This month, to honour the film’s 20th anniversary, we’re travelling back to the true nerd-boy-to-superhero era, with Tobey Maguire’s debut as Spiderman. So is this a case of rose-tinted glasses at the ready, or does the first spidery man to grace our screens hold up, all nostalgia aside?
Read on to find out what our writers thought…
It’s been twenty years since Tobey Maguire’s debut as Spiderman and boy, you can feel every single one of those years.
Not that age is inherently bad, especially when it comes to film. Most people still consider Hitchcock’s Psycho to be a must-watch, and that’s four times as old. Spider-Man isn’t Hitchcock, but it’s got something of a nostalgic charm to it that sees plenty of people calling it ‘one to watch’ when you want to remember the good old days.
It’s a romp from start to finish, without a doubt. Even the villain, Norman Osborn, who uses himself as a lab rat for dangerous performance-enhancing drugs (why do they always use themselves?) and consequently breeds his evil alter ego, is somewhat cartoonish in all the best ways. Frankly, I’ll never get tired of seeing a shiny green man surf by on his fancy little hoverboard, cackling into the night. Even if he does hold a bunch of children hostage at one point, you’ve got to love him.
It’s fitting if nothing else. Green Goblin was always meant to be a starter bad guy, for a fresh-out-of-his-webbing Spiderman. Making Willem Dafoe’s portrayal, which is just this side of goofy, work for the overall journey of our hero.
That being said, we should address the spider in the room. Tobey’s version of Peter Parker, and Spiderman, was not the first to be on the big screen and definitely not the last but his portrayal has certainly gone down in the history books. You can’t mention the web-slinger without having an opinion of who did it best.
This film perfectly demonstrates why I don’t consider Tobey to be the best Spiderman. Hear me out. This film has some real gems of whimsical humour in it, but for the most part, it’s flat. There are contradicting moods throughout. That nutty childlike energy I so love about Maguire’s portrayal of Parker, the one that reminds me Peter is in fact just a kid finding his path, completely disappears the second the spidey suit comes out. Even in the early stages – he tries his hand at wrestling, a sequence no doubt intended to be rather humorous for what it is, but it lands wrong-footed for me. It feels awkward if a little clunky.
I could go on forever about Uncle Ben, too. A tragic staple in Peter’s backstory that motivates him to fight crime, and yet the fact that the character we have been shown up to now (good-hearted, meek, lovesick) follows his uncle’s assailant and literally causes him to die because of his actions… it just doesn’t sit right with me. Not when you sort of expect him to go down the route of using his web like silly string to tie people up and dump them on a police station’s doorstep. It’s certainly a testament to how hard the creators are trying to give Spiderman that depth that all characters need. Flaws as well as perfections. But for me, they try a little too hard.
Trying to cram it all into a two hour experience didn’t work in their favour. Between the spider bite, Uncle Ben’s death, Mary-Jane’s love plot and the festering relationship with Harry Osborn – it’s all covered before we’re even halfway through. And of course, in among all of that, there’s the typical montage of finding out about the superpowers, testing the superpowers, mastering the superpowers. Oh and let’s not forget Peter taking his own photos and selling them to a newspaper so the editor of said paper can drum up a witch hunt. And they expect me to pay attention to all of that when there’s an upside-down kiss in the rain smack bang in the middle of all this plot? I don’t think so.
Really, what ruins Spider-Man for me is that in comparison to the following two movies in this series, which are ridiculously goofy and proud of it, this film takes itself too seriously. Will I still consider it a decent movie though? Yeah, I will. But if I’m going to watch Tobey Maguire as Spiderman, this is not the film I’d pick.
Hot take time. Superhero movies don’t really do anything for me. I could wax philosophical about how big budget superhero movies are politically a bit toothless despite their love of aggressive patriotism and billionaires in robo-suits looking very cool while saving people from burning buildings.
Having said all that, as a kid I loved Spider-Man and after not watching it for over a decade I was surprised at how many lines I could quote per scene. I often accept that any media I enjoyed from my childhood has probably not aged very well. Spider-Man, on the other hand, still holds up as an exciting, tongue-in-cheek comic book movie from a less postmodern era of blockbuster cinema.
The performances really give the film its personality and there’s no better example than the iconic mirror scene. Willem Dafoe plays a mentally disturbed Norman Osborn, succumbing to the Green Goblin’s control, which manifests as Norman’s reflection. There’s a single take of Dafoe performing both versions of himself to the mirror as the camera slowly tracks behind him. He masks the transition between characters in the same shot by making use of his physical performance. The rest of the scene uses editing tricks to make the conversation seem natural but Dafoe’s dedicated energy keeps the scene propulsive.
One of things that really surprised me (don’t laugh) was how much I enjoyed the film as a character drama. Despite the film containing a man in Spandex swinging through the concrete vistas of New York City, most of the runtime is made up of character dialogue scenes. Some of the best moments in the film are from Peter’s rivalry with Harry or his unrequited love for Mary-Jane. Considering how much of an action focus the new Marvel movies have, the 2002 film really knows its limitations with CGI and budget, and instead opts for more of a performance focus.
I could heap praise on the film for hours; that being said, it’s not without its flaws. For one, despite the great cast, Tobey Maguire’s performance isn’t amazing. I think on the surface, Maguire is perfect for the role. His baby face, harmless voice and awkwardness suits Peter well. But compared to the other performances, the range and nuance just isn’t there.
The lack of a big fight scene is also a shame I think. As much as I like the focus on performance, I do like a well choreographed fight. The final fight in the ruins with Spiderman and the Green Goblin is good but the fighting is mostly dictated by the editing. It would have been nice to see a more planned fight between the main two in less takes – as it stands the fights feel a bit stilted.
Some people have an issue with the Green Goblin mask, including Willem Dafoe himself. It does look like a novelty bike helmet and begs the question: where did Norman get it from and why? From an acting standpoint it also does annoyingly conceal Willem Dafoe’s facial performance. Not a second goes by where I don’t want to see Willem Dafoe’s face.
I am in no way a fanboy nor a ‘Spider-Stan’ but I do think the Raimi Spider-Man films are genuinely great cinema. If something like Spider-Man has resonated with people for 20 years and spanned multiple movies, then it’s only fair that this film is met with some cultural regard. We’ll have to wait and see in another 20 years if the recent Marvel Spider-Man movies are remembered as fondly. I will probably use it as an excuse to rewatch this one again.
(Review contains spoilers for both Spider-Man and Spiderman: No Way Home.)
I think we can all agree that Spiderman: No Way Home was a masterpiece and will be a staple of 2020s media. It was an all-rounder: tongue in-cheek, hilarious yet heartfelt. Most viewers were guessing both Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire would make appearances (due to a spoiler I saw, I thought it was only going to be Andrew) and the meme of the three Spidermen pointing at each other was fully exploited. I have only recently properly stuck my teeth in the MCU due to Wandavision, but I thought it would be good to start from the beginning with this 2002 adaptation. This was a thoroughly enjoyable film, yet unfortunately it does seem rather aged and demonstrates how far Marvel films have come – this was a long time ago and is a product of its time.
I like ending things on a positive note, so I’ll go through the film’s pitfalls first. Tobey Maguire is a far as I’ve seen a decent enough actor, but it is very unfortunate that his facial expressions in emotionally heavy scenes were opportunities for memes. There is this camp cheesiness running throughout the film which delves into narm territory. Perhaps some viewers will find this charming; evoking nostalgia of less pretentious and try-hard media. I understand that Spider-Man is not a franchise which needs or even suits a grittier tone, but I felt that the film lacked depth which later MCU films have managed to achieve. I’ve noticed this past year that grief is an overarching theme in the recent MCU projects (done wonderfully in Wandavision) and I didn’t feel the gravitas of Uncle Ben’s passing.
I think there are definitely problematic elements in this film’s depiction of Mary Jane. To this day, Kristen Dunst is an overlooked and talented actress, who portrays MJ charmingly. But the character herself demonstrates how the film has aged badly. Whilst Peter never is entitled towards MJ (which is nothing to applaud him for) the film sets up MJ as a prize for Peter to win. She has little-to-no depth aside from her aspirations to make it as an actress and having a dysfunctional family.
I’ve only seen the first Amazing Spider Man, but in that Gwen Stacey feels more fleshed out in comparison – she feels more like her own person instead of an accessory to Peter. I found the scene were MJ is ambushed by the creeps in the rain very disturbing and unnecessary. It never got explicit but the implications were unsettling and the male gaze of MJ being drenched in rainwater doesn’t help either. Whilst the upside down kiss is an iconic cinematic moment, it is actually deeply uncomfortable. It feels as if Peter is being rewarded for not being a predator. Again, it shows that the film is a product of its time.
However, despite the problematic elements and cringe, it still was an enjoyable film. I am now warier of storylines of nerds becoming powerful as it can inspire unsettling power fantasies, but this was a story where I really did root for Peter when he was beating up the bully and getting more confident. I cheered him on during the wrestling match, too. Whilst the film is rather silly like I mentioned, it is part of the overall charm.
The Green Goblin is a villain who is played deliciously by William Dafoe. I see parallels with the recent Moon Knight series with the doppelgangers having exchanges in mirrors. The Green Goblin is much more terrifying and unhinged in his human form. Whilst he is a relatively silly and hammy villain, I think there was some surprising depth to him. Many villains have more sympathetic motives but I did feel sorry for Norman at times and I think that was due to Dafoe’s brilliant performance. It’s sad to see Norman getting worn down by the Green Goblin’s influence. I think it was very telling his last words were not to tell Harry about his alter-ego. Did it come out of guilt, a fatherly instinct wanting to protect his son or to cover his tracks? Perhaps a combo of all three.
There was also a strange juxtaposition tonally in the film with the cheesiness and the horror that Sam Raimi is known for. Whilst it was clashing, it was cool to see moments where I would feel disturbed or perhaps even get a slight jump scare. I am excited to see a more sophisticated and eerie display of the horror genre in the upcoming Multiverse of Madness.
I understand this film was revolutionary and got positive acclaim at the time. It was an enjoyable way to pass an afternoon, but unfortunately for me it does feel both cringey and antiquated. In my book it feels like something that can be left behind.