'Spider-Man' at 20: How James Bond helped Sam Raimi stick the landing in 2002

·8-min read
2002's Spider-Man. (Sony Pictures)
2002's Spider-Man. (Sony Pictures)

It is the turn of the 21st century and James Bond utters his immortal catchphrase: "With great power comes great responsibility". Okay, not quite. But it was 007 who inadvertently became a useful sidekick of sorts to the movie fortunes of the Spider-Man franchise.

Bond helped Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (celebrating its 20th anniversary this week) fight against the odds, aiding Peter Parker to pave a path for one of cinema history’s biggest franchises and genres: the Marvel movie.

Roger Corman (The Pit and the Pendulum), James Cameron (Aliens, Terminator 2), Orion Pictures, Cannon Films, Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Carolco Pictures, Leonardo DiCaprio and David Fincher (Seven) all had a swing at the Spidey movie franchise web, but quite managed to nail the landing.

Read more: Spider-Man fans celebrate removal of homophobic line

With a box-office forever mindful of the lucrative heat of Superman the Movie (1978) and Batman (1989) and the disappointing chill of The Phantom (1996) and Batman and Robin (1997), Hollywood curiously needed another movie hero to get over its fear of spiders.

Promotional portrait of American actor Nicholas Hammond, as the costumed superhero Spider-man, as he peers over the edge of a window sill on the CBS television series 'The Amazing Spider-Man,' 1978. The series was based on a long-running comic book, developed by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
American actor Nicholas Hammond in the CBS television series The Amazing Spider-Man, 1978. (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Despite Spider-Man being one of Marvel’s first prominent media properties via late 1960s cartoon incarnations, a TV feature pilot Spider-Man (1977) and the resulting The Amazing Spider-Man (1978) TV show, it was 007 who first played MJ to what became Raimi’s Spider-Man.

Bitter rights, counter claims and ownership fights had been rattling in and around the late 1990s courts concerning the creative hold Sony Pictures had on a sidebar strand of the 007 ownership.

Since a 1964 court case favoured Irish producer Kevin McClory’s claims to part-ownership of Ian Fleming's Thunderball novel — and subsequent 1965 film — he could feasibly confuse the Bond movie juggernaut by endlessly remaking that one title and its story assets (which he already did with 1983's Never Say Never Again).

A poster for Terence Young's 1965 action film 'Thunderball' starring Sean Connery. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)
A poster for Terence Young's 1965 action film Thunderball' starring Sean Connery. (Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)

That had the potential to be an unwelcome Green Goblin glider through the future hopes of the official Bond franchise and legal web-slings ensued.

Add to that, that in 1989 Sony had bought up Columbia Pictures and their registry of titles and rights, including Spider-Man and Ian Fleming's first Bond novel Casino Royale — the latter of which Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman missed out on when they took on the 007 rights in 1961.

Read more: The best Bond films according to its fans

A 1999 out-of-court settlement finally came to a compromise involving the spy and the spider. MGM and Bond’s Danjaq LLC could gain the Royale rights and no more pushes for McClory-centric rival 007 titles if Sony could finally make a Spider-Man movie from Columbia’s rights.

Actor Peter Sellers on the set of
Actor Peter Sellers on the set of 1967's Casino Royale. (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Both the cinematic James Bond and the printed Peter Parker made their debuts two months apart in 1962. And both significantly aided the post-pandemic return to cinema with 2021’s No Time to Die and Spider-Man – No Way Home.

As pop-culture bites itself like a genetically modified arachnid with clickbait nonsense suggesting Tom Holland could now be the next Bond, both heroes are currently dominating movie screens because of each other.

As Daniel Craig’s Bond and cinema became ever aware of the story arcs and sense of ongoing project that Marvel had honed over twenty years, the irony is it was 2002’s Spider-Man that forged what the comic-book behemoth Marvel Studios did in the first place.

2002's Spider-Man. (Sony Pictures)
2002's Spider-Man. (Sony Pictures)

If Superman the Movie (1978) and Batman (1989) created the story, tonal and commerce templates for superhero cinema, director Sam Raimi’s first flick of the web spun out how to do it in the 21st Century.

Aided by Forrest Gump’s cinematographer (Don Burgess), one of Star Wars’ legendary VFX wizards (John Dykstra), Jurassic Park’s screenwriter (David Koepp) and the composer who gave Tim Burton’s Batman his thumping midnight heroism (Danny Elfman), Spider-Man is a film that straddles the older guard who helped create and forge a new era of mainstream FX cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, and a newer digital age flexing its muscles and reach into the 21st Century.

Read more: Spider-Man overtakes Harry Potter at the box office

When teasing what the VFX teams could now achieve, an early and popular teaser trailer for Spider-Man famously featured a fleeing, villainous helicopter suddenly stuck in a web between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

After 9/11 it was understandably pulled altogether with some cityscape scenes no doubt swiftly rejigged. For a while, Spider-Man and its release was tied to that dark day in September 2001.

We forget how any New York based film of that time featuring skylines and the city could not avoid it. The film’s Times Square building battle once played very differently to how it does 20 years on. However, Spider-Man and its proud NYC protagonist was a major step in cinema and culture reclaiming back one of its vital US city locations.

One of the visible joys of Spider-Man 2002 is how it bounces as a standalone beat of blockbuster cinema and not just blockbuster franchising. It breathes as a movie in a time before the Marvel machine’s ongoing sense of project and baton formula begins to dominate cinema, pop-culture, gaming, and TV. And it has stood the 20-year test of time.

2002's Spider-Man. (Sony Pictures)
2002's Spider-Man. (Sony Pictures)

Those ramped up comic-book reds, yellows, blues, and greens still boom, that slick rotoscoping sense of movement — wholly new for the time — is now a standard every Marvel hero uses in every first-day-in-the-job montage, that upside-down backstreet kiss is still all over alternate fan fiction and art, and JK Simmons is still the J. Jonah Jameson.

Read more: Spider-Man made Hollywood take superheroes seriously

Spider-Man spins in a curious pre-internet world almost devoid of cell phones where print media is still king and the Green Goblin’s Saturday morning villainy feels — and sounds — brilliantly Scream (1996).

The pre-hype alone saw Spider-Man become one of the first wave of tentpole movies to build and experience its anticipation online. The real web literally facilitated the promise of Raimi’s fictional ones.

2002's Spider-Man. (Sony Pictures)
2002's Spider-Man. (Sony Pictures)

Kirsten Dunst’s MJ is the flag-waver for every Emma Stone and Zendaya that followed. Rosemary Harris’ Aunt May feels like a benevolent elderly relative rather than just a cougar mom. And the carefully chosen Tobey Maguire is the last Peter Parker to date who was not gym-buff before along came a spider.

His overnight weedy, then buff frame is Big (1988) meets Captain America – The First Avenger (2011). And he is arguably the only modern Spider-Man who feels like a true comic-book nerd rather than a geek just because he wears glasses.

Director Raimi takes a bit of Superman the Movie and Richard Donner’s super ‘who am I?’ angst without getting web-caught in an ever-looping origin story groove – a possibly overused trope of many a Marvel title.

2002's Spider-Man. (Sony Pictures)
2002's Spider-Man. (Sony Pictures)

When it crossed the $100m barrier over its opening weekend in May 2002 — Spider-Man the first to do so — it made Hollywood and the comic-book franchise holders sit up and Spidey-sense the dollar signs that come with great power and great responsibility.

Whether it is ‘return,’ ‘reboot’ or ‘multiverse,’ the franchise’s ability to return to rake in more dollars than a Manhattan bank raid can always trace back to Maguire and Raimi.

Read more: Sony and Marvel resolved Spider-Man dispute

That is why it was so vital to cast Maguire in 2021’s Spider-Man – No Way Home. When it comes to franchise comparisons, he is easily the Spider-Man series' Sean Connery.

403414 09: (L-R) Director Sam Raimi, actor Tobey Maguire, actress Kirsten Dunst and actor Willem Dafoe meets Japanese journalists at a press conference while promoting the new movie
Director Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Willem Dafoe meets journalists while promoting Spider-Man, 2002, in Tokyo, Japan. (Getty Images)

Spider-Man beat Star Wars – Attack of the Clones, Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to top the US box office of 2002.

It also globally swooped high above Bond’s Die Another Day, MGM's rival action franchise that finally helped the Webslinger finally stick his landing.

And after relinquishing the rights to make rival Bond films in favour of Spider-Man, Sony Pictures struck a deal to distribute Daniel Craig's Casino Royale in 2006, so they finally got their hands on 007 in the end.

2002's Spider-Man is streaming on Netflix.

Watch: Sam Raimi rues not making Spider-Man 4

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