Before we jump too much into Spider-Man i.e. Spider-Man 1 i.e. the first of the OG Spider-Man trilogies, I’d like to take a brief moment to acknowledge that in the excerpt of this post, I refer to this as the “movie that started it all” when I do, in fact, know that Blade and X-Men (also the OG version) were both released prior to Spider-Man. When I say the “movie that started it all,” I don’t mean the first film released by Marvel Studios, but the first in what would come to be the vast Marvel Universe. The movie that proved people had an appetite for vaguely cartoonish stories about superheroes fighting implausible bad guys. The universe where films make billions of dollars. The one that puts out a movie every quarter starring YouTubers and Oscar winners alike. That creates endless Twitter fights about what directors say about them. What I mean is that this is the film that kicked off what these films would become.
So seriously, what’s it about? Mostly about how Peter Parker is a dorky little dweeb.
I say that with love. I love a dorky little dweeb (not as much as I love a confident nerd, but that’s a different story). In fact, I say that Spider-Man is about a dorky little dweeb because much of the draw isn’t watching uncrushable badasses throw bad guys around (Blade and Wolverine, I’m looking in your general direction), but about watching a kid figure himself out. He’s an awkward and unpopular teenager trying to navigate high school when he’s suddenly plunged into the role of defending his friends, family, and neighborhood from an actual villain. He doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing, but he’s trying as hard as he can to get it done. The movie has the task of introducing Peter, making us care about him, showing how he acquires his powers, and how he learns to harness them. It’s not an easy feat, and Spider-Man does so in a way that, mostly? Still holds up.
So as a refresher, here’s how they actually do that.
Mild-mannered Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) lives with his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) and Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). They seem fairly old to be the siblings of the parents of an eighteen-year-old, but this was back in 2002 before they created Hot Aunts. Hot Aunts are now the norm as displayed by smoke show Marisa Tomei in later Spider-Man iterations and me in real life. Because when my nieces and nephew turn eighteen, their aunt will still be hot. Guarantee. Peter lives next door to Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) who he loves but never talks to, and has only one friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), who is attractive and wealthy but not at all popular. High school does not make sense to me. Also, there’s a bully named Flash Thompson which is the most comic book name of the entire series, but I bring it up only because he’s played by Joe Manganiello. How did this movie that I saw in theaters come out such a long time ago that it was before Joe Manganiello had enough of a career that later people weren’t like, “Hey, did you remember that Joe Manganiello was in Spider-Man? Weird, right?” How did that never come up?
But then Peter becomes a superhero. That happens in three stages:
Stage One – He Meets The Spider
During a field trip to Oscorp, the very creatively named scientific research and development business run by Harry’s father Norman (played spectacularly by Willem Dafoe), Peter is bitten by a genetically engineered spider and has to go home to have a drug trip. When he wakes the next morning, he doesn’t need glasses and has magically gotten ripped. One time I got bitten by a spider on my knee, and it just got gross and infected, so this isn’t a foolproof method for getting into shape. Peter harnesses his powers to fight in an underground wrestling match hoping to win enough money to buy a car in order to impress Mary Jane because like I said, he’s kind of a dweeb.
Unfortunately, Peter’s unwillingness to step in when some guy robs the shady manager of the wrestling match leads to that same guy car-jacking and shooting Uncle Ben a few minutes later. Although I would like to point out Peter wasn’t wrong. The wrestling manager scammed Peter out of his winnings, and more importantly, the robber had A GUN. Even with superpowers, you don’t take on a grown man with a gun just because you can jump high. But Peter’s regret over not stepping in to stop the crime and the guilt over his uncle’s death propels him into the next step:
Stage Two – He Becomes The Spider
This is the whole middle section where most of the movie happens, but almost all of it is set up for what else might happen. Peter finds out that his best friend Harry is dating Mary Jane, the woman Peter loves. Norman Osborn, due to a botched experiment in his lab, has developed an entire second personality in the form of psychotic villain Green Goblin, riding what is either the coolest or least cool Segway in existence. JK Simmons is there absolutely owning the scenery.
In terms of his development as a superhero, this is the section where Peter harnesses his skills and gets what is, legitimately, a truly well-tailored super suit. Using that extremely well-fitting suit, he begins busting small crimes in his neighborhood and saving all the people he can. He also accidentally puts himself on Green Goblin’s radar when he needs to save the city/Mary Jane while Green Goblin is attempting to kill off the board of his company. And, of course, this is when the famous Upside-Down Kiss happens.
I can’t say that personally rubbing my nose against someone’s chin while making out is a thing I’d be interested in, but the kids in 2002 ate this up. All of this set up leads to the inevitable:
Stage Three – He Becomes The Spider-Man
To be fair, this isn’t quite a spoiler since it’s the name of the movie. Peter, having been given superpowers without his knowledge, develops those powers intentionally, but can’t really know what it means to wield them until he has to face the challenge that all superheroes do: he has to make out with his best friend’s girlfriend after repeatedly saving her life.
No, wait, I mean he has to face down and take out a villain, overcoming both the physical and mental threat that villain poses. Green Goblin wasn’t dangerous only because he was flying around the city blowing up balconies and setting fire to buildings that seem to have held only babies and old people. He was also actively trying to thwart Peter by convincing him that the public will always hate Spider-Man and it’s better to look out only for yourself. Green Goblin’s resulting gambit places both Mary Jane and a… ski-lift gondola full of children (I think, it definitely is a gondola of some kind, I just have no idea where it came from or why it would be readily available to a superpowered agent of chaos) in danger, and forces Peter to accept that being a superhero means protecting his loved ones by keeping his distance from them. He also does have to kill his best friend’s dad to make that happen, but I’m sure that won’t lead to any larger issues in the next couple of movies.
Twenty years on, Spider-Man still holds up because, in a lot of ways, it was the template for most of the Marvel movies to come. It’s about figuring out not just how to be a superhero, but what being a superhero means. How to deal with being a person (occasionally an awkward, unsure of himself, out of place person) and also being an icon and a symbol. How to face down your fears when battling evil and also accepting that if you can be a hero, you have to. It’s about a kid becoming a grown-up and realizing that doesn’t automatically mean you always know what you’re doing, just that you’re trying to do as much as you can. That, and if you’re very lucky, you get to do the cool running-while-ripping-off-your-shirt-to-reveal-the-supersuit-underneath move.