English Title: Spider-Man

Country of Origin: USA

Studio: Columbia Pictures Corporation, Sony Pictures, Marvel Entertainment, Laura Ziskin Productions

Director: Sam Raimi

Producer(s): Laura Ziskin, Stan Lee, Grant Curtis, Ian Bryce, Avi Arad

Screenplay: Stan Lee, David Koepp, Steve Ditko

Cinematographer: Don Burgess

Art Director: Stella Vaccaro, Tony Fanning, Steve Arnold

Editor: Bob Murawski, Arthur Coburn

Runtime: 121 minutes

Genre: Action/Superhero

Starring/Cast: J.K. Simmons, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, James Franco, Willem Dafoe, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst

Year: 2002

Volume: American - Hollywood

Nerdy high school student Peter Parker lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in Queens, New York. Peter gets mocked by many of his peers, and he’s secretly in love with Mary Jane Watson, who is dating jock Flash Thompson. On a field trip to a research lab, Peter gets bitten by a genetically-modified spider that has escaped from its cell; Peter soon discovers that he has extraordinary superhuman abilities, including increased strength and agility, the power to stick to vertical surfaces, and a modified genetic structure which gives him the ability to shoot spider-like ‘webs’ from his wrists.  When his Uncle Ben is killed by a mugger, Peter vows revenge, and adopts the moniker of Spider-Man. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn, head of Oscorp (and father of Peter’s best friend Harry), is forced out of his position, loses his sanity, and steals classified company-developed equipment, including a mechanical glider and various weapons.  Norman soon becomes known as the Green Goblin, and begins to terrorize the city and challenge Spider-Man.

A feature film version of Spider-Man, Marvel Comics’ most famous character, had been in serious development since 1985, but court disputes over film and television rights to the character kept getting in the way. Cannon Films and later Carolco Pictures had both attempted to put a movie into production, and at one point director James Cameron wrote a screenplay treatment. Sony Pictures’ 1999 acquirement of the full development rights to the character (and Cameron’s material) represented a significant coup for the studio, and they immediately began developing their own big-budget film franchise. Evil Dead (1983) director Sam Raimi was hired to helm the first film (and stayed with the franchise for two further entries), and Raimi backed Tobey Maguire to star; he won the lead role after filming an action-oriented test reel shot by the director, which impressed the studio. Many writers contributed to the script (officially credited to David Koepp), which received an uncredited polish by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent (husband of producer Laura Ziskin), who performed similar duties on Sony’s next three Spider-Man films. Cameron’s idea of giving Peter Parker ‘organic webbing’ that comes out of his body instead of homemade mechanical web-shooters for his wrists was adopted for the film (and hugely controversial with fans at the time). The narrative, while simplistic, nicely sets up both a physical and psychological dichotomy between its protagonist (Peter Parker/Spider-Man) and antagonist (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin), and equally explores the nature of what it means to be a ‘hero’ or a ‘villain’ in contemporary (popular) culture. ‘Eventually, they will hate you’, the Goblin tells Spider-Man at one point, paralleling not only Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson’s skepticism and distrust of the city’s new hero, but also our contemporary media’s fascination with documenting both the rise and fall of the elite.
Willem Dafoe is campy but committed in his dual role; most notable is a scene featuring the actor playing against himself in a mirror, switching back and forth between the split personalities of Norman and the Goblin, as one persuades the other of the determinate path. Maguire makes a decent meek and mild-mannered Peter, but James Franco is more impressive as his best friend Harry, who feels neglected because his father (Dafoe) treats Peter as more of a son than Harry himself. James Acheson designed the extremely faithful-to-the-comics practical suit worn by Maguire and various stuntmen throughout production (during filming, four of the suits were stolen; they were recovered 18 months later). The Goblin’s costume is more real-world high tech, and makes Dafoe’s performance seem even more impressive, considering many of his scenes were performed underneath a bulky helmet locked in an eternal scowl. Sony Pictures’ own Imageworks facility handled the creation of a computer-generated swinging Spidey for the long-shots in the film. An early teaser poster and trailer prominently featured New York’s World Trade Center towers; after the events of September 11, 2001, both the poster and trailer were pulled from circulation (though shots containing the twin towers remain in the final film). There was also some contention over the UK rating for the film prior its theatrical release, the British Board of Film Classification apparently protesting to the graphic nature of many shots in the final fight sequence (Raimi had already edited the sequence to avoid an “R” rating in the US).
The global success of Spider-Man helped launch a successful film series for Sony Pictures, with Spider-Man 2 (2004) being released to rave reviews and huge box-office, and Spider-Man 3 (2007) grossing nearly $900 million worldwide, despite being (by most critical accounts) a muddled mess of too many villains and not enough brevity.  Sony and Sam Raimi had been developing a fourth in the series until they parted over creative differences in January 2010; Sony chose to pursue a cheaper, younger-themed franchise reboot, which they had already been developing.  

Author of this review: Michael S. Duffy