Revisiting Spider-Man in a post-MCU headspace is quite the trip. This is what a cutting edge superhero blockbuster looked and sounded like in 2002. I was eleven years old when I first saw Raimi’s movie in the cinema and I remember it being bigand modern. Looking at it now I’m struck by how small and classicist it feels. In fact, it’s downright charming in its innocence and simplicity.
The straight forward editing patterns and 1.85:1 framing certainly feel flat and plain now but there’s also a look here you rarely get in modern comic book movies, where every single shot and frame seems digitally graded to look uber dynamic and where every environment and skyline is enhanced or a green-screen replacement. A lot of it is down to the limitations of the day, naturally. The technology needed to bring a web-slinging Spidey to life was in its infancy, forcing Raimi to be on his best behaviour as a showman, not to mention this was his first maxi-budget studio filmmaking gig and he wasn’t exactly going to risk weirding out the mainstream so early in the game. He would save that for the sequels.
Oddly enough, given Raimi’s penchant for highwire theatrics, even at his most subdued, it’s surprising how a lot of the action sequences come across as pedestrian. In 2002 they did the trick, but now they play like test-runs for the complicated digi-smackdowns that would soon follow. Instead, Raimi really shines in the character work. The scenes between Maguire and Dunst are still a delight, written and performed with youthful nuance and naivety. It’s a shame Dunst would so often be relegated to screaming damsel in distress for most of these movies, but when she gets some meaty material to work with, her star-power is turned up to maximum wattage. Willem Dafoe’s hammy villain works too, despite the restrictions of a his terrible Goblin costume. His one-on-one mirror confrontation, achieved with nothing more than old fashioned camera trickery and acting prowess, is still inventively kooky. It also goes without saying that JK Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson remains the gold standard for perfect casting in this type of movie. “PARKER!!”
In this day and age, Spider-Man plays much more like a character study than I ever suspected it would. It has real heart and puts a lot of emphasis on the people who don’t wear masks and costumes as well as those who do. In 2002, there wasn’t much of a sense of how to make a “comic book movie”; no guaranteed audience based off of fandom, forcing the filmmakers to make a genuinely enticing experience full of emotion and personality. Not to say that the MCU – which I am a fan of – doesn’t do that, but there’s a shorthand there now which assumes the audience like the characters, know the rules and are happy to go on any and every adventure thrown in front of them. When Spider-Man came out, who even knew if audiences wanted to see a teenager (well, a thirty year old playing a teenager) dress up in a red leotard and swing around the streets. With that in mind, it’s still thrilling when Raimi’s mild experiments suddenly mutate into something exciting, like the initial crime-fighting montage that sets the film into motion good and proper and the moment when the movie finally finds its groove and becomes a Spider-Man flick.
It’s dated, sure, but Raimi’s Spider-Man holds up on the strength of its drama and characters which now outshine all the primitive technical innovations. There have been better Spider-Man movies since (and far worse) but this remains a rosetta stone for so many of the things modern comic book movies get right. Oh and that Danny Elfman score? Still a goddamn earworm.
Watched on blu-ray.