In case you haven’t yet, make sure to check out Part 1 of this article first!
By the late ‘90s, the comic book movie genre was scrambling to find its footing after the abysmal release and box-office plunge of Batman & Robin in 1997. In hindsight the ‘90s wasn’t really the most stellar time for comic book movies, and there surely weren’t enough of them being released to even be considered a “genre” anyway. There were a few good ones sprinkled in there that I’m quite fond of, but aside from the highly profitable Batman franchise that had been running since 1989, no other comic book properties got quite the same mainstream recognition as Batman did during this time.
Following flops in the ‘80s and early ‘90s like Howard the Duck, The Punisher starring Dolph Lungren, and Captain America starring Matt Salinger, Marvel Comics was practically benched for the majority of the ‘90s and it wasn’t until the company’s bankruptcy and later recovery when Marvel finally start getting some of its major properties into theaters- Blade (1998) and, to a larger degree, X-Men (2000), which was sort of a prologue to the massive cultural atomic blast triggered by Spider-Man in 2002.
Sony hit the ground running once the studio obtained the film rights to Spider-Man at the end of the ‘90s. Directors such as Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Tony Scott (Top Gun), and David Fincher (Fight Club) had all been in talks to helm the big screen spectacle. Ultimately, Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Darkman) landed the job for a very important reason – his lifelong love and understanding of the character. While low-budget horror films are what originally put Raimi on the map, his innovative filmmaking techniques and much-publicized childhood passion for Spider-Man generated a lot of positive buzz around the upcoming film, despite the fact that the choice of casting 26-year-old Tobey Maguire as high school senior Peter Parker/Spider-Man was not universally loved leading up to the release of the film.
Maguire himself was a highly acclaimed up-and-coming actor that had been featured in critical darlings like Pleasantville, The Cider House Rules and Wonder Boys but some fans still weren’t too keen on him playing the teenaged web-slinger. Seven years Maguire’s junior, Kirsten Dunst was cast as Peter’s iconic girlfriend Mary Jane Watson. The inclusion of Watson in a Spider-Man origin story baffled some comic book fans seeing as in the comics Peter’s original high school sweetheart was Gwen Stacy, who was famously murdered by Spidey’s arch nemesis, the Green Goblin, but this film doesn’t include her.
Rounding out the main cast was Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson as Peter’s loving Aunt May and Uncle Ben, Willem Dafoe as the menacing antagonist and industrialist Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, James Franco as his son and Peter’s longtime friend Harry Osborn, and J.K. Simmons devouring the scenery as J. Jonah Jameson, the temperamental, cigar-chomping editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle newspaper who isn’t a fan of Spider-Man but hires Peter as a photographer.
The film is a full-on comic book come to life with an origin story that chronicles the hero’s journey of Peter Parker, a likeably dorky high school outcast who gains superhuman powers after being bitten by a genetically enhanced spider. After his Uncle Ben is tragically killed during a burglary and car-jacking, Peter takes to the streets of New York City and fights crime with his newfound powers. All the while, tech billionaire Norman Osborn becomes Spider-Man’s greatest threat after he is turned insane by one of his own science experiments, dons an emerald-colored armored suit and terrorizes the city as the Green Goblin.
Spider-Man was a giant hit when it swung into theaters in May of 2002, and rightfully so. At this time, the comic book-based movies that truly captured the pure spirit of actually reading a comic were few and far between, but Sam Raimi’s fun and playful take on Spider-Man did just that. Even though the first X-Men film, which was released two years prior, was a great comic book movie, it felt the need to pull a page from The Matrix and dress the main characters in a matching set of black leather uniforms instead of giving each mutant their own distinct and colorful looks as seen in the classic comics and cartoons, as if to say that the film was a tad ashamed of the comic books’ bright aesthetic and was making an attempt to be more grounded in reality.
Spider-Man was a big step in the right direction by raising the bar on how close a live-action superhero film should adapt an iconic costume design. Sure, as an origin story, it does sort of gloss over the important detail of how this lower-class kid from Queens was able to create such a sleek Spider-Man suit, but it ended up looking so good on film and was so true to the comics, it just didn’t matter. And working along with the costume were the CGI effects that were brilliant at the time, but don’t hold up entirely. They’re still very passable but a little dated.
I believe that all the legal troubles that held up the production of a Spider-Man film for years was a blessing in disguise because Spider-Man in particular is a character with visuals that I think require CGI enhancements to fully realize; tools that just weren't as easy to come by back in the 80's and into the 90's. I suppose a director like James Cameron could’ve made it work back in the day, but when you think Spider-Man, your mind immediately goes to all the sweeping shots of him slinging his web and swinging around the city, and I doubt a completely practical approach from the ‘80s or early ‘90s would’ve held up quite as well. However, Spider-Man is a great example of a film that uses CGI as a tool to enhance instead of abuse.
Some creative liberties were indeed taken, most notably Peter’s natural ability to launch webbing from his wrists as opposed to the mechanical web-shooters he constructs for himself in the comics and cartoons. I actually really liked the idea of his webbing being organic but one thing that always gnawed at me about that was if his powers mimicked that of a spider’s, wouldn’t the webbing shoot out of somewhere else…? Also, many fans (myself included) were not crazy about Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin costume. Dafoe was the perfect casting choice for the character and he has such an amazing face, but unfortunately, it’s completely hidden when he goes into full Goblin mode.
But those are mere nitpicks in an otherwise solid film, which did extremely well at the box-office and anybody who loved comic book movies like me were all the better for it. It became a cultural phenomenon and laid a strong foundation that would go on to allow superhero films to evolve from a mere Hollywood trend into their own popular genre.
This film came out at quite an interesting time as well. During its production, 9/11 happened and this made the scenes where New Yorkers rally around Spider-Man and his heroics even more poignant. A bank heist sequence involving the World Trade Center that was featured prominently in the film’s teaser trailer during the summer of 2001 understandably went out of circulation following 9/11 but when the film was later released the following spring, the tragic real-life events were still very fresh on everyone’s minds and I think the climate of the time helped make this giant light-hearted movie about a New York-based superhero all the more necessary.
Personally, I know I was at the perfect place in my life for it. Just like Peter Parker, I too was in high school and wasn’t really the most popular kid in class. Let’s just say that the scene in the movie where Peter thinks Mary Jane is waving at him, so he waves back but then she ignores him and walks right on by to meet up with her friends was a painfully relatable scene. Little touches like that make you realize that Sam Raimi was the perfect director for Spider-Man and the film’s excellent blend of heart, humor and spectacle made it a huge hit with fans and critics alike, something that not many comic book films before then were able to achieve.
Somehow, Sam Raimi and crew completely outdid themselves two years later with Spider-Man 2. With Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn now defeated, we get an even more interesting villain out of Alfred Molina’s tragic portrayal as the brilliant scientist Dr. Otto Octavius who, during a freak accident that kills his loving wife, gets four metallic tentacles grafted to his spine. The machines take on a life of their own and once they begin to seep into Octavius’ psyche, he goes around the city committing crimes as Dr. Octopus. Meanwhile, Peter’s ongoing exploits as Spider-Man begin to affect his real life as he’s always late for work and his classes and he’s constantly struggling to keep the relationship between him and Mary Jane afloat.
The 2004 sequel was an even stronger film than the first and was an even bigger hit. For many years, this movie easily sat on my list of top-ten comic book films ever made but because so many great ones have come out since then, it’s hard to say if it’s still up there. It’s still a great film regardless because it does what any great sequel should do – it continues to elevate the story without too much repetition and fleshes out the characters even more.
The film doesn’t hit you over the head constantly with action set pieces. The story is perfectly paced and it doesn’t feel like it’s only there to service the action but when the action hits, it hits hard. At the time, I didn’t think comic book films could get any better, but unfortunately, at least as far as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series was concerned, they couldn’t.
Three more years passed before we got Spider-Man 3 in 2007 and with the second film ending on such a strong note, the hype and excitement for what was maybe going to be a trilogy-ender couldn’t have been higher. In this installment, we were getting Oscar-nominee Thomas Haden Church as another tragic villain, the shape-shifting bank robber Flint Marko aka Sandman and That 70’s Show’s Topher Grace as the weasely Eddie Brock, a Daily Bugle journalist constantly competing against Peter Parker who would later fuse with a parasitic substance from outer space and become a ferocious creature called Venom.
If this story wasn’t packed enough with adversaries, we had James Franco return as Norman Osborn’s son Harry from the first two films to complete a story arc that had been running since the first movie where he swore revenge on Spider-Man for killing his father, not knowing that Spider-Man was really his best friend Peter. On top of all that, we had Bryce Dallas Howard show up as the character of Gwen Stacy for the first time in the series, but she was ultimately given very little to do aside from getting saved by Spider-Man and stirring up a pointless love triangle with Peter and Mary Jane. Let’s just say that having way too many characters ended up being only one of Spider-Man 3’s many problems.
I can’t stress enough how much Spider-Man 3 disappointed me after loving the first film and then loving the second film even more. It seemed like what little good there was about it was always being brought down by something terrible. For example, one of the best aspects of the film, I think, was Church’s portrayal of Flint Marko. The character had an interesting back story and Church played him more sad than cartoonishly evil. Marko didn’t want to be a criminal, but was forced into it out of desperation.
It’s no surprise that Sam Raimi initially wanted Marko to be the focal villain of the film, because it felt like that was the part of the movie Raimi himself was most invested in, however it all felt rushed anyway because of everything else that was going on. Plus, in my opinion, the character was virtually ruined when the film retconned him as being the true murderer of Peter’s Uncle Ben. To me, that unnecessary plot twist not only made little sense in context, but it also essentially spits in the face of the entire trilogy.
Much of the movie focuses on the Symbiote, a small blob of black goo that falls from space and just conveniently lands right onto Peter Parker’s moped. Why? Because movie. The substance soon attaches itself onto the Spider-Man suit, which turns it matte black and inherently affects Peter’s personality, turning him into, well, by this point, if you’re reading this, do I even have to explain it…?
I know some defend this aspect of the film by saying that if a dweeb like Peter Parker acquired a darker personality from the Symbiote, this would probably be the result, but to me, this whole section of the film is just cringeworthy.
Although, to be fair, much of the film is equally cringeworthy. Let’s not forget the terrible culmination of the now three film story arc involving Harry Osborn’s revenge against Spider-Man. After two films of build-up, Harry decides to dress up as an extreme snowboarder version of the Green Goblin and then in true soap opera fashion, he suffers amnesia during his fight with Spider-Man, forgetting his revenge mission for a chunk of the film. He then recovers from the amnesia and blah blah blah Mary Jane love triangle blah blah blah pumpkin bomb to the face blah blah blah they team up at the end. This whole “Harry’s revenge” side story was such a great way to glue the films together but once we get to Spider-Man 3, it completely drops the ball, at least for me.
Once Peter finally ditches the Symbiote, it fuses itself onto Eddie Brock, turning him into Venom for the big finale fight sequence. Needless to say, this fan favorite character felt completely shoehorned into the story and was teamed up with Sandman for no good reason besides having one last big action sequence which of course involves Mary Jane being kidnapped for now the third time in the series.
For everything Spider-Man 2 did right to advance the story, the bloated Spider-Man 3 completely missed the mark, making it one of my all-time biggest cinematic disappointments based on my love for the previous installments. It was such a bewildering step down in quality and it felt like Sam Raimi, as talented as the guy is, was given way too much input from the studio and producers to be able to release a quality film. As far as I know, he didn’t want to have anything to do with Venom or the Symbiote, but because the fans love those elements so much, the pressure was on from the studio, along with producer Avi Arad, to include them if this were to be the conclusion of a trilogy and to maybe even open the door for a Venom spinoff film. Raimi himself even later admitted that the movie was too unfocused and convoluted. Believe me, I have never blamed Raimi for how this film turned out. It always felt like he was as disappointed as we were.
Despite the heavily mixed reception, Spider-Man 3 still raked it in at the box-office, even though I think a lot of that was based on the excitement left over from Spider-Man 2. It was successful enough to begin rumors about a possible Spider-Man 4 with Sam Raimi and the main cast returning. Now, I would’ve been okay with this at the time, despite the fact that it looked like everyone was starting to get a little bored and burned-out in Spider-Man 3, but my hope was that certain lessons would’ve been learned from the failures of the last one and we’d get a return to form for the franchise.
But, as it turned out, Raimi began to get even more studio interference from Sony. They even rejected Raimi’s plans to finally turn Peter Parker’s college physics professor Dr. Curt Connors into The Lizard as a main antagonist, since the character had already been introduced in Spider-Man 2 and 3, as played by Dylan Baker.
Heavy rumors began circulating that Spider-Man 4 was going to possibly be released in 2011 and that John Malkovich was going to play the main villain, inventor and businessman Adrian Toomes aka The Vulture. But, by early 2010, Sam Raimi was fed up with poor screenplay drafts and a looming production schedule that was being rushed in order to get the film out on time. Believing that all this production chaos so early on could easily lead to another lackluster sequel, Raimi left Spider-Man 4 altogether. Raimi’s run with Spider-Man may have come to end, but Sony Pictures was surely not going to give up the character so easily.
Continued in Part 3!
David Rose is the creator of Happy Dragon Pictures and The DVD Shelf. He’s an illustrator, animator, videographer and aspiring billionaire/crimefighter…but still needs more training.