It might not feel like it, but Sam Raimi’s original “Spider-man” will be 20 years old by May of 2022.
It feels like a short time ago in some ways because in reality 20 years is not even a blip on the cosmic radar and a film as big as that one still remains fairly fresh in the minds of many of us. However, it also feels like it took place 100 plus years ago when we think about it because of the sheer number of comic book movies that were spawned out of Hollywood in its wake. Even if we exclude the massive 27 film juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe there has been some 30-40 plus (I struggled counting this on Wikipedia) movies from Sony, Warner Bros, and other studios depicting heroes from the DC universe, Dark Horse, and a number of other comic publishers.
Much has changed about the genre in that time span; the writing has changed, the money behind them has grown exceedingly larger, and studio meddling with the scripts is at an all-time high. Looking back on Raimi’s film from a distance can feel like a true blast from the past because of it. A real test run on a genre that was just barely learning to walk after starting to crawl in the 80s/90s with films such as Tim burton’s “Batman” and Wesley Snipes in “Blade.”
But films and their aesthetics can age and yet still remain timeless and after 20 years, and the eighth Spidey flick coming out this month in “No Way Home,” an important question must be asked here; Does the original Sam Raimi “Spider-man” trilogy hold-up?
The answer, at least for myself, is a mixed bag but mostly yes after rewatching all three (yes, including the third one…) recently. In many ways, Raimi’s Spider-Man movies are extremely dated compared to how these movies are made now but in other more important ways they are truly refreshing. What do I mean by all this? Well let’s unpack a few things shall we…
So, let’s talk first about what hasn’t aged well with these movies. Raimi’s Spider-man is very much is a product of its time. As mentioned, superhero films were just barely starting to become a big thing at the time and thus the formula is much simpler in these films compared to how they are now. There’s a reason we refer to some dry modern superhero films now as “straight origin story” films because they remind us of movies like the first in this series. Raimi’s Spider-man goes sorta by the numbers in the first film; a short introduction of our hero followed by the formation of his powers and a life-changing/tragic event of some kind that propels him to becoming a vigilante. The pacing is thus a bit slow in the first movie compared to how we do superhero flicks now.
A good example is comparing the first in this series to something like “Black Panther” in 2018. To be fair “Black Panther” has the benefit of debuting first in another MCU film to get a ton of exposition out of the way before his solo movie but what that movie does very well is not meander too long on what makes a character like T’Challa who he is and even sets him down a new origin that works in line with the plot. It’s more streamlined and tight comparatively, whereas Raimi’s Spider-man spends a ton of time in the first half doing all the “getting used to being suddenly a superhero” stuff that older films in this genre tend to do.
Dialogue is a bit of a mixed bag for this trilogy as well. While I love Sam Raimi as an inventive, creative filmmaker, he’s not always great when it comes to writing natural dialogue. I rip on the MCU’s over-usage of quips quite a bit but one thing you can’t accuse the MCU too much of is how natural all the characters sound talking for the most part. Sometimes line delivery in these Spidey movies can feel stilted and clunky between our leads. While I think Tobey’s performance as Peter Parker is more nuanced than some fans give him credit for (will get into this later) he is pretty slow in the delivery of his lines and it can feel robotic at times (when it’s not endearing).
This bleeds into the trilogy’s most important relationship, outside Uncle Ben, in Tobey’s Peter with Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane. While certainly at times this relationship can feel beautiful and cinematic ala Martin Scorsese (heh), some exchanges of dialogue between these two can feel either completely inappropriate or unintentionally hilarious. Raimi just isn’t that good at writing romance, it’s a little too hokey at times and at worst it feels creepy.
Another good example of this is I used to think James Franco was a pretty dull actor to an extent for many years because these were the only movies I had seen him in. He’s dry and has about all the melodrama of a soap opera actor in the trilogy (which again, like Tobey, can be endearing) but if you’ve seen him in anything else he can be sharp and highly energetic as hell with the right script. Here though, Franco’s performance as Harry Osborn is pretty clunky and also unintentionally hilarious as well.
It’s a product of its time in much more problematic ways as well. Not to sound a little hyperbolic here but Spider-man is the first major post 9-11 movie of its time, so much so that many in the media stated that the film helped “heal” a broken nation. Because of that, there is some subtle to not so subtle patriotism sprinkled in between scenes of the movie. Cops are depicted generally in a positive, uncomplicated light across all three films, even when they are going after Spidey. The American flag features prominently in spots through all three movies. This might feel nitpicky, but once you start understanding the military entertainment industrial complex it’s hard not to notice even the small stuff in all these movies and the way it’s meant to be manipulative.
Yes, the MCU does this too, but they are much less overt about their nationalism and sometimes even more overt imperialistic tones to the point where some fans mistaken the content as being “woke.” In many ways that makes the MCU more dangerous in my opinion, but Raimi’s Spider-man is much more shameless about it because to be fair back then nationalism was much less questioned because the country just went through a major terrorist attack. It doesn’t excuse the content, but it does explain it.
But Sam Raimi’s trilogy isn’t all just stilted dialogue, dated superhero genre tropes, and overt nationalism. In my rewatch, I found a lot of things about it surprisingly refreshing and reminded me of why it stood, for a long time, as my favorite movie when I was a teenager.
My first introduction to Spider-man came in the form of the Fox Kids animated series that debuted in 1994. While many of my other friends were attached to other popular cartoon-based comic book series at the time such as the classic “Batman: The Animated Series” and Spidey’s fellow Fox Kids block mate “X-men: The Animated Series” I was far more attached to the famous wall-crawler growing up.
Where Batman was brooding, dark, and intense and characters from the X-Men such as Wolverine and Cyclops were cool and stoic respectively, what attached me to Spidey was his down-to-earth attitude more than anything. He was the most normal kind of guy out of all the superheroes that I was seeing at the time and not to mention had a brighter sense of humor than the characters of these other two comics-based series.
Spider-man was the funner series to me and I watched just about every episode as a kid. But at that young age, I only had a superficial grasp of Spidey the superhero and even less so his alter ego Peter Parker. A lot of themes and messages of the series went over my head as a kid because of it and my understanding of Spidey boiled down to basically just a few things; Peter is a normal-ish guy who likes to quip as he fights bad guys and Uncle Ben is a big reason he’s Spider-Man.
I was 12 when Sam Raimi’s Spider-man came out and my grasp of this character, even though I was quite fond of him, was still limited. I went in fully expecting the same Spidey quip machine that he was in the animated series and the same kind of high-energy fun that I knew the character for. What I got instead was not what I was expecting as Tobey Maguire in many ways reminded me very little of the Peter Parker I knew at the time. Tobey’s depiction of Spidey and Peter is as mentioned notably lower energy, more squeamish, awkward, and more than anything a big loser.
I wasn’t exactly sure at the time if this was really the same character I fell in love with but I nonetheless found this depiction of Peter Parker very relatable as a burgeoning teenager full of restless hormones myself. I was just starting to really take my strides as a nerd at that time, reading more comic books, becoming a big weeb, and consuming tons and tons of fantasy and science fiction. It, of course, like any nerd, made me a big weirdo in front of most kids my age. Tobey’s depiction of a high schooler being estranged by his peers made him even more human to me as I felt a strong kindred spirit with the character in a way I hadn’t felt before and soon I became more aware of the nuances of the character that went over my head as a kid.
Peter is in fact a strange, weirdo, loser type in the comics and creates social friction wherever he goes. His inability to talk to Mary Jane in the initial issues of the comic felt not to unlike how I could barely talk to girls myself and this version of Spider-man made me finally fully aware of this dimension of the character. The second film is perhaps the best at depicting this, where a source of both the theme and comedy comes from Peter’s day just going from bad to worst constantly as he struggles to be an adult and as a now 31 year old I found the second film much more relatable on my rewatch.
Though my thoughts on the genre, as a whole, have notably shifted recently, I was somewhat of a fan of the MCU during its Phase 1-3 run. These films are typically fun, fast-paced, witty, and generally solid popcorn flicks from start to finish, but even before my views on them got considerably harsher I always had issues with the aesthetics.
Whether you like the MCU or not, it’s hard not to view them as assembly line productions with each film staying more or less the same in style no matter who is directing. I get that these films are a part of a series and they gotta look sameish between films but even the comics they are based on are far more varied in style even when following along an overarching narrative.
Visually the cinematography of the MCU films feels flat because it is set to be uniform from film to film and thus directors can toy around with it a lot less. One thing about Raimi’s Spider-man is that you can definitively say it’s a Sam Raimi movie based on the way he creates each shot. Visually each scene really pops in a way that most MCU flicks do not, possibly because they are shot on film and not digital, but also because Raimi has stronger creative control.
But more than anything the MCU has one very distinct issue that I’ve always had a problem with; the quipping.
The tone of these MCU flicks is best described as parodies of superhero films. Why parodies? Because nearly every one of these movies can’t go terribly long without a punchline. Call it the Joss Whedon school of film-writing if you will. Moments of earnestness and sincerity are often punctuated by cheap jokes or quick laughs because it often feels like the writers don’t trust that audiences have a strong enough attention span to sit through any real drama. They don’t seem to trust that people really do just like superhero stuff earnestly.
To be fair, superheroes are mostly a kids’ genre. They are meant to be consumed by family-based audiences. They are supposed to be light, fluffy affairs at the movie theaters with only a few exceptions. But I think the big reason, I always had issues with this while watching the MCU from 2008-2019 is because of the lessons in storytelling “Spider-man” taught me and I felt this all again my rewatch of the trilogy.
As mentioned, my understanding of Spidey as a kid was limited to the surface-level entertainment value the character gave me growing up. Spider-man was a “funny” superhero and to be fair it’s one of his best-known traits. Ironically the MCU version of this character is much more in line with the character I thought I knew as a kid but Sam Raimi and certainly Tobey Maguire opened me up to who Peter Parker really was deep down.
“With great power comes great responsibility” is the most important line in Peter Parker’s origin story. To omit it is almost as blasphemous as leaving out “May the Force be with you” in a Star Wars movie. To be fair the message behind this line can be conferred in other ways to the audience and to a minor extent both the first Sony reboot *shudders* and the MCU Spidey with Tom Holland do this a bit (though it got more overt in the last movie) but it very much feels like it takes a backseat to the spectacle and humor at times. Or at the very least quipping tends to speak over it.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-man in many ways was my first understanding of theme-based story-telling growing up, so much so that in the films that I saw following 2002 I intentionally sought out what the writer/director was trying to tell me in each story.
Theme is important to me in storytelling. Though I don’t always need a strong message to enjoy a movie, I certainly will fall in love with a movie more if I feel I gain something emotionally out of seeing it, which theme often does. All three movies do a great job of distinguishing Peter Parker the man from Peter Parker as Spider-man. Though I like Tom Holland quite a bit as the current webhead, he doesn’t change a ton between putting the costume on and taking it off. He’s basically the same character. While Tobey is definitely low-energy as Spidey there is definitely a change to him when the mask comes on. He’s wooing, he’s hollering as he swings between buildings, his voice gets tonally a bit higher and there is a clearer sense of confidence for the character once the tights come on. And as soon as they come off, we see that he struggles at being Peter because thematically for the character its easier to be a superhero for him than it is to be a regular guy, which is best depicted in the second movie.
Upon my rewatch of these films, what feels the most refreshing about this trilogy is its ability to slow down and let the theme of the story take root and allow viewers to sit and observe it. Some scenes can drag, of course, but scenes of genuine thematic storytelling are far fewer in the current MCU era of filmmaking we are living in (though they have gotten better at it in recent movies). Raimi’s Spider-man, though certainly not without some bathos baked into the script, is largely not afraid to go sometimes twenty-plus minutes without a real moment of levity or a jokey joke sprinkled in between. The result is some scenes can feel dare I say “cheeeeesy” because of it but Raimi is the last person you should expect to be afraid of being a bit corny.
The cheesiness is part of what makes these movies good. Yea, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin mask looks dumb as hell but if it were in the MCU there would’ve been at least 10 jokes directed at it before the credits rolled. Raimi more than likely knew it looked silly but he also knew he didn’t need to direct attention to it in every scene because he doesn’t feel the need to talk down to his audience like their kids or adults who are afraid of enjoying sillier ideas. These films just don’t waste a ton of time on telling the audience how silly and contrived the genre might feel to them because Raimi clearly just genuinely loves the character and the comics Spidey comes from. The result is we get quieter moments in these films where these characters talk about people named Spider-man without dropping a single “Derrrr…isn’t that funny” joke in between as a wink to the audience and it’s great.
I’ve riffed on the romance already here but perhaps the best example of all this is the first film’s most iconic moment; upside-down kiss between Spidey and MJ.
The scene is played completely straight with full Danny Elfman musical fanfare and there’s not a single moment of quipping in between. It’s just two people sharing a romantic moment together. On paper it’s ridiculous; a dude dressed in red and blue tights hanging upside down as a he kisses a girl in the rain is silly but it works anyways. Whatever you might think of these films as a whole there’s a reason many people still remember that scene because the director is earnest in his delivery of moments like this throughout the trilogy.
So, while Raimi’s “Spider-man” trilogy isn’t without some issues and let’s say aged aesthetics, there is certainly a lot to enjoy upon a revisit should you give it a chance. Danny Elfman’s original musical score is still iconic and one of my favorites of all-time. All three Bruce Campbell cameos are great and Randy “Macho Man” Savage as Bonesaw is still hilarious. I haven’t talked about it ton here but it goes without saying Willem Dafoe is great as Norman Osborne/Green Goblin through all three movies and Alfred Molina as Doc Ock in the second film is also superb and iconic himself.
Though the third film is a big cringe-inducing mess, I also found it to be enjoyable on a “so good it’s bad level” upon its rewatch and given what is known about how the film was made it was probably intentional on Raimi’s part to an extent.
Whether you love or hate these movies now for whatever reason, Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy will go down as a big reason the superhero genre exists as it is today. In time we will look back on them the same way many of us look at Tim Burton’s “Batman” in comparison to “The Dark Knight” trilogy. The older films might be dated but they paved the way for newer interpretations down the line and still remain great in their own ways today.
Raimi’s trilogy will always be classics (well, at least the first two) in my opinion and I’m thankful for what I learned watching these movies as a teenager and now as an adult about our friendly neighborhood Spider-man.