Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man: Rewatching Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy.
With the news that Tobey Maguire has joined the cast of the third Marvel Spider-Man movie, I was prompted to return to Sam Raimi’s original trilogy and give it a rewatch. It’s been a few years since I last really sat down and properly took in these movies, so it would be an interesting watch regardless of whether or not they held up. What made the process even more interesting, though, was the fact that this time I would be watching them with my kids, both of whom adore the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and were very keen to see what all the fuss was about.
The first thing that struck me, and I want to get this one out of the way quickly, was that despite John Favreau often being credited as the tone-setter for the MCU, it is overtly clear that without Raimi’s Spider-Man we would have been in for a very different ride. Iron Man blends action, humor, and drama in a way that is incredibly reminiscent of all three of Raimi’s movies, and there’s no doubt in my mind that these films were a key inspiration on how the MCU would be shaped by the folks in charge. There is a wholesome edge to the Raimi films that is also there in the MCU, especially in those Phase One movies, and so I think the director deserves more credit than he’s given there.
Perhaps more interestingly, though, is that while the MCU often comes under fire for its somewhat dull look and washed-out colors, the Raimi Spider-Man films are brimming with comic-book-style visuals and bright color-pallet. The whole trilogy has a real vibrance to it that just isn’t there when we look at a lot of the later MCU movies (although it’s worth noting that most of Phase One does also employ a similar sort of punchy, comic-book aesthetic).
Moreover, Raimi’s films are flashy and inventive in their approach to the visuals. Whereas Tom Holland’s Spidey-sense is visualized through the hair on his arms standing up, in 2002’s Spider-Man we get a really interesting visual representation – admittedly involving some really shaky early 2000s CG – that’s a fun little sequence in its own right. It also plays a key part in the plot, coming back later during the first film’s climactic battle, which brings me nicely to my next point.
In Raimi’s films, the drama comes from Spider-Man himself. So much of the plot for all three movies is born out of Peter Parker’s personal conflict between doing the right thing and being his own person. Whereas in the MCU-era Spider-Man the drama comes from outside conflicts, such as Michael Keaton’s The Vulture or Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio, in the Raimi trilogy we spend far more time learning about the character of Peter Parker, who he is and his wants and needs and desires.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with external conflict, it’s just not quite as interesting. Perhaps this comes partly out of necessity. The MCU introduces the character after he has already gained his abilities, and so we don’t get the benefit of learning about who he was pre-superhero. This was likely a sensible decision since we’d already seen the origin story play out on the big screen twice by that point, and I don’t think audiences would have been all that willing to sit through it yet again, but it does mean that we lose a key element of what makes Spider-Man… well, Spider-Man; his humanity.
Holland manages a great balance between Peter Parker and Spider-Man, but he never really gets the chance to truly bring a fully fleshed out quality to the character. By contrast, the Raimi trilogy is arguably more interested in Peter Parker than it is in Spider-Man and never misses a chance to fully explore how each event affects the person behind the mask.
This focus on the more human quality also extends to the movies’ villains. All of them are given full backstories and serve as major characters in each of the movies – so much so, in fact, that it would actually wind up being detrimental to the third movie, but we’ll come back to that – with their own goals and their own story arcs. While the MCU-era Spider-Man films would certainly put more of a focus on humanizing the villains than other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even then they hardly compete with the Raimi films, which pretty much split their focus between the hero and the villains.
There is also a clear creative voice running throughout the Raimi movies that is noticeably absent from any of the MCU movies. Of course, this is an inevitability, since Raimi’s films are helmed by a single filmmaker without the burden of slotting into a wider franchise, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s a welcome addition and feels sorely missed throughout all of the MCU. There are no really great standout sequences in the MCU Spider-Man movies, at least none that compare to the inventiveness and creativity on display in some of the scenes in Raimi’s films. Whereas Spider-Man 2 offers us the incredible Doctor Octopus hospital sequence, Spider-Man in a lift, the Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head sequence, that spectacular moment on the train, and a genuinely emotional human moment in the finale where Mary-Jane leaves her wedding to be with Peter, Homecoming offers up, er… two guys in a car.
Now, look, I don’t mean to downplay the tenseness and ingenuity of that sequence. I’m a fan. It is a genuinely engaging part of the movie that really does stick out, and the twist just before it is epic, placing the audience in a position of knowledge that neither of the characters is certain of, but let’s be real, it’s not comparable.
Admittedly, though, the first film in Raimi’s trilogy feels somewhat quaint and old-fashioned now. The CG is very dated and there’s the sense of a director under the studio thumb, unable to make some of the creative choices they would choose to make otherwise. Spider-Man 2, of course, dispels with that notion. It is a truly epic piece of filmmaking and is legitimately one of the best movies ever made. It remains the best superhero movie ever made, at least in my opinion, balancing action, drama, and some absolutely brilliant moments of humor with masterful precision.
But then there’s Spider-Man 3. While everything I’ve mentioned above still stands, the film does focus on the characters, it does include some great visuals, and has a real sense of authorship, it is true that it is also an overblown, overstuffed mess in many areas. Venom is underutilized, Sandman is a dull antagonist, and it’s really weird that Bryce Dallas Howard humps a photocopier.
Personally, I’ve never actually had an issue with the whole “emo-Spidey” sequence. To me that makes sense. The Raimi films make a big point of placing Peter Parker firmly in that awkward nerd space and Maguire excels in the role, perfectly capturing that George McFly-esque unusualness. I totally believe then that when this Peter Parker thinks “cool”, he thinks precisely what we get on screen, and it’s in keeping with the already slightly heightened absurdity of the world Raimi creates.
The villains are where the movie does genuinely fall, as outlined above. There’s simply just too much going on for the film to really hit the heights of the two preceding it. For all their complexities, ultimately Spider-Man 1 and 2 are simple tales, whereas Spider-Man 3 attempts to cover everything from the Mary-Jane and Peter love story, to Harry with amnesia, to retconning Uncle Ben’s death, to a backstory for all of its villains, and an arc for Aunt May as well.
But, despite all its flaws, when rewatching the trilogy through this time I realized something. Spider-Man 3 may not be perfect, but it really isn’t all that bad. It’s certainly not as bad as we make it out to be. It has some excellently emotional and well-earned character beats. The first fight between Peter and Harry is epic, the Sandman creation scene hauntingly beautiful, and yes… I really do enjoy “emo-Spidey”.
Ultimately, though, it feels like the final chapter in a trilogy. It does a pretty decent job of concluding a story in a way that offers both closure and hints at a potential future, and that’s something that, sadly, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to truly get from something as expansive and all-encompassing as the MCU. Even Endgame, with all its suggestion of climatic finiteness, wasn’t the end, and there’s a part of me that’s worried maybe adding Maguire’s Spidey back into the mix for this multi-verse hoping third outing for Holland’s wallcrawler will undo what is, for the most, a well-realized, well-executed, and enjoyable trio of films that conclude in a satisfying way.