I watched a lot of movies as a kid. My parents were big movie people, so I was in the theater as early as they could bring me. Oh, don’t worry. From their accounts, I was a very quiet baby. I watched a lot of movies, but one of the first movies I ever really remember watching was 20th Century Fox’s live-action Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi. I was immediately in love with the film and, through the years, this love has only grown.
Oddly, though, the older I’ve gotten, the more that I’ve found that most people my age just don’t like these movies. It confounded me and ended up starting a few friendship-ending arguments in high school. Why couldn’t everyone see how great these movies are? It’s still a question that haunts me to this day.
So, since we’re all stuck in our homes and Spider-Man is currently available for streaming on different Hulu, I will lay out my argument here. For everyone who hasn’t yet watched Spider-Man or for some reason never liked it, here’s a defense of Sam Raimi’s pre-MCU masterpiece.
Spider-Man was released in 2002 and, while not officially a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it did kick off the obsession with superhero films that would lead us to the epic End Game. It was a massive undertaking, costing the studio $139 million—only about $20 million less than the character’s latest Disney-produced movie. While that may not seem impressive in the massive, blockbuster world of Marvel today, this was unheard of at the time. Spending $139 million on a movie about a comic book character was a risk, banking solely on the security of Marvel’s massively successful X-Men two years prior.
And it paid off. Spider-Man broke the box office, almost making its budget back in the opening weekend alone and ending its theater run with a whopping $185 million. There were a lot of reasons why this movie was successful and, oddly enough, none of them could be attributed to a lack of quality.
The effects in the first Spider-Man movie might look cheesy to the CGI-obsessed masses of today, but traditionally horror-focused Sam Raimi was determined to use as many practical effects as he could. Personally, I’m a huge geek for practical effects, so it adds so much to my viewing experience of this film.
There’s a gif from Spider-Man that circulated online for a while of a scene, in which the character is swinging from his web with Mary Jane in arms. Along with the gif was the explanation that oh my god, they used a Spider-Man statue! We all felt a bit stupid, having not realized it ourselves. But I also remember people criticizing the movie for this. It looks so weird, people said, only having just realized that anything was off at all. But that’s the beauty of the effects in Spider-Man.
They have to be re-analyzed to be criticized because, for the time, they were pretty incredible. One might say amazing, but I would be prone not to.
To accurately criticize this trilogy, it’s only fair that we talk about the other iterations of this character and his story. To be perfectly clear, I have pretty strong opinions about all of these iterations. Well, the ones that have been made since 2002. I do really enjoy what Disney has done with the character and I honestly think that there’s a lot of good criticism to be found of Raimi’s films when comparing these. Similarly, I think that there’s a lot of good praise for Raimi when compared to the weird, uncomfortable The Amazing Spider-Man series that we’ve all collectively tried to forget.
Unfortunately, it’s easier to compare the latter because Disney opted to not make an origin story film (a good decision on their part). This is, I think, the meat of my argument in favor of the original Spider-Man. It is far and away the best origin story that we’ve seen and maybe ever will see for Peter Parker as Spider-Man.
In Spider-Man, Peter Parker is who he always was: an awkward geek from Queens with a massive crush on his neighbor Mary Jane. An uncle Ben and aunt May. But the story plays out so perfectly from that base. Peter’s interest in Mary Jane makes sense beyond just “she’s hot”. We see him overhear MJ and her father in a fight. We see his interactions with her as his neighbor. He cares about her as a person first, not just as a love interest as The Amazing Spider-Man’s Peter would do later.
He also has a good but sometimes shaky relationship with his primary caretaker, uncle Ben. The writers completely convince us of their love for each other and of Peter’s craving for independence and power. It’s a dynamic that any young man or, in fact, any young person could relate to. And when Ben dies, we feel just as devastated as Peter does.
While the internet likes to make fun of Toby Maguire’s crying face, they overlook the true emotion of the moment in context of the film. Every time I watch this movie, no matter my age, I have cried my eyes out at this moment. The loss of a parent, or the equivalent of a parent, is so insanely painful. To see it happen, to have even somewhat had responsibility in it as Peter believes he did, is enough to send you spiraling. Peter in this film deals with a lot of complex emotions and you feel them too.
The same just can’t really be said for Andrew Garfield’s Peter in The Amazing Spider-Man. This Peter pushed down all of his emotions. He’s cold and doesn’t really learn any lessons through the films. In Amazing, Peter chases criminals and beats them up seemingly for his own peace of mind. Even when he makes a massive mistake, he brushes it off. There is no character development, no growth, and most importantly no empathy. I don’t care about Peter because it’s obvious that he doesn’t really care about anyone else. The same cannot be said for Maguire’s.
My favorite moment in any Spider-Man film (and possibly any film period) is when Peter’s powers start appearing in Spider-Man. He’s been bitten by a spider, but doesn’t think much about it. But the next morning his glasses blur his sight. He realizes that his sight has improved dramatically.
He destroys things around the house with his uncontrollable strength. He’s awkward and clumsy and you feel his discomfort as much as his excitement. A few days ago he was being pushed into lockers and today he’s pulling doors off of their handles.
The best scene in the film, hands down, is when he decides to start learning how to scale buildings. As he places each hand on the brick wall, pulling himself up, the score builds with a bouncing bass. It sends chills down my spine just thinking about it.
Through this whole process, Peter is endearing. That’s what really sells all of it for me. He looks around wide-eyed, just as amazed at what he does as we are. He screams excitedly when he first swings from his web or jumps across buildings. He shouts “GO WEB GO” like some tight-wearing wonder because what else would he try? Superheroes in comic books say silly things.
Even excluding Peter, almost every character has their own arc. If I were to be critical at all about character development, it would be for that of Mary Jane. But I’m prone to letting that slide because of her arcs in the following two films.
And since we’re talking about criticism, let’s go into some really valid criticism of Spider-Man. I think the biggest critique that I’ve heard be thrown at this film is the age of the actors and I have to agree. In the 90s and 2000s, it was pretty common for actors in their late-twenties to be cast as teenagers. It was a weird choice that came from the idea that young adults were objectively worse actors, which is obviously not the case when looking at the newer Spider-Man films.
There’s a lot more criticism to be found in the trilogy, though I don’t think most of it should be aimed at Spider-Man. Honestly, I think that everyone’s memories of this film have been tainted by the beautiful, perfectly memeable garbage fire that was Spider-Man 3. But Spider-Man isn’t a bad movie by any means. It isn’t the worst movie about the character, it isn’t the worst Marvel movie, and it definitely isn’t the worst Toby Maguire movie (looking at you 2013’s The Great Gatsby).
This film is, by all accounts, great. It’s a fun family adventure that has a lot more depth than you might remember. On rewatch, or even first watch, you might find yourself connecting with the character more than you thought you would. You might even find yourself falling in love with this movie, it’s grand scoring, and even Toby’s performance, as I have. But, hey, it’s okay you don’t like it. We’re all wrong sometimes.