Spider-Man 2002
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Credit: Sony Pictures

This Week in Genre History: Spider-Man figured out how to trap audiences in a superhero web

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May 5, 2021, 3:24 PM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

Here's a fun what-if question for you: What if the first Spider-Man movie — the original Sam Raimi blockbuster — had been horrible? What if it had fallen on its face right out of the chute? How would movies look today?

It could have happened, you know. The original Spider-Man, which came out May 3, 2002, 19 long years ago, took more risks than you might remember. The director, Raimi, was more known for low-budget cult horror films than tentpole superhero franchises. The star, Tobey Maguire, was an indie actor who was known more for roles that were dark and brooding than heroic and plucky.

Moreover, it's not like comic book movies were some sure-thing bet. (Ask poor Batman how his franchise was going in 2002.) There had been some total non-starters, comic book franchise-wise, around this time: We weren't even that far removed from Steel, for crying out loud. Spider-Man was a linchpin, the one that was supposed to work, one that sort of had to work. But it might not have. Where would we all be then?

Why was it a big deal at the time? Spider-Man was so highly anticipated that Sony was making huge, high-impact trailers for it nine months before it came out, which is common now but was considerably less so in 2002. The only problem with this is that the trailer, which was obviously made and initially released before the September 11 attacks, featured a scene that was the exact thing people did not want to think about when they were looking forward to a comic book movie.

But that trailer — which many people did see, until nobody did — set the tone: This was not just going to be a Spider-Man movie, it was going to be a big Spider-Man movie. The scale was big, the budget was big, the action was big. You weren't just getting a superhero movie. You were getting a blockbuster. It was even cross-promotional: Sony also had a Spider-Man game all ready for its PlayStation 2. This was going to be the full enchilada.

This just made the stakes that much more stark. The thing about a franchise is that you have to make sure people love the first one first. The Spidey brand, which had always been caught up in countless contractual disputes, needed to be extended while it could, lest it face-plant into Fantastic Four land. The rights to Marvel's first family were in such a state of flux that the legendary low-budget director Roger Corman made an unreleased Fantastic Four movie in 1994 just to squat on the rights. Spider-Man, meanwhile, was certainly getting released. It was to be a major blockbuster… or at least that was the hope.

What was the impact? When Raimi was making the film, it was reasonable to think the lasting image of it would be that shot of Spider-Man trapping the helicopter between the World Trade Center buildings and then swooping through the streets of Manhattan. That was the big, expensive shot, the one that expressed the film's ambitions and scope most clearly.

But he ended up with something much, much better. When people think of the first Spider-Man today, they don't think of an action sequence. They think of Spidey hanging upside down as Mary Jane, so memorably played by Kirsten Dunst, pulls down his mask and kisses him. That image turned out to be the centerpiece of the film, and the one that captured its true heart and appeal. Spider-Man was about superheroes, and action, and good guys fighting bad guys, but more than anything, it was about good-hearted kids in love. It was a movie about teenagers.

That combination of comic book and teenage angst was an irresistible combination: Spider-Man was a massive, massive hit, becoming the first film ever to pass the $100 million mark in its opening weekend. It was a huge crossover hit, showing that a comic book superhero movie didn't just have to be for comic book devotees. It could be for anyone — especially swooning teenagers, the biggest market for moviegoers, then as now. It showed what a comic book movie could truly be.

Has it held up? Right, the special effects... as you might suspect, haven't aged especially well, but that isn't the movie's fault. They were state-of-the-art back then, and it has been 19 years. And all told: The Green Goblin's mask is pretty dumb. (General rule of thumb: It takes a lot of the drama away when your bad guy can't move his face.)

But the movie is just as much of a good-hearted blast as it was back then. What's amazing is how truly young both Maguire and Dunst (not to mention James Franco!) look and feel. They have that winsome purity of little kids becoming adults, and they pour it into their performances. You can't help but root for them, to make it through this, to figure it all out. The best parts of the film don't have anything to do with Spider-Man at all. It makes you cheer for them, start to finish... even if you don't care about comic books at all.

That turned out to be the secret formula: Make a movie that comic book fans and people who didn't care about superheroes both loved. Spider-Man proved that formula would, and could, work. 20 years later, that formula has changed Hollywood entirely. And it'll surely never be the same.

Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.