Inside the Epic Filming of Spider-Man’s Tray Catch, Without CGI

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man has some truly memorable moments, including the tray catch scene, which was achieved without CGI. Here’s how it was made.

Spider-Man cafeteria tray scene not CGI

The superhero genre has a lot to thank Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man for, including one of the most iconic scenes in any superhero movie that wasn’t computer-generated – it was all thanks to Tobey Maguire’s skills. In 2002, Peter Parker made the jump to the big screen in the first of many modern live-action Spider-Man movies, directed by Sam Raimi and with Tobey Maguire as the title character. The film was a critical and financial success, making way for two sequels and being credited for redefining the modern superhero genre as well as the summer blockbuster.

Spider-Man told the character’s origin story, meaning that viewers had to witness uncle Ben’s death. The film also introduced Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), Harry Osborn (James Franco), and Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), who served as the villain. As Spider-Man told Peter’s journey from his days as a high school outcast, to being bitten by a genetically engineered spider and learning what uncle Ben meant with his iconic quote, the audience also got to see the development of Peter’s powers, which include excellent reflexes.

Being in high-school and dealing with superpowers definitely isn’t easy, and Peter Parker knows it, as he had to continue with his life as a student in the most normal way possible while also learning to control his many powers, which obviously had to show up at the most inconvenient moments – except when Mary Jane slipped and he caught her, as well as her lunch, in a very impressive move that was all Tobey Maguire’s work.

Spider-Man: The Tray Catch Scene Took Tobey Maguire 156 Takes

Peter saves Mary-Jane from falling and catches her lunch in Spider-Man (2002)

One good day, after Peter discovered he no longer needed glasses as his sight had improved overnight and he was stronger than before, he was casually sitting at the cafeteria, without bothering anyone. Mary Jane walked past him and slipped, with Peter quickly standing up to catch her with one hand and her lunch with the other. What’s impressive about it is how he catches the food with the tray, prompting MJ to praise his “excellent reflexes”. It’s an impressive move from Peter, and even more impressive is the fact that the scene was achieved with no CGI.

In the DVD commentary of Spider-Man, John Dykstra – head of the VFX team for the film – shared that there were no special effects involved in Peter catching the food, and it was all Tobey Maguire’s work – and it only took 156 takes. Kirsten Dunst confirmed this and added that they used sticky glue so Tobey’s hand would stick to the tray and he could catch the items without a problem. Of course, things like the jello and the sandwich were glued to their plates, so all Tobey had to do was catch them all, which is obviously easier said than done. Surprisingly, Sony wanted to cut the scene, but changed their mind after Raimi insisted on keeping it, as it required a 16 hour-day of shooting. In the end, Peter catching MJ’s lunch became one of the most memorable scenes from Spider-Man, and will go down in superhero history as a truly iconic move from Tobey Maguire.

Why Spider-Man’s Tray Catch Scene Deserved To Be In Sam Raimi’s Movie

Young Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker in Spider-Man looking shocked

While the simple fact that the crew shot the Spider-Man tray catch scene 156 times alone does suggest that it deserved to be in the movie as a testament to their perseverance alone, the moment fits into the film perfectly for reasons outside of this. Not only is the tray scene something that is perfectly in line with the comics, it also serves to help underline that Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker is still a high school kid, showing how his everyday life has combined with his superhero career and the superpowers that kicked it off.

Though audiences aren’t inherently aware that the moment isn’t CGI watching it, the fact it was achieved through almost sheer determination does add an extra element to the scene also, and contributes to the film’s overall legacy as the first major modern live-action Spider-Man adaptation. It’s hard to not be impressed that hours of work went into getting everything to look right, and this in turn allows audiences to get that little bit more engrossed and absorbed in Sam Raimi’s superhero movie world as a result.

Sam Raimi is currently a popular fan choice for the director of Avengers 6, which would make his first Marvel superhero movie all the more significant.

This also helps to set up a sense of scale for the Sam Raimi Spider-Man series in a way that can be hard to achieve for superhero movies and their grand escapades. The achievement of catching a school lunch tray with everything on it is fun, but also low stakes enough to make bigger events like lifting motorcycles and stopping runaway trains all the more impressive. The balance between more relaxed and intense stunts lets major moments hit as hard as they should, instead of keeping things too octane-fueled throughout and thus sabotaging the audience’s perspective of how impressive some feats should be.

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