Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy: A Universe All Its Own

It’s hard to believe but moviegoers got their first big screen adventure of everyone’s favorite wallcrawler, Marvel’s Spider-Man nearly two decades ago. An epic trilogy, seen through the eyes of movemaking master Sam Raimi, helped set the stage for years of comic book adaptations—and two further incarnations of Spider-Man. But it was Raimi’s original trilogy that aided in showing the public that comic books could truly come to life and craft an engaging cinematic universe that could influence years of films and filmmakers alike. Recently, YouTubers reassessed the original three films, digging deep into each individual film and seeking to discover if they have truly stood the test of time. The Cosmonaut Variety Hour began his own take on the films, commenting that perhaps the Raimi trilogy had since become outdated. In his views on the first film, 2002’s Spider-Man, he claimed:

I’m just sayin’ the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies aren’t as good as you remember. Now, I still love these movies, all three of them to be exact—yeah, you heard that right—but, it annoys me people look at the first two as some sort of superhero Holy Grail when they’re, like, not really that good anymore.

For The Cosmonaut Variety Hour, the first film can now be viewed as a campy, unintentional comedic entry—especially targeting David Koepp’s script and the performances of Tobey Maguire as the titular Peter Parker, Kirstin Dunst as lifelong love interest Mary Jane Watson, and soon-to-be superstar James Franco as best friend Harry Osborne—as well as the twenty-year-old CGI effects:

So once the festival scene happens, we get a really good idea of how much this movie has completely lost it. Where before the special effects were mostly hidden or only briefly shown, this movie is now a CGI nightmare.

The Cosmonaut was more forgiving of the sequel, 2004’s Spider-Man 2, and acknowledged its status among many fans as the best of the trilogy’s entries—but with its own flaws:

Now, while the point of this video is to show the crummy aspects of this movie and kind of laugh at it, I gotta admit that it’s 100% undeniable that this is the best movie out of the trilogy … It’s way funnier than the first one, it has some good emotional moments, and it’s pretty exciting to watch. But it still has dumb shit.

But even in what has often been heralded as one of the greatest superhero films ever made, YouTuber Cosmonaut remained adamant that the performances—particularly Maguire as Spider-Man—was one of the film’s weakest points, adding:

When this movie isn’t being campy and it’s not being serious, it’s just being really awkward. Tobey Maguire can’t have a normal scene with somebody…

It is widely stated that Sam Raimi’s final film in the original trilogy, 2007’s Spider-Man 3, was the weakest of the three films, due largely to a rushed production and forced inclusion of additional villains. At this, The Cosmonaut Variety Hour claims that those weaknesses only make the third installment all the better, however, for its absurdity:

Now, if you ask me, the best part about this movie is the fact that the wackiness starts at the very beginning. It’s not a gradual build-up like it was in the last two movies; this movie starts off as a shit-show … At the ten-minute mark, we already see two antagonists: Harry starts juicing with the “goblin serum,” and a fucking meteorite lands in Central Park with the symbiote. This movie is trying to juggle all of this shit at once and it really doesn’t work.

But to YouTuber The Cosmonaut Variety Hour, the series’ greatest weakness lies in the fact—in his eyes—the initial limitations of the first film were never rectified, but rather, copied in both future installments. He added:

You see what I mean when I say that these movies are all the same? I don’t even care, it’s so funny … If you ask me, all three of these movies honestly do make a pretty decent trilogy. People say Spider-Man 3 is the worst one, but if you watch all of them back-to-back, it doesn’t really feel all that much different from the other two. So yeah, my opinion hasn’t really changed. I prefer the new movies, but at the same time, I can still enjoy these movies for what they are.

Not all online commentators share such sentiments. While nearly as skeptical as The Cosmonaut Variety Hour, fellow YouTuber Captain Midnight, in his own response videos, found elements of the Raimi trilogy to enjoy. Of the first film, he commented:

I don’t think [The Cosmonaut Variety Hour] really pays that much attention to Harry’s, or really any of the supporting player’s, character arcs at all, outside of their function as a plot device for Peter’s story.

While in agreement that some of the CGI has its dated aspects, Captain Midnight is quick to defend the performances of Tobey Maguire, James Franco, and Kirstin Dunst—adding that the screenplays for all three films displayed a logical and human character arc for each character:

For me, [The Cosmonaut Variety Hour] overlooking the more subtle character work in these movies is one of my biggest issues with [his[ video.

In agreement with fellow YouTuber The Cosmonaut Variety Hour, Captain Midnight shared his enthusiasm regarding the playful and “over-the-top” performances of the films supporting players—particularly its rogue’s gallery of well-known Spider-man foils:

One thing that [The Cosmonaut Variety Hour] touches on over and over in his video is just how funny he thinks these movies are. From corny lines from extras to the really over-the-top performances from Willem DaFoe and J.K. Simmons—and I agree with him. I think that stuff is really funny and enjoyable. But I think there’s one big difference between us: I think all of that stuff is a very intentional choice on director Sam Raimi’s part … For me, the cornball extras, the women screaming at the top of their lungs, and an homage to old monster movies, and goofy stuff like this are really appealing.

However, there are many fans who simply adore Sam Raimi’s take on the Spider-Man story—and are equally vocal in their reasons why. YouTuber HiTop, an admittedly tremendous fan of the series, posted individual videos in defense of each one of Raimi’s three entries. HiTop’s love of the first film helps to sum up his enthusiasm for the trilogy as a whole, remarking:

Yeah, this is still the best superhero origin movie of all time … Raimi had the impossible job of introducing the world to this complicated character—and the David Koepp screenplay does exactly that by keeping things so simple. Within the first six minutes and thirty seconds of the film, we know the goals, the wants, and the personality of our protagonist, Peter Parker.

HiTop does remain in agreement with his fellow commentators in regards to the now-dated CGI and effects of the first film, adding:

The CGI might be dated, but the themes, the complex characters, and the filmmaking are certainly not.

But more than almost any other YouTuber, HiTop is particularly fond of the screenplays themselves and, when it comes to the often-championed Spider-Man 2, is very vocal in his positive reassessment:

Everything Sam Raimi did in Spider-Man, he does better in Spider-man 2 … God, I love this screenplay—I love the poetic lines, I love how melancholy the whole thing is, I love the parallels to the first film that tell us things about Peter’s character and his growth, I love how everything is in service to Peter’s growth and Peter’s character.

To HiTop, the reason that the Raimi trilogy has, indeed, aged well, is the characterization and thematic elements to the films themselves. While many fellow commentators were universal in their criticism of some of the special effects and action sequences, HiTop remains adamant that the humanistic qualities that Raimi and his cast brought to the full spectrum of characters were the series’ greatest triumph:

I like to think that the test of a good ‘cape-flick’ is to ask yourself, ‘If I take out the grand action scenes, does the movie still work? Is it still entertaining? Is the character drama enough to carry the film?’ The answer in this case is, ‘Fuck yeah, it is!

When it comes to the controversial third installment, however, even in his loving reassessment, YouTuber HiTop found weaknesses in the film’s overall production:

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 feels like three different movies mashed together … but you know what? Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 is not a bad film, not even close. I would go so far to say that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 is, in fact, a good film—hell, it’s even a great film. And it’s almost a perfect finale to his take on our beloved wall crawler.

Like many fans and critics had previously stated, one of the main reasons that Spider-Man 3 garnered so much negative feedback was due to an unspoken comparison to the previous two installments, and the high bar set by director Sam Raimi. Taking this into account, HiTop added:

To fully appreciate Spider-Man 3, you can’t hold it to the incredibly high standards set by the first two films. Those were Sam Raimi films—every frame, every choice, everything was so Sam Raimi. And the sad reality is that Spider-Man 3 was never going to 100% Sam Raimi.

In fellow YouTuber Holden Hardman, HiTop found a kindred spirit. Like HiTop, Hardman reassessed the Raimi trilogy on a personal level, but dissected each film individually to dig out their greatest strengths and weaknesses. Again, it is the human level with which Raimi presents his characters that, according to Hardman, make the full series as memorable and timeless as it is:

This question is the philosophical principle that makes Spider-Man Spider-Man. It’s the thing that separates the Raimi films from the MCU Spider-Man. Our Peter has nothing – his life is falling apart as a direct consequence of choosing to be Spider-Man. Yet, he still does it. The MCU Spider-Man has resources and a support group and nary a mention of Uncle Ben, who was the driving purpose behind Spider-Man’s entire motivation to save people, no matter the cost.

As he comes to the final and most controversial installment, Spider-Man 3, Hardman doesn’t shy away from the film’s criticism—but added that the most important characteristics associated with Sam Raimi’s style are still present, although the film itself was largely compromised by studio mandates:

I think with what Sam Raimi was given, he was still able to imbue his essence into the film, despite it being by Avi Arad’s demands … I think a lot of my issues with Spider-Man 3 being here: as soon as Harry takes his father’s formula, eight minutes into the movie—five if we aren’t counting the opening credits—you can already tell there are already way too many cooks in the creative kitchen.

As Hardman sums up his love of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, he makes a point of stating the very elements of story and character that have always been present in defining the beloved comic book hero since his initial 1962 debut. To Hardman, it is that hero inside all of us that relates the most to Spider-Man—and Sam Raimi was the first director to understand that attraction:

The lessons of Spider-Man are so important and significant that they transcend the superhero genre. They’re bold, they’re inventive and, most importantly, they’re relatable. We see ourselves as Peter Parker running towards the bus, we see ourselves as Spider-Man struggling to stay up on a wall, we see ourselves getting carried away with our own egos that blind us to what’s important in our own lives. Spider-Man 3 is a flawed masterpiece that is rife with technical issues, but the heart of it is just as strong as ever.