Tobey Maguire's 'Spider-Man' is a classic, even though it's one of the more under-appreciated superhero films

  • DirectorSam Raimi’s”Spider-Man,” starring Tobey Maguire, is one of the more under-appreciated superhero films.
  • But it’s a classic right up there with Christopher Nolan’s Batman and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man.
  • Here’s how Raimi revolutionized the genre with a single sentence: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Nineteen years into an era of superhero franchises, there’s a term I’ve been hearing used more often to describe a film: a classic. I find this phenomenon interesting for a number of reasons. For one, it’s proof of how widely accepted superhero movies have come as a genre, but it also poses an interesting question of what exactly makes a superhero movie a classic. Several films come to mind, most notably Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” Jon Favreau’s entry to “Iron Man,” and, more recently, James Mangold’s “Logan.” But if there’s one film that perhaps deserves the title better than anyone, I wouldn’t hesitate to say the original Spider-Man.

How do you adapt a character as iconic as Spider-Man? This was the question that bewildered Hollywood for nearly 25 years, during which the film was initially stuck in development. To many people’s surprise, the man who was eventually hired to rescue the project was this man, Sam Raimi, a director primarily known for his low-budget horror cult classics, like “The Evil Dead” and “Darkman,” his background being the reason for the overt horror undertone throughout his adaptation of “Spider-Man.” Sam Raimi’s answer to the decadelong dilemma was quite simple. He didn’t make a film about Spider-Man. Instead, Raimi chose to make a movie about the man behind the mask, Peter Parker.

As a comic, “Spider-Man” has always been a story about Peter Parker as much as it was a story about Spider-Man. In fact, it was one of the first comics ever to put as much emphasis on a superhero’s alter ego. But it was also what made him such a beloved character, because he was relatable. Spider-Man showed that superheroes can worry about their rent, lose their jobs, or have relationship problems. This was an appeal that Sam Raimi clearly understood, and in truth, we often forget most superhero movies are all essentially character adaptations. And more often than not, whether the filmmaker has accurately captured the essence of the character determines the success of these films. And I think it was this reason that allowed Sam Raimi to make a series of what are now considered the modern classics of all superhero movies. Oh, right, and “Spider-Man 3.” We’ll get to that in a sec.

The scene that perhaps best exemplifies Raimi’s understanding of the character is also its most famous one.

Uncle Ben: Peter, these are the years when a man changes into the man he’s gonna become the rest of his life. Just be careful who you change into. Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.

Narrator: It’s no exaggeration to say that this very scene is one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the genre. And it does make you wonder, why? And it’s because of this simple line…

Uncle Ben: With great power comes great responsibility.

Narrator: …that Raimi uses to encapsulate the entirety of his franchise. Whereas the first “Spider-Man” dealt with the theme of…

Uncle Ben: Great power.

Narrator: …its sequel deals with the concept of…

Uncle Ben: Great responsibility.

Narrator: …each telling quite a different story that once put together creates a coherent message. There are many ways Raimi achieves this, the most obvious being the use of his villains. “Spider-Man” is essentially a film of contrasts between two characters, Peter Parker, and his eventual nemesis, Norman Osborn, accentuating their similarities…

Norman: No problem. I’ll make a few calls.

Peter: No, I couldn’t accept it, sir. I like to earn what I get. I can find my own work.

Norman: I respect that.

Narrator: …as well as their differences.

Green Goblin: You and I are not so different.

Spider-Man: I’m not like you. You’re a murderer.

Green Goblin: Well, to each his own.

Narrator: Both are characters who are suddenly gifted a power that they hadn’t expected, but just like the words of Uncle Ben…

Uncle Ben: Just be careful who you change into.

Narrator: …it’s what they do with these powers that change their outcome. Raimi spends a good first half of the film focusing on Peter’s confusion, on what exactly his power is meant for.

Mary Jane: What do you see coming for you?

Peter: I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s something I never felt before.

Narrator: And at first, his choices are often questionable, like how he decides to use his power for a new car to impress the girl he likes. Tragically, it’s also this selfishness that ultimately costs the life of his uncle. At that exact moment, we’re shown Norman Osborn also finding himself at the brink of losing what he loved.

Norman: Oh, you can’t do this to me. I started this company! You know how much I sacrificed?

Narrator: When faced with loss, the two characters make a very different choice. Peter, after the words of his uncle, chooses responsibility, and Norman chooses the opposite. And when the two finally face one another, their confrontation, albeit physical, is really a clash of their ideals on how they choose to use their given power.

And if “Spider-Man” was a movie about power, its sequel is a film about responsibility, and more specifically, the burden of it. Peter spends most of his time in the film dealing with the consequences of his choice in the first one. His responsibility as Spider-Man loses him his job, the girl he loves, and even his best friend. The reality of living the life of responsibility finally hits him.

Peter: Am I not supposed to have what I want, what I need? What am I supposed to do?

Narrator: Once again met with a choice, Peter chooses to abandon the responsibility.

Peter: No, Uncle Ben, I’m just Peter Parker. I’m Spider-Man no more.

Narrator: And Raimi again uses its villain, Otto Octavius, to accentuate this struggle, he also being a man obsessed about his work whose feeling of responsibility to do the right thing…

Otto: Intelligence is not a privilege, it’s a gift. And you use it for the good of mankind.

Narrator: …ultimately leading him to his tragedy. And what eventually turns both of these men back to their original role is a reminder from those that they love and respect on the necessity of doing the right thing…

Peter: You once spoke to me about intelligence, that it was a gift to be used for the good of mankind.

Narrator: …no matter the cost.

Peter: To do what’s right, we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most, even our dreams.

Narrator: And it’s this moment of self-discovery when Peter Parker finally becomes Spider-Man, and also, coincidentally, the moment that MJ finds who he had been all along. It’s a moment that seems right out of comic books.

Peter: Hi.

Mary Jane: Hi.

Narrator: This is perhaps the reason why “Spider-Man 3” could never have been a good movie. By the end of its second film, the story that Raimi had been trying to tell was completed: the story of how Peter Parker confronted his power and learned the importance of responsibility to become the hero we know. What remained after were just heavy-handed drama and pointless villains milked for the sake of continuing a valuable franchise. What Sam Raimi achieved with the first two “Spider-Man”s was game-changing. It taught future filmmakers of the genre the importance in understanding a character before adapting one. Ironically, also the reason that would come to break and revive the same franchise. When given an immense power to adapt such an iconic and beloved character with a history, he understood better than anyone that…

Uncle Ben: With great power comes great responsibility.

Narrator: And that alone is why “Spider-Man” deserves to be a classic.

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