With classic villains returning in Spider-Man: No Way Home, it seemed like the perfect time to revisit the cinematic outings of our favorite webhead. So, it only seems fitting to kick off with the film that started it all, 2002’s Spider-Man. Sam Raimi, at the time mostly known for his work in horror, took on the responsibility of adapting one of Marvel Comics’ most popular characters. It was no small feat, but the franchise is still fondly remembered to this day. Tobey Maguire takes on the role of Peter Parker, as he’s ready to face off against his most iconic villain, Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin. Does the film still hold up after all this time?
It’s always weird looking back at films you adored as a kid. I wasn’t a big comic reader at the time, but Raimi‘s film was most certainly the push that would make me the Marvel fan I am today. As an adult, you look at these films with nostalgic glasses but also learn new insights you may have missed as a kid but also have a harder time with some elements. Sadly, it seems the romance between Kirsten Dunst‘s MJ and Peter just hasn’t aged as well for me as I thought it did. While it’s a perfect set-up for Peter to learn not to be selfish, and the ending highlights that very fact, it just takes away from the film a bit with her short-lived romance with Harry.
Now, that doesn’t take away from the film in any way, it just is an element that doesn’t work as well as it used to for me. However, as an element in the story, it is hard to imagine it without. His love for her pushes Peter throughout the story and even builds some distrust with James Franco’s Harry Osborn. I will say, the fact they play out their friendship early on, only for him to date the girl he knows his “best friend” is in love with was a curious choice. It does add some tension to the story, but it adds a naivité to our hero. It’s punctuated by his actions later own as this is a Peter Parker who sees the good in others, which becomes especially essential in the sequel.
Speaking of good, it’s incredible to see how well these effects have held up over the years. Yes, there are some moments where it sticks out, but the work here is incredible nonetheless. The scene as he swings MJ to safety with the puppet and hair blowing the wrong way is something you never truly realize until someone points it out, which highlights just how immersed you truly are in the film. Green Goblin’s glider effects have weight to them, but the pumpkin bomb turning people into skeletons was quite a bit over-the-top. Still, it fits right into Raimi’s wheelhouse.
As I mention the director, you can see a lot of his work influenced this film. The creeping camera shots and generally how everything moves to stand out among films of the time. Hell, it even rivals recent releases on how creatively it uses the camera to convey the gravitas of Spider-Man’s actions. While I believe he perfected it in the sequel, there are some truly memorable shots sprinkled throughout that make the film stand the test of time. Even as we have gotten a bit tired of seeing heroes’ origin stories nowadays, this was a spectacle and the film manages to breathe that life into it.
The highlight of this story lies in how it’s not just an origin story for our hero, but also its main antagonist. We spend a lot of time with Norman throughout the story and mean Norman. While Green Goblin is well played, Raimi understood that it’s the “man” behind the mask and his loss of self. He’s the reflection of our hero, as he’s technically what would happen if Parker never got the Uncle Ben speech. It’s what makes the “my father” speech at the end hit so incredibly well. Not only does it build upon the tragedy that Peter faced early on, but also highlights just how opposed these two characters are.
The film still stands strong among the many that have followed since and there’s a reason it set the stage for modern heroics alongside Blade and 1989’s Batman. While still a bit cheesy, it does lean into the “comic book” aspect of its adaptation and doesn’t shy away from it. What truly cements this film as a cinematic classic lies in its heart, the parallels of Norman and Peter build the story throughout, while also highlighting the performances given by Dafoe and Maguire. There’s a reason they are remembered so fondly in these roles to this very day, and it’s exciting to think their story, especially Norman’s, didn’t end all those years ago.