Spider-Can: How the Sam Raimi Classic Saved a Genre

Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man clinging to a flagpole in Spider-Man (2002)

Superhero movies used to suck. Your opinion of older films in the genre may vary but, critically, they were not doing well. This only started to change with the release of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in the summer of 2002, which proved that if superheroes want to make a major profit, then they spider-can. There had been previous successes with the 1977 classic Superman: The Movie and the iconic 1989 Batman, but both of these heroes began to falter in later installments. 1983’s Superman III was too much of a comedy compared to its emotionally driven predecessors, whilst Batman Forever was much more child friendly than the grisly Batman Returns. Two stand-out examples of how superhero movies were seen are 1986’s Howard the Duck and 1997’s Batman and Robin, which, despite their defenders, often end up on “Top Ten Worst Movies of All Time” lists.

Released by Lucasfilm and Universal Pictures, Howard the Duck saw the titular character trapped in a human-centric universe, trying to make his way home. It barely made a return on its budget ($38 million for $37 million), won four Razzie Awards including “Worst Picture” and was called “a stupid film” by respected critic Gene Siskel. According to Leah Thompson, it obliterated any chance of a serious role in Hollywood, even if it’s become a cult classic over the years. It’s bizarre in a way that only 1980s sci-fi can be; the dialogue is entertainingly bad and it features a duck with human breasts. Worth noting is that the financial failure of this project, coupled with the collapsing comic book industry, convinced Marvel to sell the film rights to some of their most beloved characters to avoid bankruptcy. When offered a wide selection of these heroes, Sony chose Spider-Man believing him to be the character audiences cared about the most.

Just over a decade later, Warner Brothers Pictures released Batman and Robin which saw the caped crusaders taking on Poison Ivy, Bane, and Mr. Freeze. Again, it did not make much of a return on its budget ($238.2 million for $160 million) but it only gained one Razzie Award, which went to Alicia Silverstone for her performance as Barbara Wilson/Batgirl. Much like Howard, it gained a cult following over the years. The sets are gorgeous (like a comic book come to life) and the performances are akin to a pantomime which gives the film a childish whimsy.

George Clooney, Alicia Silverstone, and Chris O'Donnell as Batman, Batgirl and Robin in "Batman & Robin" (1996)
George Clooney, Alicia Silverstone, and Chris O’Donnell as Batman, Batgirl and Robin in Batman & Robin (1996)

Marvel in the New Millenium

At the time, neither of these films were respected. Even today, there is still a stigma surrounding them, but the turn of the millennium was about to change everything. There were three different releases—Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man—from 3 different studios—Marvel, Sony, and 20th Century Fox—but they were all Marvel properties. Due to the decline in comic book sales in the west (a once-thriving empire that sold 1.5 million copies per month in 1945, only selling 100,000 in the same time by 1990), Marvel Comics sold the film rights to some of their best characters to companies like Sony, Universal, and Fox to stay afloat.

1998’s Blade featured the titular character hunting down, and murdering, vampires featuring violence and gore which earned it an 18 rating. It’s the darkest project ever released under the Marvel banner and it was received well, making $131million on a $75million budget. Legendary critic Roger Ebert gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, calling it “appropriately stylish for a comic book adaptation”. Blade never shies away from its roots, and is willing to have fun with one-liners and swordplay. Its sequels Blade II (2002) and Blade: Trinity (2004) would not receive the same praise, but they are still appreciated for their style, performances, and violence.

Two years later came X-Men which saw the formation of the titular team to take down the supposedly-evil Magneto. It was not as over the top as Blade had been, but it maintained a comic book-esque tone. It opted to be more character-driven, focusing on the pseudo father/daughter relationship between Wolverine and Rogue. On top of this, the creators had chosen this specific team due to their popularity in the acclaimed 1992 show X-Men: The Animated Series, which helped the audience feel more at ease instead of attempting to use characters that very few people were aware of. Financially, it did well bringing in $296.3 million on a $75 million budget but the biggest impact was in the franchise it spawned. There were three sequels, five prequels and four spin-offs over the next 2 decades. The quality may have varied over these 13 films, but it continued to pull in the audience and create A-listers out of its stars.

Anna Paquin and Hugh Jackman as Rogue and Wolverine in "X-Men" (2000)
Anna Paquin and Hugh Jackman as Rogue and Wolverine in X-Men (2000)

Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire Do What a Spider-Can

Another two years passed before the release of Spider-Man which detailed the origin of the masked web-slinger. It took the best of what had worked before and combined those elements to craft a film that is still regarded as one of the best superhero films ever made. It was just as bonkers as Blade had been—a comic book come to life, which was down to almost every aspect of production. Primarily, it was down to the tone set by director Sam Raimi (of the Evil Dead trilogy) who saw the romance between Peter Parker and Mary Jane as a soap opera. Soap operas tend to be filled with melodrama and sentimentality, which makes Peter Parker’s New York feel different to ours despite being filmed on location in The Big Apple. They also have ensemble casts, where each character has a similar amount of screen time, meaning that each character gets just as much focus as the others. It’s not a struggle to relate or sympathise with the characters in Spider-Man because each of them are crafted with the same amount of care and they’re all likable.

Character likability comes down to a lot of factors, like scripts and direction, but a large amount of that also rests on the actors themselves. There isn’t a single miscast character in Spider-Man. Tobey Maguires Peter is innocent and charming, whilst also coming across as troubled and like the fate of the world is on him. Kirsten Dunst’s MJ is the perfect damsel in distress but also kind and concerned for her friend. JK Simmons’ J Jonah Jameson is one of the most bombastic, entertaining characters ever put to screen. The late Rosemary Harris’ Aunt May is the quintessential version of the character. She’s loving but takes no nonsense and is a perfect way to ground Peters story. She’s clearly struggling and Peter knows that his secret identity would be too much for her to handle but its heart-wrenching to see him fail to tell her time after time.

J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson in "Spider-Man" (2002)
J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man (2002)

Then there’s Willem Defoe as Norman Osbourne/ The Green Goblin. Defoe is best known as a character actor who takes roles based on how interesting/absurd they seem to him. What he and the film really nail is how complex a character the Goblin is. Barring Magneto in X-Men, this would be the first villain in a superhero movie to have such complexities. Osbourne and The Goblin are treated as two separate people with their own goals, making Osbourne as much a victim of The Goblin as anyone he murders. This kind of focus on the villain and their motives would become a mainstay of the genre, eventually leading to a villain-led film with Avengers: Infinity War. It’s something that Raimi himself would continue to do in the Spider-Sequels with Alfred Molina’s tragic turn as Doctor Otto Octavius and Thomas Haden Church’s equally heartbreaking performance as Flint Marko/ The Sandman.

An equally large part of the films success lay in the costumes, which remain fan favourites to this day. They’re bright, which fits the tone of the rest of the film, but they never look absurd and they look like something a real person could craft because they were physically made. This kind of approach in costumes had been around since the early Superman and Batman films but this film cemented the idea that these suits didn’t have to look (what some might refer to as) “silly”. The main challenge of adapting a decades-old IP is that it has already been adapted multiple times. There are multiple versions of each of these costumes and making the newest one stand out is something that can only be determined by time. The Spider-Man and Green Goblin suits have now become as iconic as the film itself.

Tobey Maguire and Willem Defoe as Spider-Man and The Green Goblin in "Spider-Man" (2002)
Tobey Maguire and Willem Defoe as Spider-Man and The Green Goblin in Spider-Man (2002)

Just as iconic is the score, composed by Danny Elfman, who is no stranger to superhero films. He had previously composed the music for 1989’s Batman plus its 1992 follow-up Batman Returns and 1990’s Darkman (another Raimi superhero film). The way it starts off slowly with percussion before the brass comes in accompanied by a choir and quickening of pace sets the scene excellently. It’s equal parts tense and heroic and that’s just the main theme. Elfman would return for Spider-Man 2 but not Spider-Man 3, following a disagreement with Sam Raimi although they have since reunited for 2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful. Using a big-name composer and attempting to have an iconic main theme for the main superhero would become a staple going forward. Director Zack Snyder would use composer Hans Zimmer for his portion of the DC Extended Universe while Michael Giacchino has been used for a handful of Marvel Cinematic Universe projects (including the famous fanfare).

At the time of its release, Spider-Man was the highest-grossing superhero film of all time raking in $825 million. Spider-Man 2 would only take in $789 million but Spider-Man 3 would become the new champion with $894.9 million. This means that the entire trilogy made $2.5 billion overall, demonstrating that big budgets meant big returns on investment. This is a trend that would continue as superhero movies remained popular, with companies funneling more money into projects to make them the most epic-looking blockbusters possible.

Spider-Can Open the Way for The Future of Superhero Cinema

In 2008, Warner Brothers would release The Dark Knight, a sequel to director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. It was gritty, dark, and focused on the story of Bruce Wayne both with and without the mask. It was the first film of its kind to gross $1 billion. Later that same year, Marvel Studios would release Iron Man seeking to tell a character-driven story but not as dark as WB. It made half a billion dollars and kickstarted the juggernaut that would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This company, whose reputation was once Howard the Duck (despite only being attached in name), has so far released 28 films which have made them just over $25 billion worldwide. Almost as if to come full circle, every Marvel character mentioned here has had their film rights purchased by the Walt Disney Company, bringing them back under one parent company again. All of these characters can now cross over with each other and producers who have been around since the beginning (like Kevin Feige) can perhaps bring the best elements of all three trilogies to new adventures.

Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man are more than just moments in cinema. They are history.

Written by Beatrice Copland

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