With coronavirus cases spiking in the U.S., my family and I skipped a traditional Thanksgiving gathering this year, so I spent the holiday with my girlfriend, and we needed a film to watch for the evening. Earlier, I watched a TikTok arguing that Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” film counted as a Thanksgiving movie because one of the best scenes of the film, where the film’s antagonist, Norman Osbourn (Willem Dafoe), realizes that Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is Spider-Man, takes place during a tense Thanksiving dinner among the main cast. If “Die Hard” can be considered a Christmas movie, that’s enough for me to consider “Spider-Man” (2002) a Thanksgiving movie.
You’re probably familiar with the basic plot of this film, because it’s been remade twice. A shy, nerdy teenager named Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider, granting him super-strength, a “spider sense” that allows him to detect danger, and the ability to stick to walls and launch webs from his wrists. His life changes forever when he enters a ring fighting match, brushing off the advice of his father figure, Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson): “with great power comes great responsibility.” Parker wins his match, but is cheated out of his money by a sketchy promoter, who is later robbed at gunpoint. Parker sees this as karma, as he chooses to do nothing in revenge, but he pays a hefty price for it, as it’s alluded to that the robber later Uncle Ben (that is, until “Spider-Man 3” needlessly complicates this). This gives Parker a clear motivation to be a hero and to use his powers for good, and he develops positively as a person in the process.
Meanwhile, the father of his best friend, Norman Osbourn, goes upon a parallel journey in which superpowers corrupt and destroy him. Norman is the CEO of Oscorp, a multinational corporation that focuses in producing weapons for the government. Norman takes it upon himself to test a strength-enhancing substance that implants a sinister personality in him, that seemingly takes over his body in order to carry out his darkest desires. When he learns that the Oscorp board of directors plans to force him out in order to sell the company without consulting him, this personality, the “Green Goblin” takes control and murders them all during the World Unity Fair, decked out in an all-green suit and a glider full of deadly weapons. He succeeds in killing them, but this puts him into conflict with Parker, who has now taken on the mantle of Spider-Man, as well as his son, Harry (James Franco), and his and Parker’s mutual love interest, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), who are also at the fair.
When I see most people talk about this movie now, they focus a lot on Raimi’s cartoony-comic book style of filming, and honestly, other than a scene where Oscorp board members burst into skeletons, it’s surprisingly realistic for the time. I like how Spider-Man can get hurt and how, despite looking a little cartoonish, the Green Goblin’s suit looks practical, and his weapons often leave a lasting mark on our hero, as well as how Spider-Man’s suit takes lasting damage throughout the film. This is a surprisingly visceral film, especially in its climax, in which Spider-Man is bloodied, cut up, and is legitimately outmatched, perhaps the only time he really is in the entire trilogy. The fact that the only way he could defeat Norman was by using his own power against him stands as a testament to that.
Raimi was presented with a real dilemma with how to present stakes in this film given both the protagonist and antagonist are superhuman, and he solved it by making them both more resilient than the average person, but with clearly defined limits as to what they could and couldn’t do. This allowed him to create tension in this film that few others in this genre have been able to portray.
There is also beautiful character development and casting in this film, with the Normans, Parker, and Watson all caught in each other’s gravity. Parker’s boss and editor-in-chief of The Dailey Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) and Parker’s mother figure, Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), also play key roles in the film’s supporting cast, with Jameson hell-bent on getting pictures of Spider-Man, which Parker provides, and Aunt May being the last family he has left, which put them both in the Goblin’s crosshairs.
And the narrative all hinges on one of the best Thanksgiving dinner scenes in cinema, in which Norman recognizes Parker’s scars, realizing he is Spider-Man.
Dafoe is a joy in this film and I could probably write a whole novella about the range and nuance he exhibits in this film, as he is both ridiculous and over the top and cleverly subtle. The Thanksgiving scene is one of my favorites, because its key moment is communicate only through Dafoe’s facial expressions: He exhibits curiosity, then shock, then horror in the span of a few seconds, before he gets up to leave.
Despite the fact that this film is so old it would be allowed to enlist in the military if it were a person, it has the best version of the Spider-Man suit, and most of its effects hold up beautifully. Maguire really is the definitive Spider-Man and Peter Parker in my eyes, and Dafoe, Franco, Dunst, Harris, Simmons and Robertson are the definitive versions of their characters as well; the casting is just that perfect.
While it’s not as good as “Spider-Man 2”, the first Raimi “Spider-Man” film is a success on a character, casting, production and dramatic level few superhero origin films have reached since. This film has been highly regarded since it came out, and it stands above most MCU films.
“Spider-Man” (2002) gets a 9/10