After being in development for what seemed like an eternity, Sam Raimi brought us one of the most definitive superhero films of all time, 2002’s Spider-Man. Following Stephen Norrington’s Blade and Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Spider-Man quickly became a staple of Marvel in cinema, so much so that it warranted two sequels and two reboots following different iterations of the character. Nevertheless, it’s time to reevaluate the film that started the entire franchise just fifteen years ago, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
Spider-Man is not just a superhero film, but also a coming-of-age story focusing on the meek high-schooler, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). Peter begins the film as a frequently bullied science-whiz with a knack for photography. He’s constantly picked on by school bully Flash Thompson (Joe Manganiello) and has only one friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco). To top it all off, Peter is subjected to always see his childhood crush, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), in the arms of Flash. On a fateful school field trip to a genetics laboratory, Peter’s life is totally changed when a genetically engineered spider bites him. As the story goes, Peter becomes the colorful superhero Spider-Man.
Some of the more entertaining scenes of the film involve Peter gleefully testing his powers, whether it be jumping from rooftop to rooftop, or attempting to shoot webs from his wrists. At first Peter has a lot of trouble utilizing these newfound abilities, after all, he is still only a high schooler who was just given a grab bag of arachnid-based powers. Once Peter becomes Spider-Man, he adopts a somewhat more smart-aleck personality, one in which he’s not afraid to insult someone whose twice as big as him or who is holding a gun to his face. Unfortunately, this seems to be one of the weakest points of the film, in that it is used so sparingly. Too much of the time, Spider-Man feels just as humble as Peter, not that it discredits the character, but it just feels like a wasted opportunity.
Willem Dafoe has a standout performance as Harry’s father, Norman Osborn who becomes the super-powered Green Goblin. There was a time in film that supervillains weren’t so shallow and wasted, and Green Goblin is proof of that. Willem Dafoe gives a memorable performance as both Norman and the Goblin who has manifested himself in a way that is reminiscent of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Despite a cartoonish costume, Green Goblin is a complex character that is just as chilling to watch as it is as it is fun.
Franco and Dunst are convincing in their roles as best friend and love interest respectively, and both feel that they have a part to play in the film. Another standout performance is that of J.K. Simmons as the stark publisher of the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson. Simmons delivers one of the most accurate portrayals of a comic book character ever, from the hatred of Spider-Man to the tiny moustache, it’s as if J. Jonah Jameson leapt out of the comic panel to the big screen.
Perhaps the best aspect of the film is the chance that the audience gets to grow with Peter. We see him first as a bullied underling who is almost completely alone, but then is miraculously blessed with powers that also present a choice; a choice to either pursue selfish endeavors or to take greater responsibility and save those who don’t deserve it. The quote “with great power comes great responsibility,” that is spoken by Peter’s Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) is truly a theme throughout the entire film, which adds a layer of complexity and meaning that so many other superhero films lack.
There is much to love about Spider-Man, whether it be the subtle humor or the acting of the cast. It’s easy to see why this film spawned such a massive franchise and why people continue to list Spider-Man as one of the greatest superheroes of all time. Although not without its flaws, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is an obvious contributor to the superhero genre while also being a complex and meaningful experience in its own right.