Love them like Taikia Waititi, or hate them like Martin Scorsese, superhero movies are responsible for both saving and diluting modern cinema, providing a much-needed float during the Covid-19 pandemic whilst also saturating the market with more of the same high-flying chaos. Though their modern dominance seems like a new phenomenon, the street-swinging superheroes have been around for much longer, dating back to Superman’s very first outing from Richard Donner in 1978.
Silly, inconsequential and spandex-heavy, such superhero films were far different from the ones we know today, with the pioneering work of Spider-Man director Sam Raimi helping to change the landscape of the sub-genre in 2002.
Designed for the innovations in cinema at the dawn of the new millennium, Spider-Man became the poster child of spectacular modern cinema, swinging around the skyscrapers of New York with fluid grace. Fun, fresh and exciting, Raimi’s take on the iconic hero heralded a brand new era for the superhero film in which spectacle was favoured and fallible heroes became commonplace.
It’s not hard to appreciate just how much the character was beloved either, with the actor behind the original web-slinger, Tobey Maguire, returning to the Spider-Man franchise in 2021 to whoops and cheers from fans worldwide. Having directed his last Spidey movie in 2007, Raimi has also returned to the superhero fold for the Marvel movie Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, taking his influence in the sub-genre full circle.
In conversation with The Talks, Raimi reflected on just how much had changed when it came to superhero movies since his time in the industry. “The thing I’ve noticed the most is the audience reaction to the superheroes,” Raimi told the publication, adding, “When I started making the Spider-Man movies in the early 2000s, they were met with a little bit more disdain, they were looked down upon much more”.
Achieving great commercial success with the release of the first film of the trilogy in 2002, Raimi’s Spider-Man made over $800 million worldwide and remains the 12th highest-grossing superhero film of all time. Though, despite this, Raimi doesn’t consider them to be “hits”.
“I couldn’t find a cinematographer that wanted to shoot a movie about a spider-man, I think they thought it would be silly or it would be mocked like a lot of the later Batman movies were mocked,” Raimi stated, making reference to 1997s Batman & Robin that has often been blamed for killing the superhero sub-genre. Continuing, Raimi adds, “It was just the time period when people didn’t understand the great potential that all Stan Lee’s pantheon of characters had. Now they’re not looked up as artworks, but they’re appreciated for the serious pulp material that they are”.
The filmmaker attributes this change to the “respect” that such movies later gained, “because filmmakers and writers and actors have really taken the characters seriously,” though it’s important to remember that without Raimi such respect may have never been gained.
Creating two sequels that performed on par with the original 2002 film, Raimi’s story over the course of three films exposed the raw, vulnerable underbelly of Spider-Man’s character, doing something that no other superhero film had done prior in making him a fallible hero.
Through Spider-Man 2 and its sequel particularly, we deal with a character forced to consider the personal responsibility of carrying such a weighty burden, as well as an individual who merely wants to be ‘normal’ among his high-school peers. More than the film’s sheer spectacle and size, it was this carefully crafted character arc that may have been the most influential factor in the film’s influence on the future of the superhero genre.