Vintage Viewings: Spider-Man (2002)

Layne Robinson, Writer

With Spider-Man: No Way Home releasing later this week, I thought that now is an appropriate time to look back at Spider-Man’s debut on the silver screen. Like most of this column’s subjects, Spider-Man (2002) is an excellent movie and a pillar of what superhero cinema can be, yet many people our age have never sat down to watch it. It tells the classic story of one of the best heroes of the modern-day, a story that most of us can recite beat for beat, down to its most iconic lines. However, this film has plenty to offer beyond famous quotes and timeless stories. By itself, judged on its own merits like any other movie, Spider-Man holds up, and every superhero fan should give it a try.

Boasting names like Willem Dafoe and J.K. Simmons, it is no surprise that Spider-Man’s acting is top-notch. Tobey Maguire portrays Peter Parker with the nervous determination that has made the teen hero a fan favorite for decades and Dafoe brings a nuance to the Green Goblin that balances sympathy for the villain with the natural desire to see the good guys come out on top. Additionally, Kirsten Dunst’s performance as Mary Jane Watson goes beyond the typical girl-next-door, damsel-in-distress love interest, infusing a sense of agency into a role that, in most films, is dry and uninteresting. Even smaller characters like Peter’s Aunt May and Uncle Ben are full of genuine life and personality.

Compounding these performances are excellent writing and an intriguing story that, despite its fantastical subject matter, feels like it could be happening to regular people in the real world. Peter and his friends’ lives after graduation are characterized by an unsureness and a struggle to find their place that will be familiar to any older teen. The romance between Peter and MJ also has legitimate chemistry, following a nontraditional path that accentuates the movie’s subtle realism. Nearly every character is written with dimension, having their own motivations and moral codes that go deeper than hero and villain.

This masterful writing also presents itself through an awareness of tone that forms the emotional basis of the entire film. Every tense, emotional scene hits with full force, even when the actual events on screen are fairly mundane; the audience can see these moments from the perspective of the characters and empathize with their struggles. At the same time, early-2000s goofiness is not lost on Spider-Man. From the unintentionally hilarious old-school CGI to the web head’s cheesy remarks as he battles the Green Goblin, this movie is filled with moments that made me genuinely laugh out loud, and not one of them broke the tension of the moment it was contained in. This balance is the formula for a great film, and Spider-Man has it down to a science.

Finally, I have to mention the aspect of this movie that goes above and beyond in a way that few superhero movies do: its villain. Spider-Man tells the story of the Green Goblin as more than a supervillain, a force of evil standing in the hero’s way. Instead, there are entire scenes dedicated to his internal struggle with his mistakes, and his fundamental humanity shows through in many of his most important moments. There is no way I could do his arc justice without spoilers, but it is one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie.

That said, there is no better way for me to summarize my feelings about Spider-Man (2002) than this: watch it yourself. Nothing I can say about the characters or the writing decisions can come close to the experience of seeing them unfold on-screen. This — down-to-earth, heartfelt and human — is everything a Spider-Man movie should be and more, and the only way to witness that properly is firsthand.