There were comic book movies before Spider-Man that changed the game — Batman and X-Men come to mind — and ones that revolutionized the industry after, such as The Dark Knight and Iron Man. But when it comes to the modern era of comic book films — and summer blockbusters in general, really — the legacy of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy from the early 2000s is undeniable.
Blending Raimi’s horror sensibilities with the possibilities of modern movie-making technology and the timeless tale of Peter Parker’s journey, the original Spider-Man trilogy remains a staple of the genre to this day thanks to its pitch-perfect combination of action, comedy, emotion, and thrills (well, certainly in the first two movies, at least). Most importantly, though, what the Spider-Man films nail most is the portrayal of its titular hero, leaving audiences with tons of iconic moments that will swing around our memories for years to come.
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Finally given a chance to take his new powers for a spin, Peter Parker finds himself a shady New York City wrestling match in the hopes of earning some money to buy a car. While some of the scene’s jokes may not have aged particularly well, everything from the Bruce Campbell cameo to the deliciously campy performance from the late Randy “Macho Man” Savage, a list of Spider-Man’s most iconic moments in the original trilogy simply would not be complete without Spidey’s first test drive of his new high-flying, wall-crawling abilities.
No Peter Parker story is complete without the death of Uncle Ben, whether it be on screen or off. A foolish attempt to retcon the moment in Spider-Man 3 notwithstanding, Uncle Ben’s death was an emotional gut-punch in the original film as his needless passing was a direct result of Peter Parker’s willful arrogance and ignorance. Conversely, as great of a personal loss as it might’ve been, Uncle Ben’s death also represented Peter’s first step on his journey to not only becoming Spider-Man but realizing that with great power comes great responsibility.
Back when Spider-Man first came out, it wasn’t Willem Dafoe’s villainous turn as Green Goblin nor the mind-blowing CGI that bled into the pop-cultural consciousness — it was the upside-down kiss between Peter Parker and Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson. Perhaps more notable than winning Best Kiss at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards, the Upside Down Kiss became such a cornerstone of pop culture that it was even referenced in an episode of The O.C., which was virtually the nexus of trendy television. In fact, the moment was so iconic that almost a decade later, when Emma Stone was set to take over as Peter Parker’s main love interest Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man, she was asked in interviews whether or not the moment would be replicated.
What makes Spider-Man such an excellent movie — superhero-related or otherwise — is the classic hero’s journey Peter Parker experiences, beginning the film as a timid boy unprepared to live up to the power and responsibility bestowed upon him but ending as a man ready to do what’s necessary, even if that means letting Norman Osborn die.
Similar to Batman deciding he doesn’t have to kill Ra’s Al Ghul, but he doesn’t have to save him, either, Peter decides that Norman should pay for the consequences of his actions, teaching him the same lesson he learned from Uncle Ben: with great power comes great responsibility, something Osborn unfortunately never understood before it was too late.
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Not only is Spider-Man mustering every ounce of his strength and will to stop the runaway MTA train one of the most iconic moments in Raimi’s seminal trilogy, but it’s one of the definitive moments in the comic book movie genre at large.
As a technical feat — and perhaps this speaks to Hollywood’s seeming over-reliance on technology, what with Kevin Feige being blown away by Chloe Zhao doing something known as “filming on location”— the CGI of the runaway train scene still holds up, making it as thrilling to watch now as it was 17 years ago.
In terms of storytelling, Peter Parker’s self-sacrifice remains a perfect distillation of what makes the superhero genre so appealing to so many people across the world, combining his pure moral compass with his otherworldly strength, putting himself in harm’s way for a subway car full of strangers he’s never seen before and likely never will again. All of this, mind you, happens while simultaneously revealing his secret identity, leaving the on-lookers in almost guilt-ridden awe when they realize he’s “just a kid.”
For all of the plaudits paid to Spider-Man, an argument can be made that Spider-Man 2 is the superior film, with the dynamic between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn (James Franco) following the death of Norman — which Harry believes was done by the hands of Spider-Man — being the main factor in that elevation in quality.
With Peter Parker now fully in the throes of being Spider-Man and Harry Osborn continually contemplating a path of revenge, the confrontation was always destined to come to a head. What Spider-Man 2 does brilliantly, though, is realize that clash not in the form of fisticuffs, but as a conversation between two old friends who know their relationship will never be the same. It’s a moment that cuts far deeper—we’ve all let someone we love down in our lives, whether on purpose or accidentally—than any blade-lined Green Goblin pumpkin bomb could.
The issues with Spider-Man 3 are well documented, so there’s no need to rehash them here. But just because the concluding chapter of the trilogy was an experience that failed to live up to the first two films does not mean that it’s entirely irredeemable, with Spider-Man’s first swing-sesh in the black symbiote suit being the primary example. Ripped straight from the pages of the comic books—Spidey’s black symbiote suit was first introduced in Amazing Spider-Man #252—Peter suddenly coming to on the side of a skyscraper with the symbiote suit wrapped around his body exemplified what Raimi’s trilogy did so well: a tinge of horror with a heavy helping of high-flying, web-slinging, wall-crawling thrills.
Given its seemingly everlasting shelf-life as both a meme and a reference point of millennial humor, an argument can be made that the entire Emo Peter Parker segment — from the pelvis-thrusting dance to the always hilarious “You gonna cry?” — is the most iconic moment of the series given its ubiquitous staying power.
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