Tales From The Box Office: 20 Years Ago, Spider-Man Saved Superhero Movies From Being Just A Fad

(Welcome to Tales from the Box Office, our column that examines box office miracles, disasters, and everything in between, as well as what we can learn from them.)

For a great deal of history, as it relates to cinematic entertainment, superheroes have had brief shining moments that would fizzle out rapidly. "Superman: The Movie" was a landmark mainstream success for superhero movies back in 1978, but it didn't necessarily start a full-blown trend and, even by its fourth movie, "The Quest for Peace," things had turned sour. Then Tim Burton saved the day once again with 1989's "Batman," a landmark moment not just for superhero movies, but blockbuster cinema in general. Yet again, what would follow for much of the '90s failed to live up to Burton's level of success with Michael Keaton in tow as Bruce Wayne.

The tide truly began to turn in a meaningful way with 2000's "X-Men." While 1998's "Blade" was the first truly successful Marvel movie at the box office it was still an R-rated horror movie based on a virtually unknown character. "X-Men" was a known entity, and having a hit movie opened the doors for others. Specifically, it was finally time for Peter Parker to get his day in the spotlight, and that's precisely what happened in May of 2002 when "Spider-Man" hit theaters. It shattered records and smashed open the floodgates for other superhero films to follow — and the bubble hasn't burst in the 20 years since the movie's release.

In honor of the film's 20th anniversary this week, we are going to look back at how it came to be, how an unlikely director gave the film its magic touch, the effect it had on the industry at large, and what lessons we might be able to learn from it in the modern context. Let's dive in.

The movie: Spider-Man

It is no secret that even before "Blade" helped make Marvel a bankable cinematic brand, Hollywood had some interest in turning "Spider-Man" into a movie franchise. James Cameron famously wrote a massive treatment for a radically different version of the film that would never come to pass. In the late '90s, Sony Pictures had managed to secure the complicated movie rights (a move that is still benefiting them greatly to this day) and began putting together a version of the film that would actually get made. One of the big gets in this whole process was David Koepp, who was coming hot off the successes of films such as "Jurassic Park" and "Mission: Impossible," to pen the screenplay. The man had a knack for turning pre-existing IP into blockbuster hits, so he was a natural fit.

But the biggest piece of the puzzle was finding the right director. Sure, the studio looked at big, obvious names such as David Fincher ("Fight Club") and Chris Columbus ("Mrs. Doubtfire"). Even Tim Burton, the director of "Batman," pitched for the film. However, it was Sam Raimi, the man behind cult hits like "The Evil Dead" and "Darkman," who managed to secure the gig at a time when his name was not directly associated with major box office success. Raimi pitched the studio in 1999 and, despite not thinking he had a shot, it came to pass that he would be the man to bring Spidey to the silver screen for the first time. Raimi, speaking with Variety, explained his approach to the whole thing:

"I wanted to make sure we weren't making an 'in on the joke with the audience' presentation. For me, there was no joke. I don't want to be safe as a filmmaker saying, 'I know this is goofy, but let's pretend it isn't.' I never wanted to have that separation for me and the material, or assume that the audience had it. There is no safe place. There's simply just believing — believing that Peter Parker exists and investing wholly into his heart and matters of his soul. And sharing that drama with the audience."

That approach of taking superheroes seriously may seem simple now, but it was somewhat radical at the time and, in the end, would prove to be the secret sauce in this movie's success. It even permeated the casting of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. Naturally, the studio considered more traditional leading men for the part, including the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Heath Ledger, who would go on to make his mark in comic book movie history several years later as Joker in "The Dark Knight." But Maguire brought a relatable quality to Peter and, dating back to the earliest days of the character's adventures in Marvel Comics, as created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, that was incredibly important.

With a supporting cast in play including Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson, J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, and Willem Dafoe as the villain, Green Goblin, the stage was set. At the time, none of this added up to big success on paper but the disparate ingredients with Raimi's vision ended up capturing lighting in a bottle, setting the stage for the next two decades of blockbuster cinema.

The financial journey

"Spider-Man" hit theaters on May 3, 2002, essentially kicking off the summer movie season that year and boy, did it kick things off with a bang. The movie opened with an absolutely massive $114.8 million. It marked the first time in history that any movie had ever crossed $100 million on its opening weekend. While that's a relatively common occurrence these days (at least before the pandemic) it was downright unheard of and unthought of back then. To say that this was shocking at the time would be a dramatic understatement. The movie was a hit right out of the gate in a bigger way than anyone could have possibly imagined.

The film kept finding an audience week after week and finished its domestic run with $403.7 million, to go along with an equally healthy $418 million haul from international markets for a grand total of $821.7 million. Not only was this good for a superhero movie but it became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time at that time. Yes, "Blade" ($131 million) and "X-Men" ($296 million) had done well, this was on another level. If there is an absolute moment of no return for superhero movies as viable blockbuster cinema, this is it. Plain and simple.

To that end, Raimi would go on to direct two very successful sequels in "Spider-Man 2" and "Spider-Man 3," and there were plans for "Spider-Man 4" that got pulled at the last minute. But the two reboots that followed also generated a ridiculous amount of money and all of that paved the way for last year's record-breaking "Spider-Man: No Way Home." All told, the "Spider-Man" franchise has earned $8.2 billion. Not to mention all of the successful superhero movies that followed. Untold billions have been built on the back of this movie.

The lessons contained within

Superhero movies have been going strong for more than 20 years now and it's not as though Marvel Studios needs any thoughts from me on how to be successful. They have, in many ways, taken the lessons learned by Raimi's "Spider-Man" and doubled down on them in the best way, ensuring big success after big success. It's about staying faithful to what made people love these characters in the first place while understanding that comic books are not movies and movies are not comic books, so some changes need to be made to suit the medium. But, ideally, nothing that compromises the core of what makes that character special. To that end, Raimi had this to say in the very same Variety piece:

"That wasn't a result of something that we could claim as our own. It was on the shoulders of Stan Lee, Marvel writers and artists. I knew that, they really love this character even more than any of us thought."

The big thing for me, in this case, is that so many studios have become deeply franchise obsessed. In the hopes of building cinematic universes or franchises that can run for years to come, studios and streaming services seem to put the cart before the horse. Look at the Dark Universe as perhaps the most prominent example of this. The lesson here might be make one good thing first, just as Marvel Studios did with "Iron Man," and ideally go from there if it works. Speaking to the idea of how things have changed (and not for the better), producer Amy Pascal had this to say:

"We didn't have a lot of those kinds of characters, but in those days, to be honest, I didn't really think about things that way. You know, nobody talked about IP. Nobody said 'content.' Nobody said you need superhero movies. People didn't talk like that. We fell in love with Peter Parker. I am not a comic book person. I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, my God, all my life I've wanted to make comic book movies.' What I was thinking is 'This is a really fantastic character.'"

It is, perhaps, best not to think of these characters and potential franchises as endless IP plays, but as characters first. Ironically enough, Sony has now kind of been falling down a bad rabbit hole with movies like "Morbius" when they were the ones that started this all so correctly in the first place. Times have changed.