Written by David Koepp
Directed by Sam Raimi
Superhero movies are by design intended for children. The audience they should aim for are kids who are just waiting to be awe-inspired by seeing amazing feats and colorful characters. The modern superhero movie began with Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), the first production to attempt to balance the sillier aspects of the genre with more grounded, emotional weight. Due to how successful this movie was financially and narratively, Superman: The Movie became a template for other films. 1989’s Batman played with the formula by presenting a world where the hero was already established and revealed their origin throughout the picture. Both movies adhered to the structure of pitting the hero against their chief nemesis, a clearly defined battle of good versus evil. Sam Raimi came along in the early 2000s to create his vision of Spider-Man, obviously influenced by these previous genre-defining entries but also intent on bringing to life what he saw as a child on those pages illustrated by Steve Ditko.
The story is one you know well. Teenager Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is bitten by an irradiated spider and overnight develops spider-like powers. He’s able to climb vertically, sense beyond the normal five human ones, and can even produce a web-like substance from his wrist. Unfortunately, due to immature choices by Peter, his beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) is killed by a burglar. Despite the kindling of a possible relationship between him and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), Peter is wracked with guilt and feels responsible for using his powers to help others. He’s also in need of money to support himself and his now widowed Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), which leads him to snap pictures of himself as Spider-Man for the Daily Bugle. But lurking on the periphery is a deadly menace, The Green Goblin, secretly businessman Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), the father of Peter’s best friend Harry (James Franco).
Spider-Man is a surprisingly sparse movie when you revisit it. Compared to the baroque nature of the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe, the simplicity of this film’s plot feels almost quaint. However, it’s a reminder of what drew people to superhero media in the first place, not labyrinthine crossovers and guest stars, but good stories about characters who grow and change. You might not immediately associate Sam Raimi with heart-warming cinema, but I was genuinely delighted when rewatching this movie to see what heart the whole affair has. It’s essential to realize this movie existed before American movies were changed by the dour tone of Christopher Nolan’s work and the cacophony mentioned above of the MCU. Raimi genuinely cares about Peter and his friends and family, which can be felt on screen.
Uncle Ben’s death scene is pretty gut-wrenching because it’s not an overblown moment. It’s the death of a beloved father figure in the arms of a young boy. I rewatched these alongside my nephew (7) and niece (5), who had never seen them before, and watching their faces was almost as enjoyable as watching the movie. They felt that loss in a way I think cynical adults just cannot; you could see their eyes welling up with tears. On the flip side, they were up out of their seats, grinning ear to ear; that first time that Peter climbs a wall and shoots a web. They had a visible conflict about Harry’s anger over his father’s death, wishing he could understand Spider-Man didn’t do it. They laughed wildly at the blowhard performance of J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. Their journey watching this movie is what superhero cinema should be. I have never seen them react this way while watching contemporary superhero movies; they just seem to be confused most of the time.
Tobey Maguire is such an unlikely protagonist compared to what we see now. He’s not a stunning screen gem; he has awkward faces and sounds nerdy. However, it’s a pretty good recreation of what Peter was supposed to be in those first three years of the comic book. Kirsten Dunst feels very natural as Mary Jane; she’s not a hyper-glamorous actress, just a natural beauty. I appreciated that Dunst still had that crooked tooth because little physical things help these characters feel like ordinary people. This is no knock on Zendaya as the current M.J.; she’s my favorite part of our contemporary Spider-Man movies. Simmons is undoubtedly enjoying his role as J. Jonah. However, the best performance in the whole production is Willem Dafoe as Osborn/Goblin. You will see few actors in movies now hamming it up as hard and enjoying every second as Dafoe does. He’s genuinely terrifying and hilariously amusing almost simultaneously. I’d argue Doctor Octopus is a better-written villain in terms of character depth and arc, but there’s no one more fun to watch than the Goblin in this movie. It makes sense that he’s returning in the latest picture, and it’s a tall order to think you could ever replace him. If any future film seriously thinks about introducing a new take on the Goblin, they have some big shoes to fill.
Spider-Man was one of the last big superhero franchises to have that richness of heart that drew people in. Now, Marvel has leaned more into spectacle and impressive special effects. Scorsese wasn’t wrong in saying these modern films are large-scale amusement park rides. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying those rides, but when everything you can pick from in theaters is these types of movies, it can be depressing. Spider-Man is not a masterpiece, but it is a nice watch, a blend of the silliness of a Power Rangers and the heart of Donner’s Superman. This torch is still being carried, though not in the MCU, but in the animated Spider-verse movies where Miles Morales is a part of stories that focus on character over spectacle.