With Age Of Heroes, Tom Breihan picks the most important superhero movie of every year, starting with the genre’s early big-budget moments and moving onto the multiplex-crushing monsters of today.
Sony Pictures could’ve owned the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it could’ve owned it for cheap. The rights to the Spider-Man character had been bouncing around Hollywood for more than a decade before Sony finally got ahold of them in 1998. (The studio had to trade away to MGM its rights to make an alternate James Bond series to get them.) And when Sony got those rights, Marvel made them an offer. The comic book giant was ailing and near bankruptcy, and so it offered the rights to all of its remaining characters to Sony for $25 million. But the heads of the studio thought that nobody would ever give a shit about the non-Spider-Man characters, and they passed.
Sony’s decision turned out to be pretty wrongheaded. In the past decade, Marvel has become the most lucrative property in all of moviedom. The studio regularly cranks out three movies a year now, and every one of those movies is a blockbuster event, even if its characters were previously completely unknown outside of comic-dork circles. But what’s so striking about that decision is that Sony did everything else right with Spider-Man.
Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man is one of those movies that completely understands what its audience wants. It’s got a bright, fun hero, and it puts him into bright, fun circumstances. It allows him to have depth. He is, after all, a reluctant teenage superhero who mostly puts his life on the line out of lingering guilt. But he’s also something other than a brooding vigilante. The movie takes place mostly during the day, in a version of New York City full of outsized, cartoonish characters. It keeps his silly, iconic costume intact and pits him against a villain who’s nearly as silly and iconic. The movie calls back to comic book history without being completely beholden to it. And thanks to the CGI developments of its era, it has grand, swooping action scenes that don’t look completely absurd.
The studio made smart choices in putting the movie together, and its smartest choice was probably in hiring Sam Raimi as director. A onetime gonzo indie-film hero, Raimi had exactly the sort of giddy, joyous sensibility that the movie demanded. He had already made a superhero movie with 1990’s gloriously ridiculous Darkman, and he clearly loved superhero iconography. But the tone he brought to Spider-Man is closer to what he struck with Evil Dead 2 and Army Of Darkness, two low-budget horror classics that are basically secretly slapstick comedies. And Raimi probably came closest to Spider-Man’s antic sense of adventure with Hercules: The Legend Continues and Xena: Warrior Princess, the cheap, silly, deeply watchable syndicated TV shows that he produced during the ’90s.
Raimi knew that he wanted Spider-Man to be a coming-of-age story. And so he made things good and obvious when he showed a young Peter Parker confused and elated about the new things that his body could do. He might’ve laid on the puberty metaphors a little thick. The sticky webs, after all, suddenly and mysteriously shoot out of Parker’s body.
Raimi turns it into a kids’ wish-fulfillment story—something that, for instance, all the ’90s Batman movies had never thought to do. And he was smart enough to structure the movie as a love story. In most previous superhero movies, the romantic subplots felt obligatory and tacked-on. In Spider-Man, the romantic plot is the entire point. The movie’s real climax, its most iconic moment, isn’t the final battle with the Green Goblin. It’s the upside-down kiss between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. With that one scene, Raimi moved the superhero movie further out of nerdery than it had been since Tim Burton’s first Batman.
Sony, to its credit, didn’t try to fight Raimi on the budget. This was the first major superhero movie after X-Men proved that the genre was, once again, viable. And as with the original Superman and Batman movies, Spider-Man treats its hero as an American icon, a figure of implicit appeal. But despite the budget and the promotional muscle put into it, Raimi resisted the temptation to fill the movie with big stars. Instead, he put together a cast much more interesting than what conventional logic might’ve dictated.
Before playing Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire was mostly a gifted young indie actor. He’d played passionate but confused young men in prestige middlebrow fare like Pleasantville, Wonder Boys, and The Cider House Rules. He wasn’t an action hero. And while Maguire clearly acts in the role, I’ve always thought he wasn’t that great of a choice for the character. As I was growing up, Spider-Man was my favorite superhero, and what I liked about him was his restless energy. He constantly cracked one-liners when fighting, masking his own insecurities by clowning whatever outsized supervillain he was up against that week. He had charisma. Maguire, on the other hand, was a cold fish. In bringing out all of the clammy angst at Peter Parker’s nerdy-outsider center, he only caught brief flashes of the character’s joy, and almost none of his hyperactivity. Peter Parker, I thought, should be a classic New York chatterbox, not this sweaty and silent kid. (I thought Tom Holland, in last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, pretty much nailed my idea of the character.) But whatever I thought of Maguire, his tentative, sensitive read on the character clearly resonated with a whole lot of people.
I don’t feel as ambivalent about the rest of the cast; it’s just a pretty amazing collection of talent. As Mary Jane Watson, the young Kirsten Dunst is so absurdly bright and charming that Parker’s deathless fixation on her makes sense. Willem Dafoe, an actor whose very bone structure screams villainy, goes into pantomime overdrive as the Green Goblin—even wearing the Goblin costume during the action scenes, since he didn’t think a stuntman could do the over-the-top body language quite right—and he has a total blast. Contorting both his face and his body, he’s a human special effect. James Franco hadn’t quite come into his own as an actor yet, but he at least looks like Dafoe, so they make a plausible father-and-son combo. (They even have the same hair, just like the two Osborns do in the comics, which is a nice touch.)
Future Oscar winner J.K. Simmons’ version of J. Jonah Jameson is exactly faithful to the comic book character, right down to the flattop. The late Macho Man Randy Savage gets to deliver bug-eyed promos and drop flying elbows in an international blockbuster—a crossover feat his old rival Hulk Hogan never equaled. And the cast is full of faces who would become famous later, like Octavia Spencer and Elizabeth Banks. Even the hulking young Joe Manganiello makes an impression as the teenage Flash Thompson, his great bully-gets-bullied scene made even better because of the era-appropriate spiky hair and chain wallet he was rocking.
Watching Spider-Man today, it’s strikingly primitive in a lot of ways. It’s full of movie bullshit. All of the high school students look at least 25. We have to accept that Peter Parker can be universally loathed in his high school but can also be best friends with the school’s richest, most handsome student. We have to accept that Norman Osborn happens to get superpowers at the exact same time as the young kid he just met. We’re not supposed to question the logic of a military contractor sponsoring a free Macy Gray show, with inexplicable Thanksgiving balloons, in the middle of the day, in midtown Manhattan. And I guess we’re not supposed to notice that the CGI effect where people suddenly turn to skeletons is a whole lot shittier than the similar shots in Blade four years earlier. It’s a broad, stagey movie, clearly being made by a studio that doesn’t quite trust its audience to buy into this superhero stuff.
Still, despite some understandable clunkiness, Spider-Man is full of moments that stick with you. It’s the movie where Peter Parker teeters on the edge of a building for a few perilous seconds, steeling himself before his first big web-swing. It’s the movie where the people of New York get behind Spider-Man in the course of one goofily fun Ghostbusters-style montage. It’s the movie where Osborn attempts to recruit Spider-Man to his cause, using the solid rich-guy logic that the people of New York “exist for the sole purpose of lifting the few exceptional people on their shoulders.” And it’s the movie where Mary Jane, really seeing Peter for the first time, simply tells him, “You’re taller than you look.” Those are the moments where, for all its flaws, the movie sings.
It also sings whenever Spider-Man swings through the city. In his half-negative review of the movie, Roger Ebert wrote that the climactic scene at the Roosevelt Island tram felt like “a bloodless storyboard” thanks to the way its CGI-cartoon figures lacked weight and definition. He was right, and that same issue persists in superhero movies today. (No matter how great the Marvel movie, you can be assured that it’ll end with pixelated figures punching each other.) But the sheer ecstatic joy of motion—of seeing these comic book scenes I’d played out in my head so many times rendered in cinematic life—blew past whatever qualms I might’ve had. Those action scenes might be dated now, but they’re still a total joy.
Spider-Man also had the weird “luck” of being a major New York movie that came out shortly after 9/11. It was in production during the summer of 2001, so the movie had to be reshot and digitally edited to remove all traces of the World Trade Center. It’s probably not a coincidence that we can see an American flag billowing behind Spider-Man in the movie’s final shot. Especially in the scene of regular New Yorkers coming to Spider-Man’s aid, the movie plugged right into the warm feelings that the rest of the country was having toward the city in that moment. It was a New York movie made for the rest of the world, and that’s one of the reasons it struck a chord.
And it did strike a chord. Spider-Man ended up as the first movie to gross more than $100 million in its opening weekend, and it ended up as the year’s biggest moneymaker. It launched a franchise that made a ton of money, one that’s already been rebooted twice. (It also led to some truly great movies. Both 2004’s Spider-Man 2 and last year’s Homecoming belong on any list of the best superhero movies ever.) And it opened the floodgates, leading to a deluge of bright, zippy, friendly summer blockbusters, including a whole ton of superhero movies.
The people at Sony might’ve whiffed spectacularly on the viability of a Marvel Cinematic Universe. But they did understand what movies would become. This century, the movies that have dominated pop culture—both superhero and not—are grand, brisk special-effects spectaculars based on familiar characters. They’re stories that already feel like franchises when they’re in their first installments. They’re movies like Spider-Man. Not everything about it has aged well. But rewatching it today, Spider-Man is a vision of what’s to come.
Other notable 2002 superhero movies: Future Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro’s rich, beguiling, visually sweeping Blade II remains one of the all-time great movies in its genre, one of the few that can rival the original Blade. The director found ways to indulge his freaky monster-movie imagination, stage impressive fight sequences, and channel some genuine emotion, all without compromising the monumental badassery of his main character. The shit where Wesley Snipes suplexes a guy through glass and then pops up in Ron Perlman’s face may or may not have caused me to jump up out of my seat in the movie theater.
Tsui Hark’s Black Mask 2: City Of Masks stands as a cheaper, more ridiculous sequel to the cheap, ridiculous original Black Mask. The Hong Kong action flick loses Jet Li as its hero, subbing in the relative unknown Andy On, which is not an improvement. It is, however, the only superhero movie that features the forever-endearing ECW wrestler Rob Van Dam, so it gets some credit for that.
That same year, the Cartoon Network made a theatrical movie out of its cult-favorite series Powerpuff Girls. The Powerpuff Girls Movie is barely more than an hour, and thus only sort of a movie. And it retells the same origin story that the TV series told in its seconds-long opening. But it still maintains the daffy, colorful tone of the show, and there are worse ways to kill part of an afternoon, especially if you have kids. The ending, with its series of competing evil superpowered apes, is especially inspired.
2002 also saw the made-for-TV Roger Corman cheapie Sting Of The Black Scorpion. There was Men In Black II, which may or may not count as a superhero movie. There were the non-superhero comic book adaptations Road To Perdition and Tales From The Crypt: Ritual. And then there was the indie comedy Comic Book Villains, about competing small-town comic book stores.
Next time: Ang Lee attempts to use a big-budget superhero adaptation to take on grand, poetic themes with Hulk. In most respects, he fails. But his failure remains fascinating.