THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Spider-Man
Reassessing “Spider-Man” in the Age of Coronavirus
Sam Raimi’s 2002 blockbuster “Spider-Man” is arguably the movie that kicked-off the modern superhero craze. It is the first movie in history to gross over $100 million in North America on its opening weekend, sending studio executives scrambling to greenlight as many comic book movies as possible.
Further evidence that “Spider-Man” started it all comes from 2021’s highest grossing film. 2007’s “Iron Man” might be the first installment of the planned Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but 2021’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” re-incorporated Raimi’s version of the web-slinger into the MCU proper. This retroactive continuity (retconning) of 2002’s “Spider-Man” establishes it as the moment the IP pebble hit the pond.
That legacy is now two-decades old. Let’s take a look at 2002’s “Spider-Man.”
Twenty years ago, “Spider-Man” arrived in theaters, immediately hit #1 at the box office, and remained in the top ten for nearly two straight months. 2002 was a crowded year for spectacular blockbusters, but “Spider-Man” rode its opening weekend success to become the overall, year-end domestic box office champ.
“Spider-Man” stars Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, J.K. Simmons, Cliff Robertson, and James Franco with early screen appearances from Joe Manganiello, Elizabeth Banks, Octavia Spencer, Sara Ramirez, and Lucy Lawless.
Directed by Sam Raimi from a script by David Koepp, “Spider-Man” went on to earn over $820 million worldwide. Empire named “Spider-Man” one of the best movies ever made. The line “with great power comes great responsibility” ranks among the best lines in cinema and “Spider-Man” is still listed among the best superhero movies ever made.
To help illustrate how COVID-19 safety protocols would have affected this classic comic book movie, we’ve broken things down into three parts:
- Great power: elements that make “Spider-Man” COVID-19 safe
- Great responsibility: the importance of CGI
- Saving the day: 2022 considerations
Great Power: Elements That Make “Spider-Man” COVID-19 Safe
When Sam Raimi began production on June 8, 2001, in Culver City, California, he was not concerned about pandemic production safety. And yet much of the film is still rather COVID-19 safe.
Let’s look at three reasons why the twenty-year-old “Spider-Man” is safer than you might think:
- Cast isolation
- Story structure
- Shooting locations
By contemporary superhero standards, “Spider-Man” is a small movie. This is not a comic book movie about the end of the world or the fate of humanity. There aren’t any globetrotting scenes and vast, impressive locations. “Spider-Man” takes place in one city and follows a small cast of characters.
This “smallness” is evident in the number of scenes that contain only a few actors. Most scenes in “Spider-Man” involve less than ten characters. This limited cast keeps the number of people on set to a minimum and increases pandemic safety.
Additionally, the main cast is often set apart from the crowd in large scenes. Examples include: the wresting scene’s isolation created by the ring and the cage, the balcony in the parade scene separating most of our leads from the crowd below, Spider-Man’s very nature keeps him swinging above the city streets.
The safest scenes from a COVID-19 perspective contain the fewest number of people and keep the leads separate from the extras. By focusing on smaller scenes with fewer characters and by establishing set pieces that logically isolate the main actors, “Spider-Man” is well on its way to pandemic safety.
The foundation for this comes from the script.
Much of the pandemic safety in “Spider-Man” is baked into the screenplay. Thanks to David Koepp’s character-focused story, this movie isn’t the typical battle-fest of our more recent comic book fare.
In fact, “Spider-Man” is one of the first superhero film to simultaneously follow the formation and development of both its hero and its villain. While the story follows bookish Peter Parker’s transformation into the titular superhero, it also follows the desperation of scientist Normal Osborn as he becomes The Green Goblin.
The successful superhero movies that came before “Spider-Man” tended to focus on one over the other: Richard Donner’s “Superman” favored the Man of Steel over its villain, Tim Burton’s “Batman” developed Jack Nicholson’s Joker more than Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight. “Spider-Man” was one of the first to focus on both hero and villain.
The story structure itself limits the major set pieces and large scenes in favor of smaller, more intimate moments. “Spider-Man’s” dual narratives and focus on character development further increase its pandemic production safety.
“Spider-Man” attained additional levels of safety by choosing to shoot the film almost exclusively on Sony’s and Warner Bros’ studio lots in Los Angeles, California.
Many times over the last two years, we have advocated for location control as a means to increase pandemic production safety. One of the best ways to maintain maximum location control is to shoot on soundstages and backlots.
With the exception of a few shots in New York City, “Spider-Man” was filmed in Los Angeles. The art department built 100 sets in less than a year, most of them on Sony’s backlot. These locations included the Times Square festival set, and nearly all of the interior shots in the film.
Studio lots are expensive and hard to access. But they provide productions with a level of security and location control that is impossible to attain when shooting on location.
By isolating the main cast, limiting the number of large scenes, focusing on character development, and filming on studio lots, Raimi and company helped to make “Spider-Man” pretty safe to shoot in a pandemic. But the true secret to its safety comes from technology.
Great Responsibility: The Importance of CGI
Sam Raimi originally wanted to film the stunts in “Spider-Man” practically. Thanks to the intervention of visual effects supervisor John Dykstra, Raimi changed course.
Dykstra told Raimi that in order to capture the physical movement and flexibility of Spider-Man, they would need to use computer generated imagery (CGI). The technology was still relatively new and still growing back in 2002. But Dykstra convinced Raimi to rely on CGI and this single decision made production much safer from a pandemic perspective.
We want to highlight three things that CGI does to increase safety:
- CGI Can Limit People on Set: Green/blue screens and other forms of CGI tend to keep the cast and crew to a minimum as most of the work is done in post. This limits the chances COVID-19 has to spread.
- CGI Can Shorten Shooting Days: While CGI is difficult and requires precise filming techniques, it is often much faster on the day than attempting to capture the effects practically. COVID-19 has increased all our shooting schedules, so any opportunity to shorten them will save time and money in addition to increasing safety.
- CGI Can Shorten Principal Photography: As we have said before, the most dangerous period of a movie is production. Pre-production and post-production might not be risk-free but they are dramatically less risky than principal photography. By shortening production time, CGI allows us to get to the safer ground of post-production sooner.
While we – like most film lovers – are huge fans of practical effects and prefer them to digital, we must concede that in a pandemic, digital is safer. If we had to film “Spider-Man” today, we would lean on CGI even more.
The technology has grown by leaps and bounds in the last twenty years. The computer effects in “Spider-Man” look outdated now, like most CGI from that era does. In fact, Roger Ebert even complained at the time that the effects looked unrealistic. The CGI of 2022 would certainly surprise a 2002-era Roger Ebert and it would blow the original effects out of the water.
CGI would also help to further increase COVID-19 safety by limiting the number of people on set, shortening the shooting days, and getting us into post-production much more quickly.
Saving the Day: 2022 Considerations
If we had to film “Spider-Man” today, we would want to take some additional considerations to ensure full pandemic safety. These considerations would include:
- A Safeway Forward – The film unions have extended the COVID-19 safety protocols. So, if we had to go into production now, we would ensure that everyone involved adhered to the Safe Way Forward guidelines.
- Crowd Scenes – There are still a few scenes in the movie that require our leads to be in the presence of large crowds. We would be sure to highlight those scene during pre-production and work with the creative team to devise ways to separate our stars from those crowds in a way that doesn’t compromise the director’s vision.
- Vaccinations – We would encourage full vaccination and boosters for those on set. While breakthrough cases can happen, vaccinations are still one of the best weapons we have against COVID-19.
- Eliminate Travel – We would encourage the production to eliminate the company move to NYC and instead rely on B-roll for the necessary establishing shots. This would not only save time and money, but it would keep the production from having to travel, which is one of the riskiest aspects of production during a pandemic.
- Virtual Sets – To further cut down on the need for a company move to NYC, as well as helping to eliminate the need of the leads to be in crowded scenes, we would encourage the production to film on virtual sets. These ultramodern LED-screen sets allow unprecedented levels of location control and variety, all from the comfort of a single soundstage.
These elements would help to dial in maximum pandemic safety by eliminating the last few unnecessary risks.
Superhero movies come in waves and can often sound like a comic book version of the Old Testament: Richard Donner’s “Superman” begat Burton’s “Batman” begat 2000’s “X-Men” and 2002’s “Spider-Man” which begat Nolan’s “Batman” which begat 2008’s “Iron Man” which begat the MCU and “Avengers: Endgame” which begat the era we are in now: the post-Avengers superhero cinema.
In this context, 2002 “Spider-Man” seems rather quaint. The scope and scale are much smaller than the intergalactic, interdimensional world-saving of later superhero franchises. It takes place in one city with decidedly local ramifications. The tone is lighter than most comic book movies before or after, often bordering on goofy. And the CGI is – like all CGI – dated when compared to current technology.
But it is still the fist movie in history to gross over $100 million in its opening weekend and that begat a whole universe all its own.
If we had to shoot “Spider-Man” in 2022, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we would celebrate the smaller stakes and cast isolation innate to the screenplay. We would encourage vaccinations, limit travel, recommend virtual sets, and ensure the production followed current union pandemic safety guidelines.
To truly maximize safety, however, we would lean even more heavily on CGI. The technology is light-years ahead of where it was twenty years ago. By relying on even more CGI, we could ensure fewer cast members on set, small production crews, and potentially even short principal photography. Taken together, CGI can dramatically increase the pandemic safety of “Spider-Man.”
Join us next time when we look through the COVID lens at one of the toughest working-moms in cinema: “Erin Brockovich.”
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
UPDATE: This article was updated on May 23, 2022.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.