Spider-Man turns 20: the superhero film that revolutionised blockbuster cinema

Sam Raimi’s charming, if patchy, 2002 adventure demonstrated that mainstream audiences were eager for a new type of superhero, and the industry never looked back.

It seems absurd to say this now, but Spider-Man was a relative novelty when it debuted in theatres in the summer of 2002. The superhero genre was not dormant, but it was also not all-consuming. At that point, the goth-kitsch Batman cycle of the 1990s had peaked, but successful adaptations of Blade and X-Men had resurrected Marvel Comics as viable cinematic fodder after direct-to-video stabs at Captain America and The Punisher.

Blade, on the other hand, was an R-rated gorefest aimed at cultish endurance; X-Men, while a notch more accessible to younger viewers, was still a dark-ish, dour-ish affair aimed first and foremost at comic book fans. Spider-Man, which debuted on screens 20 years ago today, was unique: a bright, goofy, youthful adventure with a wholesomeness not seen in the genre since the Christopher Reeve-starring Superman films two decades before.

Geeky fans of the then-40-year-old comic-book boy hero would be pleased with director Sam Raimi’s bouncy screen origin story, but they weren’t the film’s primary audience. Using the framework of an earlier script by an uncredited James Cameron, David Koepp’s screenplay positioned the young Peter Parker’s story as a romantic adolescent coming-of-age story first, and a spandex-wars fantasy second – in doing so, it sought the attention of viewers who might, at first glance, dismiss a film about a red-suited lad spinning webs and fighting crime across New York as too childish.

It worked, to the tune of more than $825 million worldwide. As Spider-Man stayed and stayed in theatres that season, it attracted families and date-night crowds in addition to nerds. “It might just restore the good name of movie escapism,” said Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, amid a flood of unexpectedly positive reviews for Raimi’s film. Travers, who is prone to exaggeration, may have been guilty of an understatement this time: even in the euphoria of the film’s success, few could have predicted how dramatically Spider-Man would reshape the model of populist cinema. After two reboots, seven more Spidey films, and an entire entangled cinematic universe, the film’s chipper underdog demeanor now appears to be a kind of scrappy Trojan horse through which Marvel wheeled in hegemonic plans for multiplex dominance.

As a second-year university student with a fairly snobbish attitude toward all comic-book culture, I was among the many who were pleasantly surprised by Raimi’s vision: the film felt authentically dorky and good-natured in a way that many of that summer’s assembly-line blockbusters (including wholly businesslike new issues of the Star Wars, Men in Black, Jack Ryan, and Mummy franchises) did not. It was difficult not to like a film that gave Tobey Maguire – then the twiggy, faintly haunted-looking oddball of films like The Ice Storm, Pleasantville, and The Cider House Rules – a chance to play action hero, that part-unmasked him not for a pivotal plot reveal but for a swooning kiss in the rain, and that briefly interrupted a key sequence of digitised urban carnage to let gangly, huge

If Spider-Man works well as an insider film for outsiders, it’s largely due to Raimi’s shaggy B-movie sensibility. He wasn’t an obvious captain for a four-quadrant studio colossus with a six-figure budget, having made his name on the grisly, mordantly funny Evil Dead films, attempted his own stylish superhero original (to little commercial interest) in Darkman, and spent the 1990s skipping genres in such adult-targeted films as The Quick and the Dead and A Simple Plan. Before Columbia Pictures chair Amy Pascal took a chance on Raimi’s sincere comic-nerd enthusiasm – a virtue reflected in the film’s genial sympathy for misfits, as well as a brash, high-key aesthetic that aims to evoke the stylised panels of the original comics at every turn – everyone from chic stylist David Fincher to Batman saviour Tim Burton to family-film merchant Chris Columbus (who passed to launch the Harry Potter franchise instead) was considered.

Raimi, too, lobbied for Maguire’s unexpected casting as Peter Parker, over the studio’s preference for more buffly handsome teen-idol types like Jude Law and James Franco (who was eventually cast as Parker’s snivelling frenemy Harry Osborn instead). It was a coup that may have saved not only the film, but possibly Marvel’s entire long-term agenda. In retrospect, it’s Maguire’s sweet, strange boy-man quality – and his gentle chemistry with Kirsten Dunst, similarly cast against studio expectations as his sprightly-sad Mary Jane – that carry the film through some pretty rough patches in Koepp’s script, most notably a villain who simply doesn’t have the goods. Even in 2002, despite Willem Dafoe’s most lascivious efforts, the Green Goblin appeared stiffly visualised and awkwardly motivated; it was the rare superhero film in which the pyrotechnic action kept coming as a distraction from a more compelling relationship story.

Raimi and his team worked out those kinks in 2004’s Spider-Man 2, a sleeker, sharper affair that carried on the first film’s endearing character work while introducing a richer, funnier villain in Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus and aiming for more ambitious visual majesty – with smoother, less chintzy effects work to boot. It remains the pinnacle of the Spider-Man universe: Raimi’s ill-advised second sequel fell short, as did neither of the subsequent reboot phases, with Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland both broadly appealing but lacking Maguire’s poignant gawkiness.

After twenty years, Spider-Man has become a key property in something far less intimate and endearing than Raimi’s comparatively modest 2002 blockbuster. Since Holland’s turn in the role has been enfolded into Marvel’s tangled network of Avengers offshoots, any new individual Spider-Man films have little time for the pleasantly banal everyday concerns of the early-millennial Peter Parker. There’s not just a city to save – a priority that seemed more pressing in a film released months after the 9/11 attacks, as Raimi’s film espoused all-for-one-and-one-for-all New Yorker sentiments – but an entire multiverse to preserve.

By the time Maguire’s Spider-Man reappeared in last year’s tangled Spider-Man: No Way Home, the quaintness of his take on the character (down to his organic, wrist-based web-spinning abilities, always a more exciting body-horror development than a fancifully enabled suit) had become quip fodder for future generations. Even Raimi has been brought back into the Marvel fold, directing the latest outing for Spidey’s MCU colleague Doctor Strange, which hits theatres this week. Back in 2002, the filmmaker was under pressure to reanimate a dormant comic-book universe; now, he just has to keep the machine running.