‘Spider-Man’ at 20: How Sam Raimi and Sony Pictures Rescued the Superhero Genre and Changed Hollywood Forever

In the fall of 1999, Sam Raimi stepped into the offices of Sony Pictures in an impeccable black suit to pitch himself to direct “Spider-Man.” He had no reason to expect he would get the job.

“My agent, Josh Donen, said, ‘They want to be honest with you. There’s about 18 directors they’d rather have than you on a list,'” Raimi recalls. “And I said, ‘OK, well, tell them I’m number 19.'”

When Raimi finally did get a meeting, he found himself in a room that included Sony Pictures CEO John Calley, Columbia Pictures chair Amy Pascal, Marvel Studios chief Avi Arad, Sony film executive Matt Tolmach and the film’s producer, Laura Ziskin. (Calley and Ziskin died in 2011.) To break the ice, Raimi started talking about why he loves Spider-Man so much. He talked about the painting of the web-slinger that hung on his childhood bedroom wall. He talked about how Spidey’s alter ego, Peter Parker, was the first time a nerdy kid like Raimi could actually see himself as a superhero and not some goofy sidekick. He talked about how Spider-Man’s co-creator, Stan Lee, gave life to a character whose foibles and failures were just as important, if not more so, than his astonishing powers and death-defying feats of bravery.

And then, abruptly, Raimi stopped talking.

“The meeting was going very, very well,” recalls Tolmach. “And all of a sudden, Sam looked at his watch, stood up and said, ‘Well, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate your having me in.'”

Raimi, it turned out, had been told he had an hour for the meeting, and he was determined not to go over. “I was very aware of how they didn’t want me,” the director says now. “So I really didn’t want to also overstay my welcome.”

Suffice it to say, he didn’t. Raimi got the job, and the record-shattering success of “Spider-Man” — with $825 million worldwide, it was at that point the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time by a considerable margin — catalyzed the rise of the genre as the most dominant force in studio filmmaking over the past two decades. Without it, there would be no Marvel Cinematic Universe, no “Avengers: Endgame,” no “The Dark Knight” and certainly no “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

To commemorate the movie’s 20th anniversary, Variety spoke with the key behind-the-scenes players about how, and why, “Spider-Man” was able to swing to such unparalleled heights.

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There was little about a “Spider-Man” movie that was foreordained. An army of lawyers had to spend the better part of the 1990s untangling the movie rights to the character, but it wasn’t exactly a hot commodity, either. No Marvel Comics hero had broken through in feature films; the “Superman” movies had long since fizzled out in the 1980s; and 1997’s disastrous “Batman & Robin” put the Caped Crusader in movie jail for eight years. By the late 1990s, it was punishingly difficult just finding a studio to take the idea of superhero movies seriously.

Avi Arad (former Marvel Studios president and CEO): None of the studios had any interest in “Spider-Man.” You name a studio, they turned it down. They thought, “That’s an old property.” Obviously, I felt this is the biggest property out there. So we kicked the door down. I told them, “Spider-Man” alone is worth a billion dollars. Little did I know, whoa, I was low.

David Koepp (screenwriter): Superhero movies had fallen on hard times. They weren’t making any kind of cultural connection, and there had been a number of ones that were cheap and were considered shitty.

Matt Tolmach (former Columbia Pictures exec VP of production): You had to get through this perception that comic books were for kids. It really was how these things were thought about. Given what you knew it was going to cost, right away it was like, “Well, how big an audience can we expect for these things?”

Sanford Panitch (former 20th Century Fox executive, current president of Sony Pictures): Teen boys. That’s who you were making Marvel movies for — the small-mindedness of that thinking! Now, they are the most universal genre — they’ve transcended even adults and teens. They’re now just all-audience, family events.

Arad: They couldn’t see an event entertainment that is worth the money to do. I don’t think they understood it as a huge movie.

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Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

The success of 1998’s “Blade” at New Line Cinema at least helped establish the idea that a Marvel character could carry a movie, and Fox was in the works on an “X-Men” movie largely due to the success of the animated “X-Men” TV series. Spider-Man, however, was still Marvel’s crown jewel, and finally in 1998, Sony Pictures, led by Calley, bought the film rights outright for just $7 million, with Marvel retaining 5% of the profits and 50% of the merchandising.

Amy Pascal (former Columbia Pictures president): 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.”

Tolmach: There was an Everyman, brilliant-kid-in-all-of-us quality to Peter Parker, and we used to talk about that all the time. I think everybody was like, let’s do this and just go with it because there isn’t a lot of research to support it one way or the other, other than it is a character that has been beloved in the comics for years and years and years and years.

In the early 1990s, James Cameron had put together an 80-page “scriptment” — part script, part treatment — for a “Spider-Man” movie that featured Electro as the main villain and opened with Peter Parker already well into his career as Spider-Man. By the time Sony came on board, Cameron had moved on, but the treatment came with the film rights — and was filled with some rather bold ideas.

Koepp: He pushed the metaphor of adolescent sexual development really far. There’s a great moment where Peter wakes up in bed with web strands all over himself. It was like, wow, I don’t know if we can do the wet dream thing, but that was pretty funny. Even just the fact that Cameron had taken it seriously was a big deal. It legitimized it in people’s minds — not least of all, probably, Sony.

Tolmach: We also knew that there were a whole generation of filmmakers that loved Spider-Man. And so there was also a sense that we could probably attract someone really special.

Koepp, one of the most in-demand screenwriters of the 1990s, with “Jurassic Park” and “Mission: Impossible” to his credit, was brought on board on the strength of his own bold ideas, including how to approach Peter Parker’s relationship with the woman he eventually marries in the comics, Mary Jane Watson.

Koepp: My big pitch was it should take a really long time for Peter Parker to become Spider-Man. He’s not going to have the outfit on for 45 minutes, and that’s OK. It’s such a powerful origin story, we need to really stretch it out. And the other thing is, the couple is not going to get together at the end — they have to end apart, because that’s romantic. That Sony was willing to embrace both those things I thought also showed they had some creative nerve. Because traditional thinking is, by page 10 he’s become a superhero, and at the end everything’s fine. We were trying to do something different.

Sony then began meeting with potential directors, and found no shortage of interest — press reports listed David Fincher (“Fight Club”) and Chris Columbus (“Mrs. Doubtfire”) among the candidates. Despite a solid track record as a genre filmmaker — the “Evil Dead” movies, “Darkman,” “The Quick and the Dead” — Raimi, at first, was not among them.

Pascal: A lot of people came in and talked about camera angles and creating cameras to shoot the swinging and stuff like that.

Arad: Some of them were immensely excited, but they took it from the point of view that they know what to do. “Just give me all the money, leave me alone and I’ll make a great movie.”

Koepp: I remember Amy telling me that they’d met with Tim Burton, who in the meeting said, “I guess I’m just a DC guy,” which seems like someone who’s not really trying hard to get the job.

Tolmach: Sam hadn’t had the extraordinary success that maybe some of the others at that point had, but he was this super groovy nerdy kid who was doing all kinds of interesting things.

Arad: Sam was unique. Sam didn’t come into it for money. Sam was a guy who needed to make it.

Sam Raimi (director): Peter Parker wasn’t some idealized kid. He came from a broken home and he wasn’t the best-looking. So you could really identify with him. They probably did recognize that we need to have someone tell the story that can also relate to this kid. And I certainly could.

Pascal: He came in and said it’s a soap opera about a boy who loves a girl, and that’s what I want to focus on. John Calley and I just looked at each other and said, “Well, that’s the movie we want to make too.”

Throughout the 1990s, comic book movies, even at their best, were heightened experiences that placed the superheroes at the center of a fantastical world that little resembled our own. At their worst, they were exercises in too-cool-for-school irony and overblown excess, winking at the tropes of comic book storytelling and never, ever taking any of it seriously. Koepp and Raimi abhorred that approach.

Tolmach: That was a very important thing for Sam and David, to go back and really tell the story as it had been laid out in the books, all the way back in the beginning. That was really Sam’s vision — he wanted the movie to feel that way.

Koepp: I never wanted anything winky, anything inside-y, anything self-aware. This is a high school drama. Those feelings are really powerful, and I would like them to be as real as we can get them.

Raimi: 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.

Koepp: I wrote more drafts of that script than I think any script I’ve done before or since. I felt that I could please at any given time maybe 60% of the decision-makers, but under no circumstances could I please them all. So it was tough. It was hard work.

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Tobey Maguire, director Sam Raimi, and Kirsten Dunst on set of “Spider-Man.” Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Critical to Raimi’s approach was finding the right actor to embody Peter Parker. Among the many names floated as possibilities in the press, even if Sony didn’t seriously consider them: Leonardo DiCaprio, Wes Bentley, Heath Ledger, Ewan McGregor, Chris Klein, Scott Speedman, Jude Law and Freddie Prinze Jr. — all of them dashing leading men, none of them right for the role of a working-class high school nerd who can’t get the girl.

Pascal: A lot of people said I need to get a superstar, and there were a lot of actors who were putting themselves forward who were huge stars at the time — but were grown-ups.

Raimi: I met with a number of great actors. Many turned down the role, and they were smart to, because their strengths sometimes were in being special people and portraying other special people on the screen. We needed somebody who was not Christopher Reeve, not extraordinarily tall and handsome and that would turn heads. We needed somebody with a heart and soul that the audience could recognize themselves in.

Pascal: Heath Ledger was somebody that we talked about a lot, because I’d made a couple of movies with Heath. I love him, and I loved him then. That wasn’t where it went.

Raimi: I didn’t meet with Leonardo DiCaprio. I believe I met with Wes Bentley. I don’t think I met with Heath Ledger.

Just as Raimi was starting his search, “The Cider House Rules” — the 1999 adaptation of the John Irving novel about a young man who grew up an orphan in World War II-era Maine — began taking awards season by storm. Its star, 24-year-old Tobey Maguire, was as close to a Peter Parker type as Raimi could imagine.

Arad: “The Cider House Rules” — that was Peter Parker right there. He had that same lack of confidence. Everything in it said to me, this is the guy.

Pascal: Tobey might not have been the most obvious choice if you’re casting what is the most important role of any character that is happening at the studio, because he wasn’t that kind of person. But he was a magnificent actor and inhabited all the qualities that Peter Parker needed to have. To be honest, he was Sam Raimi’s choice and Sam was steadfast. He wouldn’t make it with anyone else.

Other actors took a less direct route to their roles.

Elizabeth Banks (Betty Brandt): I was brand-new in the business when the audition came across my desk. I auditioned for Mary Jane Watson, actually. I remember being told to wear flat shoes. I wore my hair in, like, pigtails probably or something ridiculous, to feel like I was in high school.

Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn, aka the Green Goblin): Initially, what attracted me to it was Sam Raimi and just this fairly new idea of making a film out of these comic book characters. There was an audition process — probably the last time that I can remember that I put myself on tape for an audition. It was competitive.

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J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Banks, Tobey Maguire, and Bill Nunn in “Spider-Man.” Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Once Raimi had his cast in place — including Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane, Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben, Rosemary Harris as Aunt May, James Franco as Harry Osborn and J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson — then came the work of figuring out how to bring the Spider-Man to life in a way that felt true to the comic books and yet grounded in the real world.

Banks: One of my favorite memories from the movie is Tobey was on a really strict diet — he was vegan or something before that was a big lifestyle choice. I think he was just trying to be as fit as possible, obviously. And they brought In-N-Out Burger to the set one day. I don’t know what happened, but I ended up having mine at Betty Brandt’s desk, outside J. Jonah Jameson’s office. We started rehearsing the scene, and I was still eating my burger. And Tobey was pretty offended that I was just like, I’m just gonna eat this burger in front of you that you’re not allowed to have for many reasons. I teased him about that. And he teased me.

Some creative choices proved complicated, like the Goblin’s helmet.

Dafoe: The challenge was always to not make the Goblin ridiculous, make him a little scary. And I think, because technology was involved, they went with a very angular, very modern kind of look, more like an armor. Some of the early tests I saw, the Goblin looked more like a Halloween mask, this kind of puke green with bug eyes. It was kind of silly looking.

Goblin’s helmet also meant that during certain crucial moments in the movie, the faces of the lead hero and the villain were both totally obscured.

Raimi: I would sometimes communicate to the actors, “I need an additional gesticulation of your fingers here to explain your helplessness.” Or in the case of sadness, “Can I have a slight tilt to the mask down.” It would be a little bit more like theater. And I would be the audience watching the scene from row 16, where the subtleties of the voice weren’t always enough. It sometimes had to be demonstrated through a gesture or movement or the way a character stands or sits.

Dafoe: It was also a beautiful combination of very comic stuff and very dramatic stuff, and sometimes those things were weaved together in the same scene. Even though I wasn’t really in tune with knowing what comic books were, I did come from a theater tradition that appreciated a different kind of performance style than naturalism. And I saw the opportunities in having this kind of monster character, and then have it grounded with a certain psychological portrait of this tortured guy.

Another challenge was the need for extensive CGI pre-visualization to get the look of Spidey swinging through Manhattan down right — a commonplace practice today that was still in its infancy 20 years ago.

Arad: One of the greatest moments of “Spider-Man” was showing Stan Lee for the first time the CGI of Spider-Man flying. I’m looking at him, and he was like an uncle, you know? And he whispers in my ear, “That’s it?” And then I realized he doesn’t know it’s pre-viz. He was new to the technology side of things. He was so disappointed! I almost cried! I said, “Stan, the world’s never seen anything like it.” “Yeah, but it doesn’t look cool.” I told him, “Don’t worry. It will be great.” Anyhow, when he saw it finished, he had a bunch of tears in his eyes, because that’s his baby.

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Willem Dafoe in “Spider-Man.” Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

And then there were Spider-Man’s web shooters. In the comics, Peter invents them himself. But Cameron’s scriptment had made them an organic part of Peter’s body instead. It was a major change from the established canon, and Raimi wanted to keep it. The news leaked on the internet before shooting began, and for the first time, fans had a forum to make their displeasure known.

Raimi: I was aware of it, and it wasn’t a good thing for me. I didn’t have a great experience of the fans.

Koepp: There was an internet culture that was just starting to flex its ability to be ugly. That was probably my first experience with what we’ve come to deal with all the time now, which is the distraction of people telling you what they think your movie should be before, during and after you’re making it, and doing it very publicly.

Pascal: People had a lot of opinions about what we should and shouldn’t do, who we should hire as the director, who we should hire to play Peter, everything else. But it was nothing in comparison to what it’s like now.

Raimi: I don’t think that the fans thought I was the right person to direct “Spider-Man” in general. And then the organic web shooters — when the fans found out I was going that way, they tried to have me removed from the picture.

Koepp: I stand by the organic web slingers as a pretty cool idea. Wasn’t even my idea.

None of that hue and cry ultimately mattered: When “Spider-Man” opened on May 3, 2002, it shattered box office records, becoming the first movie to break the $100 million barrier in its opening weekend, with $114.8 million in domestic receipts.

Banks: I just remember being at that premiere and being like, “Oh, my God, this is the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of in my life.” I knew enough to know that you don’t get those kinds of premieres unless everybody’s really excited about the box office.

Panitch: I went to the premiere. The buildup had been so extraordinary. It just began this new genre for the entire film business, that you could do something like this. The tears and the orgiastic fan excitement — you realized that you tapped into something that was so beyond any single quadrant. It broke the mold of the idea that comic books were just something you read by yourself alone in the room. You realized that they’ve just transcended all of that.

Raimi: That was a weird, weird weekend.

Arad: We would go from theater to theater, in a bus with drinks, alcohol, you name it. Celebration! We sneak into the theater just to stand in the back and see what’s happening. And it was clear as a bell.

Pascal: As the movie was ending, people started screaming when they saw Tobey. And then I remember us all going out to dinner, and Jeff Blake, who was the head of marketing and distribution at Sony at the time, calling me — because people used to call and tell you what the numbers were. We were flabbergasted. Nobody had ever experienced anything like that.

Arad: The toys sold like crazy.

Raimi: I had never made a hit movie, you know. From 1980, when I made “Evil Dead,” to 2002, when this came out, I had to survive by telling myself box office doesn’t matter. I knew even then that however big that opening weekend was, that wasn’t really a result of something that we could claim as our own. It was standing on the shoulders of Stan Lee, of maybe 60 years of writers in the Marvel bullpens, of artists and writers who had made animated “Spider-Man” TV series that kids loved.

I knew that, wow, they really, really love this character even more than any of us thought. It was more about that than “Oh, the movie’s so good.” How would they know? They’re coming in the first weekend.

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Tobey Maguire and Kirstin Dunst in “Spider-Man.” Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Fans kept coming, for “Spider-Man” and its two sequels; the two “Amazing Spider-Man” movies with Andrew Garfield; the animated, Oscar-winning “Into the Spider-Verse”; and the three “Spider-Man” movies with Tom Holland, culminating with the $1.9 billion-grossing “No Way Home,” which brought back Maguire and Garfield in a multiversal adventure. The “Spider-Man” films now constitute the highest-grossing single superhero franchise ever (yes, even more than “Batman”), with global box office receipts exceeding $8.2 billion. And just four years after the debut of “Spider-Man,” Marvel announced it would produce its own movies through Marvel Studios, which, after 27 films, has grossed better than $25.6 billion worldwide.

Without Raimi’s determination to honor what made Peter Parker so indelible for so long in the pages of Marvel comics, and Sony’s dedication to supporting that vision, it’s likely none of that would’ve been possible.

Dafoe: It was undoubtedly the most widely seen of any movie I had ever done. I don’t make that many films for children, so if a young kid came up to me, shortly after that, I’d have a pretty good idea what he saw. It wasn’t “Antichrist”!

Pascal: I never was like, “This is the future of movies.” I just knew that we had done something that people loved. I mean, the movie was a turning point for Columbia Pictures and for all the people involved in it. I’ve actually been in one way or another making Spider-Man movies with the same group of people for 20-something years.

Koepp: I found it touching to see Tobey’s character again in “No Way Home.” I can see the weight of living in his eyes, which I thought was fascinating. I would imagine they’d develop a story about 40-year-old Spider-Man and see what that’s like. Yeah, I’d be interested in seeing that. The stories are still beautifully told. And audiences love them.