Written by David Holland
Spider-Man came about in that pre-MCU time when there wasn’t a lot of clarity about what a comic book movie is supposed to be. I think before “X-Men” and “Spider-Man”, there was what we could call the “Classic Era” of comic-book movies: Christopher Reeves as Superman and a rotating cast of Batmans pretty much dominated that space while the infinitely expanding universe of DC and Marvel heroes in the comics largely went without live-action counterparts. But in the 1990s kids were not necessarily reading comic books, but watching their favorite comic book heroes in Saturday morning cartoons: X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman: The Animated Series, and so on. I think before the MCU could be taken seriously as a plan, someone had to show that the audience who grew up watching Spider-Man in their pajamas while eating Froot Loops would now pay to go see him while eating popcorn and hopefully not in their pajamas (But honestly, who are we to judge?)
This is one of those movies I think of when I complain about the classic origin story. Again I will digress to say that Thomas and Martha Wayne have died so many times that there are compiled rankings online. But I will acknowledge that one of the challenges of a superhero story before the movie industry was saturated with them, was introducing a hero in way that entertained those who were already familiar with them, while also informing those who weren’t. For “Spider-Man” to work, the character has to be explored in a way that appeals to a general audience. That means we meet Aunt May and Uncle Ben, we realize how important they are to Peter Parker’s character, and we genuinely grieve the Peter when his decisions indirectly contribute to Ben’s murder. The crying Peter Parker face is a meme at this point, but at the time we actually felt the turn when Peter transformed from “I’m going to use these powers to help myself” to “With great power comes blah blah blah you get it”. We also get iconic moments: the cafeteria scene in which Peter catches MJ, her tray, and all her food (which took 156 takes with no CGI) and the upside down kiss (henceforth, “the Spider-Man Kiss”)
We see the infamous spider-bite happen. We get a superhero-learning-their-powers montage. Director Sam Raimi chose for his Parker to create webs as part of his superpower, rather than invent and produce weapons-grade webbing as a hand-to-mouth student, which makes sense. Willem Dafoe also crushes it as the Green Goblin, a brilliant billionaire businessman who creates a supersoldier serum and suit/glider combo that would make a young Tony Stark jealous. Of course, that serum drives him mad and he becomes a homicidal lunatic.
Spider-Man is comfortingly formulaic, and it’s from a time when superhero movies could afford to be. Personally, I never get tired of Green Goblin’s iconic “Tram Full of Kids Falling to their Deaths” vs. “MJ Falling to Her Death” choice. As the Goblin says, “We are who we choose to be, so choose.”
Peter Parker spends so much of his time in the comics balancing his life as a high-school student with his secret identity, that watching him graduate pretty early in the movie and move on is a bit of a let down. Although Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are barely convincing as high school students, so I understand why they made this choice.
The movie is campy, which isn’t always a bad thing, but looking back there’s a few examples that stick out. Green Goblin’s suit, for example, is supposed to be for sale to the Defense Department, but it looks a little ridiculous for a soldier to strap into.
The complaints are minor. This campy classic has just too many iconic moments going for it.