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Spider-Man: The Ultimate Teenage Superhero

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Spider-Man (2002) dir. Sam Raimi. Sony Pictures.

by Alejandro Martinez | September 21, 2020

I have probably seen Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) half a million times. The more I watch the movie, the greater my appreciation for it. Not only as a superhero film, but also as a true teenage coming-of-age film. We’ve had plenty of films about regular teens, but how often do you see a teen movie disguised as a colorful, bombastic, comic book film. The story of Peter Parker has all of the elements of a teen screen wrapped up in red and blue spandex. There’s always been something special about Spider-Man. Even though I truly love its follow ups, and I even like some of the Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland movies. There’s a reason why we keep seeing this character everywhere, in movies, in cartoons, in video games, this Wall-Crawling Arachnid had a domino effect on teen superhero movies. Think about it, how many super-teens were there in Hollywood before Spider-Man? Not many. We have so many teenagers in capes these days all thanks to this movie. It tackles the themes of growing up, loss of a father figure, revenge, fame, and love in a way that personally spoke to me as a viewer.

Comic Books & Teenagers

Spider-Man was created by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko in August 12, 1962. He immediately stood out from all the other comic book superheroes at the time, becoming the first solo teenage superhero. The majority of superheroes back then were full grown adults, and if you ever did see a teenager in a comic book, they were most likely a sidekick, like Batman’s Robin, or Captain America’s Bucky Barnes. Peter Parker was a high schooler, who had to deal with girl troubles and bullies, and unlike most superheroes, he wasn’t very fond with his newfound abilities. He actually kind of hated being one, but he continued being a superhero out of the pure kindness in his heart.

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Marvel’s first teen superhero. Source: Origins of Marvel Comics

Which leads us to the silver screen! Superhero movies are the hot ticket right now, every time a new one comes out, nine times out of ten, they’re gonna break box office records with ease. But it wasn’t always like this. Back before the 2000’s, superhero movies weren’t as commonplace as they are now, and if they did come out, they weren’t really considered true films. Superman, Batman, Blade, they were not teenagers or about teenagers. And if they did have teenagers in a movie, they weren’t really the central focus, like Anna Paquin’s Rogue in X-Men. We have had a ton of movies centered on teenagers, but never really about teenage superheroes, the two just never really crossed paths. However, all of this changed in 2002 when a little movie called Spider-Man swung into a theater near you! 

The Raimi directed Spider-Man grossed over $821.7 million worldwide, and was the third highest-grossing film of 2002! And it was about a teenage superhero! In high school! This movie also had some really bold and inspired casting. They had Tobey Maguire play the leading role of Peter Parker, a risky choice at the time since the studio originally wanted big shots like Tom Cruise or Leonardo DiCaprio. But after the director watched Ang Lee’s The Cider House Rules (1999), he knew that Maguire was man for the job. Raimi wanted an actor who could portray the shy and awkward side of a hero, and Tobey fit the role like Michael Keaton in a rubber bat suit. We also have Kirsten Dunst as the main love interest, Mary Jane Watson. Dunst decided to audition after learning Maguire had been cast, feeling the film would have a more indie feel. Dunst in the late 1990’s was a total teen screen queen! She was in the political satire Dick (1999), the Sofia Coppola-directed drama The Virgin Suicides (1999), and the cheerleader captain in Bring It On (2000). Suffice to say, it wouldn’t have been a 2000s teen if Kirsten Dunst wasn’t in it. With James Franco as Harry Osborne, Peter Parker’s rich best friend, who also starred in the short-lived NBC series, Freaks & Geeks (1999-2000), and Willem Dafoe as the main antagonist, The Green Goblin, this cast was absolutely STACKED.

Spider-Man Is My Favorite Coming of Age Story

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Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man (2002).

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, this sounds great and all, but how is Spider-Man a coming-of-age story?” Well, what exactly is a coming-of-age film? According to AS Film Studies: The Essential Introduction by Sarah Casey Benyahia, Freddie Gaffney, and John White, “Coming-of-age films focus on the psychological and moral growth or transition of a protagonist from youth to adulthood. Personal growth and change is an important characteristic of this genre, which relies on dialogue and emotional responses, rather than action.” Some examples being Juno (2007), Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), and Lady Bird (2018). I believe that Spider-Man should also be considered as a coming-of-age film because it follows some of the main ideas of a coming-of-age film. The themes of growing up and love are extremely vital to Spider-Man as a character. The story starts off with narration from Peter Parker, “Who am I? You sure you want to know? The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody said it was a happy little tale… if somebody told you I was just your average ordinary guy, not a care in the world… somebody lied. But let me assure you: This, like any story worth telling, is all about a girl.” 

Right from the very beginning you know what this story is about. Peter is an outcast nerd, who loves Mary Jane. Honestly, same bro. Every great movie about teenagers coming-of-age are always centered around an outcast or group of outcasts, someone who doesn’t really fit in. Often in movies, the loner-outcast character winds up becoming the villain, and starts seeking revenge on their classmates for being ignored. But Peter doesn’t do that. When he gets in a fight with bully Flash Thompson (Joe Manganiello) the morning after he gets his powers, he doesn’t actively try to hurt him, in fact, that’s the last thing he wants to do. Spider-Man is not a ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ plot. It’s moreso a story about how anyone, no matter who or where you’re from, can be Spider-Man, which is actually a common theme in most Spider-Man media (unless you’re 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2). I really appreciate that aspect of this movie. During my Freshman year of high school I was feeling a lot like Peter. No one really noticed me or tolerated me, I didn’t really socialize outside of school, I spent most of my free time at home, and I had that one good best friend who was there when I was alone. I’m glad more teen movies these days are showing this side of high school, movies like Lady Bird and Edge of Seventeen stand out to me. 

Peter goes through a lot of stuff in this movie. He gets bitten by a radioactive spider, he gains superhuman abilities, he wants to profit from his superpowers so he can buy a car to impress Mary Jane, and as a result of trying to irresponsibly profiting from his powers his father figure, Uncle Ben, gets shot because of Peter’s carelessness. Heavy stuff. When most superheroes get their powers, they try to help people, Peter’s a bit different. All he wants to do is get the girl of his dreams, so he uses his powers to try and win a wrestling match with Macho Man Randy Savage instead. It feels very human and down to earth. Peter is not a perfect kid.

At the start of the movie, Peter shrugs off Uncle Ben’s mantra of “with great power there must also come great responsibility”, but by the end of the movie, he grows into the hero his uncle would have wanted him to be. He even turns down Mary Jane at the end of the movie because he knows that her life would be in danger if they were together. This is not just a story of a boy becoming a superhero, it’s about a boy becoming a man. Danny Elfman’s majestic, sweeping score just elevates the emotions I am feeling right now as I’m typing this. It truly makes you feel like you’re swinging alongside Peter through New York City.

Teenagers in Superhero Movies Now

Ever since this movie came out in 2002, it created a domino effect throughout all future superhero movies. More movies in this genre started to include teenagers as central characters, like Ice Man and Pyro in X2: X-Men United (2003), Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde in X-Men 3 (2006), the Spider-Man reboot with Andrew Garfield, the other Spider-Man reboot with Tom Holland (which was directly inspired by John Hughes movies of the 80s), and most recently, DC’s Shazam! (2019). Even non-Marvel and DC teen superheroes were getting the spotlight, you got Violet in Pixar’s Incredibles 1 and 2, Big Hero 6 (2014), Sky High (2005), Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (2010), and Josh Trank’s Chronicle (2012). Spider-Man, much like he did in the comics industry back in the 1960’s, brought about a whole new generation of teenagers in superhero movies, and we love to see it. Thanks for everything, Web-Head, you made me, and millions of kids feel like they too could be superheroes.


Alejandro Martinez is a Venezuelan American, who is currently a Senior in high school. He loves comic books and films. You can follow him on Twitter @toasterpal5.