‘Spider-Man’ – When Sam Raimi Cracked the Modern Superhero Formula

I didn’t know who Sam Raimi was at 10-years-old, but I knew Spider-Man. The animated series was part of my Saturday morning ritual as a kid. And like every kid in 2002, I was stoked for the live-action Spider-Man.

I was a Batman fan my whole life. But after Spider-Man’s dazzling and high-flying cut to black – which gave my scrawny kid body such a weightless sensation that I thought was only possible on roller coasters – I was convinced I’d get a Spider-Man tattoo. I didn’t, sadly, but I’d become a fan of Raimi’s iteration of the web crawler forever.

Spider-Man easily bested 2000’s X-Men as the most realistic portrayal of a superhero movie I’d seen up until that point. Christopher Nolan would one-up that in three years’ time with Batman Begins, but in May 2002 I was BUZZING, and Spider-Man quickly (and briefly) became my identity. You know that montage in Toy Story when Andy replaces Woody for Buzz Lightyear-themed everything? That was me swapping Batman for Spider-Man as my personality trait.

Had I known who Sam Raimi was then, I’d have probably shat myself during the opening credits. Darkman, The Quick and the Dead, the nightmares that The Evil Dead gave me, etc. Xena: Warrior Princess, too, was part of my TV programming growing up. I didn’t know it then, but Raimi played a huge role in both my childhood wonder and terror like a low-to-middle budget Spielberg. In the years since I’ve become a Raimi superfan, and it’s fun to revisit Spider-Man as a moment in his career and in modern film history. Because in retrospect, he’s the weirdest choice for a superhero movie, and he’s the guy you want all the same.

Raimi’s an odd choice because 1.) he’s a horror director and 2.) he’s got a tremendous sense of style. He kickstarted a trend of horror directors who’d come to own superheroes by the next decade – Zack Snyder, James Gunn, James Wan, David F. Sandberg, Andy Muschietti.

“Horror” was a dirty word all through the 80s, and this was the era Raimi got his foot in the door. He, Bruce Campbell, and a bunch of friends went into the woods to make their first ever feature. If you’re a film dork like myself, you know Raimi’s filmmaking origins by heart. If you don’t, I highly recommend Blank Check Pod’s current miniseries on the films of Sam Raimi, where they provide an oral (and slightly more accurate) history on the making of The Evil Dead.

Whatever your feelings on the genre, it was a gory canvas for Raimi to find his voice. The Evil Dead is as shoestring low-budget as they come, so he had to get utmost creative with the tools at hand. Evil Dead’s trademark “cabin run,” where the unseen demonic entity charges on the heels of some poor soul, was done by sticking the 16mm camera on the end of a 2×4, and Raimi and the crew took turns running through the trees and smoke machines. Through his ingenuity of the most primitive of shooting systems, he made a book with an angry face feel VICIOUS, and he made a tiny cabin in the woods feel like a haunted mansion out of a Shirley Jackson novel.

This brings me to Raimi’s style. If The Evil Dead is a filmmaker in his humble origins, then Evil Dead II is a quantum leap.

Army of Darkness, five years later, is straight up bonkers: manic staging, ballsy angles, and ZOOMS… lots of zooms

By the time you get to The Quick and the Dead, he’s gone haywire.

And this is what he’s been accused of as a filmmaker: all style, no substance. This led to his “director-for-hire” years from 1998-2000. A Simple Plan and For Love of the Game are devoid of Raimi’s usual flair that you’re surprised they bear his name. Not to say these are bad or boring movies; they’re certainly more “performance” based. But it does feel like he’s barred from even tilting the camera to appease the studio’s way of moviemaking. It reminds me of Paul Rudd’s surf lesson to Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall: “Don’t do anything. Nothing.”

Raimi wanted to be a company man, to be sure. Adapting to a studio’s formalized house style was the only way to ensure you’d get steady work as a director. (Back then, directors signed multi-picture deals the same way actors do now for superheroes & sequels.) The Gift is the only movie in that three-year run that feels like a Raimi movie, if only because it’s a supernatural “thriller” that deep down is a horror movie.

It seemed like Raimi had put away his bag of tricks for good. Then came Spider-Man and the chance to unleash his impulses with all the money and equipment he’d ever need. The guy who scrambled to afford another roll of film on a cabin-in-the-woods movie was given the keys to the studio, finally.

And it’s what I love about rewatching Spider-Man now – seeing the things he was honing in on in Evil Dead effectively polished to a shine. Norman Osbourne’s transformation into the Goblin is practically Cheryl’s demonic possession done by way of a super-soldier serum. When Norman talks to himself in the mirror, it’s the comic book version of Evil Dead’s own zany mirror motif. Everything about Green Goblin’s scenes is the fulfillment of Raimi’s tenure in horror. If anybody could turn a green meanie into a truly sinister villain, it would be Sam Raimi.

All the angles and zooms he had previously ironed out were suddenly a perfect fit for the material. Flip through any comic, it’s not all pristine 90-degree profiles. There’s turns and tilts from one panel to another, or rows of character’s faces in gradual closeup like a slow-mo version of a smash zoom. And those suiting-up montages, or them damn-near action scene transitions like some 1950s news reel – all things that were in Raimi’s DNA like a lifelong comic book nerd.

Yet, these aren’t the goofiest things in the movie. It’s Peter Parker’s voiceover. Spider-Man is bookended by a voiceover and it’s part of what makes his journey so endearing, however cheesy it might be to start your movie with, “you’re probably wondering how I got here…” Because Peter Parker is exactly the kinda guy imagining himself as the protagonist of his own movie.

I won’t get entangled in a debate of “who’s the best Spider-Man?” All I’ll say is that Tobey Maguire is my pick through and through – a dork, a dweeb, and so awkwardly aloof that he’s slightly uncomfortable to be around. He’s Anthony Michael Hall in Breakfast Club, or George McFly in Back to the Future. I’m aware Tom Holland fits that description for many, so I suppose Maguire fit the bill for me because he was the one I saw first. Maguire’s Peter Parker is Peter Pan, the kid who never grew up on the inside but his hormones never got the memo. It’s why the youth pastor joke in Spider-Man: No Way Home kills.

Do I care that Raimi’s movie knicks the web shooters? No, because it’s a take-it-or-leave-it detail that doesn’t hinder Peter’s journey at all. (It’s part of a montage in The Amazing Spider-Man, and addressed in one brief scene in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Like, congrats sticklers, you got what you wanted. Can we move on with the rest of the movie now?) Fidelity aside, Raimi understood that these superhero adaptations NEED visual justification to exist, that the cinematic language has to be as inventive as the panels they’re lifted from. Otherwise, why bother when you can just reread the comic? Coming to life on screen requires a pulse, an energy, and a personality on top of trying to make this “real.”

Yes, Spider-Man grounds Peter Parker in a (then) modern day New York City. You can be as serious as you want with Uncle Ben’s death or your escalating villain conflict. But the movie can’t be afraid to get campy, colorful, or cut loose from time to time. It’s called “Spider-Man,” after all, a guy who gets bit by a radioactive spider and fights another guy who throws pumpkin bombs. (One thing about the suit: I love that it’s prone to wear-and-tear, that Peter is vulnerable in it instead of impervious.)

There are obvious things to nit-pick twenty years on. Dated effects shots, jokes that some right-wing millennial publication will point out as “un-woke” for cheap clout; Mary Jane as less a character than Peter’s dream girl and ultimate damsel in distress, or lazy scenarios for Spider-Man to save other bystanders in danger. These I can happily let slide because visually this movie still pops. Just look at the chaos Raimi and crew orchestrated in camera for the Festival Day scene. Costumes lit practically, teams of background actors running everywhere, and COLORS, baby, so much color to pull your eyes. The live-action to CGI ratio in this movie is jaw-dropping.

The way Marvel makes their movies now, 80% of the frame would be questionably blue screen, which is depressing. It took 18 months for John Dykstra and his team at ILM to render Spider-Man’s final swing sequence, which amounts to 30 seconds in the movie. These days, VFX studios are tasked with completing essentially the entire movie—while the damn thing is playing in theaters! I get that this was a workaround in the pandemic and a way to control spoilers since you’re shooting in a warehouse instead of on-location in NYC. But wow, does this overload a group of artists to meet an unrealistic deadline, which is why there are so many delays. (VFX houses are the over-crunched game developers of studio filmmaking.) This is how Marvel and Disney are able to put out 3-4 of these movies a year, meanwhile Mission: Impossible or John Wick only come around once every 3-4 years. I’m not saying it’s bad. I just think we lost something in the process.

As is the case with anything successful, it’s copycats took the wrong lessons to heart. The Fantastic Four movies follow in a similarly earnest Raimi spirit, but relies on humor and catchy songs to give it a personality. These are movies that want the setup more than it wants a story (or a cast with actual chemistry), so they learn the hard way that going through the motions of the “superhero accident” isn’t the same thing as earning the emotion or spectacle of a team coming together.

X-Men, I think, formalized the house-style that Marvel-Disney would later perfect and make a billion-dollar trade out of. Pool together an ensemble of heroes you care about and you can get buck wild with the set-pieces. But the more superpowers there are to juggle, the more you’ve got an animated movie on your hands, which wouldn’t be so bad except when The Incredibles or Into the Spider-Verse are doing it better than you.

Spider-Man, and especially Blade just a few years prior, are much more concentrated affairs that are indicative of their director’s voice all these years later. Hell, even something like Ang Lee’s Hulk movie (which I don’t like but respect) is genuinely aspiring towards the visual language of the comics rather than the beat-by-beat storyline. Spider-Man and Blade have aged so well because they feel like movies written, shot, and directed by the title characters, back when the ambition was to make one of these movies at a time. (2002 only had Spider-Man and Blade II. Can you imagine?)

It’s funny reading the reviews of Raimi’s earlier films because his style seemed to grate on a lot of critics. And it’s funny reading some reviews of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness now. Raimi’s campy, silly, over-the-top style is an annoyance to some and sorely dated to others. Style, ironically enough, is what the MCU sorely needs, and Doctor Strange could surely use a bit of goofiness the same way Thor needed to become a cartoon to feel alive as a character. I, for one, am tired of the Mephisto theories, the Deadpool rumors, and the Fantastic Four fan casts. Raimi’s goofy ass return to the camera is all the spectacle I need.

This is a matter of preference, of course. I know Raimi can’t fix the Marvel-Disney industrial complex of making movies no more than Chloe Zhao could, no more than DP Bill Pope could. I’d just appreciate it if the MCU put some stank on their movies aside from cameos and crossovers. If they’d let cinematographers and directors and stunt coordinators and physical production crews do their thing instead of dumping the movie’s integrity on over-worked (and non-union) VFX artists. We don’t care about “craft” or “vision” anymore, it’s the studio’s agenda for fan service that dominates our attention spans, and I find that so so so depressing.

Because 20 years ago, Sam Raimi showed us the unbridled joy of the standalone superhero movie.


2 thoughts on “‘Spider-Man’ – When Sam Raimi Cracked the Modern Superhero Formula

  1. I loved a lot of his classic sequences in Multiverse 😉 I do appreciate that the MCU is at least branching out and letting directors do their thing to a certain extent and interestingly enough those movies are the ones seemingly coming back as most divisive amongst the fans.
    Now they just need to try some stronger screenwriters.

    1. Yes! Not a knock on Wanda, but the Raimi factor was the strongest engine of the movie for me. Didn’t care for the big cameos, I just loved that visually this was 1000x more operatic and straightup fun than the first one. Co-sign on the need for better writers because wow, this thing reads like it was written by a blender or something– ESPECIALLY the cameo stuff 😬

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s