The current dominance of superhero movies can be traced back to the beginning of the 21st Century. While superhero movies were made prior to this time the good ones, like Tim Burton’s Batman films and Richard Donner’s Superman (and to a lesser extent Superman 2) were outliers. Superhero movies were mostly a joke. Those were the days where comic book conventions were seen as a cult of nerds resembling Homer Simpson’s college roommates, or The X-Files’ Lone Gunmen. What changed? The answer, of course, comes back to a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
Purists among you will no doubt point to the first X-Men movie as the real beginning of the superhero boom; purists purer than those will point to Blade, but humour me, because this is a question for you. What was the first British post-punk album? If your answer is Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, which many claim is the beginning of that sub-genre you may be surprised to know, that Magazine’s debut was released a week before. X-Men is like Magazine; it’s officially the beginning of a trend that would echo through decades of pop culture, but Spider-Man, like Unknown Pleasures, is where all of the influence came from.
Without Spider-Man, you would have no Marvel Cinematic Universe, no gritty Batman reboot to challenge it, and no list of truly awful superhero movies that tried to cash in on its success: I’m looking at you, Daredevil. It’s no exaggeration to stick the Web-head’s first movie in the list of important superhero movies beside The Dark Knight, The Avengers, and Logan, to name a few.
I love this movie. I love it so much that I’m not sure I can be even-handed about it, as my bias is dressed in a skintight red and blue suit that chafes round the crotch. Like Burton’s Batman, Spider-Man was a formative movie for me. I was introduced to the character thtough another fantastic superhero cartoon show; seriously, with Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman: The Animated Series, the 90s were a golden age of these types of shows. I was twelve when Spider-Man came out, a truly glorious time to be a young genre movie fan, with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter also tearing up the multiplex.
Spider-Man was instantly my favorite movie of all time on first viewing; I completely forgot that all other movies existed on my second watch. I was young enough not to care about performance, set piece logistics, ropey special effects, or that those would age badly; I just took it as the great origin story that it is.
Eighteen years, and many re-watches later, and I can appreciate Spider-Man for all of those things. The performances are great across the board: Tobey McGuire is intensely likable despite the fact that his Peter Parker is sometimes pathetic rather than sympathetic, Kirsten Dunst is great as Mary Jane, delivering a performance that makes the hot unattainable love interest some much-needed layers. Seriously, the MCU needs to look at these movies again – while MJ is dmaseled way too much, there is a clear connection and fun love triangle between our leading man and his alter ego.
Then there is the villains of the piece. That’s right, villains – and I’m not talking about Harry Osborn (in which James Franco plays the role of ditched boyfriend that James Marsden would make his own a couple of years later). I’m talking about the Green Goblin. Norman Osborne/Green Goblin is the template for the typical Spider-Man villain of the this trilogy and beyond. He has a personal connection to Peter Parker, a bond that could easily be read as surrogate father, and the powers he gains corrupt him. Spider-Man is the embodiment of Uncle Ben’s famous words to Peter: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter’s responsibility is to use his powers to help people, Norman uses his, accompanied with the splintered Goblin personality that makes his more Mr Hyde than Dr Osborn, for purely selfish retribution.
The real hero of this movie is director Sam Raimi. When I was twelve, I didn’t know or care who he was, but he had a profound effect on me nevertheless. Once I had seen Spider-Man, I instantly fell into the daydream of becoming Spider-Man. I would replay the movie in my head when I was in school, and I even thought about the logistics of swinging around on a web through the streets of Glasgow. I decided that while it would have been cool – because it was Glasgow and not New York the size of the buildings meant that I would have been swinging too close to the ground thus the cool effect would be ruined. Sam Raimi did that; his movie magic because Spidey swinging through New York is pure cinema to me. Later films would try to outdo Raimi on this front but for me no one has come close to the excitement I still feel watching those scenes.
Spider-Man is a classic in my eyes. You can throw all the ridiculous stuff at me (yes, I know Green Goblin looks like a Power Ranger, but I loved the Power Rangers) ,but the nostalgia goggles are permanently in place for this one. Even so – I don’t think it’s the best movie. That comes next.
If you liked this article and want to see more stuff like it, please check out our previous retrospectives on on Star Wars, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Jurassic Park movies, and the Batman cinematic universe.
By Kevin Boyle
(Header image via Letterboxd)