2002 rewatch: How high does Spider-Man swing 20 years and two reboots later?
Every week, Entertainment Weekly is looking back at the biggest movies of the summer of 2002. As audiences struggled to understand the new post-9/11 world order, Hollywood found itself in a moment of transition, with upcoming stars and soon-to-be-forever franchises playing alongside startling new visions and fading remnants of the old normal. Join us for a rewatch of the first true summer of Hollywood's strange new millennium. This week: Critics Leah Greenblatt and Darren Franich rewatch Spider-Man. Next week: Diane Lane is Unfaithful.
DARREN: There have been so many Spider-Man movies. Lately, Spider-Man movies are about all the other Spider-Man movies. Tobey Maguire wasn't even the first actor to play Marvel's friendly neighborhood superhero on the big screen. (That would be either Nicholas Hammond or Shinji Tódó, depending on your very loose definition of "theatrical release"). But Sam Raimi's 2002 origin story stands alone for sheer historic import. Mega box office turned Spidey into a big-budget franchise — and confirmed, thus far forever, the importance of superheroes to Hollywood's bottom line.
It hit me at a strange time. I had collected 4.5 Spider-Man comics a month for most of the '90s, and could speak with fluency at least four different Spider-verses. (2099 was the best.) The movie's screenplay by David Koepp infuses key details and stray visual concepts from deep comic book lore, but the film owes just as much to turn-of-the-millennium teen comedies and Raimi's merrily jagged horror sensibility. Midriffs and gel-spiked hair, Chad Kroeger and Macy Gray, the general suggestion that a lonelyboy watching his dream girl from afar is cute and not creepy: Spider-Man is very much a product of its time. But with the passage of time, I recognize how this first big-budget film maintains a handmade quality. A lot of superhero blockbusters today feel like an HR spreadsheet, so many star schedules balanced with blandly straightforward visuals. That's not the feeling here, even if there are major defining flaws. (Green Goblin, oof!)
What were your memories of watching this the first time, Leah? And how did it play for you now, a hundred Spidey movies later?
LEAH: To be honest I was several multiverses away in 2002 — this movie I think didn't even really register with me at the time. But rewatching, I was struck by how very Y2K it is too, and how analog and innocent it all seems now. (Though can we agree that whoever decided to do that Just for Men job on James Franco and Willem Dafoe's hair — to make them look more like father and son, I guess? — should be court martialed for the hellish shade of Mr. Pibb they both landed on.)
The casting in general is a trip: Elizabeth Banks as a saucy secretary! Joe Manganiello as a high-school bully who looks like a strip-club bouncer! Randy "Macho Man" Savage? And of course Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, a living link to Hollywood's Golden Age. I always thought it was interesting that a genre so embedded in origin stories barely bothers to tell you where Peter's parents went, at least on the first round; I guess they were saving that for Garfield? But one thing I love about this version, which may sound counterintuitive, is the smallness of it. (And I have to say, the Raimi gore). When Spidey and the Green Goblin fight, it's hand-to-hand combat — or at least hand-to-bionic-green-claw — and there's an intimacy to that which the later movies misses in the noisy void of all those wide-screen CG battlefields.
I'm also a forever Dunst fan, though it was hard not to cringe at how damsel-y she's forced to be for so much of the movie; large men are constantly yelling at her, dismissing her, or trying to kill her on a tram. Still, her Mary Jane shines through. Also, that kiss holds up! Or down, you know what I mean. Do you have any favorite character moments, Darren?
DARREN: Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson is one of my favorite performances in any superhero franchise, period. Admittedly, her best work came in the sequels. (She is awesome in Spider-Man 3, a secretly sensitive downer about a striving woman and her toxic exes). You're right to pinpoint general wince in her presentation here, and Peter's whole "I love you from afar!" shtick seemed 78% sweeter when everyone assumed nerds were nice. But you make a good point about the intimacy. I love the mid-movie leap forward from high school, which turns MJ into a dream-dashed waitress while Peter hustles for work. That, to me, is the definition of a Marvel story, so many regular frustrations piling up between the fantasy.
Anyone about the Parker parents could watch two terrible Amazing Spider-Man movies. Actually, the next two generations of Spider-cinema made the case that teen Peter is the ultimate Peter. That rigid youth focus has actually turned this first Spider-Man into the mature alternative, complete with a whole workplace mini-comedy at the Daily Bugle. The film's a bit too jammed with super fights to develop any of the tertiary characters. But Peter Struggling To Pay Rent is the Peter I care about, and Maguire nails the character's diligence, the sense that the most noble thing about Spider-Man is that he never stops trying.
As for those super fights, the digital effects in Spider-Man 1 have a bad reputation, but the early web-shooting sequences still hold up. Credit entirely to Raimi, who mixes stunt work with POV cameras (and, yes, some floppy-bodied Dreamcast wall-crawling). When Spider-Man swings down a busy Manhattan street with a freshly-rescued Mary Jane, the pure swoony romance brought a tear to my eye.
Just on a visual level, Leah, how do you think the film has aged? And beyond the heinous costume, how do you feel about Dafoe as a baddie?
LEAH: There's a little FX workshop in some of those early graphics for sure, but I really like where they landed — especially the scenes where Peter is figuring out his powers. (Those privileges do not extend to the inflatable turkey Aunt May lays down on the table at Thanksgiving; a curse on that stunt bird). I also enjoy the pure unhinged effort of Dafoe very much, in a role he seems physically born to play. His character out of all them always felt the most camp to me, deliberately or not — more in line with Tim Burton's Batmans maybe, from the kabuki Actor Olympics of his famous the-mirror-has-two-faces bit to (spoiler) his delicate little "Oh!" before being impaled on his own goblin glider.
But Raimi is so good at camp (what a perfect nod to his own history, to have his old friend Bruce Campbell give Spider-Man his name in the wrestling ring), and also at moments that cut through the superhero gloss — like Tobey with his nose bloodied, his mask in shreds, and a face full of fury and betrayal in that final Goblin fight scene; those feel like real human emotions. And I agree with you, it's nice that the kids here actually get to grow up and go out into the world a little bit with their New York City hopes and dreams, too; just putting a smidge of Rent (or maybe Felicity?) into that Marvel-verse, if not the full Parks & Rec office comedy you dreamed of.
Obviously no one except maybe God and Kevin Feige could have known then that there would be at least eight more movies in the franchise, and so many chances to play with the parameters of this story and all the Peters and villains to come. I mean Tom Holland, God bless him, was still a month away from his sixth birthday on Spider-Man's release day; he was probably too busy eating a Go-Gurt to see into that crystal ball. But looking back from 2022, would you really change anything about this one, Darren? I think it's sort of perfect time capsule, Mr. Pibb dye jobs and all.
DARREN: You're right about the Tim Burton influence, complete with a Danny Elfman score. I mainly consider this a beta test for 2004's fabulously screwball Spider-Man 2, so I appreciate the features more than the flaws. That time-capsule quality you mention extends to some full-blown jingo. Some of that is sincere: The supportive crowd of mouthy New Yorkers yelling "You mess with Spidey, you mess with New York!" perfectly captures a moment of national Manhattan unity. Then there's, like, propaganda: Even in May 2002, the climactic American flag waving majestically in the wind made my audience chuckle. Recall that the year-long marketing campaign for this movie began in a different world, with a Twin Towers trailer gag. I can never decide if the $800+ million box office was a sublimated reaction to the tragedy (hooray for New York's superhero!) or the beginning of an as-yet-unabated retreat into nostalgic escapism (the Green Goblin dies onscreen the same way he died in in a comic book back in 1973).
My biggest takeaway is the faithful translation of the comics' downbeat tone. "The ones I love will always be the ones who pay," Peter narrates. Superhero movies got bigger and the special effects got better, but I appreciate this first Spider-Man's occasionally bittersweet symphony. And, in conclusion, organic web is the best web, because it's more logical than a teenager inventing high-tech web-shooters and it really gives the whole puberty metaphor that extra Cronenbergian edge.