Few comic book properties went though as tortuous a route from pulp to screen as Spider-Man. Dozens of directors, screenwriters, and stars were attached to various cinematic incarnations of the popular superhero following his 1962 debut, including such industry luminaries as Roger Corman and James Cameron, before cult director Sam Raimi was given the reins and a substantial budget for a 2002 release. Raimi’s slick direction, some clever scripting, and an appealing cast turned out to be the perfect recipe for audiences looking for a feel-good hero in the wake of 9/11, and his Spider-Man was a smash hit with both moviegoers and critics. Its $400 million haul at the US box office ($500 million adjusted for inflation) set the benchmark for cinematic superheroes until overturned by The Dark Knight, and it remains the highest-grossing Spider-Man film by any metric.
In 2002, Danny Elfman was at the undisputed pinnacle of the superhero genre. His toweringly gothic Batman (1989) had redefined the expected sound for comic book films, shattering the John Williams mode of major-key heroics that had previously prevailed, and Elfman had followed it up with a string of comic book/superhero successes from Batman Returns to Dick Tracy to Men in Black. Elfman also enjoyed a previous relationship with Raimi, having scored the director’s indie faux-comic-book hit Darkman in 1990, portions of the riotous undead caper Army of Darkness, and the grim A Simple Plan. With his past pulpy success on the big screen and a solid foundation with the director, it was no surprise that Elfman was attached to the 2002 Spider-Man almost from its inception.
Since Mission Impossible in 1996, Elfman’s style and his choice of scoring assignments had been undergoing an evolution of sorts. He had sharply turned away from grand symphonic works like Batman or Edward Scissorhands and begun experimenting with a much more contemporary, electronic, and fragmented sound. Projects like A Civil Action, Proof of Life, or Planet of the Apes were innovative but alienated many of the composer’s fans with their distinctly different sound. Though Elfman occasionally returned to his melodic or hugely orchestral roots with projects like The Family Man or Sleepy Hollow, the tension between the two styles was palpable. It wasn’t until Spider-Man that the composer was able to merge his experiments with hip, contemporary electronics and his older style of immense orchestral power, and it was the resulting fusion that would define his style for the next decade.
Elfman’s “Main Title” opens the film with a propulsive, electronics-enhanced performance of his primary thematic idea. As with the earlier Batman, Elfman constructs a malleable theme for the hero, one that can play out at length or be quickly referenced by a few notes. Listeners at the time complained that they couldn’t hear a theme, which is a testament to how skillfully Elfman works it into his overall musical tapestry and the fact that the theme isn’t presented as a grand gothic march as it was for the Caped Crusader. Nevertheless, it’s a bold and clever idea, one that is at home among the quirky contemporary stylings of “Costume Montage” as it is in the desperate “Final Confrontation” or rousing “Finale.”
Elfman introduces a strong villain theme as a counterpoint to his Spider-Man theme by cutting it in as an interlude in “Main Title,” and his growling idea for the Green Goblin is likewise easily deconstructed so that it can be referenced in full or with just a few notes and often includes synths and other modern effects for emphasis. The Goblin theme is given full outings in “Something’s Different” and “Specter of the Goblin,” but it is at its most effective when doing sonic battle with Elfman’s theme for the hero. Both “Parade Attack” and “Final Confrontation” intermingle the Spidey and Goblin themes to great effect, the latter especially being a masterclass in setting two very distinct but equally malleable themes against one another (with a few bars of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” mixed in for laughs).
The score’s tender side for the nerdy Peter Parker’s interactions with his impossible flame-headed dream girl provide the basis for Elfman’s third and theme, a tender love melody informed by Edward Scissorhands and, to an extent, Batman. “Revelation” and the penultimate “Farewell” both feature the theme extensively, the latter beginning with a particularly lovely and tragic rendition led by woodwinds before segueing into a powerful statement of the main Spider-Man theme. The love theme is often intertwined with a troubled brass motif that often serves as a sort of transition between Spider-Man’s heroics and Peter Parker’s human concerns or vice versa.
Spider-Man stands as one of Danny Elfman’s most accomplished scores because it creatively combines all the best parts of a big thematic superhero score–multiple themes that are developed and woven throughout the music–with the composer’s expertise in electronics, rhythm, and other elements from his other career as a band leader. Perfectly supporting the spectacle of the film, it remains the best and most satisfying score of the entire series. As was the practice at the time, Spider-Man‘s score was released on a separate album with 45 minutes of highlights some time after the “music from and inspired by” disc which contained only two tracks of score. Elfman would return for the first sequel, but a sour experience led him to abandon the franchise; later installments would be scored by Christopher Young, James Horner, and Hans Zimmer, who differed greatly in how much of Elfman’s approach they emulated.