Flashback: ‘Spider-Man’

Before the genesis of the MCU, Marvel’s most treasured icon made his big-budget silver screen debut in Sony’s ‘Spider-Man’…

Poster art for director Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ (image credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Entertainment).

Year:  2002

Starring:  Tobey Maguire, Willem Defoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, J.K. Simmons, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson

Directed by:  Sam Raimi / written by:  David Koep (Spider-Man created by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko)

What’s it about?

Bitten by a genetically engineered spider, teenager Peter Parker finds he is endowed with enhanced strength and senses which he utilises for good as the heroic costumed vigilante ‘Spider-Man’…

Retrospective/review

Whilst the great explosion of comic book films began in the summer of 2000 with the release of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men, the continued success of the genre was undoubtedly secured by the debut of Sony/Columbia Pictures’ Spider-Man two years later.  Helmed by Sam Raimi, director of The Evil Dead – and a huge Spider-Man fan – with a screenplay by David Koepp (Jurassic Park), the first big screen outing for Marvel’s iconic webslinger is well worth revisiting.  Being Marvel’s most treasured character, Spider-Man had previously been adapted into live action in a short-lived late 1970s television series and had more recent success on the small screen with the hit animated series which ran between 1994 and 1998.  After an aborted attempt by Aliens and Terminator 2 director James Cameron to bring Spidey to the big screen in the mid-90s with Carolco Pictures, Sony’s Spider-Man would hit cinemas in the summer of 2002.

An origin story, Spider-Man sees high school student Peter Parker, gifted with the proportionate strength, enhanced senses and wall-crawling abilities of an arachnid after being bitten by a genetically engineered spider (a modernised take on the more atomic age inspired radioactive one of the comic book), turn to a secret life of costumed crime-fighting following the murder of his uncle, Ben – an act he finds he could have prevented but fails to do so.  His heroic vigilante alter-ego identified by the public as ‘Spider-Man’, Peter is soon faced with the challenge of the ‘Green Goblin’, a deranged villain who begins terrorizing New York from the skies above with his aerial military assault glider.

Kirsten Dunst as the iconic red-headed girl next door, Mary Jane Watson (image credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Entertainment).

In the lead role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man is Tobey Maguire, bringing to the screen the awkward, nerdy underdog qualities of the smart but meek Parker boy, with all the cares and ills of an everyday teenager to life whilst infusing his guise of the ‘Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man’ with the requisite dose of heroism, humour and good-heartedness.  He shares good chemistry with co-star Kirsten Dunst, who plays Mary Jane Watson, the seemingly unattainable red-headed girl next door he yearns to be with.  Equally suited is James Franco as Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborne, completing the central trio who will grow and develop over the course of the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy.  Filling the important parts of Peter’s Uncle Ben and Aunt May are, respectively, Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris with both actors deftly providing the supportive and loving parental roles that are a key component of the Spider-Man mythos.

As Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, Willem Defoe delivers an increasingly unhinged turn with Osborn’s path to insanity unfolding as the chemically induced persona of the Goblin takes hold.  The scenes in which Osborn ‘converses’ with the Goblin (in the mirror/via the Goblin armour helmet) are an irrefutable highlight of Defoe’s performance.  Granted, the design of the Goblin suit is a little like something out of Power Rangers but that doesn’t detract from the overall threat.  There cannot of course be any discussion of Spider-Man without praise for the inimitable J.K. Simmons as the cantankerous chief of the Daily Bugle newspaper, J. Jonah Jameson.  Simmons’ energetic portrayal of Jameson is such a delight and his crusade against what he perceives as the menace of Spider-Man bringing another essential ingredient to the mix.

Sam Raimi directs with a genuine passion and clear understanding of the Spider-Man character and his world.  Raimi’s horror background adds a pleasing hint of the gothic and a dash of dark humour to proceedings accentuated by the music score from composer Danny Elfman, who also provides a main theme as recognisable as that of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon and as epically sweeping and heroic (complementing those exhilarating web-slinging scenes superbly) as Elfman’s previous work for Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns.  The action is engaging and expertly staged, with an exciting and tense finale that’s also shockingly brutal as Osborn’s Goblin proves his physical might over the young and inexperienced hero.

The friendly neighbourhood web-slinger faces the deranged ‘Green Goblin’, played brilliantly by Willem Defoe (image credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Entertainment).

Spider-Man remains largely faithful to the source material and despite the contemporary setting it very much feels like the classic Lee/Ditko comics of the early 60s, adhering to the spirit and core elements of those original stories – not in the least the tragic death of Uncle Ben.  Driven by Ben’s wise words that “with great power comes great responsibility” (invoking Stan Lee’s immortal phrasing from the Marvel Comics) to use his abilities for good, it also reminds us that the burdened hero is often the most interesting and identifiable and part of the reason why Spider-Man is such an enduringly popular fictional character.  There is one significant change from the established lore in Peter’s ability to shoot webbing organically from his wrists, as opposed to the mechanical web-shooters and web fluid he would invent in the comic.  It’s a slightly odd element that was (supposedly) retained from James Cameron’s treatment that would later be rectified with The Amazing Spider-Man reboot and continued in the recent Marvel Studios iteration.

Received favourably by audiences, Spider-Man is a solid, highly entertaining first big-budget cinematic outing for the Marvel Comics character which would lead to a sequel that many still consider one of the best comic book films of all time.

Geek fact!

The Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell cameos as a wrestling ringleader and would also go on to appear in Spider-Man 2 and 3.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.