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Dissecting the Classics – Spider-Man

July 1, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

So in case you live under a rock, Spider-Man: Homecoming comes out next week, giving us what will hopefully be our first really good Spider-Man movie in thirteen years. Wow, what a wait. But I thought it was a good time to look back and reflect on Sam Raimi’s first two films, both of which are in the upper echelon of the genre for me.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Spider-Man

Wide Release Date: May 3, 2002
Directed By: Sam Raimi
Written By: David Koepp
Produced By: Laura Ziskin and Ian Bryce
Cinematography By: Don Burgess
Edited By: Bob Murawski and Arthur Coburn
Music By: Danny Elfman
Production Company: Marvel Enterprises
Distributed By: Columbia Pictures
Starring:
Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man
Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson
Rosemary Harris as Aunt May Parker
Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin
James Franco as Harry Osborn
J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson

What Do We All Know?
After Batman & Robin proved just how truly awful comic book movies could be, it was hard to imagine that any other superheroes would get a chance to shine on the big screen. Blade was best on a comic book, but he was hardly a classic superhero. X-Men was a decent success, but it had already compromised the material by focusing almost exclusively on one character and tossing out the bright colors and comic book weirdness. But in 2002, a film unlike any since Richard Donner’s Superman arrived; Spider-Man, Marvel’s most iconic superhero, came to screen looking like he was ripped from the comics and fighting Green Goblin in the skies of New York straight from the comics. The film was the first to make over $100 million in its opening weekend and became a landmark film for a generation of moviegoers.

Spider-Man is one of the most influential films of the young century, setting the standard for a new age of comic book films and genuinely surpassing most of them in quality. It created a blueprint that has allowed Marvel to make all of the money it wants for the foreseeable future, and its success showed Hollywood that there was room for bright, optimistic blockbusters that weren’t afraid of sincerity and commitment to replicating the tone of the source material.

What Went Right?

Spider-Man and its plot structure are so ubiquitous now that it might be hard to accept that it was new and a bit revolutionary when it debuted. It certainly takes cues from Richard Donner’s Superman, quickly explaining how Peter Parker gets his super powers, giving him a motive to be a hero, showing off how he can save the day, and building to a climax with an iconic villain. But it is also a coming of age story, with Spider-Man coinciding with graduation and deep personal loss. The Peter we meet at the start is just a kid with a childish dream, but the Peter we see at the end is a man who puts his responsibility above his own desires. That’s the sign of a good movie, period.

Now, you might say that Iron Man, Doctor Strange and Wonder Woman all accomplish this, but you know what they don’t accomplish? Making a supervillain who feels on par with the hero without overwhelming the movie. Norman Osborn is developed independently from Peter Parker, gaining his powers from a totally unrelated incident. He gets time to develop, we understand and empathize with the character, and when Goblin and Spidey fight, we are emotionally involved in the outcome. When Norman finds out his hated enemy is his son’s best friend (and someone he himself cares for), it ramps up the tension and the final confrontation is just great stuff.

Another reason we care is that Sam Raimi makes sure to make this world feels as real to us as our own. Kirsten Dunst is great as the girl next door, even if she doesn’t have a lot to work with. James Franco’s role is relatively small, but he defines the character and his relationships. This film is also bursting with great small roles; Rosemary Harris is perfect as Aunt May, Randy Savage and Bruce Campbell make the wrestling sequence stand out, and Cliff Robertson manages to embody love and wisdom so well he’s practically the go to reference for people my age. And there will never be a more perfectly realized translation from comic to film than J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. Every time this character is on screen is a highlight, and they haven’t even tried to recast the role.

Speaking of people embodying their roles; I know Tobey Maguire has his detractors and he’s certainly never lit the world on fire in other movies, but to me he is a great Spider-Man. Yes he makes weird faces and feels awkward, but he is playing Peter Parker. Peter is not and never should be “cool”, and the reason Spider-Man is so awesome is because he’s a power fantasy for the type of socially awkward nerd that reads comic books. Similarly, while he definitely chews the scenery, Willem Dafoe creates two distinct characters and dives in with both feet. He’s also a perfect foil for Spider-Man, as the Goblin uses his power indiscriminately and for his selfish gain. Peter was walking down that path, but learns to overcome it.

What Went Wrong?

Real talk; I could gush about Spider-Man all day, and I’ll get back to it in a minute. But I need to take a step back and acknowledge some missteps. And no, this isn’t about the organic web shooters, it’s about real problems. First, the special effects haven’t aged well, whether it’s CGI or green screen. And while I don’t mind the change in Green Goblin’s appearance, the armor itself has always looked like cheap plastic. Spidey’s suit has also always looked a bit off, but then the best Spider-Man suit is in one of the worst Spider-Man movies, so maybe it’s not worth quibbling over.

Something I do think is a weak spot in the film is Mary Jane Watson. Not Kirsten Dunst, she does fine with what she’s given, but what she’s given is not much. She’s the projected fantasies of Peter Parker, and just not very interesting. She’s practically a living MacGuffin. This was improved upon in the sequels, but yeah, it’s a notable flaw and one of the only areas where this film plays second fiddle to its reboot.

What Went Really Right?

Spider-Man was a huge success, and to be fair, the character is one of the few superheroes who transcends the comic book fandom and would have made money anyway. But I think it must be noted how different this film was in an era where summer blockbusters were disaster movies and the gold standard for action was The Matrix. Everything from its color palette to its sense of humor to just having sincere relationships with parental figures and a love story was just new and revelatory. Hell, compare this to X-Men and it’s a night and day difference. And to me, that comes from director Sam Raimi.

Sam Raimi is an interesting director with a unique sensibility for presenting his films. Spider-Man is probably his most mainstream version, but his style shows up a lot with how Green Goblin is presented. More than just his skill, he has a real fandom of the character and it shows. This isn’t an assembly line film with a director for hire; this is a passion project. Where Donner looked to bring Superman to life and honor his legacy and Tim Burton used his artistic sensibilities to create a unique world for Batman, Raimi did both for Spider-Man. And if he wasn’t dedicated to making this film as close to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s vision as possible, who knows where comic book films would be today.

Another thing that cannot be overlooked is timing; Spider-Man came out the summer after 9/11, an event that devastated Americans and New York most of all. In those moments, movies not only seemed frivolous, but some of it was just hard to watch. How could you enjoy Independence Day when real landmarks had been destroyed? I believe this event created a desire for escapism that fed into the audiences for Lord of the Rings, Pixar films, and certainly for Spider-Man, perhaps on a subconscious level. As a reeling nation, I believe many of us needed to be in a world where you could feel powerful and safe and know who the bad guys were.

Spider-Man was never meant to be a reaction to 9/11, but it had that thrust upon it. And I truly believe the themes of grief, finding a purpose and directing your power, and even just being close with family and friends helped this film connect with people. Did we even know we wanted a scene where random New Yorkers help save Spider-Man until we had it. Just by being true to the spirit of the comic, this film helped provide catharsis. As it turns out, we all needed a hero.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon

Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week, I introduced Michael to Richard Linklater’s excellent romantic trilogy with Before Sunrise. This week, we celebrate our 100th column with another Sam Raimi classic: Evil Dead 2.

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Raid and Baby Driver.