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20 Years Ago, One Superhero Movie Changed the World for the Better

Two decades later, we're still living in a cinematic reality created by 'Spider-Man.'

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Twenty years ago, before the MCU, before streaming TV, and before a mainstream cultural obsession with superhero crossovers, one film changed everything: the 2002 movie simply titled Spider-Man. The movie came out on May 3, 2002, and we’re still caught in its web. Here’s why, plus, where to stream it right now.

The earliest trailers for the 2002 film Spider-Man showed the titular web-slinger catching a helicopter in a giant net spun between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Obviously, even though the now-classic film hit theaters in 2002, the Sam Raimi-directed flick was filmed before the events of 9/11. The scene was apparently never meant to be the movie, but in the final cut, we still do see some shots of the twin towers in the background. According to some reports, when this happened, audiences cheered.

In some ways, the not-quite-erasure of the World Trade Center is the biggest metaphor for what Spider-Man felt like at the time. As many critics and commentators pointed out, Spider-Man captured the mood of the moviegoing culture like no-other blockbuster before it, simply because of when it came out. Before 9/11, many Americans saw the country as Superman, after 9/11, the scrappier, more DIY Spider-Man seemed more fitting, and appropriately, less sanctimonious.

The charm and humor of Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, and the rest of the cast is undeniable. Not all the jokes land the way they did in 2002, including a few unfortunate comments from Spidey during that wrestling match with Bonesaw (the late Randy Savage). But, overall, despite the movie feeling almost closer to a nineties movie than anything made in the 21st century, the special effects and straightforward origin story still work incredibly well. Some might say the true Sam Raimi masterpiece is 2004’s Spider-Man 2, but it’s hard to really argue with the original.

Although Tobey Maquire and Kirsten Dunst don’t seem like they’re playing high school kids now, at the time, seeing actors that looked like those two in a mainstream superhero movie was a revelation. If you saw this movie in the theater in 2002, then you know what I’m talking about. Before Tobey and Kirsten, the leads of superhero movies looked like proper grown-ups; Christopher Reeve, Michael Keaton, Margot Kidder, and Kim Basinger. Because the two leads of Spider-Man scanned as younger, the vibe of the film felt more attuned to its intended audience; younger people — from actual kids to early twentysomethings — hitting up the best summer movie of all time.

Spider-Man is also corny in a way that feels difficult for superhero movies to pull off now. Yes, we got a glimpse of Willem Dafoe’s brilliance as Green Goblin very recently in 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, but his first version of the character is decidedly the best. The 2021 Dafoe Green Goblin is scarier, and a straight-up hardcore horror character. But, in 2002, there’s a silly funhouse mirror quality to it, a kind of quirky horror that’s hard to pin down, and equally impossible to imitate.

We can attribute a lot of the brilliance of the 2002 Spider-Man to direct Sam Raimi, who, fittingly, directed the brand-new Marvel flick, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Recently it was revealed that Raimi had only seen about “4 or 5” MCU movies before directing the new Doctor Strange. This is as it should be. Without his Spider-Man, the explosion of superhero movies would have never happened the way it did. Raimi’s Spider-Man proved the concept of costumed superheroes didn’t need to be excessively silly or overly dark. Some contemporary movies have achieved that balance (like 2012’s The Avengers), but most tend to default toward one extreme or the other.

What Spider-Man did was refreshing and rare. It took an over-the-top idea, steeped in decades of mythology and continuity, and made it for everyone. Spider-Man proved escapist fun cinema in a post-9/11 world was possible. It was a jolt of down-to-Earth optimism we needed back then, that still feels wonderfully crafted today.

Where to Stream the Original 2002 Spider-Man

Currently, Spider-Man (2002) is not streaming “for free” on any platform. That said, you can rent it fairly easily, in several places, including Amazon.