Sam Raimi has always been a big fan of comics. Unfortunately, he was not a big Hollywood name in the early 1990s, so he had to make up a superhero character of his own: Darkman. Evil Dead II had been a sleeper hit, thus allowing Darkman to get some actual funding behind it. It was still rather low budget, but proved that Raimi could make something outside of the horror genre.
Unfortunately it didn't get him immediately handed a superhero project. He followed his third Evil Dead movie, Army of Darkness, with the western film The Quick and the Dead, and then severely dialed back his frenetic directing style with the crime thriller A Simple Plan, based on (and severely improving upon) Scott Smith's novel. He then chose to indulge in another love, baseball, with For the Love of the Game before returning to horror for The Gift. The latter was not an immediate hit but, like a lot of Raimi's earlier work, eventually reached an appreciative audience.
The problem I had adjusting to some of Raimi's later work is that he didn't write it. As a director he certainly had some input into what eventually went on the screen and undoubtedly made adjustments to the scripts as he went along, but these were not movies written specifically by Raimi. The reason that made a difference to me is that his strange writing style adds to the charm of many of his movies. His directing style was unique, but so was his ultra-campy dialogue. The two went hand-in-hand, and he even proved he could dial that back with the script for The Hudsucker Proxy, a movie he penned for the Coen Brothers. When, after promise after promise of a Spider-Man movie finally came to fruition with Raimi at the helm, I was a bit disappointed to see that he didn't write it.
Instead, it was David Koepp, who himself had a string of hits throughout the 1990s. Ivan Raimi, Sam's brother and frequent collaborator, did some uncredited work on it, but I was afraid Raimi would feel like a director for hire rather than an actual creative force behind the movie. The fact that a scene had to be removed due to the events of September 11, 2001, which seemed like something one would expect from a Raimi film - Spider-Man capturing bank robbers using a helicopter to escape in a web spun between the towers of the World Trade Center - further made me anxious about how the film would be another disappointment. While I like The Gift a lot more now, it had seemed to me at the time that Raimi had lost his touch, and I was sad to see that when finally given a true mainstream film that would display his talents that he would be boxed in. Happily, my fears were largely unfounded.
Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is a high school senior living in New York. He has a crush on his next-door neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) who is the girlfriend of Flash Thompson (Joe Manganiello), one of the guys that frequently bullies Parker at school. Parker's best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) also is attracted to Mary Jane, but both are afraid to make a move, Osborn largely because his father Norman (Willem Dafoe), the head of a major aerospace firm, may object. Parker's life takes a turn when, on a school field trip, he is bitten by a genetically mutated spider that grants him a number of superhuman abilities.
While coming to terms with his newfound powers a juvenile act leads to the death of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), who along with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) had raised Parker since he was a young boy. After graduation Peter and Harry move in together, with Harry dating Mary Jane and Parker secretly fighting crime when not making money on the side providing pictures of Spider-Man to Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). His life is interrupted when a new threat, soon known as the Green Goblin, attacks New York and takes Spider-Man's interference personally. While Parker doesn't know the Goblin's true identity, his nemesis soon puts things together and begins to target Parker's family as well as Mary Jane.
Although the universe this was to belong to was its own, Spider-Man has now, thanks to Tobey Maguire's version of Peter Parker being included in Spider-Man: No Way Home, become part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Technically it would now be the first movie, replacing Iron Man, unless Bryan Singer's X-Men ends up getting retconned into the series at some point. It's a strange thing to consider as Spider-Man does not feel like anything else from the MCU. Sure, it has the origin story and all, but the approach to the movie is that of one who loves and appreciates the character created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko rather than presenting the umpteenth character that needs to be shoehorned into some phase of a larger story. In fact, it is just the opposite of what most Marvel movies appear to be, taking its own chances while sticking close to much of the source material.
Best of all it feels the most like a Sam Raimi film since The Quick and the Dead. He uses a number of his old director tricks, including creative fades between scenes and a number of his quick cuts and strange pans. While there isn't as much Steadicam usage as the past, he designed what he called Spydercam to help provide point-of-view shots when swinging through the concrete canyons of the Big Apple, although that innovation got more use in the sequel. The sense of fun from many of his older films was back as well.
It helped that he had a hand in the casting. Tobey Maguire was chosen based on is performance in The Cider House Rules, and Kirsten Dunst decided that with Maguire aboard that Spider-Man may have some indie cred while also being a huge hit. Billy Crudup was originally considered for the role of Norman Osborn, but Willem Dafoe himself lobbied for the part and eventually got it - and was definitely a perfect fit for the role. It's too bad James Franco has a bit of baggage about him today, as he gives Harry Osborn the emotional depth to prepare for the issues he will face over the next two films.
One of the things that makes this such a departure from watching superhero films now is that the big action pieces are quite different. It has almost become a regular occurrence to have the bad guy shooting lightning and throwing cars everywhere to show how strong they are and how much of a threat they are to civilians and our typically overpowered hero. While Spider-Man can win in a fight against men twice his size, the Green Goblin is his match in every way. He may have been enhanced by experimental drug rather than a genetically altered spider, but the result is the same. And, unlike many of the more recent films, all actions have consequences, whether it be the death of Uncle Ben or the Goblin's ultimate fate.
There are some parts toward the end that were added due to 9/11 - New Yorkers pelting the Green Goblin with trash, which is hilarious, and Spidey swinging around a flagpole with a huge American flag, which seemed cheesy then and still is now. Spider-Man did have to exist in the shadow of a huge national tragedy, after all, and parts of it did hope to show people coming together and healing afterward, which may be lost on a lot of the audience that hadn't even been born when it happened. It is perhaps that which makes the first sequel that tad better, and more relatable, than the first, but if Spider-Man is now supposed to be the first MCU movie it is a lot more satisfying than Iron Man and gives us a much more relatable hero with whom to kick things off.
Time: 121 minutes
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Willem Dafoe
Director: Sam Raimi