In 1962, Stan Lee, who was then-editor and head writer for Marvel Comics, was trying to come up with some new ideas for new superheroes that readers would enjoy, particularly teenage superheroes that teenage readers could identify with and relate to. He came up with the idea of a character called “Spider-Man,” and turned to artist Jack Kirby for collaboration on bringing the character to life. Despite the fact that Kirby was and still is known as one of the greatest artists to ever work in the comic-book industry, he did not impress Lee with his ideas on how he made Spider-Man look, as Lee thought that Kirby made him look a little too heroic. Lee then turned to artist Steve Ditko, whose ideas and suggestions were more to his liking, such as giving him a mask to conceal his identity (which also made it easier for young readers of all races to identify with the character), hidden web-shooters, the ability to cling to walls, and even the Spider-Signal. Although there have been some disputes over the years over who really contributed what to his creation (Kirby pointed out that Captain America co-creator Joe Simon shared his input as well), Spider-Man would go on to make his very first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15. This was the last issue of the series, but also the most successful, and inspired Marvel Comics to give the character his very own comic-book series not too long after his debut was published.
The Amazing Spider-Man became the highest-selling comic book for Marvel Comics, and it didn’t take long for Spidey’s popularity to skyrocket and for him to become just as beloved and recognizable as Superman or Batman. One of the things that helped with the character’s popularity was when he got his very own animated series in 1967, accompanied by a classic theme song that is still quoted to this very day.
Though he wasn’t the first actor to portray Spider-Man in live-action (that honor belongs to Danny Seagran, who played the character in a recurring segment for The Electric Company called Spidey’s Super Stories), Nicholas Hammond played Spider-Man in a short-lived television series that premiered on CBS in 1977 (and also had several episodes released theatrically as two-hour movies). It may have been entertaining for Spider-Man fans back then, but due to its budget limitations (as well as the fact that comic-book adaptations hadn’t reached the point of being taken very seriously), this version was more like a police procedural in the tradition of The Rockford Files or Baretta than it was a superhero series, and featured Spidey regularly going up against regular thieves, terrorists, and bank robbers, instead of the more familiar members of his rogues’ gallery, like Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin, or Electro.
There were additional attempts to adapt Spider-Man, this time as a big-budget superhero movie that would be a Star Wars-type blockbuster that would bring in millions and start a franchise for the movie studio fortunate enough to make it a reality. But for years, it remained a fantasy, as there were lots and lots and lots of legal and financial issues that prevented movie studios like Cannon Films, 21st Century Films, and Carolco from moving forward. Writer/director James Cameron was approached about making a Spider-Man movie, and even provided a long and detailed script treatment of what he was interested in doing. It involved Spidey going up against Electro and Sandman, Spidey and Mary-Jane Watson having sex on the Brooklyn Bridge (yes, really), and the final battle taking place on top of the World Trade Center (If you really want to read it for yourself, Google is your friend). Leonardo DiCaprio was considered by Cameron for the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and Robyn Lively, Maggie Smith, R. Lee Ermey, Lance Henriksen, and Michael Biehn were all considered for the roles of Mary-Jane, Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Electro, and Sandman. And there was also talk of having Arnold Schwarzenegger play Doctor Octopus. And though Cameron’s version of Spider-Man never did get the green light, he was asked in an interview by Premiere magazine (which took place a few months after the groundbreaking success of Titanic) if he would still be interested in making the film if and when the rights issues ever cleared up. Cameron’s response:
“Here’s where I am philosophically. I’m 44 years old, I make a movie every two or three years, it should be something that I create. I’ve always done that, with the exception of Aliens. The Terminator was my creation, so were Titanic and The Abyss. With the amount of time and energy that I put into a film, it shouldn’t be somebody else’s superhero. I don’t want to labor in somebody else’s house.”
It would all come down to Columbia Pictures and MGM, who were both competing for the rights to the James Bond 007 franchise. And in March of 1999, the two studios finally came to an agreement that let Columbia have the rights to Spider-Man, and MGM continue having the rights to 007. And with that final obstacle out of the way, Columbia Pictures gave the green light to the making of Spider-Man, which opened in theaters on May 3, 2002.
During a school trip to Columbia University’s science department, nerdy but brilliant student Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is taking photos for the school newspaper of their genetics laboratory, where scientists have been working on genetically-engineered spiders that are far more advanced than ordinary spiders. One of those spiders breaks loose and bites Peter on the hand, which soon causes him to feel ill and pass out when he goes home. He wakes up the next day feeling much better, and gifted with superhuman powers as a result of the spider bite: enhanced strength, speed, vision, agility, and reflexes; and abilities that allow him to cling to solid surfaces like walls and ceilings, fire powerful webbing from his wrists, and to sense when a dangerous person or situation is nearby and about to pose a threat to him or others. While struggling to learn these newfound skills, Peter wants to make a good impression on Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), a fellow student who lives next door and who Peter has long been attracted to. In order to get some money for a car that he hopes will improve his chances, he enters an underground wrestling tournament that earns him the nickname “Spider-Man” thanks to his homemade costume. The corrupt wrestling promoter refuses to pay Peter after he wins his match, and so when that same promoter is robbed at gunpoint and steals his money, Peter does nothing to stop him as he runs past him to make his escape. This unfortunate decision results in the robber murdering Peter’s beloved uncle, Ben Parker (Cliff Robertson), and when Peter goes after the robber and realizes that he could’ve stopped him earlier and prevented Ben from dying, Peter remembers Uncle Ben’s advice (“With great power comes great responsibility”), and uses his powers as Spider-Man to protect New York City and take down any and all criminals wherever they may strike. Meanwhile, scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) is willing to do whatever it takes to prevent the military from cutting off their funding of his experiments that involve performance-enhancing chemicals for soldiers, as well as powerful exoskeleton armor. He decides to perform the experiments on himself in order to get faster results, which only ends up making him both insane and homicidal towards all who he perceives as a threat to his reign as CEO of Oscorp. Osborn becomes the “Green Goblin,” and it doesn’t take long for him and Spider-Man to butt heads, culminating in a life-or-death battle that will push Spider-Man to his limits and force him to realize just how great his responsibility truly is.
Before Spider-Man actually opened theatrically, it did experience some controversy over something that was completely beyond the control of anyone involved with the making of the film. The year before its release, there was a teaser trailer that informed audiences in movie theaters, and everyone else around the world, that they would soon get to see their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man on the big screen. It was a really good teaser trailer. But it was one that centered on Spidey apprehending a group of bank robbers who escape from the scene of the crime via helicopter with some webbing that is strategically placed between both towers of the World Trade Center. Not too long after that trailer debuted, September 11th happened. As a result, Hollywood soon did everything possible to walk on eggshells and feature little to no footage of the World Trade Center in any of their upcoming projects, in order to avoid upsetting viewers at home and audiences in theaters who didn’t need or want any reminders of how horrible the real world was while enjoying their entertainment. The teaser trailer was pulled, along with a teaser poster that featured Spidey looking up at the New York City skyline with the World Trade Center reflected in the goggles of his mask.
The monumental success of X-Men in 2000 not only whetted the appetites of studio execs in Hollywood who now wanted more comic-book movies that would bring them massive profits, but it also whetted the appetites of comic-book fans who finally got to see more of their favorite heroes onscreen and brought to life in recent years by talented artists in ways that were not just entertaining and well-crafted, but also highly respectful of the stories and source material they loved to read. (Yes, I’m fully aware that Blade and The Crow were also responsible for this, and that they deserve a hell of a lot more credit than they usually get, but they were also R-rated comic-book films that weren’t entirely made for the whole family to enjoy together like most comic-book films that are made now)
Those same fans were incredibly satisfied with the meal that was served to them when they saw Spider-Man for the very first time, courtesy of director Sam Raimi, who applied all of his skills and experience from making horror films like The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 (as well as his own original superhero film, Darkman) to making Spider-Man, and to the surprise of very few people who were already familiar with his work, he knocked it out of the park. Some of the special effects shots haven’t aged well in the decade since its release, but the majority of them work wonderfully in showing us things like Spidey web-slinging above the streets of New York, and Green Goblin unleashing havoc with his Pumpkin Bombs from his trusty (and deadly) glider. The film embraces its tone (a modern update/appreciation of the original Silver Age comics that introduced everyone’s favorite web-head) from the very first scene and makes no attempt to wink at the camera or rely heavily on bathos. It embraces the drama and tragedy of Peter and Aunt May’s loss, of Peter regretting his behavior that resulted in Uncle Ben’s death, of him accepting his life and future as Spider-Man, and of him just trying to live a normal life. This also includes him dealing with his feelings for Mary-Jane, and accepting her new relationship with his best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco). Most importantly, it embraces the fun of Peter being Spider-Man, and how awesome it is to see him do his thing, whether it’s him figuring out just how to actually shoot webs (Raimi and his writers, including credited screenwriter David Koepp, kept Cameron’s original idea of making Spider-Man’s web-shooters organic, as they found it too unbelievable for Peter to create his own web fluid and mechanical web-shooters, even though he’s a scientific genius), learning the extent of his abilities during a wrestling match, seeing him take down criminals and leave them gift-wrapped for the police, and also seeing him rescue innocent people from burning buildings and from falling debris, earning the gratitude of the New Yorkers he fights every day to protect and keep safe from harm.
It also gives us the cathartic experience of seeing New Yorkers come to Spider-Man’s aid when he’s being attacked by the Green Goblin while also trying to rescue both Mary-Jane and a Roosevelt Island tram that is fully occupied by children. They’re not at all shy at letting the super-villain know that New Yorkers take no sh-t whatsoever, that they are tougher than Nigerian hair (or tougher than leather, if you’d prefer another hip-hop reference that might be considered less problematic), and if you mess with one of them, you mess with all of them.
The casting choices were also a huge and important part of winning over audiences, and the casting agents for Spider-Man all chose wisely. Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May made their love and concern for Peter and for each other evident with their every word and deed, which makes it even more hard-hitting when the inevitable happens and they’re torn apart by tragedy; James Franco plays Harry Osborn as a young man struggling to earn his father’s love and respect, while also wrestling with the idea that he has to do the same with Mary Jane upon realizing that she likes Peter as more than just a friend; J.K. Simmons is absolutely a hoot and a delight as J. Jonah Jameson, whose arrogance and bluster could power a rocket all the way to the moon (I love it when he gets serious with Peter to explain the difference between slander and libel, and then goes back to being his usual loud-mouthed self); Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin chews every last bit of scenery and acts the hell out of both roles (The brief moment where he walks over to Spidey and slaps him on the head as he tries to convince him that they should team up always makes me laugh whenever I see it), and he gives us a villain who we love to hate, and who is clearly not looking for anything resembling a redemption arc. (Seeing him wrestle with both personalities — the Norman Osborn who doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and the Green Goblin who wants to punish anyone who dares to challenge or disrespect him — really is a masterclass worth watching); Kirsten Dunst as Mary-Jane Watson, who literally is the girl next door, but is also a troubled and kind-hearted soul who makes it easy to see why Peter is so in love with her, and also someone who is willing to fight back when necessary and who refuses to be a damsel in distress or a doormat, whether she’s being ambushed by men who refuse to take “no” for an answer, or when she’s being disrespected by her boyfriend.
FYI: The upside-down kiss between Mary-Jane and Spider-Man is still just as hot and horny and incredible to watch now as it was back in 2002, and for everyone on social media who complains about there being too much sex or too little sex in comic-book movies (and just movies, in general), it packs more heat than almost every other romantic pairing in comic-book movies. (It still comes second place to Clark and Lois having sex in their bathtub in the Ultimate Edition of Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, though Roxana Hadadi would probably fight me in the schoolyard in defense of Batman and Catwoman in The Batman, who are nothing at all to scoff at)
Last but certainly not least: Tobey Maguire, who gives the audience everything that they could want in a live-action version of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. As Peter, he’s awkward and unpopular, and constantly trying to keep his head above water in every aspect of his life, whether being bullied at school, mustering up the courage to simply say hello to Mary-Jane, or trying to find a job after moving out to live on his own with Harry as his roommate (and then finding a job, but with a boss who won’t give him full-time hours and who bites his head off with no hesitation or regret). As Spider-Man, he’s strong, fast, and powerful, but there are always criminals on the loose who constantly require his attention no matter what, an equally powerful arch-nemesis who is hell-bent on taking him apart both physically and psychologically, and the fear of his loved ones being put in danger as a result of his enemies knowing who he really is. (His sarcastic and cutting sense of humor, which reveals itself more frequently when Peter is working as Spidey, and is a defense mechanism against his enemies that pisses them off and causes them to slip up in battle, is barely ever present in the Spider-Man films that feature Maguire. But he does crack a few jokes, even though they’re not nearly as funny as they could and should be). And Maguire skillfully juggles both identities, and does it well enough that for many fans of Spider-Man, he is the ideal version of the character, similar to how Michael Keaton is the best version of Batman, and Christopher Reeve is the best version of Superman.
There are some other familiar faces in the film as well, including Joe Manganiello as school bully Flash Thompson, Octavia Spencer as the wrestling league employee who signs Spider-Man up for his wrestling match, Sara Ramirez as a police officer who keeps the crowd at bay when Uncle Ben is shot and left to die on the street, and last but never least, Bruce Campbell as the ring announcer who blesses Spider-Man with his nickname, as he thinks “The Human Spider” is far too corny.
Spider-Man not only received critical acclaim, but it also broke several box-office records upon its release. It further contributed to other studios and filmmakers throwing their hats in the ring with their own comic-book movies to achieve that same level of box-office success, eventually leading to the 2008 release of Iron Man, the film that would kickstart the unstoppable juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Two sequels soon followed not too long after Spider-Man’s release. In 2004, Spider-Man 2 opened in theaters, this time with Spidey clashing with Dr. Otto Octavius, a.k.a. Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina). And for many fans of Spider-Man and of comic-book movies in general, it is still considered not just one of the best sequels ever made, but the best live-action Spider-Man film, period.
Spider-Man 3, in which Peter comes into contact with a mysterious alien symbiote that not only gives him an entirely new suit, but alters his personality to make him more violent, arrogant, and aggressive, was released in 2007. It got a mixed response from critics and audiences when it was first released (there was lots of talk behind the scenes that Raimi had no interest in using the character of Venom for this film, but despite his success with the first two Spider-Man films that he directed, that decision was far above his pay grade), but time has been a little kinder to the film since then.
Due to a change of the guard at Sony Pictures in terms of who was calling the shots, the studio decided to abandon plans for a fourth Spider-Man film with Maguire, Dunst, and Raimi. Instead, they chose to reboot the franchise, and attempt to start their own cinematic universe centered around Spider-Man. The Amazing Spider-Man was released in 2012, starring Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard, Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben, and Sally Field as Aunt May.
The response to this film and to its 2014 sequel weren’t nearly as glowing as it was for the Spider-Man films helmed by Raimi, and though they were still box-office hits, Sony expected much bigger profits and chose to reboot the franchise yet again, this time working directly with Marvel Studios to make damn sure that they would hit the bull’s eye. And so, the newest version of Spider-Man made his very first appearance in
The Avengers 2.5 Captain America: Civil War, with Tom Holland as Spidey, and Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. This was soon followed by Tom Holland appearing as Spidey in his own solo film (the “solo” part is questionable for some fans, considering that it also features Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man) Spider-Man: Homecoming, which also featured Tomei as Aunt May, Michael Keaton as Adrian Toombs/Vulture, Laura Harrier as Liz, Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, and Zendaya as Mary-Jane Watson Michelle “MJ” Jones.
The events of its sequel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, led to Peter taking desperate measures to make everything go back to normal in the form of Peter asking Doctor Strange to cast a spell that would make the world forget his true identity. And unfortunately for both Peter and Strange, everything went pear-shaped and made things so much worse than either one of them could possibly imagine in the eagerly awaited follow-up, Spider-Man: No Way Home. Which not only helped open up the Multiverse, it made audiences cheer as if their home team won the World Series, thanks to cameo appearances including Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil; Jamie Foxx, Alfred Molina, Thomas Haden Church, Rhys Ifans, and Willem Dafoe as Electro, Doc Ock, Sandman, Lizard, and Green Goblin; and the biggest appearances of all: Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man from each of their alternate universes. No matter how you may have felt about the film, it was damn near impossible to not enjoy seeing all three versions of Spider-Man together onscreen for the very first time.
Time will soon tell as to when we will once again see Tom Holland on the big screen as Spider-Man doing whatever a spider can as he fights once again to save New York City from yet another super-villain looking to make his life even more difficult and hellish than it already is. But for those who want to see it for the first time, or watch it again for the first time in a long time, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man can still hold its own against the newer comic-book movies, and is still just as deserving of your time and your attention.
Spider-Man is available for rent on Vudu and on Amazon Prime Video.
Header Image Source: Columbia Pictures