Spider-Man: Looking back at Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s trilogy
James R | On 17, Dec 2021
As Spider-Man prepares to swing his way into the multiverse in Spider-Man: No Way Home, the franchise is about to give fans a mash-up of all the live-action Spidey feature films in recent memory. But with 20 odd years since modern-day Peter Parker started out on the big screen, we look back at the trilogy that started Tobey Maguire as everyone’s favourite friendly web-slinger.
“Who am I? You sure you want to know?” Those were the words that first introduced us to Spider-Man on the big screen, and Tobey Maguire delivered them with all the open-eyed intrigue of a character whose origin story hadn’t been retold on screen umpteen times since. A couple of decades on, what’s incredible about Sam Raimi’s take on Spidey is just how old-fashioned it is – in the best way possible.
The 2002 film was one of the first modern superhero blockbusters, arriving hot on the heels of X-Men and Blade, and it’s impossible to see how the eventual MCU that sprung up from Iron Man onwards could have existed without Raimi’s trilogy laying the groundwork. And yet it’s also markedly different in tone, style and appearance, with Raimi going decidedly retro in a way that plays like a day-lit cousin to Tim Burton’s Batman, from the Thanksgiving parade that first sees Spider-Man the Green Goblin face off to the Green Goblin’s very green, very plastic costume.
Were it not for Willem Dafoe’s knowingly camp performance, the Green Goblin here would be laughable – it’s crucial to the success of some of the CGI-heavy sequences that Dafoe’s most fun to watch as Norman Osborn, prowling about with a shark-like grin. But there’s no doubt that this is Tobey Maguire’s show, and his performance makes Raimi’s Spider-Man who he is from that opening voiceover: a working-class kid who isn’t just physically unimposing but is downright dorky. He’s more natural as Peter Parker than as Spidey, unabashedly playing every moment with a gawky, clumsy awkwardness that makes even his doting attraction to Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) endearingly believable – and his transformation into an agile, super-powered hero all the more striking. (Even in the suit, he still doesn’t sound very cool when it comes to one-liners, which is a nice touch.) By the time we reach the finale, the climax isn’t a world-levelling disaster but the central conundrum facing all superheroes: whether to prioritise their personal loved ones or their public duty.
It’s telling that Raimi’s version of Spider-Man makes Peter’s ability to shoot webs an organic mutation rather than a gadget Parker invented himself, and Maguire entirely sells it – he makes the founding of a superhero franchise the most natural thing in the world.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire reunite for this ambitious sequel that thinks bigger but has the smarts to keep things small. The movie introduces us to Doc Ock, the iconic eight-mechanical-armed villain, but Spider-Man 2 once again succeeds by making sure the villain makes sense as a human before giving them Evil Powers. Alfred Molina is remarkable as Dr Octavius, whose intentions are good as he tries to develop a new form of energy and who ends up more a tragic figure than a nasty one – Molina leans into the melancholy and regret of his misguided scientist, which, not unlike Dafoe’s Osborne, makes his sentient, metallic arms all the more unnerving.
Raimi directs Doc Ock’s sequences with the same horror-tinged energy that made his Evil Dead films so entertaining, while enjoying the chance to ramp up the spectacle with a bigger budget. That, combined with Maguire’s ongoing geekiness as he wrestles with whether to act on his feelings for MJ, makes the central set piece on a commuter train one of the best in the whole Spider-Man franchise – to the point where you even forgive a divisive decision involving Spidey’s mask.
Kirsten Dunst, meanwhile, gets much more to do, as MJ ends up between Peter and James Franco’s best friend, Harry Osborn, and calls out Peter’s increasingly frustrating mixed signals, fuelled by his inability to commit to being either Peter or Spider-Man. Franco, meanwhile, gradually sours his chemistry with Maguire, sowing seeds for an inevitable third outing – it’s testament to how well all these elements are juggled here that the next sequel would fail to repeat the same feat. This is lightning-in-a-bottle stuff, perfectly held together by Alvin Sargent’s script, Raimi’s affection for Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s classic comics run (including one notable dustbin shot) and Danny Elfman’s emotional and melodic soundtrack.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Sam Raimi’s run of Spider-Man films will always be notable for their understanding of Peter Parker as an unlucky everyman who never catches a break, a role that’s presented with a decisive lack of cynicism and snark. Even the self-aware moments are kept amusingly on the sidelines, rooted in JK Simmons’ scene-stealing newspaper editor J Jonah Jameson – it’s no coincidence that he’s become a consistent, enduring presence in the franchise. Compared to Andrew Garfield’s slightly cooler, more introspective Peter Parker, who more naturally captured the way that a teenager would descend into cocky quips on a high of getting powers, Maguire’s Parker has always been someone with noble motivations but with a slight dilemma over whether to act on them or not.
Spider-Man 3 is the logical end result of that moral wrangling, as Peter finds himself navigating a chance to avenge his Uncle Ben’s death properly, the thrill of getting his abilities amplified by an alien parasite and an unexpected love triangle (between him, MJ and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Gwen Stacy) – oh, and the transformation of Harry Osborn into the New Goblin. The central thread, and real threat, is his burgeoning ego, and Maguire builds on his previous two outings to give his character an arc that stands on its own apart from subsequent incarnations of Spider-Man – that means Raimi subtly starts to distance us from Peter, as he becomes unlikeable, although it also means the least subtle moment in the trilogy, which sees Peter dancing and gyrating down the street with an emo fringe. Maguire’s ability to make this as uncomfortable and daft as it is only speaks to how good he is at portraying Peter Parker’s constant inner conflict with his other personas.
All this sounds great, but Spider-Man 3’s problem is that it tries to do all this and still thinks it needs more – and so we’re introduced to Topher Grace’s rival photographer Eddie Brock, Thomas Haden Church’s regret-filled thief, who becomes Sandman, and Franco’s Goblin, all of whom duke it out in different combinations with our hero. Throw the bungled attempt to include Venom into the mix and you have a tangled web that’s simply too crowded.
The other defining characteristic of Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy is his classic monster movie-style sympathy for villains, and that undoes everything here, as there isn’t enough time to flesh out each one properly. The notion of using Venom to explore Parker’s dark side is a nice idea in theory but, in practice, things descend into a big ball of CGI. This final part of the trilogy doesn’t lack emotional depth, but rather is weighed down by too much of it – it either needs to be an epic that’s an hour longer or half an hour shorter without the Sandman subplot. And so Raimi’s run unfortunately came to an underwhelming end – ironically reminding us, as the three films repeatedly stated, that with great power comes great responsibility.