Superhero movies have dominated our box office for the good part of the last decade now, with each month bringing us some fresh new hero or sequel. But what we really don’t talk about enough, or heap the praise on that we should, is Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. A trifecta of films charting what a superhero picture should be, and laying down the often beat for beat repeated blueprint that current offerings rely on.
There’s a moment in 2004s Spider-Man 2 where Peter Parker, played here by Tobey Maguire, has decided to opt-out of being a superhero – reasoning that he doesn’t need to be Spider-Man anymore. We see him simply off the red and blue suit, tossing it in a nearby garbage can. As far as we and our protagonist know Spider-man is gone forever. A once beloved hero, simply binned and discarded.
What follows immediately after though is a montage so gooey – so in your face and wholesome that it’s simply bizarre. We open with these blinding oversaturated lights, as if Peter Parker has just woken up from a dream, or even a rebirth of sorts. This montage is bringing you a punnet of grapes and flowers and reassuring you just how fine and refreshed Peter is now that he’s left his alter ego by the wayside. In a virginal white shirt, Peter is anew: He is finally paying attention in class, and actually pulling the grades that he is capable of.
The whole thing is accompanied by 1969s Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head by BJ Thomas, which like the whole 60 minutes-in montage is so very on the nose. It’s garish and saccharine even but shows simply how much of a change to Peter this really is. The film’s director, Sam Raimi, here like so much of his career, is throwing back to classic Hollywood with one hand and poking it in the eye with the other.
In an interview with ChuckTheMovieGuy, Raimi said this:
“As the first movie ended, I thought I really know this character, Peter Parker. I really understand him. Some things I don’t know, I’m still figuring them out, but I really know who he is. And I have this great curiosity as to what will happen to him in his life. Will he get back with Mary Jane Watson? What about his friend Harry? …And then I realized that I have to direct this movie because I’m so curious about it. I need to see it. I’d love to tell that story. I wanna discover it. I wanna discover what happens, and the writing of it, and the directing of it. And I didn’t know if that would happen at the end of this film. But at this time, I find myself again, incredibly curious. I realize that Peter Parker, there’s so much more to learn than I thought. I may never know who he is, no more than you never know who your own husband or wife is. But the more time you spend with him, the more you love them, the more complexities are revealed to you.”
It’s sort of like a backwards puberty. The scene before is a typical exposition doctor’s surgery room – telling Peter and the audience exactly what is happening. In the opposite way of, say, a film like Carrie; where our protagonist inherits her powers through growth and age, Peter here has entirely lost them. Spider-Man 2’s position in the trilogy alone suggests a plodding middle aged-ness, a complacency with itself, reminding us of what we have and then snatching it away – going as far as to say that even scenes like Peter unable to shoot webs anymore is an impotence. If Spidey 1 is Parker going through college and gaining his powers, a la being a teen, Spidey 2 rather shows them as settled and developed – only to rip them away from him. Perhaps instead slotting this second movie of three into an almost middle-aged bracket. Whereas Spider-Man 1 is energy, stealing kisses and hair in places that there was not hair before, Spider-Man 2 is more of a settling down, having realised one’s place in the world, investing in that future and shopping for furniture.
From the very first time we meet Peter Parker in Spider-Man number #1 in 1962 – in the very first panel even – he is openly mocked by his peers. He is presented as a loser pencil neck, introverted and excluded from anything popular. Add to that the DNA of a character with a guilt complex and the Peter Parker model is an anxious and weedy figure. Stan Lee, in an effort to make the character all the more relatable, pushed these humanising characteristics as often as he could, relishing them even. And the fellow New Yorker even opting to borrow from his own quibbles and very human downfalls to ground and realise a character, arguing that by making him all the more fallible, the more interesting he became.
Raimi knows this. With a song choice as obnoxiously positive as Raindrops, he’s mocking not necessarily us, but pushing Parker further into the abyss. Comatose, and in a fever dream, Raimi shakes sticks and knocks cymbals, a reminder that there is only something sinister around the corner for this hero. Quite frankly, Peter Parker is a character who unfortunately is destined to remain unhappy, a being consistently guilty, forever questioning himself and conflicted through his actions, and this montage intentionally sticks out in among the inevitable angst and dread of his life as the Spider-Man. With that, I’d like to remind everyone that Spider-Man’s Spidey Sense is essentially just what it’s like having anxiety too.
And it’s ridiculous, really. In terms of a comparison to use here, I couldn’t help but think about Naked Gun’s falling in love montage. And honestly, they aren’t that far off from one another. With a good montage, you want to express progress and growth within your character, all whilst utilising the passage of time. And this Raindrops doesn’t even really do that. It just sort of sidesteps as Parker relegates his Spider-Man to a position on the bench, finally giving the sidekick the limelight. In terms of this story, it doesn’t necessarily suggest growth, but rather perhaps a sense of personal healing for Peter Parker. By binning the Spider-Man costume in the trash previously Peter has quite literally shed his skin. And gives some much needed TLC for a good-natured dork who at this point has mostly been in the shadow of his own superpowers and public appearance. Whilst we see Peter doing so well and actually happy for once, we as an audience can’t help but feel that outward struggle – from a movie with “Spiderman” in the title the proceedings can’t help but feel alien to what we’ve come to know. We see Parker as a human being, doing the every day, whilst drinking in and being absorbed by the city around him – the same New York that had regularly criticised and accused him is now being embraced, his home. Looking back at the first film, Henry Bevan of LWLIES says this of Spiderman/New York relationship:
“It is simply a story about a guy, the girl he loves and the city he shields from harm. He set out to make a Spider-Man movie, and making a great Spider-Man movie requires making a great New York movie.
As such, Raimi’s version of New York is a place where fantasy and reality meet. [Peter] and the rest of New York don’t freak out at the idea of a guy swinging between buildings. In this city and the world Raimi creates within it, that seems perfectly normal. The director injects realism into the story by having his characters work mundane jobs to meet mundane ends like paying rent. They lead regular lives, and we are given hints of their everyday activities. In this film, New York is more than a setting, as Raimi gives his supporting characters lives outside of Spider-Man and The Green Goblin’s ideological conflict.
Raimi’s attention to the supporting characters, to how they interact with Peter, results in an authentic depiction of New York which Spider-Man and his superhuman abilities occasionally puncture. There’s a brief pause, then life continues. By the time we see Spider-Man swinging between New York’s iconic skyscrapers at the end of the film, Raimi has succeeded in bringing the city and the people who live in it to life. This world of taxi drivers, stockbrokers and ordinary working folk is integral to Spider-Man, and we want him to save it.”
Again stealing from real life, the Manhattan-born Stan Lee opted originally to set Spider-Man in New York, placing Peter and his aunt in Queens, suggesting that an audience would feel more of a sense of realism if his hero were placed in between the grime of non-fictional landmarks – that, and creating a sense of accessibility for him personally as a writer.
And although what we see on screen couldn’t be more joyous, any more stardusty, we and Raimi know that this moment for Peter is finite. With too much on the line and a villain still at large, Spider-Man is bound to return, acting like a long lit fuse ready to explode the TNT. Analysing it from a structure point of view, the placement of this montage in the run time alone suggests that this isn’t where the story leads either – with the 60 minute halfway mark in the film suggesting that Peter will go one of two ways. This bright and joyous montage suggests that we, and Peter, are being persuaded by a false ending – a misdirect – only for that inevitable rug pull moment as he is thrown back into the tumultuous life of a superhero. Peter Parker has this lift right now, but in this case, it is artificial and merely temporary, a strange limbo between having to make life and death decisions.
In the same interview with ChuckTheMovieGuy, Raimi continued: “[It’s] The story of a life out of balance, first lopsided in one way as he tries to be this responsible young man and then lopsided in another way as he decides the Hell with it, I’m living my life, damn anybody else. And then that road leads to such moral decay that he finally has to say to himself I will go back to my lopsided life of being Spider-Man and just down this road of responsibility… [It’s] also the story of some young man who is on the road to responsibility, [who] learns the sacrifices that are necessary to be responsible. I felt that he had learned a lesson, so it seemed complete in a few different ways.”
There’s a sense of dread as we know something so very out of place in a story like this is there to highlight almost how wrong it is and how much it doesn’t fit into Peter Parker’s life. This montage is so splendid and cotton candy because it is the one real break from the New York hustle and bustle and good vs evil that is this young man’s turbulent double life.
And whilst this Raindrops scene is, yes, questionably placed in this film, and self-indulgent even, for me it works – just about toeing the line of zany, comical but in its own way necessary for the plot – and a Tony Stark contrast to the same beat for beat reawakening moment for Parker in Spider-Man 3. It’s intriguing how two scenes, in connected films, by the same director, with the same star can be so divisive. Where I can relate and actually feel a sense of joy for gawky Peter in Spider-Man 2, whilst certainly being uncool I’m keen to see where he goes, I’m hungry to see where this joy takes him and how hard it’s going to hurt in the end… whereas Emo Peter just comes off as kinda goofy and disjointed. Not to mention simply uncool through and through. Creepy even. It’s a testament to just how truly likeable every aspect of Spider-Man 2 really is, and how believable the fabric of that world-building was, that I can want to see Peter Parker doing mundane tasks and it be enjoyable, going as far as to even want him to succeed at school or doing no more than fix his bike.
Even before superhero movies were considered the norm, Raimi was out there pursuing jobs for The Shadow project and was even set to helm Batman Forever at one point, neither materialising and instead going on to make the batshit crazy flick Darkman. And telling the industry how exactly to get away with a subject so silly, but treating it with a respect and enough dignity for it to get a green light and realise its herd.
In Bruce Campbell’s book, If Chins Could Kill, Raimi said this: “I really wanted to make The Shadow. But Universal Studios wouldn’t give me the rights to that. I met with them, but they didn’t like my views at all, so I went, ‘I’m just gonna write my own superhero.’”
By 2004, the superhero film genre was still a strange and niche sub-genre. Through the 90s we had gotten the Joel Schumacher Batman series, alongside Blade, and whilst 2002 welcomed Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man, a sincere worldwide hit, Marvel Studios went through 2003 with their name attached to two major critical flops in Daredevil, followed by Hulk. And whilst Raimi could do no wrong at this point, Spider-Man 2 had a pressure on it, at the very least from a Marvel characters point of view anyway, to pick up the slack of its peers. Loudly lauded as perhaps the best superhero movie ever, and only being an improvement on an otherwise very special first film, Spider-Man 2 as a whole ups the ante in pretty much every conceivable way on its original; helmed by a director with a unique angle and experience, and a star who could do the double act of playing convincingly dweeby Parker, and universally beloved Spider-Man.
And I wanted to focus on this scene in particular today because of its own uniqueness. In a movie quite rightly recognised as the pedigree of its kind, this scene is the real fever dream moment, the one that fan-boys could easily mock on forums and pick out of a police line-up with their buddies to scrutinise. But for me only suggests a filmmaking team high on confidence, and taking odd risks in a way to properly showcase an extraordinarily layered and human character, who at that point had over forty years of story. Rarely, even now, have we seen a moment so joyous and willing to be goofy in a superhero picture; a genre so bogged down by its resistance to be anything but the most serious thing despite having its protagonist in tights, but what we got was rather on the face of it something silly, a moment of light relief in between the bloodshed, the betrayals and the vying for love, layered even more by a respect for its audience in knowing that they suspect that this simply can’t possibly be how it all ends.
A scene like this one could focus on the smaller moments; the euphoria in the mundane amongst the fantastical, in turn helping layer a character and making him more rounded. I’d go on to argue that it’s a scene that helped condition and normalise the nerd culture that we know today. With a helping hand from Iron Man, and Dark Knight, these films couldn’t have happened had it not been for the success of Spider-Man 2, and it’s pleasure in showcasing all the facets of the everyday life that comes with time in between being a crime fighter, and in what it means to give that up, simply to be regular, nerdy even in one’s downtime. Subtly, what we got was a peek into the man behind the mask, laced with a sadness and a dread that we know it’s only going to end very soon for this often belittled character, one hounded by melancholy and repeatedly tripped up by the life around him.
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Jon Holmes is a writer based in the UK. Alongside his work writing for film, he is a multi-accoladed filmmaker in his own right, and also performs. He can be followed on Youtube at Hans HS and on Twitter on @jonnyjonjon1