It’s been a busy few years for Spider-Man cinematically. Peter Parker swung into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War with Tom Holland wearing the webs. In 2017 he had his solo MCU debut, Spider-Man: Homecoming. This April he suited up next to the Avengers and Guardians to battle the Mad Titan and his Black Order in Avengers: Infinity War. And Friday Sony releases their animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse with Jake Johnson as Peter Parker – and far more excitingly – Shameik Moore as Miles Morales and Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy!!! So it’s easy to forget where Spider-Man’s modern movie career began. We, as a culture, tend to proclaim each new incarnation as “the best [fill-in-the-blank] ever!” While I enjoy Tom Holland as Spider-Man and I can’t wait to see Into the Spider-Verse, as far as I’m concerned NO ONE’s come close to capturing who Spider-Man really is more than Sam Raimi with Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004). Even after all this time, his Spider-Man Trilogy can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of the MCU.
Again, lost in the shine of all things new, it’s easy to forget how important Spider-Man was. At that time, superhero movies were dominated by Fox’s X-Men, with Batman resting quietly after 1997’s Batman & Robin and 2006’s Superman Returns and 2008’s dual birth of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and the MCU still years away. Bryan Singer’s X-Men films were this weird hybrid of superhero movie and Matrix homage. The X-Men were there, yes, but they were wearing black leather jumpsuits. Even Batman, for that matter, had replaced his grey and blue costume from the comics with a black one for his movies through the ‘90s. So before Tobey Maguire suited up as Spider-Man in 2002, the last mainstream superhero movie we had with the hero in a colorful version of their costume that looked like what they wore in the comics was Christopher Reeve in 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. That’s FIFTEEN YEARS of dark, leather-and-rubber wearing superheroes until Sam Raimi came along with the courage to let Spider-Man be Spider-Man.
In the wake of this (hugely successful) move, Fox would try to follow suit with the Fantastic Four in 2005 (with mixed success). Superman would return in 2006. And the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be born with Iron Man in 2008. Now, it’s overly simplistic to say that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, and Spider-Man 3 (2007) were what brought the MCU to life. But I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say Sam Raimi’s trilogy showed Marvel this approach could work. They could make films of their costumed characters, dressed as they are in the comics, dealing with what they deal with in the comics, acting as they do in the comics, and people would come see it.
For this, we all owe Sam Raimi a debt. To be quite honest, if someone came up to me – as a complete newbie – and asked where to start to understand Spider-Man, I’d direct them to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (I’ll leave Spider-Man 3 for the more discerning fan). Those films perfectly distill all that Spider-Man is.
I really don’t think any writer or director has gotten Spider-Man the way that Sam Raimi does. His Peter Parker – portrayed perfectly by Tobey Maguire – is so quiet, nerdy, and intelligent. Peter was a science and tech wiz in the comics! We don’t see that as much with Andrew Garfield and while Tom Holland’s Peter is on the Academic Decathlon team, he relies on Tony Stark for just about everything else. But Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker is intelligent, quirky, funny, and so vulnerable. I think we tend to neglect this portrayal of Spider-Man (at least I know I do) because of time and all the flashiness the MCU has given us. But really, no cinematic representation has come anywhere near as close to feeling like the comics as these films do. I’m not trying to say Tom Holland isn’t amazing as Spider-Man (pun intended) but I think, as with Star Wars, we often fall victim to the newest-is-the-best-ever scenario. And while Tobey Maguire isn’t as solid a comedic actor as Andrew Garfield, and his Spider-Man isn’t as quippy and witty as Spidey is, he has the heart of Spider-Man in a way no one else does.
It’s hard to overstate how important these movies are for me. As a kid who LOVED Spider-Man growing up in a time when only Batman movies would hit the movie theatre and only Superman movies were available to rent at the video store, seeing Spider-Man in 2002 was the first time that I found my hero on the big screen. He looked like Spider-Man. He acted like Spider-Man. Most important of all, it felt like Spider-Man.
In fact, Spider-Man is one of those movies (like the original Ghostbusters) where I’ve seen it so many times as soon as the opening notes of music begin playing over the Columbia logo I feel a wash of nostalgia, excitement, and memories surge through me. This movie is wired into the core of my comic fandom.
I still get a rush when I watch the scenes of him swinging through the concrete canyons of New York City. This was how it should be! So often Spidey is drawn (or shot, in other films) swinging above the buildings. While it looks cool, it doesn’t make sense. He swings from building to building. He wouldn’t be above them. He’d be down among the skyscrapers. These movies got the aesthetic right. And while this Spider-Man may be lacking a bit in the humor department at times, they got the characters right as well.
The opening narration – “Who am I? You sure you want to know? The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody told you it was a happy tale, if somebody said I was just your average guy, not a care in the world… somebody lied. But let me assure you, this, like any other story worth telling, is all about a girl. That girl. The girl next door. Mary Jane Watson. The woman I loved since before I even liked girls.” – playing over the opening scene with poor Peter chasing the bus, the story being “all about a girl,” it’s all so damn perfect! In a few choice lines of narration over one scene they perfectly capture who Peter Parker is.
We see – in all the films – how central science is to Peter’s life and self-identity. We see his interest. We see his enthusiasm. We see his aptitude. We see his potential. Again, that’s all but absent in both the Amazing Spider-Man films and what we’ve seen of the MCU’s Spidey. When it’s there, it feels like a cursory nod and/or is overshadowed by the genius, billionaire, philanthropist that is Tony Stark (he’s more Iron Man Jr. in the MCU than Spider-Man). We also see The Daily Bugle! Peter Parker pays his bills by taking pictures of Spider-Man! You can’t have Spider-Man without the Bugle and J. Jonah Jameson and Robbie Robertson and the whole Bugle family.
Andrew Garfield had an interest in photography but was the Bugle in those movies? I don’t remember it if it was. And has Tom Holland ever taken a picture in the MCU? I don’t think so. The Daily Bugle is a central part of the Spider-Man mythos! Peter is a science nerd and a superhero and a photographer. With Sam Raimi’s films I see the Peter Parker I found in all my comics growing up.
But Spider-Man has never been just about Peter Parker. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are perfect as Peter and Mary Jane. Their acting is spot on and the way they scenes are written and directed…all the emotions that should be there are there. You feel the longing and the hope. They have such great chemistry and damn it you just want them to kiss! The whole movie! That’s all you want! Let’s be honest too, that kiss is the single greatest kiss of all time in any movie in any genre ever. If you disagree, well you’re welcome to your opinion…however wrong it may be :). BECAUSE OH MY GOSH THAT KISS IS SO PERFECT AND THAT SCENE IS SO DAMN SEXY.
Because of the romantic tension between Peter and Mary Jane, that kiss (AMAZING though it was) wasn’t enough. I wanted, nay I needed, Peter and Mary Jane to kiss! At times I wanted Spider-Man to save the day quicker so we could get back to Peter’s pining and the romantic tension and connection building with Mary Jane. But Spider-Man’s life is not an easy one. As the closing narration says, “It is my gift. It is my curse.” And holy shit that FINAL SCENE in Spider-Man! I’ve never went from cheering to screaming “No! C’mon!!” so quickly in a movie theatre :).
You can’t overrate how important their (incredible) chemistry is. Because the story of Spider-Man is a deeply human story and you don’t have Peter Parker without Mary Jane Watson. He’s incomplete, as a character, without her. I’ve never cared about a couple in a superhero movie more than I’ve cared about Peter and MJ. In fact, Gwen’s story arc in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 didn’t affect me half as much emotionally as the scenes between Peter and Mary Jane in these films.
On that note, the final scene of Spider-Man 2 is the single greatest moment of all time in any superhero movie ever. Period. Full stop. The MCU, for all its brilliance and all the love it has for its characters, hasn’t produced anything like it. They’ve nothing that even comes close. I know a big part of why I feel this way is my feelings for Spider-Man. Peter and Mary Jane, as characters, have been with me pretty much my entire life and, as such, they are very important to me. So when Sam Raimi captures them so perfectly in that moment my heart fills. (It’s like what happens to the Grinch when he hears the Whos singing BUT since my heart wasn’t two sizes too small to begin with, it just means I get really emotional and sometimes (most times) I cry.) I see dozens of scenes I’ve read in comic books over the years come alive in this moment. It’s perfect. I won’t go into details on the off chance you haven’t seen it. But this moment, this final scene, holds everything about Peter, Mary Jane, and Spider-Man.
Of all the films, I’d say it’s Spider-Man 2 which perhaps best captures Spider-Man – how I always knew him – on film. High school is completely behind him. Peter is always running – from work to class to personal commitments – trying to balance his life while never neglecting his responsibility as Spider-Man. He’s struggling financially but he’s doing what he needs to get by with his friends and family there to help, as close as they can get with Spider-Man in his life.
Sam Raimi’s films have the best villains too! Of all the Spider-Man villains we’ve seen in the films over the years, I still think Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus and Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman looked the most like their comic book counterparts. It’s like those characters literally jumped off the page and came to life. And, while I adored Michael Keaton’s Vulture and all the complexity and danger he brought to Spider-Man: Homecoming, Willem Defoe’s Green Goblin is still the scariest Spidey villain we’ve had (even if he does kind of look like a Power Rangers villain when he’s in costume). Beyond just Spider-Man films, I think Willem Defoe as Norman Osborn is one of the best superhero movie villains of all time, period. He radiates menace and madness.
(On the Norman Osborn note, I love in Spider-Man when the Oscorp Board of Directors and the people overseeing their contract with the Defense Department visit. Norman Osborn is working on a human performance enhancing drug, a Super Soldier Serum in all but name. His competitors, Quest Aerospace, want to design military battle exoskeletons, not unlike the Iron Man armor. While it was completely unintentional, I like how these moments now look like the seeds of the MCU. They foreshadow what will come, what Marvel will do following and expanding the mold Sam Raimi creates here.)
While I clearly adore Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy, I grant that Spider-Man 3 is less than perfect. They seem to lose touch with Peter’s character early on and struggle to find it much before the end. When people say this incarnation of Spider-Man is too glum (something I’ve said myself), I think it’s memories of this movie coloring our perspective. I also really resent how they used Gwen Stacy. It felt insulting, to her character and her place in the Spider-Man mythos. Also, the Venom/Sandman team-up feels very ‘90s Batman movie too (and not in a good way). And, of course, the plot was far too crowded.
But no superhero saga is perfect. Even the MCU has it’s faltered steps, it’s The Incredible Hulk or Thor: The Dark World or Avengers: Infinity War. But, thankfully, the MCU has kept going beyond those missteps to thrill and delight us even more. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Saga ending with Spider-Man 3 will always make me a little sad. Much of the film is heartbreaking and dark. While there are plenty of dark chapters in Spider-Man’s story, it shouldn’t be the end note. As the middle part of a five film series, it works. As the end of the saga it leaves a lot to be desired. I’d love to have seen what Sam Raimi had planned for Spider-Man 4 and Spider-Man 5 – films Sony was looking to shoot back-to-back. But it wasn’t to be.
Still, Spider-Man 3 being less than what I wanted, doesn’t make me love Sam Raimi’s films less nor does it undercut the – to my mind – near-perfect rendition of Spider-Man they offer us. I’ve been open about how Avengers: Infinity War disappointed me. But I still love the MCU! Heck, I still rewatch Infinity War. And you can bet I’ll be in line for Avengers: Endgame opening night :). I feel the same way about Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy. In some ways, it means more to me than the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe because Spider-Man has always been my favorite superhero. He’s my all-time favorite fictional character. And these films love him as much as I do.
In Spider-Man 2, when Peter stops over Aunt May’s as she’s moving out, she tells him about their neighbor boy, Henry Jackson, who’s helping her with the boxes. Aunt May (played perfectly by Rosemary Harris (another character neither of the Spidey sagas to follow got half as right as Sam Raimi did)) says, “You’ll never guess who he wants to be – Spider-Man.” Peter asks, “Why?” Aunt May tells him, “Well he knows a hero when he sees one. Too few characters out there, flying around like that, saving old girls like me. And Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero. Courageous, self-sacrificing people, setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for ‘em. Cheer them. Scream their names. And years later they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught ‘em to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us. That keeps us honest. Gives us strength. Makes us noble. And finally allows us to die with pride. Even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most, even our dreams. Spider-Man did that for Henry and he wonders where he’s gone. He needs him.”
There are tears every time I watch this scene. But I don’t think I’m crying because of the lesson Aunt May’s teaching Peter in the film nor how it affects him. I’m crying because Sam Raimi and David Koepp (who wrote the screenplay) perfectly expressed why I fell in love with Spider-Man when I was three-years-old and why he’s been my favorite character for over thirty years. This is why I love Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films more than any other – because he sees in Spider-Man what I see in Spider-Man and he brings it to life so beautifully.
Perhaps the best note to end on is Stan Lee. For all its faults, Spider-Man 3 has the best Stan Lee cameo ever. His message for Peter – and for us – is an important truth which he allowed to ring through all the comics he wrote and characters he created over his career. In addition to everything else, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy gives us this:
If there can be one line at the heart of everything Spider-Man is, it’s this. ‘Nuff said.