version of Gwen Stacy than it is MJ’s. And, unfortunately, she mainly serves as a potential prize for Peter to win. But the scenes between her and Maguire are genuinely sweet and touching, conveying a believable budding young romance.

So no, Dunst isn’t the movie’s weak link. That would be James Franco’s Harry Osborn. Having originally auditioned for the role of Peter Parker, Franco seems bored whenever he’s on-screen. Perhaps because Harry doesn’t do much other than silently pout over not being able to win his father’s approval, or act needy and desperate as MJ’s boyfriend. He’s just there, and I believe Franco knew this, hence why he comes across so underwhelming.

The other actors and actresses are decent too. Rosemary Harris’ Aunt May is Steve Ditko’s original creation come to life, only without May’s annoying over-protectiveness and senility. And Cliff Robertson does a fine job as Uncle Ben, though I do think he comes off being way too patient than necessary at times. Elizabeth Banks, Bill Nunn, and Sam Raimi’s brother, Ted, also have nice roles as Betty Brant, Robbie Robertson, and Hoffman, respectively.

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from Spider-Man (2002)

Even after all these years, [J.K.] Simmons so embodies [J. Jonah Jameson], it’s almost impossible seeing anyone else in the role.

However, it’s J.K. Simmon’s J. Jonah Jameson who, despite having only three scenes, completely steals the film. No wonder Sony has been reluctant to recast Jonah for their reboots. Even after all these years, Simmons so embodies the Daily Bugle‘s fast-talking, cigar-chomping, penny-pinching, loud-mouthed editor, it’s almost impossible seeing anyone else in the role. It baffles me how the Academy of Motion Pictures never nominated him for Best Supporting Actor that year.

Of course, Sam Raimi also deserves a lion’s share of the credit. Prior to Spider-Man, Raimi’s reputation rested mostly on cult horror films such as The Evil Dead series and Darkman (1990). So Sony allowing him direct a summer blockbuster was a huge gamble. Of course, their gamble paid off, and paid off well.

What’s striking after re-watching Spider-Man is how Raimi does things contemporary comic book movies wouldn’t even consider because they would think it’s too silly. Cases in point: the first time we see Peter’s spider-sense in action; the dissolve between the Green Goblin blowing up a military testing bunker; and the caps thrown at Peter’s high school graduation. Except Raimi relishes and embraces being outlandish while knowing when to tighten the reigns, making him one of the few filmmakers who can accurately translate comic book imagery onto film.

Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures; from Spider-Man (2002)

And there’s so many memorable images: the extreme close-up of Peter’s barbed finger-tips and his first time wall-crawling; him practicing web-slinging in his room; the drop of blood falling while he clings to his apartment ceiling; the reflection in his lenses as MJ and the trolley car fall; and on and on.

Spider-Man is also a fast-paced film despite its near two-hour running time—sometimes too fast. It can also be clumsy at times, but, again, this is mostly due to the structure of Koepp’s script. And as for Spider-Man’s organic webbing (which was quite the controversy at the time), it’s such a non-issue. If anything, it helps make Peter’s origin more streamlined and less convoluted.

Next: Stillanerd's Retrospective: James Cameron's Spider-Man scriptment

Watching Spider-Man again (during a time where superhero films litter the pop culture landscape) was a wonderful experience. If you can watch with a group of friends or your family, do so. Better comic book movies have come along after this one, of course, but few have achieved the same level of fun, authenticity, and heart that this one had. Besides, it also has hysterical cameos by Bruce Campbell, Lucy Lawless, and Randy “Macho Man” Savage. What more could you want?