We, and Peter Parker, have heard it a zillion times before: with great power, comes great responsibility. The watchwords of Stan Lee are suffused into the very fabric of who Spider-Man is as a character, and how Sam Raimi brought him to the big screen in 2002 is no exception. But Raimi’s first swing with Spidey balances its earnest, comic book glee with an examination of just what power actually does to the men who wield it, Spider or otherwise.
The early aughts were an important time for superhero movies. The ultra-camp excesses of the Joel Schumacher Batman films — derided at the time, but now held in a rightfully higher esteem, even with those Bat-nipples — scared studios from the work of just how to adapt comic book superheroes to the big screen. Spider-Man’s inception back in the ‘60s provided the formula that would give us early classics like X-Men and Raimi’s eventual trilogy: a hero that felt relatable to the average person. He wasn’t some haughty rich man who funnels wealth into crime-fighting for a personal vendetta, but a down-on-his-luck geek who has just as much trouble finding a job or maintaining the relationships of his life as he does punching out cackling supervillains.
Spider-Man understands this deeply, even if some aspects of its approach while doing so have not aged with a particular grace in the last 18 years. The opening act’s focus on Peter’s high-school life (“life” being a diplomatic word, considering he spends most of it in absolute hell) gives us a perfect picture of just how miserable Peter (Tobey Maguire) is made by the power structures around him. It’s made so much weirder by the fact that all these clearly not teenaged people are pretending to be in high school (we see you and appreciate you, Joe Manganiello as Flash Thompson).
The slower pace to build up Peter’s school life, as well as Uncle Ben and Aunt May’s relationship before the former’s tragic but inevitable demise, gives us time to see these toxic power structures in action. But that slower pace also means the film has to escalate very quickly once we get to the inciting incident of Ben’s death. The moment Peter’s journey from arrogance to heroic hubris (which we’ll get to later) actually occurs feels less like a natural arc for the teenager and more like a flipped switch. And though Willem Dafoe’s turn as Norman Osborn and his demented alter-ego, the Green Goblin, is utterly joyful and campy — he knows exactly the sort of movie he’s in — it likewise does not get as satisfying a progression between his jump from scrupulous scientist to full-on mania.
At times, Spider-Man almost loves comics too much. The film takes the visual language of comic book panels for montages that feel like fever dreams more than they do an effective way of conveying a scene’s motion, which likewise gives the film a clunky pacing while it gets swinging. For instance, Peter designing his costume for the first time is much longer and weirder than you remember.
But what Spider-Man nails on a tonal level is what made it a huge hit at the time and keeps it relevant to this very day: for all its attempts to be slick and cool, to be taken seriously even at its silliest, just like its protagonist, it is deeply, earnestly uncynical. Spider-Man works because it believes in itself, whether it’s in its human complexities and relationships, or the moments where a Spandex-clad man with spider-powers is beating the snot out of a cackling Dafoe trapped in the grim rictus of the Green Goblin’s demonic visage. (Sidenote, while we’re being earnest: I’m sorry, but Nickelback’s “Hero” is good, actually.)
That earnestness applies to its unabashed appreciation of the source material — never hidden away out of a fear that it’s too weird or too silly, but actively embraced, from Phil Jimenez’s hands sketching out Peter’s initial costume ideas, to the almost beat-for-beat take on Amazing Fantasy #15’s original spin on the Spidey origin. But it also applies to the lens through which it presents its characters, unfiltered and as they are, for all their flaws, whether they’re meant to be heroes or villains. It’s a sincere presentation of these people as rich and complex characters, and that sincerity equally applies to what Spider-Man has to say about power, both systemic and superheroic.
Naturally, that power system revolves around the men of the movie — because they have most of it. Just as earnestly as it presents its comic book sources, Spider-Men earnestly presents the vast majority of its male characters as abusers of power. Almost every male character in the film has power, from strength, wealth, cultural privilege, or otherwise (even Mary Jane’s father, never directly seen but established as an abusive force in her life) or somehow gains access to it over the course of the film, and exploits it in terrible ways.
There’s Norman Osborn, already wielding his scientific and business acumen as a cudgel to profiteer off defence contracts. When he’s confronted by the potential loss of that power in Oscorp being bought out from under him, Osborn chases an alternate power in inadvertently becoming the Green Goblin, who teases Spider-Man with the allure of that power in the film’s excellent rooftop proposal scene. J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson has become a definitive personification of the character for good reason, but even when played for comedic effect, his role in Spider-Man is to abuse his power at the Bugle, not just in bullying his workers (and his wife, given the exasperated home decor questions he fields to Betty Brant throughout multiple scenes), but in twisting public and police perception of Spider-Man out of his own bias.
Even Harry Osborn (James Franco) cannot escape this toxicity. Initially, Harry is presented to us as a boy trying to shrug off the privilege of the Osborn name, trying to hide his father’s escort car or the wealth that would give him access to education better than the public school system. But Harry also almost immediately abuses his power moments after this introduction, fobbing off Peter’s geeky enthusiasm for their fateful field trip before using that same enthusiasm to try and woo Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). Harry’s inability to escape his family name’s privilege — his unwillingness to do so, even as Norman’s persona deteriorates to open abuse of both Harry and the people he ostensibly cares about — runs throughout the film, painting a rich picture of what would be to come in later entries in Raimi’s saga.
And Peter, our hero, can’t escape the allure of power either. Even if he is the victim of those with power in the early moments of the movie, when Peter himself gains power he almost immediately abuses it as well. He shirks his commitments to Aunt May and Uncle Ben to explore his newfound abilities, he confronts Flash Thompson’s former power over him, unknowingly or otherwise, by taking advantage of his newly enhanced strength. Even though it’s a system that abuses him in turn, his decision to use his abilities in a wrestling competition — a world that sees him as a weakling until it quickly becomes easy to see him and his abilities as exploitable — for self-gain rather than to help others is the ultimate catalyst for Peter learning his iconic lesson about the balance of power and responsibility.
But after Peter has ostensibly learned that lesson, he continues to exploit his power in other ways — specifically, how the mask of Spider-Man allows him to pursue Mary Jane, even when he knows that Harry has entered a romantic relationship with her. It’s not explicit, but it’s there, hidden under the guise of his heroic persona. By concealing his alter-ego from her, in and out of the mask he preys on MJ’s attraction to Spider-Man, pushing her to chase those feelings as her relationship with Harry breaks down (Mary Jane’s life in this movie is nothing but bad men!).
Even the iconic upside-down kiss is predicated on this: Peter knows he shouldn’t engage in MJ’s flirtation because he knows her situation with Harry, and yet does so anyway because he has the power to do so. Although it’s presented as a burden in the film’s final moments, it’s a power he exploits by turning down her expression of love for him at Norman’s funeral — it comes from the heroic perspective of keeping her safe from his new identity, but it also comes after Peter has essentially spent most of the movie pushing MJ into acknowledging and investigating her feelings for him.
If not even Peter Parker can escape the dark side of power then, which men in Spider-Man can? Really, there’s only one: Uncle Ben. Ben is the most wholesome man in all of Spider-Man — supportive of May, understanding even in his moments of struggle communicating with Peter (who is brushing him off because of the newfound power), and understanding of the changing world around him. Ben is presented as entirely uncorrupted of the power those around him have succumbed to because, of course, he is the person who has taken the movie’s — Stan Lee’s — message to heart: power must be tempered with responsibility.
In laying that bare for the audience with the same earnest sincerity it lays bare both its love of the comic books that inspired it and the toxic power dynamics it presents elsewhere, Spider-Man reinforces its most important lesson with an even greater clarity. Even if it is a lesson Raimi’s protagonist will continue to struggle with throughout his trilogy.