Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Spider-Man, 2002

Production Company: Columbia Pictures
Distributor: Sony
Producers: Laura Ziskin, Ian Bryce
Editors: Bob Murawski, Arthur Coburn
Cinematographer: Don Burgess
Screenplay: David Koepp
Director: Sam Raimi
Music: Danny Elfman
Cast: Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker/Spiderman), Kirsten Dunst (Mary-Jane Watson), Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn/Green Goblin), James Franco (Harry Osborne), Cliff Robertson (Uncle Ben), Rosemary Harris (Aunt May)
Duration: 121mins.
Rating: PG-13 for stylized violence and action
Box Office: domestic $403.7m/worldwide $821.7m
Tag-line: With great power comes great responsibility Continue reading


Plot Forest Hills, Queens. Orphaned teenager Peter Parker is being raised by his elderly Uncle Ben and Aunt May, has a longstanding crush on girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (MJ) and is bullied at school by jocks. His only friend is Harry, son of armaments contractor Norman Osborn. On a field trip to a Manhattan scientific facility, Peter is bitten by a genetically engineered spider, and undergoes several mutations–gaining increased strength and agility, the ability to crawl up walls and squirt strong webbing from his wrists, and a sense that warns him of danger. Hoping to win $3000 so he can buy a car to impress MJ, Peter challenges Bone Saw, a professional wrestler who takes on all-comers to a fight. Tagged “the Amazing Spider-Man” by the MC, Peter wins the match but is palmed off with only $100. When a thief steals the venue’s takings, Peter lets him get away. But when the thief murders Uncle Ben, the now costumed Spider-Man begins a campaign against armed robbers. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn has taken an experimental formula which increases his strength and gives him a violent split personality. Adopting the costumed persona of the Green Goblin, he attacks his own board of directors, who have been trying to oust him, and imperils MJ, now Harry’s girlfriend. Spider-Man rescues MJ and, as Peter, sells photographs of the hero to newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson, who runs virulently anti-Spider editorials. Deducing the hero’s secret identity, the Green Goblin attacks Aunt May. He challenges Spider-Man by abducting MJ and simultaneously endangering her and a cable-car full of children on top of the Brooklyn Bridge. Rather than having to make a choice between them, Spider-Man manages to save both. In a final confrontation, the Goblin is killed by his own flying machine. At Norman’s funeral, Harry vows vengeance against Spider-Man. Peter puts a halt to his developing romance with MJ, worried that she will be further endangered by his enemies if he admits his true feelings for her, but he consoles himself by continuing his career as the web-swinging hero (adapted from Newman 52).

Film note Critics argue that Jaws, released in 1975, provided a template for contemporary blockbuster film production. Douglas Kellner notes that the “film was introduced to an unprecedented ballyhoo of advertising and opened in a then-record ‘wide release’ of 464 theatres […] soon earning a record $102 million” (214). The success of Jaws is considered a defining moment in the shift towards the ‘New Hollywood’ of the late 1970s and 1980s, an era of conglomeration in which the film industry pursued large profits through the production of “‘high concept’ films that could be clearly described and marketed” (Kellner 214). Just over 25 years later Spider-Man shattered every opening weekend record with an unprecedented $114.8m three-day tally, opening in 3,615 cinemas on an estimated 7,500 screens. The film became the first to cross the $100m mark in its first three days and posted the then “highest per theatre average ever for an ultra-wide release–a staggering $31,769” (Gray, “Ultimate Spin”). Just as Jaws shaped film production in the late 1970s, the success of Spider-Man has steered blockbuster strategies in the first decade of the 21st century.

The $100m opening weekend That such a successful film was based on a comic book is no coincidence. David Bordwell notes that in 1959, “at least 26 million comic books were sold every month” and they have remained popular ever since. They also translate well into successful films, as proved by the popularity of Superman (1978) and its 1981 sequel, and further reinforced by the huge returns on Batman (1989) and its numerous remakes. Superhero comics transfer easily into the “high concept” film format because they provide “the look, the hook, and the book”: that is, the use of a distinctive style and the maximizing of synergies in ancillary markets through the licensing of tie-in products such as toys, novels, and merchandising (Drake 69). As a comic book Spider-Man also provides established characters, plot lines, costumes, and mise-en-scène; as well as being easy to market to a consumer fan base that had been building up since The Amazing Spider-Man #1, released in 1963. The character has also been re-imagined in various successful television and comic versions, such as Marvel’s “2099” and “Ultimate” versions, developed in 1992 and 2000 respectively, which created new generations of comic fans while still appealing to mature readers.


Marvel leased the character of Spider-Man in 1985, but didn’t secure the interest of a major studio until 1999. By this point, it was commonplace for blockbusters to cost upwards of $100m, something that was previously extremely rare (Neale 48). However, once Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) had proved that a film with a $100m budget could become (extremely) profitable, an ethos developed that in order to make profits in excess of $100m, $100m had to be spent on production; studio executives calculated that “blockbuster productions [were] likely to become blockbuster hits” (Neale 48). As a result, New Hollywood blockbusters became “increasingly plot-driven, increasingly visceral, kinetic, and fast-paced, increasingly reliant on special effects, increasingly ‘fantastic’, and increasingly targeted at younger audiences” (Schatz 29). Spider-Man adheres to all these conventions: the opening narration states the film’s through-line (“this story, like any story, is about a girl”); Peter and Norman’s transformations occur within the first sixteen minutes; the plot involves an archetypal battle between good and evil; and as a result of Spider-Man’s supernatural abilities, the film provides ample opportunity to deploy special effects.

Jaws had demonstrated how a film “under careful guidance from its distributor, could precipitate a national pop cultural ‘event’” (Gomery 73). Peter Gruber, Sony chairman during Spider-Man’s production, explains how this marketing ethos had evolved: “The importance of marketing, in terms of the success of a film, is like air to all of us. It is a crucial resource that you must be breathing from the beginning” (qtd in Drake 69). Pursuing this philosophy, a sizable proportion of Spider-Man’s hefty print and advertising budget was spent on a spectacular teaser trailer, released in summer 2001. Including no footage or story from the film, the teaser – which showed Spider-Man foiling a heist – was widely viewed but was pulled after 9/11 due to its use of the World Trade Center. Actual trailers began screening in December 2001, claiming to take audiences on “the ultimate spin” and focusing heavily on Spider-Man’s abilities and thus the film’s special effects. Primetime advertising slots and TV specials helped achieve maximum exposure. Sony also targeted fans, releasing trailers that showed elements of Peter’s story recognizable from the comics and creating a website that followed the progress of the production.

Indeed, considerable care was taken in the reproduction of the tone and style of the comic book (in part to ensure a positive reaction from fans). José Arroyo notes that the “best comic books endow their characters with an impression of movement” (41). Spider-Man’s aerial agility and prowess was particularly suited to live action cinema and Don Burgess’ cinematography sought to create a storyboard aesthetic that captured this fluidity while still evoking the original artwork. Not only did the film look and feel like the printed frames, it effectively brought them to life, with Spider-Man “perched atop landmarks or swinging between skyscrapers, [and the cinematography seeking] ways to make sense of the still images in terms of motion” (Newman 36). Newman notes the faithfulness of the film when he states that unlike the “franchise-building movies of Blade and X-Men, Spider-Man [was] upfront in crediting Marvel Comics […] for its characters, proudly declaring that its scenario [was] based on the work of (writer) Stan Lee and (artist) Steve Ditko” (36). This marketing strategy proved effective, resulting in repeat business for the blockbuster: on a DVD extra, one teen fan proudly boasts of seeing the film eight times on its opening day. This is a key aspect to the financial success of a film in this mould: blockbusters “can entice as many as 20 percent of filmgoers to see films again during their original runs […] returning viewers often come from the media industry’s most coveted demographic: teenagers and young adults” (Klinger 137).

The “nationwide release and concurrent ad campaign” of Jaws is seen by Thomas Schatz to have “underscored the value of saturation booking and advertising” (26). Subsequently, this “front-loading” has become the default release method for large productions. As a result, contemporary Hollywood carefully orchestrates release dates. For Spider-Man, Sony opted for an “ultra-wide”, first-out-the-blocks approach by occupying the May 3 weekend (Gray, “Ultimate Spin”). Faced with oncoming competition from Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (released May 16 2002), a later release date would have affected revenues. As the box office success of the film indicates, the strategy worked. By way of contrast, Spider-Man 2, released on June 30 two years later failed to find a space in a crowded market, leaving the sequel $30m in profit short of its predecessor. As this industrial analysis indicates, Spider-Man, like Jaws before it, provided a template for how the film industry might maximize profit through the production of blockbuster comic book adaptations, the success of which is largely judged on their ability to take over $100m in the first weekend of a film’s release became a marker of success.

“With great power comes great responsibility” Due to pre-9/11 production and post-9/11 exhibition, Spider-Man took on an unanticipated political dimension due to its explosive aerial combat scenes set against a New York backdrop and a tagline–“with great power comes great responsibility”–that echoed pronouncements by policymakers in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Ian Scott argues that Hollywood has “been perceived more often than not as a champion of democracy, in both political and social terms, more actively so than any other medium or institution” and that a large majority of Hollywood films can be presumed to offer a liberal-democratic view of any given issue (5). On first appearance, Spider-Man would seem to illustrate Scott’s claim, containing many elements that might be considered left-liberal, including Mary Jane’s acting aspirations; Peter and Harry’s cross-class friendship; Uncle Ben’s blue-collar dignity; the film’s defence of marginalized minorities; and Spider-Man’s “all for one, one for all” credo in contrast to the Goblin’s “survival of the fittest” philosophy. But as Bordwell points out, “Hollywood movies are usually strategically ambiguous about politics. You can read them in a lot of ways, and that ambivalence is more or less deliberate”. So, Aunt May’s devout Christianity, Harry’s traditional patriarchal relationship with his father, and the film’s underlying, strict morality could easily be seen as manifestations of a right-wing viewpoint.

While it may well be that this political ambiguity is simply a Hollywood business strategy designed to field a wide audience (and therefore a feature of all films at all times), it can also be understood in relation to discourses requiring the nation to “pull together” in the aftermath of 9/11. Presidential addresses following the attacks traded on an overly simplified logic typical of blockbuster taglines: George W. Bush stating, for example, “our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil” (qtd in Lawrence and Jewett 150). Under analysis, the synchronicity between Spider-Man’s personal journey and President Bush’s political objectives meant that the film became political in its indirect but overt patriotism. In the comics, Peter’s home in the borough of Queens is a key feature, as is New York City. Raimi retains these facts about Peter’s upbringing and “there’s a genuine feel here for the modest working-class neighbourhood […] as well as for the dazzle of Manhattan” (Newman 36). The film situates the Daily Bugle’s offices in the Flatiron building; Peter takes solace atop the Chrysler Building’s gargoyles; and Spider-Man whisks Mary-Jane to Rockefeller Center’s rooftop garden. Production designer, Neil Spisak brings to the fore New York’s most iconic architecture, creating a recognizable, romantic and celebratory representation of the city. Marketing posters showed a gilded New York skyline before a Manhattan sunset, conveying an image of indestructibility and optimism, and utilizing architectural icons to represent solidity and permanency. This positive and celebratory way of describing New York inevitably chimed with wider discourses related to 9/11.

Winston Wheeler Dixon states that in the wake of the attacks “one thing that has definitely changed–at least for those with a prior physical or emotional connection with New York City and its distinctive skyline–is audience reception when it comes to scenes in fiction films, whatever the genre, that depict lower Manhattan” (16). Due to this emotional connection, Raimi, like many directors, edited footage of the World Trade Center out of the final prints of the film. However, one scene in which a bystander shouts: “This is New York…if you mess with one of us you mess with all of us” was added in post-production. While reminiscent of the “speech-balloon style exposition” of the comics, this is also the film’s most overt reference and response to 9/11 (Newman 36). Such decisions represent Spider-Man’s acknowledgement of 9/11, and the work undertaken to connect the film with wider discourses of unity, cooperation, jingoism and redemption. This logic is encapsulated in the final shot as Spider-Man casts his protective eye over New York City from atop a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes. Spider-Man’s storyline and characters indirectly stand as a metaphor for this political unity, a parallel suggested by the fusion of red and blue on the hero’s costume. In the aftermath of 9/11, the heroism and self-sacrifice of New York’s rescue services was used as a metaphor for New York in general, as well as the nation at large: the experience of 9/11 had precipitated of a temporary political truce in favour of a unified patriotism.

As America confronted the issue of terror at home, the population was also united by an unnerving and pervasive sense of fear. The Bush administration formed the Department of Homeland Security and passed the Patriot Act, which legalized invasive methods of acquiring domestic intelligence. Such steps were met with staunch opposition by civil rights organizations, but on the whole, Americans accepted that such methods were deemed necessary. However, as documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) were eager to point out, the Bush administration’s swift turn from Afghanistan to the war on terror at home might have been driven by ulterior motives. As Congressman Jim McDermott states in Michael Moore’s film: “fear works. You can make people do anything if they’re afraid”. Indeed, many felt the administration had a handle on this sense of fear, raising the stakes when necessary in order to secure support for its policies. Bordwell cites this culture of fear as contributing to the rejuvenation of the superhero genre in 2000s Hollywood: “Obviously 9/11 so traumatized [Americans] that [they felt] a yearning for superheroes to protect [them]”. As such, Spider-Man’s success demonstrated two strands of American ideology in the wake of 9/11: the taking of solace in a fictional heroic narrative in which order is restored; and an investment in a superhero who could save the city and its citizens from the myriad threats emblematic of a wider culture of fear.

An ordinary superhero Alec Worley argues that the superhero’s “defining talents […] though utterly beyond our grasp, are precisely what attract us to them. They are another form of fantasy fulfilment, iconic embodiments of our values and desires; they are us as we wish we were, more potent, more beautiful, more in control of themselves and their world” (164). In general, Spider-Man is illustrative of this general claim but with a number of significant qualifications. Although containing prominent fantastical elements, the film exists within the parameters of reality. Willem Dafoe, speaking on a DVD extra, believes “the story is about extraordinary things happening to an ordinary boy”. Unlike Superman’s genetic predisposition or Batman’s voluntary heroic alter-ego and social seclusion, Peter is merely the classic adolescent archetype. Unwittingly bitten and possessed by powers that come to him involuntarily, Peter’s responds to his situation in relatable, identifiable terms. For example, the film describes Peter’s struggle with adolescence in the opening scenes, as he is left behind by the school bus and shunned by his classmates, his unpopularity clearly and poignantly shown. A later sequence shows Peter learning how to use his web; his unsuccessful attempts underscore his normality and imply a degree of sexual inadequacy despite his superhuman powers. The initial Spider-Man costume further extends this idea of Peter coming to terms with his new identity, being a second-rate ensemble comprised of casual every-day items and revealed in an anticlimax to a bemused audience. (Something later parodied, along with the whole superhero genre in Kick-Ass (2010)). Peter’s graduation to the more professional outfit symbolizes his evolution from a schoolboy endowed with special powers to the superhero Spider-Man.

This transformation enacts many a schoolboy fantasy. Peter wakes up to find he no longer needs glasses, sports an appealing physique, and can defeat the school bully without effort. Ultimately though, neither Peter nor Spider-Man possesses significant control over their worlds. For Newman, it was “a stroke of genius in 1962 to develop a superhero who was a ‘friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man’, someone who discovered that the proportionate strength of a spider didn’t help him get a date, do his homework on time or appease the weak-hearted Aunt May” (36). Once Peter has honed his abilities, he still struggles to hold down a job, faces scepticism and dislike from the media, and remains unsuccessful in his pursuit of Mary Jane (who ironically harbours strong feelings for the alias that he can never disclose). Spider-Man’s lack of control is extended in Spider-Man 2, when his powers are rendered impotent due to the financial and social burdens Peter faces. The parallels between Peter and Spider-Man consistently underscore Peter’s normality beneath his genetically gifted superpowers, superpowers that often function as a metaphor for the challenges of maturity and responsibilities of life.

John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett note that “[t]he monomythic superhero is distinguished by disguised origins, pure motivations, a redemptive task, and extraordinary powers” (47). Whilst Spider-Man’s motivations appear pure, he is in fact born out of a desire for murderous revenge and the guilt felt for his involvement in the killing of Uncle Ben. His powers isolate him from those he loves and are a catalyst for Norman Osborn’s death. Spider-Man’s Achilles heel is not a mystical cosmic source, such as Superman’s kryptonite; it is Peter’s adolescent and existential pain. In many ways Spider-Man is a counter-hero to archetypal superheroes like Captain America who serve as icons of good, wholesome, ‘Americanness’; heroes Lawrence and Jewett define in mythical and archetypal terms: “patient in the face of provocations, he seeks nothing for himself and withstands all temptations. He renounces sexual fulfilment for the duration of the mission, and the purity of his motivations ensures his moral infallibility” (47). In contrast, Spider-Man’s struggle in both hero and human form conveys a fallibility that separates him from other superheroes. Batman and Iron Man have the luxuries of wealth; Superman is comforted by public adoration; the X-Men have the support of their insular mutant community and mentor Professor X. Spider-Man’s, on the other hand, is simply an uncertain teenage boy learning to become a hero, an inspirational metaphor and box office draw that was rendered all the more poignant in the wake of 9/11.




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Written by Daniel Robson (2011); edited by Nick Jones (2012), Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2011 Daniel Robson/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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