Spider-Man (2002)

Composed by: Danny Elfman

The superhero movie genre was still struggling to find its place at the dawn of the 21st century. The Batman series had fizzled out and X-Men, while successful, wasn’t blowing the general audience’s minds. Then Sam Raimi, a big Spider-Man fan, brought the beloved web-slinger to the big screen with smashing success. Spider-Man was established as one of the first truly great superhero movies. Some say the film hasn’t aged well. I admit it’s cheesy, but Raimi uses the cheesiness to his advantage. I just love this movie. There’s Willem Dafoe’s deliciously maniacal Green Goblin, J.K. Simmons’ flawless performance as J. Jonah Jameson, and really good supporting work from characters like Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man/Peter Parker really gets across the character’s awkward dorkiness, though he’s distractingly too old to be a teenager (thankfully the film is quick to get him out of high school). Raimi worked with one of his long-time collaborators, composer Danny Elfman. Elfman had already established himself in the superhero genre with the Burton Batman films and Raimi’s cult classic Darkman.

Surprisingly there was controversy amongst film score fans over Spider-Man’s theme. There was a claim that he didn’t have one or that is was hard to find. It’s true that the character has several themes and motifs, but there is a main identity clearly established very early on in “Main Title.” It breaks out at heroic moments in “Revenge” and “Parade Attack” and closes out the score dramatically at the end of “Farewell.” Perhaps one cause for the confusion is that Elfman often only utilizes the first few notes before bringing in thumping action music or another motif. The fullest version of the theme also doesn’t appear that often, reserved for certain moments such as the final web-slinging sequence in “Farewell.” One of the more notable uses of the theme is in “Costume Montage.” Elfman has the theme played on electric guitar as Peter Parker draws out various designs for a cool costume.

Elfman does provide several secondary motifs for the character. There’s a tinkling preceding variation of the theme that opens up the album and bridges to other moments throughout the score. More important is the Responsibility motif, which encapsulates the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility.” This motif first appears at the climax of “Main Title” (2:49) The theme is heard again when Peter Parker decides to fight crime as Spider-Man (“City Montage”), and also before the final main theme statement in “Farewell.” A motif of similar construction is heard at several points as well (3:07 in “Main Title” and at the conclusion of “Specter of the Goblin”) and likewise suggests the nobility of Spider-Man’s mission.

One of the major plotlines is Peter Parker overcoming his shyness to pursue a relationship with redhead Mary Jane Watson. Elfman gives the pair one of the strongest superhero love themes, one that emphasizes the particularly sweet nature of their romance. The theme is showcased in two tracks. The first, “Revelation,” has the dramatic rendition from the famous spider-kiss scene. “Getting Through” is a calmer version as the two characters have a conversation. Surprisingly, despite being a major element of the score, this theme doesn’t appear until track 11 on the album. Of course the villain needs a theme. The Green Goblin is scored with a mischievous yet dangerous ditty. As with Spider-Man’s theme, Elfman often states the theme in with just the first few notes. Surprisingly Elfman does not directly reference it in “Transformations,” where the villain is created. He instead uses undeveloped fragments of the theme to show that the villain is in the process of his creation. The Goblin theme first appears as foreshadowing at the end of “Something’s Different,” but it’s real first full on appearance is in “Parade Attack.” Here if follows a deceivingly heroic build-up. The best track for checking out this theme is “Specter of the Goblin,” which conjoins two cues centered around the character.

The original score album was not actually released until a month after the film’s release. Sony chose to prioritize a “music from and inspired by” album. This album was over an hour long and only featured “Main Title” and “Farewell” from the score. The score album, when it finally came out, was substantially shorter at under 45 minutes. As with most modern scores these days complete recordings have been found and made available online so any music missing from the album can be found elsewhere. Thankfully the album is very neat, if it does have a couple head-scratching inclusions. One that catches the listener’s notice is “First Web,” which is a minute-long humor cue that references none of the themes and motifs. This track also does a complete 180 from the previous cue, the action and drama-heavy “Revenge.” “Revenge” introduces Elfman’s emphasis on urban and electronic percussion, a trademark of his action superhero scores. Despite the dense use of these elements the action cues are not overbearing and wonderfully represent Spider-Man’s street fighting. I always found the action material in Elfman’s Spider-Man scores to be among the superhero genre’s finest. Even low-key suspense pieces such as Spidey and the Goblin’s conversation in “Specter of the Goblin” has the percussion, adding meat to what would otherwise be a straight soft version of the Goblin’s theme.

Another notable track is “Alone.” Its piano melody would receive further expansion in the sequel to represent Peter Parker’s relationship with Aunt May. “Final Confrontation” is an edited down action cue where the Spider-Man and Goblin themes duel each other. The first half or so is from the start of the bridge confrontation. At 4:22 the track goes right to the battle’s finale. It’s unfortunate that, since Elfman was constrained to about 45 minutes of music for his album, some really good action material had to be taken out. Just taking out “First Web” and perhaps “Something’s Different” would have made for a fuller action finale. “Farewell” has soft renditions of the Spider-Man and love themes. The conclusion, following the Responsibility motif, is a dramatic version of the Spider-Man theme with a choir thrown in. “End Credits” is a mini-suite with the Spider-Man and Goblin themes, both given extra energy with underlying urban percussion. I actually think “Farewell” makes for a better album ender.

Elfman’s Spider-Man deserves a little more love. It’s got all the traditional superheroics mixed in with a more modern style. The main theme isn’t as iconic as Batman or Superman’s, but most superhero themes aren’t. If one finds the main theme somewhat unmemorable, as several have claimed, there are always the love and villain themes.

Final Rating: 8/10

Tracklisting

  1. Main Title (3:30)
  2. Transformations (3:31)
  3. Costume Montage (1:19)
  4. Revenge (6:13)
  5. First Web (0:56)
  6. Something’s Different (1:17)
  7. City Montage (1:50)
  8. Alone (1:37)
  9. Parade Attack (3:54)
  10. Specter of the Goblin (3:47)
  11. Revelation (2:32)
  12. Getting Through (2:05)
  13. Final Confrontation (7:19)
  14. Farewell (3:11)
  15. End Credits (1:54)

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