I’m not even going to pretend I’m the kid in the picture.
When Spider-Man came out 20 years ago in 2002, I was already a grown nerd. And the movie just disappointed me.
It felt so exciting to watch Tobey Maguire (or probably his stunt double) swing through New York City. This wasn’t like Superman flying gracefully above the clouds or Batman sliding in and out of the shadows in Gotham. It was broad daylight, arms and legs swinging, weaving around skyscrapers and swinging precariously close to traffic. Spider-Man was a rollercoaster ride that was barely under control.
There were scenes, characters and poses that I previously only saw on paper, which came to life right before my eyes. Words I now only read were spoken by real people (and not at a comic book convention).
“With great power comes great responsibility.” Damn, that still sends shivers down my spine.
Oh, and then there’s that kiss. You know it.
More than any other film that came before it, Spider-Man was a comic book brought to life.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man
Spider-Man has always been the superhero of the people. Superman is too perfect. Too much of a platonic ideal. Batman is cool, but he’s too gloomy. And too rich to be really relatable. But Spidey, you can relate to – a geeky kid who is bullied in school and in love with the hot girl. He’s what every comic book geek wishes they were.
It really is a coming-of-age story. Spider-Man is about a child who explores his newfound strength and freedom and learns to deal with the consequences of his actions.
And if Peter Parker wakes up and finds that he can now squirt a sticky white liquid isn’t an analogy for a boy going through puberty, I don’t know what it is.
There was also the New York City element. Spidey had always been connected to the city in the comic books, but with the movie that came out less than a year after 9/11, that connection pinned the film to a time, a place, and a mood.
There’s a scene where the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) makes Spider-Man choose between saving the love of his life or a ropeway full of kids. And as they fight, we see a crowd of people on the bridge throwing things at the Green Goblin and defending their man.
“You’re taking on one of us, you’re taking on all of us.”
It sounds corny now, but it has influence.
The start of something big
2002 was a different time in pop culture. Superheroes were still a niche. Only kids (and adults you could legally laugh at) would like comic books. Some even resorted to mentioning graphic novels to give us geeks some credibility (not me though – for me they will always be comic books).
These days, we never have to wait more than a few weeks for a new comic book movie or streaming show. The highest-grossing films of the past five years have all been based on comic books.
But if you want to know how this all started, Spider-Man is just such a good place to start.
To put things in perspective, only 25 English language live-action superhero movies were released in the 20 years leading up to Spider-Man. In the 20 years since then we have had 95. Recent examples include: Doctor Strange and Mrs. Marvel†
Do not get me wrong. It’s not that these newer movies aren’t good. For the most part, they are fun and are clearly still hugely popular.
But I don’t think I can watch a superhero movie in 2022 with the same sense of awe and wonder as watching Spider-Man in 2002. We’ve all seen it before.
How many more origin stories can we take? They’re all basically the same: someone loses a parental figure, then a miraculous event gives them superpowers and they start fighting a big, bad villain. Rinse and repeat.
And how much higher can we increase the physical stake without diminishing returns on the emotional stake? We destroyed cities, countries, planets, multiverses, killed half the world’s population and then brought it back.
To paraphrase dear Uncle Ben (rest in peace):
“With great IP comes great responsibility.”
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but sometimes I miss seeing superheroes rescue a baby from a burning building.
The good with the bad
Watching Spider-Man again really shows how far special effects have come in 20 years. The green screen work has aged badly, though the Spidey and Green Goblin flying scenes still hold up.
And one benefit of having so many comic book movies is that there is room for more culturally diverse representation in both talent and storytelling in the genre. Well-known examples are Black Panther (2018) and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), or even Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018).
Looking back at all the Spidey movies, I wouldn’t even say Spider-Man is the best. I’d post the sequel, Spider-Man 2 (2004), and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018), both a little earlier.
But it remains the character’s purest experience, as well as a turning point in movie history. For better or for worse, the world (and my world) would never be the same.
That boy in the picture is not me. But he’s how the movie made me feel in that dark crowded cinema in 2002.
Christian Harimanow is the Video Supervising Producer and occasional writer at ABC Everyday. He’s one radioactive spider bite away from being a superhero too.
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