How Sony’s Spider-Man (2002) Saved Comic Books Films

How an origin film by the director of the Evil Dead series paved the way for the highest grossing film collective of all time.

In the height of the comic book film craze, I think it’s important to recognise what helped Hollywood to get to this stage. I am, of course, talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU), a film collective of 20 films and counting. The MCU has put comic book films into the limelight, and so far it seems there are no breaks on the hype train. The ending to the recent instalment of the Avengers has left millions of fans eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next film.

Looking at the list of early Marvel films, there are 2 that initially stand out. X-Men in 2000, and Spider-Man in 2002. Whilst X-Men was successful, don’t get me wrong, it didn’t have the cultural or financial impact that Spider-Man would have just 2 years later; X-men grossed $296.3 million, against Spider-Man’s $821.7 million. 

An Unlikely Director

In January 2000, Sam Raimi was attached as the director of Sony’s new project, Spider-Man. It was said that he beat the other candidates due to his “passion for Spider-Man” and comic books since he was a child. Previously known for his work on the Evil Dead trilogy, some thought he wasn’t the best choice, but he turned out to be perfect.

Raimi’s Spider-Man was the perfect blend between campy, fun and smart. Not only did he provide a light-hearted film which catered to both children and adults, but he also left deeper elements for fans of the comic book (more on that, later).

Raimi also left his distinctive style on the film, which can be seen in ways such as Bruce Campbell’s cameo (as the wrestling announcer), or his childhood family car which makes an appearance in all of his films (a 1973 Oldsmobile Delta Royale referred to as “the classic”).

A Match Made in Heaven

In Spider-Man, Sam Raimi combined a variety of elements, and with the help of a little luck, the quintessential comic book blockbuster.  Heres a few of the things that Raimi managed to do:

Accessible and Family Friendly:

Spider-Man was very accessible. Due to its plot as an origin story, no prior knowledge from either the comic books or previous films/cartoons was required. The audience is introduced to a character that isn’t strong, or heroic or “cool” like Superman or Batman. Peter Parker is supposed to be the nerdy teenage boy, a demographic known for buying and reading comic books. This makes the character easy to relate to, and it adds a more human touch to him; It also allows the average audience member to put themselves in his shoes, dreaming of a life like Spider-Man. Furthermore, the film itself is incredibly family friendly. Not only is there relatively no swear words or heavy-handed imagery, the lack of gore or out explicitness makes it so parents are willing to take their children to see it.

The importance on being family friendly can be seen with the age rating debacle that occurred in Britain. With the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) giving the film a 12 age rating, it stopped parents bringing their children. This created a lot of backlash, and after a lot of back and forth the film was re-released as a 12A, leaving the decision up to the parents.

Implicit Adult Themes

Another key element of the film is its use of underhanded adult themes. The relationship between Harry and Norman Osborne (a Father/Son relationship) is explored throughout the film, adding depth to the character and fleshing out the film with an interesting sub plot. This was incredibly well done, as it sets up the payoff for Harry’s hatred of Spider-Man by the end of the film, allowing the animosity between Harry and Spider-Man/Peter Parker to feel organic and grown, rather than created for dramatic effect.

“With great power comes great responsibility..”

Uncle Ben to Peter, early in the film.

An additional theme found within the film is the growth of Peter Parker. Starting off as a quiet, awkward teenager, he grows in a confident and mature adult by the end. Whilst it may be easy to assume that the powers are what cause this development, its also the death of his closest family member, Uncle Ben. Ben is clearly of great importance to Peter, and their friendship is seen early on, with the banter between them and the clear joy Peter expresses when asked to paint the kitchen with Ben. After his death, Peter is forced to grow up for his aunt and himself, although his struggle between managing Peter’s life and managing Spider-Man’s heroics is seen later (during the exchange between Peter and Harry about his firing). At Norman’s funeral, we can see Peter realises what he has to do in order to keep his loved ones safe.

“No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try… the ones I love will always be the ones who pay.”

Peter at the end of the film.
The Breadcrumbs for the Fans

Now, here is my favourite thing about Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The foreshadowing, the hints, the clues. Raimi littered this film with references to other characters or villains in the Spider-Man universe, such as Doctor Connors (The Lizard), Mendel Stromm (The colleague of Norman Osborne killed in the science lab), Eddie Brock (Venom in Spider-Man 3) and more. These references are all over the place, and this shows the level of passion and care Raimi put into the project. It wasn’t just a cash grab, or an attempt to sell Spider-Man to the largest audience possible, but also to create a genuine piece of cinema that would be loved by the fans. See below for a 10-minute video highlighting most of the easter eggs.

Cultural Impact Today

16 years on, has Spider-Man left an impact on society and film? Yes. Undeniably. The wild success of the Spider-Man trilogy and some of the failures that followed it showed the ingredients necessary to appeal to a wider market. It could be said that Spider-Man is almost directly responsible, in some ways, for the MCU, as without Spider-Man the seeds of fun and interesting comic book films would not have been sown in the minds of the general public. Furthermore, the massive financial success of the trilogy, over $2.4 billion, definitely gave Marvel the support to create such an ambitious and expensive film collective like the MCU. Without Spider-Man, studios likely would have been unwilling to take such risks.

Furthermore, there is a small community dedicated to the “memes” of the films, which show its cult popularity with the youth of today. You can check them out here: The Raimi Memes Subreddit 

Thank you for reading my article. I hope you enjoyed it and learnt to appreciate a film that most of you have probably given little thought to.