How 'Spider-Man' (2002) STILL manages to feel different...
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002 redefined the term ‘blockbuster’. Not only a massive box-office success (the first film to make $100 million in a single weekend) but a critical one too, it used the solid foundation of Bryan Singer (ew) and his work on 2000’s X-Men adaptation to create the superhero film by which most others has since been judged. But it’s not only superhero films that were changed. As a big-budget, effects-ridden spectacle it was difficult to ignore. Raimi’s swooping camera blended in with Spidey’s New York swinging perfectly, and Danny Elfman’s score became the rousing, goosebump-inducing soundtrack to its success.
It’s strange to think that the film isn’t even twenty years old yet, especially since we’ve had two reboots of the character on the big-screen since then. Nostalgically there’s always going to be a tendency to see the film as a sure-fire classic for me. As a boy I was soaked into the atmosphere of the billboards, the videogame, the fantastic soundtrack (they’re WATCHING us!) and even though I had to look away when Peter Parker is actually bitten by the radioactive spider (too scary for young me) I felt like it was the perfect embodiment of escapism.
Of course it’s not perfect. Many argue that Tobey Maguire’s performance as the snarky, quipping superhero from the comics was lacking much character despite his Peter Parker being pretty bang on. The Green Goblin design is also…a choice that I now automatically accept from childhood too, and even though it’s sequel is inarguably better (and I’d argue, pretty darn close to perfection) there’s one thing about Spider-Man that I find incredibly interesting when compared to more recent interpretations of the character – how it rests its entire narrative on the shoulders of an initially-passive protagonist.
Before we go into it, we have to define the difference between an active and a passive protagonist.
An active protagonist is exactly what it says on the tin. They’re instrumental in moving forward the narrative of whatever they’re in. Whether that be through an outgoing or adventurous attitude or a willingness to try new things. Think of a detective in a crime story, actively trying to find the truth because it’s their job.
A passive protagonist on the other hand is the opposite. They’re content with the world in which they live in and are usually hesitant towards change. Stereotypically they’re loner characters too, but we’ll bring that back up later.
There are exceptions for both, and characters can often change during the narrative from one to another due to complications or situations, it’s all about the dynamic between the character(s) and the plot. If you have a passive protagonist at the centre of your story you can develop them and keep them involved through the use of colourful side-characters and unfortunate events that play off their discomfort. Think of The Dude in The Big Lebowski, throughout the insanity of the film his only real interest is to keep living his life and get things back to the way they were. Many coming of age dramas like Richard Ayoade’s Submarine feature a passive protagonist plunging into the unknown depths of becoming active in order to achieve a goal. Young Oliver Tate goes out of his comfort zone in order to win the affection of Jordana Bevan. It’s a common opinion that passive protagonists are used by lazy screenwriters as it forces them to pile on events one after another and focus on the more menial aspects of storytelling, but David Koepp (Panic Room’s) screenplay for Spider-Man avoids many of the pitfalls this frame of mind generates.
The film opens up with Peter Parker (Maguire) giving the least-enticing narration possible with “who am I? You sure you wanna know?” It’s become a joke now but Tobey Maguire is the epitome of my point for this entire article. From his pursed lips to his quaint demeanour, his nerdy and speckled Parker is every subject of bullying ever put to film. From the glasses to the combed hair it’s archetype 101, but the first speech of the entire film actually dictates the promise of active affection in the form of Mary Jane (MJ) Watson (Kirsten Dunst). The proclaimed ‘girl next door’ is the untold objects of Peter’s affections, and this introduction serves as a promise that she’ll be wooed by this bumbling fool.
Now…let’s compare this with other Peter Parkers, shall we? Andrew Garfield’s Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is again, a nerd at school. But this time, he’s a cool nerd. He gets around on a skateboard and builds things in his spare time whilst pining for his missing parents. His photography is an active interest instead of just seeming like a job entrusted to him, which is what Maguire’s situation feels like. Garfield is an active Parker because he’s an active personality. It’s the character’s portrayal in the MCU that’s difficult to narrow down however, as we haven’t seen any of Tom Holland’s portrayal of Parker pre-superpowers, but in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) Peter is again outgoing and goes after what he wants. Both these portrayals make for great depictions of the superhero, but their Parker’s end up just feeling like the current trend of ‘funny, good-looking main character’ syndrome.
Back in 2002, before that craze we were stuck in the ‘dweeb becomes hunk’ phase. Whether you were a dorky science geek who spent all his free time helping his aunt and uncle out around the house or a powerless normal Joe who was worried his parents were going to find out he wasn’t special, your film usually involved you becoming a muscular traditional hero. And yes I was talking about Sky High (side note: you should all watch Sky High). The fact is, everything about Tobey Maguire screams that he’s the type of guy who wouldn’t want to bother anyone with a potentially-fatal spider-bite that makes him ill the moment he gets home. The character of Peter Parker, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, has greatness thrust upon him instead of seeking it out. After waking up with abs, super-strength and improved eyesight the very nature of the character choosing to become a superhero is an active one.
His improved confidence doesn’t even allow him to make a move on MJ, however. We all know that it’s the death of uncle Ben that acts as the catalyst for his crime-fighting ways, but 2002’s Spider-Man chucks MJ into the mix by having Peter utilise his powers for, well, greed. He desperately wants to gather up enough money to afford a car that will impress her because…well, in his mind material goods are what gets the girl I guess? You can imagine both Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland’s incarnations taking greater advantage of the situation and renewed confidence and yet Koepp keeps Parker in check. This actually increases his everyman quality whilst emphasising his quirkier sensibilities. He even accidentally beats Flash Thompson in a fist fight and is branded a ‘freak’ due to him doing it without even fighting back.
It’s funny to think that the most success he has with MJ pre-spider suit is when he’s being honest in all his dorky affections as they converse outside their houses. Turns out MJ doesn’t like it when he hunches, which is advice I constantly go against. It’s a difficult line to walk, as Peter deliberately creates his suit and becomes an amateur wrestler in order to achieve his goal – peak active protagonist. It’s in his last interaction with Uncle Ben (pre-shooting) that we get a glimpse of Parker’s upbringing and why he is the way he is. Ben offers cautionary advice on worrying about the man he’s becoming, and it all comes across as quite daunting and nihilistic. For a child with no parents being raised in such a conservative household of course he’s going to end up becoming Tobey Maguire.
Then once the superhero stuff starts to kick off the active and passive parallels become clearer. The determination to save lives and do good is represented by his Spider-Man alter-ego, which is in-turn bolstered by Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osbourne going insane as the Green Goblin. From then on we’re caught in this strange dichotomy that defines the film and makes it unlike anything else. Peter loses his job at Dr. Connor’s lab and is asked by Norman about his other skills, to which he replied that he was ‘thinking of something in photography’ the moment the Daily Bugle ad for photos of Spider-Man comes into his view. This is the bare minimum an active protagonist can do, the next step would be Aunt May literally forcing Peter do ask for a job, yet seconds later the same character is beating up bad guys and saving lives.
It works because it helps lend an extra layer to the idea of his alter-ego. Who would possibly think someone like Peter Parker could be Spider-Man? Only insane people. It doesn’t make sense. The film isn’t even content with being a straight up origin story either, and includes elements of swaying ideology as Goblin tries to lure Spider-Man to evil. And to be fair…he makes some good points. ‘In spite of everything you’ve done for them, eventually, they will hate you’ and it’s true. Jameson already spews vitriolic hate speech against the hero, and hell even audiences would turn their back on him after Spider-Man 3 (not as bad as people say, still a good time but just too much studio interference). The conversation between the two on a rooftop as Spidey is paralysed is permanently sketched into my brain, and it’s the small hints of their dynamic that leaves Dafoe’s cameos in the sequels as welcome intrusions. Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 encapsulates power corruption brilliantly, but whilst the two are their alter-egos they don’t really converse at all. Understanding Spider-Man’s altruism means that he won’t let anyone come to harm is his biggest weakness, it’s what he’s defined by and it’s completely absent from Parker’s identity.
Whilst Aunt May is in the hospital she tells Peter that he’s too mysterious for MJ to know her, and that casts a doubt over his passive attitude. Passive individuals are often mistaken for mysterious due to their sheltered lifestyle, but here it’s utilised in order to disguise the superhero alter-ego. In fact, it’s only when Norman Osbourne discovers Peter is Spider-Man that things go awry and people he cares about get hurt. I think part of the reason why this dichotomy of active and passive isn’t so prevalent in the sequels is because both MJ and Peter already know the situation, they’re in and have achieved their goals from the first film. Peter wins MJ’s heart which has been the object of his affection for years, and MJ manages to find some success as an actor. However the first film ends on the promise of an active Parker, as he gives up his ultimate goal in order to focus on Spider-Man for the time being, setting up the sequel and its ideology wonderfully.
What makes Spider-Man feel different from other screen iterations of the character is a solid mixture of casting and tonal decisions that manages to (most of the time) comfortably justify its protagonist’s passive decisions and narratively force him into making the necessary changes that allow him to become the web-slinger. It goes without saying that the bright, colourful aesthetic and direction from Sam Raimi’s fluid camera are pivotal too, but those have been spoken about before at length.
Personally, it’s still my favourite incarnation (well, that and the 90s animated show/Into the Spider-Verse) about a teenage boy who undergoes strenuous physical changes that define the man he eventually becomes…
OH MY GOD ARE THE CHANGES FROM THE SPIDER BITE A METAPHOR FOR PUBERTY??!!!
For another cool reason why the film rules check out this scene analysis of the climax from 'Films & Stuff'
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