If to a superhero team from the 1970’s that

If you look at the films coming out in
2017, you would find that most of them are adaptations, and many of those
adaptations are of comic book characters and stories. While the film landscape
of today will offer film franchises to a superhero team from the 1970’s that
offered a talking tree as one of its main protagonists, 15 years ago, comic
book movies were seen as box office poison. While a year before Spider-Man,
the film adaptation of X-Men came out, the film is almost completely
dethatched from its 1980’s comic counterpart and matches a more general 1990’s
action film asthetic1. On the other hand, 2002 brought the director
of Evil Dead and Xena’s take on the superhero genre with one of the most famous
characters in comic’s history. Not only did Rami create one of the greatest
films in the relatively short history of the super hero genre, but he was able
to start a trend of a well-crafted and seemingly planned sequel, that the
eventual Marvel Cinematic Universe would perfect ten years later. The first film
was also well suited for the time of its release, being the first major
blockbuster set in New York City to be released following the September 11th
attacks in 2001.

The story of bringing Spider-Man to the
big screen is a fascinating tale of rights issues, multiple directors, and
misunderstandings of the characters that eventually led Sony and Colombia
Pictures to create the version that was made. In the 1980’s, Marvel Comics sold
the rights to the Spider-Man characters to the infamous Cannon Films in 1885,
for use in a film to be directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 director
Tobe Hooper and would have been a body horror film where the famous web-slinger
would have been a mutated Man-Spider hybrid.2 After Stan Lee himself
shut down that idea, a more traditional pitch for a Spider-Man film was made by
Cannon Films. This would have been a more traditional comic book story, and
they eyed Tom Cruise for Peter Parker and Bob Hoskins for the role of Otto
Octavius, or Doctor Octopus. The planned film fell through when Cannon Films
Folded in 1989, with MGM Studios purchasing the rights.

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Through the early 1990’s, many different
pitches were crafted for the Spider-Man property, with the most famous
being James Cameron’s 57-page- “scriptment” for the film, taking various
elements from the Cannon film and other pitches for the film. Cameron’s
Spider-Man would have been a more R-Rated affair, including scenes where Peter
Parker was going to be seen peeping into Mary Jane’s window and gratuitous
swearing. Cameron left the project in the mid 90’s to work on Terminator 2:
Judgment Day, and after multiple attempts to revive the project, the rights
were sold to Sony and Colombia Pictures was tasked with finding a director of
the film. The rumored short list included names like Chris Columbus and David
Fincher, although Sony interviewed several choices, including Sam Rami who said
of the project “‘…I had no idea how I’d really make Spider-Man…Then I
got a call saying they were going to give me the job! It was exhilarating.'(Behind
the Mask of Spider-Man, Mark Cotta Vaz)”. One reason that the executives at
Sony were enthusiastic about Rami’s direction was that Sam Rami was a fan of
the character as a child. In the book Behind the Mask of Spider-Man,
Sony Executive Amy Pascal discusses that “‘…one thing that sold me at our
meeting with Sam (Rami) said as a kid he’d had a picture of Spider-Man over his
bed and identified with Peter Parker… So there was a level of trust’ (Mark
Cotta Vaz)”. Now the challenge that Rami had was to make the first attempt at
realizing the Marvel Universe as created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created in
the 1960’s, which was at the time unheard of, as the soon-to-be released X-Men
would take more inspiration from their 1980’s incarnation.1

In early pre-production on the first Spider-Man
film, the tone of movies coming out based on Comic Book based films were on a
spectrum of either light-hearted, “campy”, and joke-filled films like Batman
Forever and Batman and Robin or ultra-serious, brooding,
“ultra-dark” films like Blade or The Crow, which stripped away
many of the Comic Book elements of the source material. Spider-Man
decided to go away from the norm and work to be the most faithful adaptation of
the early Marvel Universe ever put to film. This started from the ground up
with the production design. The locations chosen and set design done for the
first Spider-Man was meant to look like something straight out of a
Comic Book. This can be best shown with the design of the Spider-Man costume.
Rather than mimic X-Men or Blade and strip out color from
Spider-Man, Rami and his costuming designer James Acheson (See Also: 2003’s Daredevil
and 2013’s Man of Steel (IMDB)) worked to “…make the film look as
much like the comic book as possible (Behind the Mask of Spider-Man,
Mark Cotta Vaz, pg 74)”. This meant abandoning previous ideas, such as having
the mask be more like a helmet in an attempt to “Modernize Spider-Man (Behind
the Mask of Spider-Man, Mark Cotta Vaz, pg 74).” This attempt to
translating the comics Lee and Ditko created 40 years before didn’t just extend
to the Spider-Man costume, but the direction of the film as well.

Sam Rami is well known for his unique
style of directing, which involves a lot of fast-paced editing and quick
cutting. This film’s premise was essentially perfect for Sam Rami, as his
direction is perfectly suited for the comic-book superhero genre. His quick
cuts and fast editing worked to replicate the feeling of a comic panel
literally brought to motion. He rarely uses long takes in action scenes,
preferring to keep the action constantly in motion, and when he chooses to use
a long take, such as the ending shot of both films, is to replicate the idea of
a triumphant hero splash page in a comic book, book-ending the film in the same
way storylines end in super-hero comics. His choice of shot is also like a
comic book as he chose to film most of his shots with a mix of medium shots and
close-ups. This kind of shot design is reminiscent of comic book panel designs,
where mediums and clos-ups were used in order to let artists create panels with
a fair amount of detail without having to draw extensive backgrounds. In the
film, this choice of shots make the film seem more like the original comics.

In the modern film landscape, the
cinematic universe formula is seen as the way entertainment and franchise
filmmaking is moving toward, spurred by the innovation of digital distribution
and online communities interested in keeping the conversation between film
releases. Of course, in the years between its announcement and the release of Spider-Man,
online discussion of the upcoming release would be comparable to the later
Marvel Movies. However, for a standalone film with no guarantee of a sequel
released in 2002, Spider-Man 2 released in 2004 is seen by many as good
as, or even better, to the first film. Rami assembled the same creative team to
craft the sequel, as well as used the sequel to flesh out the themes set forth
in the first film. The theme that best applies to these films is said by Cliff
Robertson’s Uncle Ben: “With Great Power comes Great Responsibility…”. This is
shown most prominently in the two films villain characters. Spider-Man uses
the “With Great Power…” Line in its portrayal of Normal Osborne,
who was created due to rushing through a scientific process and being
irresponsible. Matt Goldberg from Collider described the Norman Osborne/Green
Goblin character by saying “He doesn’t start out being evil, and it’s only from
his rational desire to save his company that he takes the risk of dosing
himself with the Goblin formula. That formula turns him insane, but he keeps
wrestling with the Goblin’s actions throughout the movie (Goldberg, Matt.
Collider.com)”. Spider-Man 2 builds upon the established theme with its
villain, Otto Octavius (Doc Ock), who is shown to be very similar to Peter
Parker, but instead of sulking about his own genius, he takes initiative.
However, through his inability to think beyond his own dreams, he devolves back
into the more one dimensional, Comic-Accurate persona.

On a smaller note, the use of Comic-Book
characters outside of the main Spider-Man cannon that extended to the broader
Marvel Comics Universe. Small jokes referencing Marvel Mainstays like Doctor
Strange, the iconic creator of Spider-Man making an appearance, and even small
nods to more forgotten comic characters, such as the name “The Green Meanie”
being used in the first film make the worlds of the films and the comics blend
together to make the film feel like it takes place in one small segment of a
larger Marvel Universe. This would later be used in order to set up future
films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having individual films interconnect to
create a similar feeling to the large scale crossovers that were common in the
Marvel Comics of the past and present.

“Films, like any art form, don’t exist in
a vacuum. In order to properly analyze them, one must take into account the
world that the film was born into and the culture that absorbed it (Really that Good: Spider-Man 1 and 2,
Bob Chipman)”. In order to properly understand how Spider-Man became the highest grossing film of 2002 and broke the
record for a domestic opening weekend at $115 Million (A feat once seen as
nearly impossible according to Paul Dergarabedian back in 20023),
one has to remember the terrible tragedy of the previous year. Spider-Man was wrapping principal
photography late in the summer of 2001, and was set to enter post-production
later that year. The first teaser for the film had released a few months prior,
showing the titular hero webbing armed robbers in a helicopter between the towers
of the World Trade Center. The geek conversation was centered on how excited
they were to see a comic-accurate film. Everything seemingly was going well for
Sony and Colombia Pictures… and then the unthinkable happened in September.

Sparing the details of the events on
September 11th, 2001, any productions of films and television shows
slowed down or stopped. Many television shows took a break for a few weeks
coming back with a more somber tone, some Prime Time series created “Special
Episodes” such as The West Wing’s “Isaac
and Ishmael”, and the general tone of Television at the time was the
industry asking the audience if they were okay. In film, however, the problem
came from a lack of time to make changes to reflect current events. In the case
of Spider-Man, this need to reflect
what was going on in America was hardest, given the nature of the character.
Spider-Man, by his very nature, is tied to New York City, and the iconic
imagery of the character all involves Peter Parker swinging around buildings,
saving people in the air. After the events of 9/11, many people didn’t think
was appropriate to be showing a man saving people falling from a burning
building after “…a painful reminder that in the real world, that doesn’t happen
(Chipman, Bob “Really That Good: Spider-Man 1 and 2)”. The comics from which
the film was based on had to tackle the events of the tragedy, as Marvel Comics
is prone to tackle real-world issues and integrate them into their world of
super-humans and super-villains. Todd R. Ramlow from popmatters.com in 2002
discussed in his review of the film that “Marvel itself recognized this
conundrum with its in-house reaction to the events, Marvel Comics: Heroes,
which depicts Spider-Man swinging past the WTC ruins as distraught New Yorkers
cry, ‘Where were you?’ (Ramlow, Todd, popmatters.com)”.

The team behind the film had been given
the honor and responsibility of being the first major film set in New York City
after the attacks, and had to change aspects of the film, similar to the Disney
release Lilo and Stitch (which
changed the location of its final act away from a city before its release in
2002). The post-production team chose to digitally remove the Twin Towers from
the film and create new establishing shots without the towers in view. This
created a small backlash in the lead-up to the release, but the filmmakers
insisted that the changes were not meant to offend, but to reflect the
unfortunate truths of the times. Salon’s Drew Grant in 2011 said of the
reaction, “…erasing the Trade Center from the skyline may seem both excessive
and over-cautious, but Sony’s heart was in the right place… destroying all the
evidence of the nightmare seemed like a safer idea than showing people what they
had just lost. (Grant, Drew salon.com)”.

The film, even before the changes to
background elements, was somehow perfectly made for the audience of a post-9/11
America. The goal that Rami and the production team set out was to capture the
mid-1960’s, Marvel Comic Aesthetic and tone. A tone that was defined by
optimism and the idea that people from all walks of life can come together in
the face of unspeakable horror and evil. And the character of Spider-Man is
often seen as one of the most optimistic characters in the Universe. He’s seen
as a hero of the people, the character most relatable to the reader due to him
being “The Kid from Queens”.

The film uses this concept of Spider-Man
being the relatable hero that the citizens of New York City rally around
multiple times, but the high point of this is the scene on the bridge near the
end of the Second Act. The group of New Yorkers defending Spider-Man and
distracting the Green Goblin to the cries of “You mess with Spider-Man, you
mess with New York…. You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us” may
sound unbearably cheesy to people watching the film now, but the immediate
reaction from audiences was a feeling that had been missing after the attacks. Tom
Chang wrote about the film, reflecting back 15 years later, saying about the
film and its protagonist “Spider-Man
resonated with audiences not just because of how many can empathize with Peter Parker
and trying to uphold responsibility… but in the effort to do what right for his
community, he served as a beacon of inspiration for everyone around him… Spidey
became far more than just a symbol for New Yorkers to embrace, he represented
the need for Americans to hope and dream again (Chang, Tom
monkeysfightingrobots.com)”. It was one of the first films to show the ideals
of New York in the aftermath of the September 11th Attacks without
being heavy handed about their origins. The scene captured the unity of people
in the months following 9/11, and with a character with which the context
doesn’t feel forced.

Spider-Man
2 also had a challenge
of addressing the events of the world between 2002 and 2004, mainly the fatigue
of the Iraq War and doubt that the government knew what it was doing. The political
conversation was dominated by the question, “Did we know what we were doing?”
and the images of the war were of young men and women in a war that America
didn’t think that they were going to fight again. A sequel to Spider-Man couldn’t repeat the same
moment of emotion that it had in the aftermath of 9/11, so they took a
different approach. At the end of an extended train fight sequence at the end
of the second act, Spider-Man is about to fall of the front of the train, a
close-up shot of his symbol on his chest is used as hands of different people
of different ethnic backgrounds holding him up and carrying him back on the
train in a Christ-like manner. To bring the point home, one person on the train
makes notice of Peter Parker (who had lost his mask in the previous fight) that
he was “…just a kid. No older than my son…”. With Peter being in his late
teens/early twenties, he would have been the age of a volunteer for the Iraq
War.

Some film critics like to say that the
Superhero genre is plateauing and will eventually go the way of the western, a
mark on popular film culture which will fade away, relegated to throwback films
or films that incorporate the tropes of the genre, but Spider-Man and  Spider-Man 2 are proof that the genre
has never truly died. After the “death” of the genre in the mid-1990’s, Sam
Rami’s take on the Superhero film was a bright, fun, and colorful romp that
kept true to the source material proved that the genre still had more potential
to grow. Later in the decade, the smash hits of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy were hailed as the
crowning achievement of the genre, but the breakout success of Paramount’s (and
later Disney’s) Marvel Cinematic Universe Experiment seemingly breathed another
wind into the genre between 2008-2012.

In the opinion of one 17-year-old film film
student, Sam Rami in two strokes brought the Superhero genre into the form that
it would take for the next 2 decades. His commitment to the source material and
ability to build a world similar to the 1960’s comics from which the character
came from were instrumental in creating the kind of comic book movie that would
dominate the box office records for the next 15 years. His unique directing and
editing style mimicked the comic panel layout in a way that had never been attempted
on film. The release of a film set in New York, with so much action being
framed around the heights and skyscrapers of the city, being so close to the
September 11th Attacks could have doomed the film and labeled it as
“insensitive”, but the sheer level of optimism that the character brought and
the tone that Rami and his team worked to create made the film feel like a
breath of fresh air for Americans. Rami not only created quite possibly the
greatest Super-Hero film of his time, but reinvented the genre in a way that
has yet to be matched.