Lessons for 2017 Superhero Films: Spider-Man (2002)

spider-man-stills-006.jpgReleased in 2002, the original Spider-Man is what arguably kicked off the superhero movie craze*. As we enter what might be the peak saturation point for the genre, re-watching the spidey film for perspective reveals less how far the genre has come, and actually highlights where it has faltered. 

Sure, as one would expect some of the CGI is cartoonishly bad compared to 2017 standards, but what stands out is how often the film uses good old-fashioned practical effects and elaborate sets. When Spider-Man gets into a fist fight with the Green Goblin in an apartment infested with fire, or Mary Jane is about to fall off a crumbling balcony, a lot of what we see is practical with only touches of CGI. It points to a time before every producer looked at any production hurdle and said, “Green screen it!” which gives the film more grounding and weight than you’d expect.


It’s also remarkable, for a genre chock full of generic villains out to destroy the world, that the Green Goblin’s scheme bears a striking resemblance to that of the  infamous Joker in the yet-to-come The Dark Knight (2007). He monologues that Spider-Man could just join him instead of fighting over and over again until eventually killing each other. And the final showdown isn’t about a death ray that’s going to destroy NY, but who Peter will save: Mary Jane or a gondola lift full of tourists–another similarity to Joker’s gambit. It feels appropriately motivated by what we know of the Goblin, and the simplicity is refreshing compared to baddies yearning to destroy the world with a sky beam.
It’s in this simplicity that the film’s almost Aristotelian dedication to dramatic story structure contrasts with the films we’re seeing in 2017. In Poetics Aristotle argued that keeping the betrayals and tragedies within the family and between friends will make good drama. Spider-Man is packed with this strategy: Peter Parker is friends with Harry Osbourne, which adds tension when Harry’s dad becomes the Green Goblin and discovers Parker’s identity. Goblin goes after Parker’s loved ones, Aunt May and Mary Jane, only to die on his own glider – and with his dying breath asks Parker not to tell Harry of the senior Osborne’s evil deeds. This idea of keeping all conflict within the family could be soap-opera-awful in lesser hands, but works well for a hero who’s trying to figure out how to balance his identity as Parker and the famous wall crawler.

The whole film is a neatly packaged story about friendship, family, secrets and heroics that could have been hokey. But director Sam Raimi’s previous work with special effects horror films with a smirking wit (Evil Dead) left him well equipped to tackle this film successfully before there ever was a Cinematic Universe playbook to go by. The film’s successes narratively and at the box office ($1.1 billion when adjusted for inflation, without 3D and only 3,600 screens; compared to Guardians of the Galaxy‘s $773 million with 3D ticket sales and over 4,000 screens) illustrate the importance of making a good standalone film that isn’t blinded by a drive to set up the sequel or whole other universes as we’ve seen with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or Avengers II.

Spider-Man kept it simple and personal, and recent superhero standouts like Logan and Deadpool could represent this shift back to basics. Yet, with Marvel’s lineup extending out to eternity, and auteur directors quitting projects amid creative differences with controlling producers, a dramatic shift in how these films are made doesn’t seem to be close at hand.

We’ve been eating up superhero films for fifteen years and a look back to Spider-Man could help studios make better movies. I think we’re all ready for that – not just Bonesaw.

 *X-Men and Blade aside, as they didn’t perform so well that they immediately launched studios into superhero mania like Spider-Man‘s performance.

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