Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Spider-Man at 20


The fact that when Spider-Man was released on May 3rd, 2002, I was already a full grown adult who had waited their whole lifetime for that movie to exist makes the idea that twenty years have gone by since feel a bit weird. But even though twenty years have passed, a significant chunk of time, the majority of my life so far has still been spent in a world sans Spider-Man movies so, you know, even twenty years later and eight movies in I don't take them for granted. The thing is, I remember what it was like when they weren't around and, let me tell you, it sucked. 

Throughout the '80s and '90s the chances of a Spider-Man movie getting made at all seemed incredibly slim. Plans to make it had collapsed so often, the property seemed cursed. Now, of course, there's a generation of full grown adults who never have lived in a world that didn't include Sam Raimi's genre-defining take on the web-spinner. For older fans, the release of Spider-Man was a long deferred dream finally realized. Now it's like, oh Spider-Man movies have always been with us. Of course there's Spider-Man movies, why wouldn't there be?

It's easy to forget, though, how long it took Spidey to swing onto the big screen. While Marvel's flagship character languished in development hell for years, with even James Cameron not being able to make a Spider-Man movie a reality, DC was essentially the only game in town when it came to supplying the world with big screen superheroes. 

The Superman movies with Christopher Reeve were iconic, the ones that first proved that comic book heroes could work on screen as legit big budget, A-list entertainment. Even if the third and fourth films had derailed the success of that franchise, the first two films were undeniably the gold standard of superhero cinema. And the original Tim Burton 1989 Batman was a triumph of its own, establishing a darker take on the character that was more in line with the comics and that successfully transformed the public's perception of Batman as being more than a relic of '60s camp. The sequels were a mixed bag but in terms of box office, Batman was undeniably the superhero of the '90s. Even though 1997's Batman & Robin had temporarily tanked the franchise, those four films still made Batman a cinematic superstar for the better part of ten years. 

As far as superhero films went back then, there was Batman and nothing else. The Caped Crusader's comic book movie competition was the likes of Tank Girl and Spawn. You might have a surprise cult hit like The Crow but the Crow wasn't competing with Batman to sell any Happy Meals. Even Warners/DC wasn't able to have anywhere near Batman levels of success with the rest of their catalog, putting up tepid offerings like Steel

In the meantime, Marvel wasn't even in the game. Adaptations of their characters were dismal direct-to-video offerings like 1990's Captain America and 1989's The Punisher (which I would argue was actually pretty decent). It wasn't until 1998 and the release of Stephen Norrington's exceptional Blade that finally there was clear proof that, hey, if you do a Marvel adaptation right, you can have a hit. Then Bryan Singer's original X-Men followed in 2000 and achieved even bigger success. And unlike the action/horror hybrid of Blade, X-Men was a true Marvel superhero movie. In the wake of X-Men's success, any comic fan would have told you, if someone does Spider-Man and they get it right, it's going to crush everything else. At the very least, it's going to be freaking huge. 

As it turned out, Raimi and his collaborators did so well in getting Spider-Man right that it's hard to imagine the movie being anything other than the success that it is. But it shouldn't be taken for granted how, all down the line, that the right choices were made - from the casting, which was so dead on with everybody from Tobey Maguire to J.K. Simmons to the script by David Koepp to the visual effects design of special effects legend John Dykstra. Even the most controversial aspect at the time, the organic web-shooters, quickly became a non-issue in light of how thrilling the overall movie was and how faithfully the film translated the trademark pathos of the comics.

Given all the Spidey spectaculars that have come along since, the original seems practically quaint now. In some respects, though, I believe it's still unbeaten. I don't think the series ever captured the romance angle quite as well since - the upside down kiss between Spidey and MJ is so iconic that there's been nothing else to top it - and it should also be said that Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin remains the true Spidey villain GOAT, even twenty years later. Dafoe's Goblin operates on a level of pure wickedness that none of Spidey's other foes, great as they are, can really equal. 

Along with that, I would also say that the final fight between Spidey and the Goblin is arguably still the best battle of the series. It's a given that no matter who had ended up directing this movie, the climax would have been a fight between Spidey and the Goblin but I don't believe that anyone other than Raimi would have chosen to make it as brutal as he did. Leave it to Raimi, who had made a career out of heaping abuse on Bruce Campbell, to not go soft on Spider-Man.  

When Spider-Man came out, it was so long ago in pop culture terms that no one even thought of it as a "Marvel Movie." But even in the MCU world we live in now, Spider-Man holds up remarkably well. Other Spidey films may have gone on to outdo the original in terms of box office and sometimes in terms of critical success and fan reaction as well but there is a singular magic attached to that first outing. We've become accustomed to the sight of Spidey web-swinging through NYC and elsewhere by now - there's nothing novel about it anymore - but to see it on the big screen for the first time, courtesy of the most sophisticated FX of the day, that was pure elation.  

The original Spider-Man is so good, such a love letter to the character that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko co-created, that it could have been the only Spider-Man movie we ever got and it would have been enough. 

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