Spider-Mania: Remembering the Hype Train of ‘Spider-Man: The Movie’ and the Summer of 2002

I am heartbreakingly not old enough to remember the astronomical hype surrounding 1989’s Batman. I was born a little less than two months before the movie’s release. I certainly remember growing up watching it endlessly on video, but that’s not the same. The movie’s release was, by all account, a major event in the history of pop culture. But I was also a kid raised on Spider-Man. Possibly, to an extent, raised by Spider-Man as “with great power comes great responsibility” is some sage parental wisdom if I’ve ever heard it. I grew up reading the comics, watching the ‘90s cartoon (and even some episodes of the ‘80s cartoon picked up on the cheap at K-Mart) and playing numerous video games of extremely varying quality. I loved Batman. But he and Superman got several movies and I spent much of my youth wondering why Spider-Man couldn’t get the same treatment and when, if ever, that day would come.

My only live-action Spider-Man as a child came in the form of Sci-Fi Channel re-runs of the 1977 Amazing Spider-Man television series, as well as a video tape of the pilot TV movie that I picked up at Borders. For anyone that doesn’t remember, that show aired around the same time as The Incredible Hulk and on the same network, starring Sound of Music’s Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. It was dirt cheap. The only characters lifted from the comics were Spidey, Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson and Robbie Robertson, and even Robbie disappeared after the pilot. And I loved it. I didn’t care that Spider-Man barely ever donned the costume, never really spoke under the mask, shot silly string webs and never fought a single super-villain, taking on the much more budget friendly arena of local crime—such as drug dealers, the mob and, I don’t know, traffic violations—instead. I didn’t care. It was the only live-action Spider-Man and I cherished it.

The notion of an actual, theatrical Spider-Man motion picture did not even pop up on my radar until I started reading Wizard magazine as a kid, taking every little crumb of a rumor as absolute gospel as to when a Spider-Man movie was coming and what it was going to be like. I sat there, reading comics and magazines, waiting patiently for years for these rumors to pan out, and yet a film was still no closer to happening. I remember seeing the Alex Ross concept art for the movie and absolutely loving it, believing without question that these designs were exactly what Spider-Man and Green Goblin were going to look like in the film. I loved that design for the Spider-Man suit and was delighted to see it finally make it into the comics in the pages of Superior Spider-Man over a decade later.

But eventually, I started getting impatient. When you read your first rumor about a possible Spider-Man movie in 1999 and it still hasn’t happened by the end of 2000, when you’re young, that span of time feels like forever. The ActiVision Spider-Man PlayStation game only fueled my obsession for Spidey that much more. It got to the point that I got so impatient that I decided to make my own movie, casting myself and my friends, using an old Spidey Halloween costume, a Jurassic Park Velociraptor mask and oversized dress shirt for the Lizard and silver spray painted hoses for Doc Ock’s tentacles. Despite having literally everything we needed, I don’t think we ever actually got to the point of filming.

That was a last act of desperation, for just wanting to see a Spider-Man movie so badly that I attempted to create it myself. But then something so unexpected and utterly unpredictable happened, something that could not ever have been prophecized and could not possibly be recreated: and that’s the year 2002.

I was in seventh grade, on the cusp of turning 13, preparing myself to leave kid-dom behind me for the allure of teenagedom—I can’t possibly imagine what that allure was for me, it certainly wasn’t the grease and acne, and I can only imagine had to do with finally becoming one of the “older kids.” Halfway through middle school, I was having a blast hanging out with a circle of friends that’s probably the largest it had ever been before and has certainly ever been since. My at that point three-year crush on a girl much more popular and well-liked than I was reached what should have been its natural conclusion thanks to a very embarrassing middle school dance and the revelation, for the first time in my life, that another girl actually liked me. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was wrapping up its devastating sixth season. Pride of Canada Avril Lavigne was a month away from the release of her bestselling debut album Let Go. And Spider-Man: The Movie was on its way.

I knew, of course, that if and when the Spider-Man movie ever came, I would be insanely hyped for it. What I was completely unprepared for, though, was the fact that the rest of the world was excited for it, too. Already a horror fan as a kid, I was delighted by the fact that it would be directed by Sam Raimi even though I barely knew what a director did. And there was already the sore spot that I had missed what could possibly be considered the biggest piece of hype related to this movie: the Super Bowl TV spot. What’s worse is that I, not a football fan by any stretch, intimately remember the Super Bowl itself. I was from Maine and the Patriots were in the Super Bowl and nobody could shut up about it. My dad was absolutely giddy watching them win their first. His friend, an ex-cop and, okay, the town drunk, Grant, showed up to join in the fun and gave me an expired Orbitz soda to drink. I don’t know where or how he got it, but he had cases of it.

I either went to the bathroom or, worse, was bored and disinterested and just didn’t look up at the TV, and missed the TV spot for the biggest movie of my entire life. I had to have, like, aunts and uncles the next day ask me what I thought of the “Spider Guy commercial” and that was the extremely lackluster way I found out that Spider-Man: The Movie was really and truly happening. In fact, looking back on it, I don’t think I ever even saw a preview for it in the theater. But it almost didn’t matter. The fact that it was finally, actually happening after all these time was elating enough. Even better, the movie I’d waiting so long to see was going to come out on my birthday weekend.

By April, Spider-Man stuff was starting to pop up everywhere. Having, again, just taken on face value that the Alex Ross concept art was what the movie was going to look like, I got my first taste of what Spidey and the Goblin would actually look like in the film when I just happened to walk by the action figures while I was in Wal-Mart with my mom. I should probably explain why I was so confident that those early concept pieces were what the characters would look like, though, because it wasn’t just that I was an idiot kid. I know people complain about changes to costumes now, but it’s nothing like it was then. Back then, it was just accepted, both pre- and post-X-Men that superhero costumes couldn’t translate to the screen and had to get some kind of black makeover. Batman had done it, the X-Men did it, it’s just the way things were done. A black rubber Spider-Man suit was kind of what I’d been led to expect.

Seeing a picture of movie Spider-Man in the red and blue felt like a game-changer, even if the silver webbing was a change I had to warm to. Green Goblin looked like a Power Rangers villain, but he was both green and a goblin and I was happy to see it. I remember buying both toys, looking at the two pictures on the back of  each character from the film—again, the only things I’d seen from the movie at all at this point—and confidently pointing at these pictures and reporting to my friend, Pete, “These are from the final showdown in the Goblin’s lab.” This turned out to not remotely be true at all. Instead, they were pictures from the impactful scene in which Spider-Man tells his nemesis, “You’re the one who’s out, Gobby… out of your mind!”

But it wasn’t just the toys. I had expected those. X-Men: The Movie had gotten those and they were just about the only thing it had gotten. Really, it was everything else that stunned me. And that’s not to say that there was a dearth of Spider-Man merchandise before this. The cartoon had a number of toys. He was Marvel’s most successful character and really always had been. But that didn’t mean what it meant now. There was a time when, speaking to the general scope of pop culture, being the most famous Marvel superhero amounted to about the same as being the most famous Smurf. You might be able to say, “That’s Grumpy,” but that’s about as far as it goes.

When that movie was about to hit, and for the entire summer that followed, you could not turn on the TV or go to the store without seeing Spider-Man’s mask plastered over everything. We had Spider-Man Blockbuster commercials, we had Spider-Man breakfast cereal (though not quite as good as his previous cereal from the ‘90s, which had Kingpin marshmallows), his image was smacked onto bags of Doritos and cans of Dr. Pepper. And I got excited every single time I saw any of it and ate it all up because this was the world I had always wanted to live in. I couldn’t believe it. In some ways, I almost still can’t.

Middle school was hell. I was lanky and un-athletic, acne-ridden, deeply in the throes of a years-long crush that I was becoming increasingly aware was never going to happen and doing everything I could to deny it, and all the tweenage heartache that went along with it. But who cared? Spider-Man: The Movie was finally coming out.

More than that, it was (kind of) coming out on my birthday. Spider-Man marked a second annual birthday tradition of gathering all my friends and going to see a movie, though I liked to pretend it was the first year, because The Mummy Returns was a pretty middling start. Things felt big even before we walked into the theater, because it was also the very first Free Comic Book Day and the theater, as truly terrible as it was, was handing out free copies of Ultimate Spider-Man #1. That went on to be the book that got me back into comics and one of my favorite comic runs of all time.

I’ll never forget having everyone there, sparking a discussion about everyone’s favorite Spider-Man villain in the theater before the movie started, seeing the teaser for Hulk and realizing that maybe there were a lot more Marvel flicks on the horizon, and getting chills as I heard the Danny Elfman music kick in for the first time. And I was kind of floored immediately, even though I remember having “notes” as a newly minted thirteen-year-old, thinking that Spidey didn’t make enough quips at the bad guy’s expense.

But the thing that stunned me most, even sitting there in the theater watching it for the first time, was the way it handled being a Spider-Man movie. As I’d mentioned, I was prepared for superhero movies to make pretty drastic changes. Not just in the look, but in the tone. Things were taken very seriously. Spider-Man respected the source material immensely, it just told the story I already knew from the page and now so many other people were learning about Uncle Ben, great power, things that were gospel to me. J. Jonah Jameson was the guy I always knew, Aunt May was Aunt May, Osborn was the villainous dad of best pal Harry, and the changes to things like the webs and Mary Jane (even though I was an obnoxious kid quick to point them out) felt almost superficial. There’s something so special, almost like the first time you see the bat signal on screen, to finally watching Spider-Man swing through the NYC skyline. We take it for granted because there have been 6,000 Spider-Man movies since, but it felt like a pretty big deal.

After the movie commenced the actual birthday party and man, we just rode that Spider-Man high all night long. I remember eating gas station pizza and thinking it was the best B-Day meal ever because I’d just seen Spider-Man. My grandmother made a birthday cake that was delicious, but made everyone who’d gotten so much as a bite of it fart like there was no tomorrow. And that went on like a sketch, too, because on that birthday and no other birthday ever, family members kept popping up out of the woodwork to say “hi,” each sampling the cake, each farting up a storm on their way out the door. But I didn’t care that we were all farting our way through the night. They were the farts of kids who’d just seen Spider-Man.

One of the only presents I actually remember from that birthday was a Spider-Man Monopoly game, which we played literally all through the night and into the morning. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that some friendships were tarnished over that hours-long game, but in actuality, it was just the first time as a kid in the midst of middle school that I started to realize some of my friends genuinely did not like each other. And that wasn’t a realization I could really walk back from. It’s even possible that I’m only realizing just now as I type this that part of why I remember that birthday party so vividly is because it legitimately changed things for my circle of friends, that it was my first conscious realization that some relationships were growing further apart. But what did that matter, right? We’d just seen Spider-Man.

I of course watched the movie several times in theaters and drank the Spidey-promoted Dr. Pepper and ate the Doritos because I just couldn’t believe that it was happening. And no matter the adolescent struggles or the changes that were going on around me at the time, I can never look back on that time with anything but fondness, thinking about the one summer when everyone loved the thing that I loved as much as I did.

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