While the superhero genre as we know it today began back with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man took it to the next level in 2002, becoming the first movie to gross over $100 million on its opening weekend and confirming that superhero movies were here to stay.
And yet looking back at the film on its 15th anniversary, Spider-Man is both a guidepost and an outlier. The state of the superhero genre today with its reliance on world-ending stakes, crossover universes, and pushing into new genres like R-rated comedy and westerns, are completely foreign to the goofy, four-color attitude present in Raimi’s film. And yet it sets the template for the superhero origin story, borrowing heavily from Richard Donner’s Superman, but also trying to straddle the line between “realistic” and corny comic books.
You can see that from the outset where Peter (Tobey Maguire) gets bitten by the spider. In the comics, a radioactive spider bites Peter, but the filmmakers decided that wouldn’t be modern enough, so they went with a genetically enhanced spider, which doesn’t make things any less silly. It does allow the film to explain what kind of powers Peter will have before he gets them, but at the same time, we’re just supposed to be like, “Of course a genetically engineered spider will give you superpowers if it bites you. Also, labs lose track of their genetic experiments all the time.”
It’s clear that Raimi’s passion is being as unabashedly silly and corny as modern audiences will allow, and to his credit (and the credit of audiences), they went for it. Today, we see that superhero films try to be serious or realistic. They need to have weighty themes or challenge the notion of the hero’s journey. Spider-Man, unencumbered by all that baggage, is free to be a throwback to Donner’s Superman and even the 1960s Batman TV series, completely with all of Raimi’s flourishes.
This bizarre duality—trying to be both somewhat realistic and also ridiculously melodramatic—is perfectly represented by Raimi’s take on the Green Goblin. Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe) is kind of a tragic figure. He doesn’t start out being evil, and it’s only from his rational desire to save his company that he takes the risk of dosing himself with the Goblin formula. That formula turns him insane, but he keeps wrestling with the Goblin’s actions throughout the movie. But the Goblin character is deliciously over the top, complete with a cartoonish voice and screaming at Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) to finish her nightly prayers. In any other film, that would feel horribly disjointed, but Raimi manages to hold it all together.
What makes Spider-Man even more unique is how much of Raimi’s personality pervades the entire movie. Most of today’s superhero movies are about hiding the filmmaker, and we celebrate if even a fraction of their personality makes it into the finished project. Instead, we celebrate the property, looking for Easter eggs and hints towards future installments. Spider-Man, by comparison, has none of that. It sets up a sequel, but only in terms of its hero’s journey, not by teasing future villains or supporting characters. Also, rather than including Easter eggs that highlight Spider-Man (other than the requisite Stan Lee cameo), the Easter eggs belong to Raimi. He features his Oldsmobile, there’s a prominent cameo from his Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell, and the director’s personality is all over the film. When we see James Gunn’s personality in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, it’s noteworthy that Marvel would ever let a director get “strange” even though it’s still within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And yet for as much as Spider-Man would feel right at home in the 60s or 70s in terms of its tone, its visual effects and set pieces are what set the tone for the modern superhero film. While the movie never goes big in terms of the threat—Goblin doesn’t even seem to have a plan beyond “Kill Spider-Man”—the simple act of nailing down Spider-Man’s movements required the best VFX available at the time. While not all of those effects have aged well, most of them are still reliable, and the movie looks modern even if it feels campy and silly.
When we look at the vast difference between today’s superhero movies and Spider-Man, it may be hard to see the lasting impact of Raimi’s film, and yet Raimi’s film is basically laying down the rules that had to be broken, similar to Singer’s X-Men. Both of those films wouldn’t be at home in 2017, but what they’re trying to do by bringing superheroes into a modern, blockbuster framework, laid the foundation for the superhero movies we see today. To put it another way, if Spider-Man was rejected in 2002, it’s hard to imagine anyone attempting superhero movies packed with humor and color. The tone would likely be set by X-Men‘s reliance on explaining away superhero flourishes and Christopher Nolan‘s desire to ground superhero tales in realism. As it stands, X-Men, Spider-Man, and Batman Begins all shaped the superhero genre as we know it today.
Spider-Man and other superhero movies will likely never return to what Raimi attempted. It’s too gleeful, too over the top in its “Aw, shucks” attitude, and eschews the modern at every turn (its 2002 was basically the last gasp for having your hero read newspapers and talk on payphones; its most modern touch is the post-9/11 subtext as average New Yorkers fight against the Green Goblin). But all superhero movies owe a debt to Spider-Man for not only breaking through at the box office, but by showing that there was a space for superheroes to carry a blockbuster identity that was still big, bold, and distinctive.