Long before Sam Raimi was sent to the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe to inject some vigour into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Raimi was considered to be one of the chief catalysts for the modern revival of superhero cinema. Changing public opinion on such films with the release of Spider-Man in 2002, Raimi created a fine balance between frenetic comic-book action and romantic melodrama with the strange, awkward energy of Tobey Maguire becoming the perfect actor to take on such a role.
A superhero designed for the innovations in cinema at the dawn of the new millennium, Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker would become the poster child of a new 21st-century cinematic spectacle, swinging around the skyscrapers of New York with a supreme grandeur that audiences had never witnessed before on the silver screen. Though Raimi’s title character was no omnipotent movie hero. Truthful to the comic books, Spider-Man was a shy, anxious geek, who only truly comes into himself when he puts on the tight red suit.
Whereas modern iterations of the character, in Sony’s failed movie venture and Disney’s commercial MCU, are represented as ‘Spider-Man first, Peter Parker second’, Raimi prefers to explore the character when he’s outside the suit, seeing him as a young boy who has been burdened with responsibility, rather than gifted a ‘cool new toy’. Often frustrated and begrudging, it’s not often that we see a superhero that would prefer to be without his powers, with this storyline being played out to perfection in Spider-Man 2, a film many consider to be the best superhero movie of all time.
Released in 2004, Spider-Man 2 shows Parker facing up against his most persistent enemy, himself, as he deals with the personal responsibility of carrying such a weighty burden whilst wishing to assimilate back into ‘normal’ life. Such made the film such a beloved superhero experience, with Raimi exploring sentimental themes that resonated significantly with the young audiences who were consuming the flashy superhero adventures.
This is helped by the fact that Maguire’s Spider-Man is an entirely easy character to relate to and feel sympathy for, with his hard luck in pursuit of the love interest Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and degrading relationship with his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), making for the perfect narrative foundation to pity his anguish. In fact, his rivalry with the main antagonist, Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), even feeds into this personal plight, with the madman once being an idol of Peter’s until his unnatural powers started changing his psychology, an arc that is not so dissimilar to the title characters’.
Look across the history of the web-swinging character, however, and the same level of characterisation can’t be found, with the creations of Sony and Disney favouring the superhero persona over the identity beneath it.
Played by Andrew Garfield in the poorly-received Sony movies, The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012 and its sequel two years after, this commercial idea of Spider-Man was more of a slick, stylish role, a far cry from the unconfident comic-book character who only found his inner-self when he was undercover swinging through the city.
Meanwhile, over at Disney’s MCU, Tom Holland has created a beloved version of the iconic character who slips effortlessly into the gargantuan universe of movies, though offers little when it comes to the intricacies of Parker himself.
For Garfield and Holland, the emotion of the Peter Parker character comes only through the context of Spider-Man, with fight scenes and spectacular web-slinging moments taking precedence over the character beneath the spandex. Maguire, on the other hand, gave audiences the best and most accurate version of the web-slinger that we’ve ever seen, perfectly illustrating both Spider-Man’s inner anxieties as well as his transformative superhero personality.