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How ‘Spider-Man’ Forever Redefined the Summer Movie for Hollywood

Sony's Marvel movie predated the MCU, but paved the way for the kinds of superheroes — and release dates — that still rule the box office.


“Spider-Man,” 2002


This weekend, Sony inadvertently celebrated the 18th anniversary of “Spider-Man” when it became known that its Marvel-hero blockbusters share a common tag: the Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters. That mouthful of appellation (SPUMC?) inspired derisive blowback, but critics should also give credit where it’s due: After “Spider-Man” opened in 2002, Hollywood has never been the same. The origin myth of Peter Parker went on to create an origin myth of its own: Not only was it the first indication that the Marvel Comics movie universe would become a juggernaut, but it also enshrined the first weekend of May as the real opening of the summer movie season.

“Spider-Man” remains the fifth-biggest Marvel hit, behind the three “Avengers” titles and “Black Panther.” (All figures and comparisons are adjusted to 2020 ticket-price equivalents.) To this day, “Spider-Man” remains the biggest Marvel title not released by Disney.

To be very clear: “Spider-Man” was not the start of the MCU. Credit for that, of course, goes to “Iron Man,” which came six years after “Spider-Man,” in 2008. Nor was it the first Marvel revival from that period; other Marvel characters to see feature adaptations included New Line Cinema’s “Blade” franchise starring Wesley Snipes, which launched in 1998, and first “X-Men” in 2000 from 20th Century Fox.

However, “Spider-Man” was the first to provide a rough template of the Marvel movies as we know them today. The action-oriented “Blade” films were R-rated. “X-Men” was PG-13, but veered toward intricate plotting and the darker world of mutants. “Spider-Man” captured the spirit of the Richard Donner “Superman” movies, emphasizing the human side of their characters while adding humor and romance, all in the context of action and FX.

As a character, “Spider-Man” had much stronger name recognition; as a film, the budget dwarfed all of its superhero predecessors, including D.C.’s “Superman” and “Batman” films. Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” cost just $35 million ($73 million adjusted), and grossed an adjusted $576 million worldwide. By contrast, “Spider-Man” had an adjusted budget that passed $200 million. At the time it one of the most expensive titles ever made, and a major risk — particularly as the initial film for a franchise.

And, like any massively expensive production, “Spider-Man” would be expected to claim a summer release date. Since “Jaws” in 1975, that time is the go-to release period for the biggest films. That meant early June, or later, when nearly all schools were closed. By the early 1990s, “summer movies” like “Mission: Impossible” and “Lost World: Jurassic Park” had the courage to move to Memorial Day; sometimes — as with “The Phantom Menace,” which opened May 19, 1999 — just before. But early May? Not prime time remotely.

“Spider-Man” wasn’t the first to test the first weekend of May. Universal did that with “The Mummy” in 1999 and its 2001 sequel, and Dreamworks hit the jackpot with “The Gladiator” in 2000. Those were major films, and successes. But for a studio to set its biggest film of the year, indeed one of its biggest risks ever, for that early date was dicey at best. However, Sony felt that it needed to get the jump on what was expected to be the year’s biggest film: 20th Century Fox’s “Attack of the Clones,” the second entry in the second triptych of “Star Wars” films, which would open May 16.

Sony needn’t have worried. Adjusted, “Spider-Man” grossed $646 million worldwide. “Attack of the Clones” grossed an adjusted $489 million worldwide.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Lucasfilm/Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886234am)Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregorStar Wars Episode II - Attack Of The Clones - 2002Director: George LucasLucasfilm/20th Century FoxUSAScene StillScifiEpisode II / 2Star wars: Episode II - L'attaque des clones

Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, and Ewan McGregor in “Star Wars Episode II – Attack Of The Clones”


In subsequent years, “X-Men” and “Mission: Impossible” sequels also chose to open on the first weekend of May. Paramount released the first “Iron Man” on the same date in 2008, and after that a Marvel title held the date every year until 2017. That’s when Disney figured they could go a week earlier with two “Avengers” sequels.

When Disney took over the “Star Wars” franchise 13 years later with “The Force Awakens,” anticipation and a deep fan base propelled it to grosses unseen since “Titanic.” But since 2015, Marvel has reigned. The results in 2002 now looks like it anticipated the future competition between the franchises.

May 3-5, 2020

1. Spider-Man (Sony) NEW – Cinemascore: A-; Metacritic: 73; Est. budget: $139 million/$220 million

$114.8 million/$181.3 million in 3,615 theaters; PTA: $31,769/$50,195; Cumulative gross: $114.8 million/$181.3 million

2. The Scorpion King (Universal) Week 3; Last weekend #1

$9.0 million/$14.2 million (-50%) in 3,466 theaters (+17); PTA: $2,610/$4,124; Cumulative gross: $74.3 million/$117.4 million

3. Changing Lanes (Paramount) Week 4; Last weekend #2

$5.3 million/$8.4 million (-41%) in 2,642 theaters (no change); PTA: $2,021/$3,194; Cumulative gross: $52.1 million/$82.3 million

4. Murder by Numbers (Warner Bros.) Week 3; Last weekend #4

$3.6 million/$5.7 million (-43%) in 2,565 theaters (-98); PTA: $1,413/$2,232; Cumulative gross: $23.9 million/$37.8 million

5. Life, or Something Like It (20th Century Fox) Week 2; Last weekend #5

$3.2 million/$5.1 million (-49%) in 2,607 theaters (+3); PTA: $1,221/$1,929; Cumulative gross: $10.9 million/$17.2 million

6. The Rookie (Disney) Week 6; Last weekend #6

$3.1 million/$5.1 million (-44%) in 2,351 theaters (-192); PTA: $1,327/$2,144; Cumulative gross: $64.9 million/$102.5 million

7. Deuces Wild (MGM) NEW – Cinemascore: C; Metacritic: 16; Est. budget: $10 million/$15.8 million

$2.7 million/$4.3 million in 1,480 theaters; PTA: $1,827/$2,886; Cumulative gross: $2.7 million/$4.3 million

8. Ice Age (20th Century Fox) Week 8; Last weekend #7

$2.4 million/$3.8 million (-53%) in 2,137 theaters (-457); PTA: $1,109/$1,752; Cumulative gross: $169.0 million/$267.0 million

9. Jason X (New Line) Week 2; Last weekend #3

$2.3 million/$3.6 million (-65%) in 1,879 theaters (+1); PTA: $1,226/$1,937; Cumulative gross: $10.3 million/$16.3 million

10. Panic Room (Sony) Week 6; Last weekend #8

$2.1 million/$3.3 million (-50%) in 1,827 theaters (-636); PTA: $1,143/$1,806; Cumulative gross: $91.0 million/$143.8 million

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