Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by David Koepp
After Superman II in 1980, nobody seemed to get super-heroes right. The Superman series went spectacularly off the rails with the very next installment. Despite their success, Tim Burton’s Batman films were more about Burton’s aesthetic than about Batman, and the less said about Joel Schumacher’s films the better. Marvel was mired in nearly two decades of cinematic mediocrity, unable to get any of its big players on the screen and stumbling badly with what it did manage to adapt. Spawn pretty much killed the idea of any more Image Comics movies. Some films tried making big deals out of older heroes like The Shadow or The Phantom, or heroes who felt older like The Rocketeer, but nothing caught on. There was one film that did feel like an honest-to-goodness comic book movie and, what’s more, had the style down cold. That was Darkman, a gloriously gothic movie by some director known for his humorously gory horror films. But surely Sam Raimi of all people wasn’t the one to go on to make the super-hero genre a box-office dominating phenomenon, right?
And yet that’s just what he did. While Bryan Singer’s X-Men gave the genre some much-needed credibility, it was Raimi’s Spider-Man that showed its true potential when done right. It was a lesson you’d figured had been learned with the Superman movies, but there we were some twenty years later having to be taught it all over again. Because what so many previous movies forgot to do with their comic book characters was actually put them in comic book movies. Too often the results ended up as generic action films that happened to have a guy in tights at the center of it. Spider-Man though felt like a comic book through and through. Not in a campy, hokey way that wanted to wink at the audience and clue them in to how silly it all was. And not in a depressingly grounded way that sapped all the gee-whiz wonder out of things due to lack of imagination, or budget, or both. No, Spider-Man was deliriously assured of itself, comfortable with where it came from and where it was going. Even its most drastic change from the source material — the elimination of Peter Parker’s mechanical web-shooters in favor of organic ones — felt like something out of a comic book. Like The Fellowship of the Ring the previous year, Spider-Man showed that the important thing with any adaptation is not the letter, but the spirit. If it feels right, we’ll accept the changes.
Not that Spider-Man was totally perfect. The Macy Gray cameo sticks out like a spider-bitten thumb. And how you cast an actor with an amazing face like Willem DaFoe to play your villain and then hide that face behind a glorified Power Rangers mask remains baffling. But it was as good a super-hero film as I’d seen since that summer of 1980, and, in what would become a common refrain for films with less-satisfying origin stories, I was excited to see what Raimi and company would do now that the legwork of Spidey’s origin had been taken care of and they wouldn’t need to spend half the film focusing on it. And what they did three years later in Spider-Man 2 was to deliver on every single promise made in the first film, and then some. Spider-Man 2 surpasses the original in almost every way — its villain, its story, its action, its effects, its heart, everything. And yet Spider-Man 2 was never in the running to represent its year in this list. As we’ll see, that honor belongs to another super-hero film that did everything right that Spider-Man 2 did, but exponentially better. If you know anything about me, that film should be incredibly obvious.
But the success of that original Spider-Man made possible the super-hero boom of recent years. You don’t have The Dark Knight or The Avengers if Spider-Man had failed, at least not on the scale in which we got them. Spider-Man redefined and re-established the genre on an unprecedented level. Whether that’s a cause for praise or blame depends on how sick you are of super-hero movies by now.