The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
The bus is a carnival of humiliation. The driver won’t stop, so Peter Parker has to run alongside, banging on the window, begging to be let in. When he boards, the other kids laugh and jeer and snarl. Nobody ignores Peter Parker. Only one person on the bus, future love interest Mary Jane Watson, looks at him with anything resembling humanity. Everyone else is a baying ghoul, a slavering hyena. Other than Mary Jane, everyone on that bus, the driver included, sees Peter Parker as prey.
In real life, a school bus is not exactly a fun place to be. But I’ve never seen a kid have a bus ride as bad as the one that Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker has in the opening scene of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, the biggest box office hit of 2002. In real life, if memory serves, high school nerds are ignored at worst, pitied at best. They find their own little packs of peers with their own social politics. Real high school nerdery looks a whole lot more like Tom Holland and Jacob Batalon, in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, discussing plans to put together a Lego Death Star after school. But Raimi’s film isn’t interested in realism. It’s interested in something else.
In that opening scene, Raimi’s Spider-Man tips its hand. In every version of the Spider-Man story, Peter Parker is an outsider, an awkward and sheepish kid who doesn’t come into his own until he begins to deal with great power and great responsibility. In his version of that story, Raimi is more interested in depicting how outsiderdom feels than how an observer might see it. Raimi’s Spider-Man tells Peter Parker’s version of the Peter Parker story. When we watch Raimi’s movie, we see Parker through his own eyes.
By 2002, the Spider-Man property had been bouncing around among studios and screenwriters for more than a decade. James Cameron had come close to making the Spider-Man movie. Tobe Hooper had been attached to an absurd horror version of it. David Fincher had pitched an adaptation of the story of Gwen Stacy’s death. But Sam Raimi, a comic book fan who was also an energetic, inventive, low-budget visionary, got the job. I would dearly love to see the Cameron or Fincher versions, but Raimi was the best choice for all involved.
Raimi understood fundamental things about the Spider-Man character. He understood the sense of motion so important to the comics—the sheer thrill of bodies whipping through the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan. He got that Parker had to be a clueless kid, a smart but socially incapable chump. And he grasped the great thing about the Spider-Man costume. Spider-Man’s outfit covers him head-to-toe, presenting a challenge for any actor to convey emotion without the aid of facial expressions. But because of that blankness, it becomes a whole lot easier for people in the audience to project themselves onto Spider-Man, to see themselves in this kid. Raimi figured that out, and he abetted the process. He made Spider-Man an empty canvas.
Raimi had already made a superhero movie before Spider-Man: Darkman, the extremely fun 1990 romp that starred future Batman Begins villain Liam Neeson as a face-melting circus-freak vigilante. Raimi had also brought that same sense of vivid, operatic comic book silliness to just about everything he’d made: The slapstick gore of Evil Dead II, the swashbuckling Old West gunfights of The Quick And The Dead, the twisty thriller machinations of A Simple Plan. Raimi had never made a real blockbuster before Spider-Man, and his most obvious attempt to go mainstream, the 1999 Kevin Costner baseball romance For The Love Of The Game, had been a miserable failure. But Raimi knew the version of Spider-Man that audiences in 2002 wanted to see.
Raimi’s Spider-Man fit the zeitgeist of its moment. The last time I wrote about Spider-Man, considering the movie in the grand lineage of superhero cinema, I talked about how Rami’s film happened to click with audiences, in America and around the world, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Raimi had played up the New York setting of Spider-Man, and he’d added in fluttering flags and courageous mobs of New Yorkers rushing to protect their own. Nobody could plan that kind of resonance, and it definitely helped Spider-Man feel like something other than a silly kids’ movie on the level of the Joel Schumacher Batman sequels that had scared executives away from the superhero genre in the years before Spider-Man. But outside of the way Raimi’s picture surfed on post-9/11 sentiment, it fit nicely with the kind of story that was filling theaters.
As it happens, the four biggest movies of 2002 are all about nervous, vulnerable young men who discover hidden powers that set them apart and who then wrestle with the weight of those powers. (The year’s fifth-biggest hit, on the other hand, isn’t about any of those things. Instead, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is about a lady having a big, fat Greek wedding.) There was nothing new about the hero’s journey archetype; it’s one of the oldest structures in all of storytelling. It’s the story of Rocky, of Star Wars, of The Matrix. Still, it’s striking to look back at the box-office successes of 2002 and to realize just how much they have in common with each other.
Those four highest-grossing films are all parts of franchises, and they all show their tremulous young heroes at different stages of their development. Of the four, Peter Parker is the only one who’s finding out about his powers for the first time. In Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, the No. 4 movie that year, Harry Potter isn’t much further along. He’s still learning things about his mysterious family legacy and his own abilities, and he’s using those abilities to solve a mystery about a giant snake monster. In Star Wars: Episode II—Attack Of The Clones, Anakin Skywalker has lost all sense of wonder, and he’s in the midst of a turn toward arrogance and darkness. In The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, Frodo Baggins is dangerously close to becoming a bystander in his own story, a pawn of forces beyond his control.
And yet these four young men travel similar trajectories toward realizing their own importance in their respective worlds. They all face enemies stronger and older than them, and they all emerge victorious. Sometimes, the overlaps are downright eerie. Both Spider-Man and The Two Towers, for instance, have monstrous characters who spend entire scenes arguing with themselves, externalizing their inner dialogs. These grotesque, self-torturing souls have inner voices that hiss and seduce, pushing them toward murder for the sake of power.
A lot goes into those similarities. There’s Hollywood’s slow, grinding turn towards fantastical franchise flicks. There’s the widespread demand for escapist entertainment—something that existed before 9/11 but that sure as hell didn’t dry up afterwards. And then there’s the advance of special-effects technology. With computer imagery developing more each year, directors didn’t have to worry about what could and couldn’t be made to appear onscreen. They had no limitations. If the movie had a high enough budget, anything they could imagine was fair game.
Of course, many of those effects look like absolute pigshit now. More than anyone else in history, George Lucas can claim that he invented the special-effects blockbuster. But Lucas was clearly drunk on the possibilities, and the eye-scraping visual havoc of Attack Of The Clones is somehow even worse than the busy digital noise of Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace. Chris Columbus was a whole mini-generation behind Lucas, and The Chamber Of Secrets isn’t as searingly ugly. But the Harry Potter sequel’s snake monster appeared generic in 2002, and it feels even more pedestrian now.
Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson both came from the world of low-budget horror, so it makes sense that they managed more convincing illusions with these new computer tools, while veteran blockbuster hands like Lucas and Columbus stumbled. In his Lord Of The Rings movies, Jackson showed a command of spectacle that went far beyond that of any of his peers. Those movies still look great today, and it’s not really fair to put them up against an embryonic modern superhero film like Spider-Man. Raimi didn’t have the same passion or resources as Jackson, but when you compare the visuals of Spider-Man to Attack Of The Clones or The Chamber Of Secrets, it’s pretty clear that Raimi at least knew what to do with his effects.
The CGI action in Spider-Man feels shimmery and insubstantial—a problem that’s continued to plague superhero movies. When Spider-Man and the Green Goblin zip through the New York skyline, you can sense that you’re watching pixels, not human beings. Still, there was an electric charge in just seeing that happen on a movie screen in 2002, and Raimi knew how to frame and animate that comic book imagery. The simplicity of both the story and the tone is what’s kept Spider-Man in the rewatchable category.
Compared to the films that succeeded it, Raimi’s Spider-Man feels hokey and old-fashioned now. Tonally, it’s closer to the Richard Donner Superman movies than to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which started taking shape just six years later. Raimi clearly knew he was making a comic book movie, and there are referential jokes sprinkled throughout Spider-Man. Characters like Eddie Brock and Dr. Curt Connors, who would become actual movie characters in the years ahead, get passing mentions—pure red meat for comics fans. (Hugh Jackman actually showed up on set to film a cameo as Wolverine, but nobody could find his X-Men costume. Spider-Man could’ve invented the Marvel Cinematic Universe six years early.) But Spider-Man is more about romance and discovery than connecting the dots of fandom. The Spider-Man character was a cultural touchstone long before 2002, but someone could’ve potentially walked into Raimi’s movie without any real knowledge of the Spider-Man mythos and still had a good time. Raimi had to cater to audiences like that. The makers of today’s superhero sagas don’t have that problem.
Raimi’s Spider-Man remains the ur-text. If you’re going to jam a movie full of referential jokes, the way superhero auteurs generally do these days, then you need a thing you can refer to. Spider-Man is that thing. Everyone knows Raimi’s Spider-Man, and all the later filmic retellings of the story have built on his version. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, from 2012, drew groans because it insisted on retelling the character’s origin story, not doing it anywhere near as well as Raimi had done just a decade earlier. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spidey is a given. We learn of his existence in a quick and bantery scene with Tony Stark, and he explains his genesis by saying, “Whatever happened happened.” In Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, the origin story is a running joke, told a few times in montage form. None of that could happen without the 2002 Spider-Man.
The world isn’t done with Raimi’s Spider-Man. As I write this, the last thing that anyone saw in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was J.K. Simmons—an actor who was so good as cigar-chomping, bellicose newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson that it’s now impossible to imagine anyone else in that role—reappearing in the post-credits scene of Spider-Man: Far From Home. Simmons’ new take on the James character is an ersatz Alex Jones, but it’s absolutely the same guy as the one Simmons played in 2002. In the theater, the reaction to Simmons’ appearance in Far From Home was sheer, overwhelming delight.
Last month brought the news that a bunch of past Raimi and Webb Spider-Man characters will return for the MCU’s next sequel, due for release later this year. Tobey Maguire, who hasn’t appeared in a live-action film in seven years and who seems much more concerned with terrorizing Hollywood’s poker tables these days, is reportedly in talks to return. Raimi himself has gone the better part of a decade since his last directorial effort, the misbegotten blockbuster attempt Oz The Great And Powerful, but he’s set to return to comic book cinema with the next Doctor Strange film in 2022. Raimi’s Spider-Man may now seem like a relic of a distant past, but it still hasn’t lost its grip on people’s imagination.
The contender: The hits of 2002 are, by and large, an uninspiring bunch: Austin Powers In Goldmember, Men In Black 2, Ice Age, Chicago. 2002 had great movies that did business: The Ring, The Bourne Identity, 8 Mile, the Steven Spielberg movie-star double-shot of Catch Me If You Can and Minority Report, the extremely fun Vin Diesel vehicle xXx. But that top 10 is bleak.
Amidst its competition, the aforementioned The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers starts to look like a straight-up masterpiece, a cornerstone in film history. Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth middle chapter isn’t that, but it does absolutely whomp ass. The lumbering tree warriors? The stentorian speeches? Orlando Bloom riding a shield like a skateboard while shooting orcs full of arrows? That shit slaps.
Next time: Jackson finishes up his grand Tolkien saga—or his first grand Tolkien saga, anyway—and walks away with a whole lot of money and an armful of Oscars.