This week sees the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming, the sixteenth film in Marvel’s multi-billion dollar Cinematic Universe and the third modern iteration of the Spider-Man character. Undeniably, the era in which Director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film was released is completely different from the comic book film landscape we have today, as there were only a handful of identifiable comic book film franchises in theaters at the time, while now we have 11 different inter-connected film series (and that’s not even counting 20th Century Fox’s and DC Comics’ superhero properties). The ever-increasing production of comic book films has dominated Hollywood. With it, it’s hard to fully appreciate how the genre had humble beginnings as simply inspiring stories set within imaginative, larger-than-life worlds. To me, the depiction of superheroes on film was perfected years ago, in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, which still remains as the gold standard for the telling of these kinds of stories.
The films that comprise Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy are undoubtedly superhero movies, and it shows in the way Raimi draws upon the energy and the iconography of the films of Richard Donner and Tim Burton. The most explicit reference would be Peter’s “Superman shirt rip”, as he races to save Mary Jane in Spider-Man 1, but it’s also undeniably difficult not to recall Jeff East’s teenage Clark Kent whizzing past a speeding train during the sequence Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker jumps across rooftops as he first discovers his powers. Both characters even lose the company of a girl to a stud in a nice car. It’s also impossible to not see a semblance of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn, two energetic villains on the border of complete campiness. Raimi channels the playful and triumphant spirit of preceding comic book films so that he could go further to challenge it with Peter’s struggle between his personal life and desires with his responsibilities as Spider-Man.
Raimi similarly channels the film language of coming-of-age movies to further guide audiences through Peter’s struggle. “With great power, comes great responsibility,” has always been a line applicable to the struggles of adolescence and a line that the young readers of Spider-Man comics could relate to, so it’s only fitting that Raimi grounds Peter’s average, daily life in a coming-of-age movie. The spider bite that gives Peter his powers is a not-so-subtle allegory for puberty, with a few explicit visual and spoken references to his growth and change. Peter even states at the beginning of his first film that his tale as Spider-Man isn’t a superhero story, but instead, “all about a girl.” Tethering Spider-Man’s adventures to Peter’s coming-of-age story about teenage love not only complements the recurring theme of responsibility, but it also helps audiences sympathize with Peter in later instalments, where the stakes grow higher and it becomes increasingly difficult for Peter to reconcile his wants with the man he needs to be.
The struggle to reconcile the man’s wants with the superhero’s responsibilities is a recurring theme in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. Raimi never misses an opportunity to depict how trying to secretly juggle Spider-Man with Peter’s daily life just causes Peter more problems. There are the comedic moments, such as Peter turning all his clothes red and blue, after he mistakenly puts his costume in the washing machine with the rest of his clothing, as well as the more exciting moments, like Peter trying to sneak back into his shared apartment for Thanksgiving dinner only to nearly get caught by the guests. However, this struggle manifests itself in the films in more meaningful ways like Peter having to decide whether to save Mary Jane or save civilians in Spider-Man 1, and later with Peter missing Mary Jane’s show due to his responsibility of stopping a robbery in Spider-Man 2. Of course, these minor instances only set up Peter’s recognition of the burden at the end of the first film, when he realizes he can’t be with Mary Jane because it’ll only put her in danger, and eventual abandoning of the burden altogether in the middle of Spider-Man 2, when he decides he can’t be the man he wants to be, if he is burdened by the responsibility of Spider-Man.
Those are just examples of Raimi’s set-ups and payoffs within the narrative, but he also exercises his mastery over visuals and tone to depict major changes in Peter’s life. I especially love how Spider-Man 2 opens with a billboard of Mary Jane’s face (again calling back to Peter’s description of his Spider-Man story as a love story), which Peter is distracted by, which then causes him to be late for work and eventually fired. This captures the trilogy’s responsibility theme and Peter’s main struggle perfectly, while also working as a set-up for the final shot of the movie, Mary Jane’s face again, but this time, Peter has reconciled his duty as Spider-Man with his wanting for her, and the audience is left with Mary Jane watching Spider-Man swing through the city to identify that resolution of that particular struggle.
Spider-Man 2 repeatedly does this type of perfect call-back, with most of the call-backs and payoffs being from the first film. It redesigns the iconic upside-down kiss as a haunting, less-triumphant version of the sweet and innocent kiss that she and Spider-Man shared in the first film. The film also returns to the wall-climbing and rooftop jumping sequence from the first film, but this time Peter discovers that he has lost his powers instead of discovering that he has gained them. This is hilariously emphasized by Peter shouting “I’m back! I’m back!” before he loses crashes into a wall and falls onto a car, groaning afterwards, “Ow, my back… my back…”
Raimi blends humor with misery outstandingly in these three films. The comedic highlight is undeniably J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson, who ironically Peter gets his money from, despite his smear campaign against Spider-Man. There’s also the unexpectedly touching scene of Aunt May giving Peter her last $20 to spare, only to have it briskly taken away by a comic relief side character in the next scene. Of course, there’s also the “Emo Peter” sequences in Spider-Man 3 that come off as cocky and funny, but only emphasizes the symbiote/in-control façade Peter puts up to hide his inner torment and pain. These aren’t just exercises in showing Raimi can properly navigate tonal changes, but they also highlight the theme that Spider-Man can’t have victory without defeat, the only victory he achieves is inner victory. This shows in all Raimi’s endings for his Spider-Man movies; Harry loses a father, Peter can’t get together with Mary Jane, Peter loses a mentor, Peter lets the Sandman free, and Peter loses Harry, and yet through all of that, it’s still considered a victory, because at least Peter grew as a person.
Dedication to good filmmaking is what makes Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy a standout amongst a plethora of superhero movies. Raimi has such an attentive and creative vision for what his Spider-Man stories want to mean that he crafts his visuals, his tone, and even the movements of Spider-Man to express what he’s not explicitly saying. We, as the audience, only have to engage with it. The current state of the comic book film industry, I think, has made us attentive towards inconsequential aspects of film. Filmmakers today shouldn’t focus so much on post-credit scenes, franchise set-ups, or where their character fits within a universe filled with many different characters. Having visionary directors like Sam Raimi exploring the life and struggles of one of these characters in an intimate way does way more for the character, and the fans’ long-lasting appreciation for the character, than having the character appear in a crossover film. Here’s hoping Marvel Studios treats Spider-Man as a character, instead of an intellectual property.