Sam Raimi’s 2002 blockbuster film Spider-Man is an interesting time capsule from the evolution of the comic book film genre. Coming well after DC characters dominated the box office in films like Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman, but long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe turned super hero flicks into regularly scheduled assembly-line money printing machines, Spider-Man arrived as part of an early slew of Marvel adaptations including Blade and X-Men. CGI was more prominent in film than ever, but not cost-effective enough to support the entire runtime of even a high budget feature, requiring the ambitious filmmakers behind these projects to focus as much on character and story as spectacle. The end result was a critical and commercial success upon its initial release, helping to usher in an entirely new era of comic book movies with increasing ambitions and budgets. But how well does the film hold up almost twenty years and two franchise reboots later?
The basic plot of Spider-Man will probably be familiar to most people by now: Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a high-school science nerd and amateur photographer of hot girls he doesn’t have the guts to talk to, gets bitten by a radioactive spider that in the real world would most likely result in a minor itch at best or slow, painful death at worst, but instead grants him super-human powers that roughly approximate those of a spider. Peter’s Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) says “with great power comes great responsibility,” then proceeds to illustrate the point rather dramatically by getting murdered. Peter vows to use his powers for good – including his powers with a sewing machine — and dons the mask of the web-slinging vigilante Spider-Man. Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), a government contractor with a penchant for developing unusual weapons, decides to test an experimental performance enhancer on himself, which drives him so insane that he starts flying around and throwing military-grade exploding pumpkins at people, while Norman’s son and Peter’s best friend, Harry (James Franco) gets caught in a love triangle between Peter’s childhood crush, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and Spider-Man, all while Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) continues to show up, offer folksy inspiration, and generally be old.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the visuals are the part of the film that hold up the worst. While the action sequences retain a decent amount of fun, after nearly two decades on the shelf, the special effects feel pretty dated by modern standards, in part because of just how few of them there actually are. In telling Spider-Man’s full origin story, the film achieves the primary goal of big budget superhero movies in the early 2000s, which is to have as little CGI as humanly possible, which, for a character like Spider-Man, means having the actual suited hero in as little of the film as humanly possible. While the first half has plenty of low-key action and drama, like Peter entering a wrestling contest, a montage of Spider-Man zipping quickly through frame as he cleans up his first few petty crimes, or Willem Dafoe jumping out of a fog machine and going full goblin, the first proper hero-villain fight scene doesn’t occur until well over an hour into the movie. When Spider-Man does finally get into full blown action mode, there’s an element of cheesiness to just about everything. Reminiscent of Raimi’s work on the Evil Dead series, Spider-Man’s movements have a jerky, almost stop-motion feel to them. The Green Goblin’s costume looks like a bulky plastic Halloween costume, and even Maguire’s practical Spidey suit somehow has such an oddly fake appearance that it fits in seamlessly with the CGI.
Of course, the true measure of a special effect is not how well it ages, but how well it is used to tell an engaging story, which Spider-Man does pretty effectively. Despite a few obvious changes, like Spider-Man’s webbing being biological rather than technological, the film feels like a mostly faithful adaptation of the familiar story, rather than the complete reinventions we’ve come to see from so many MCU films. Beyond the big action set pieces, the story is aided by a truly spectacular cast that mostly brings the characters from the comics to vivid life. Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane is the perfectly appealing girl next door, even if her character never amounts to more than an object of desire or occasional screaming damsel in distress. Willem Dafoe face naturally screams “polite geniality that barely masks homicidal insanity,” and one couldn’t ask for someone who more immediately projects “spoiled, rich douchebag” than James Franco. And as many fans will agree, putting J.K. Simmons in the role of fast-talking newspaper mogul J. Jonah Jameson is probably the single most pitch-perfect pieces of casting in any adaptation of any story ever. The weakest link, oddly enough, proves to be Tobey Maguire, though, who is a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he is just the right balance of dorky nervousness and stalwart heroism to play Peter Parker. On the other hand, his Spider-Man is probably the worst that has ever been seen on the big screen. From his Bale-Batman voice lowering to a complete lack of comedic timing necessary to sell Spidey’s trademark cheeseball quips – to say nothing of the overly muffled sound mixing that goes to far in capturing the realism of breathing heavily through a mask – Maguire couldn’t be any less intimidating or inspiring when he dons the suit.
Verdict: 3 out of 5 Stars
Spider-Man was certainly an important and groundbreaking entry in the comic book genre, and it holds up reasonably well due to its strong story, faithfulness to the source material, and strong casting. However, badly dated CGI, the absence of Spider-Man for most of the movie, and the aggressive mediocrity of Maguire’s heroic persona whenever it does show up keep the film from rising to the level of all-out-classic. For those missing Spider-Man’s origin story from the MCU incarnation of the hero, this will be a satisfying bit of nostalgia. For those looking to see the best version of big-screen webslinging, they will be better served by sticking with Spider-Man: Homecoming, or, if they’re pressed for time, the airport fight scene from from Captain America: Civil War.