In celebration of his fifth cinematic iteration, this series of reviews is devoted to the only arachnid I wouldn't scream at and kill with poison. Here comes the Spider-Man!
The classic holds up.
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by David Koepp
With Tobey Maguire (Peter Parker), Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson), James Franco (Harry Osborn), Rosemary Harris (May Parker), Cliff Robertson (Ben Parker), J.K Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson), and Willem Dafoe (Norman Osborn)
Spoiler alert: severe
It's unlikely to do anything but bore you to recount the plot of Spider-Man in detail, so suffice it to say that I was amused that Netflix' own brief summary uses the word "chomped" to describe how Peter Parker got his powers. As it plays out, though, it's a damned understatement, and our supposedly brilliant protagonist—duly chomped by a genetically modified "super-spider" of unknown toxicity—fails to seek medical attention of any kind whatsoever. Even when he starts to pass out.
I'm sure you'll be fine.
So begins the Spider-Man franchise's liberal use of literally-unbelievable stupidity as a universal solvent for absolutely any and all screenwriting difficulties posed either by premise or by plot.
But that's an off-message way to begin the review, isn't it? After all, Spider-Man is easily—objectively—the least contrived and dumb of Sam Raimi's trilogy of wall-crawling adventures. Short of Peter's convenient personal relationship with a nasty billionaire who (through wholly independent means and motives) arrives upon his own superpowers, Pete's necessary foray into Christian Science is about the only thing in this first venture that anyone can complain out—at least on a plot-mechanical level.
Let's try again. Spider-Man is one of the most important superhero films ever made, and hence one of the most important films of its century. If the superheroic revolution was already underway by 2002, Spider-Man was the film that showed there really was no turning back. Audiences flocked to the barricades with over eight hundred million dollars' worth of ticket sales worldwide. This was the mandate that changed the face of action filmmaking for the next decade... and counting.
Spider-Man is also a vivid reminder that in the twenty years between the water face The Abyss and the cat faces in Avatar, our mad reach to generate impossible imagery had a serious tendency to exceed our technical grasp.
Nonetheless, a large fraction of Spider-Man, probably more than you remember, relies on practical means to obtain its visuals—means as prosaically effective as camera tricks like Tobey Maguire crawling across a set dressed to look like a brick wall, and as awesome as stuntmen in silly suits seemingly beating the shit out of each other.
However, what you likely do remember is how many shots render Spider-Man and the Green Goblin as primitive CGI cartoons, or, worse, as two actors each filmed against two separately colored screens and digitally composited so that they, sort of, look like they exist in the same dimension.
Film historians from the far future are going to call Spider-Man an example of CGI's earliest era rather than the middle period we, with our limited temporal perspective, rather parochially perceive it as. And yet as one of the first efforts in a genre that couldn't exist as it does today without CG, it's remarkably effective, even if it doesn't exactly hold up in comparison to even the next film in its own series.
However, it's sobering to realize that if Spider-Man came out today it'd be laughed out of theaters. But then again, people did seem to enjoy X-Men: First Class.
I dunno. The CGI in this shot mostly works.
It was probably also the last time something as actively repellant as the Green Goblin's costume could have found its way onto film.
I do limit this charge. Peter's own skill as a seamster has never been in doubt—the Spider-Man suit suffered approximately zero changes, and despite being as lurid as anything even in 1960s comics (and a damned pain to draw, too, thanks to the web-motif) it still presents as essentially perfect, marking Raimi's version of the webhead as probably the best-looking superhero ever on screen in terms of raw design.
Though he has an awful compulsion to take his mask off, a tendency that will only get much worse.
By contrast, the Goblin's get-up is a costume only a radio audience could love. On a city street or against the New York skyline, the suit—or, specifically, that mask—is terrifyingly incongruous, but not in an altogether good way.
It would almost be enough for it be effective, except that those nightmare-inducing ocher eyelids are retractable, revealing Dafoe's own eyes and making the thing appear even dafter than it already does. This critical detail, with its glimmer of humanization, removes the suit's sole redeeming quality: the queasy notion that only a man wholly devoid of any psychological mooring, and probably a depraved sexual predator to boot, would ever wear this sort of thing in public.
It's solely in the film's most heightened and obviously-soundstaged sequences that the Goblin finally achieves what they were aiming at, that sort of Flash Gordon hyperreal aesthetic, permitting the proceedings to be taken with the amount of seriousness they require. Which is not much, obviously, but a bit more than the Goblin suit generally allows.
Where did he even get the mask, anyway? Sent away?
But back to business: if Spider-Man's moment is the most historically important in cinematic superheroics since Burton's Batman, does that mean, Q.E.D., it's also a great superhero film? Let's hold the answer to that question, and reflect on how so few superhero movies have achieved greatness, and how frustrating it is that they don't, because far more of them ought to.
Few superhero projects in the 21st century have suffered for lack of technical prowess. (Sadly, however, the exceptions to this rule are becoming more frequent with Marvel Studio's continued industrialization—and mediocritization—of their process.) Instead, far too many superhero films suffer fundamental problems, which should have been resolved before pre-production. Too often, the lousiest crap could have been easily resolved simply by understanding the source material better.
And to be clear, understanding is different from loving. A film so ribboned with idiosyncratic energy couldn't have come from anything other than a very personal, very profound affection, and—other than The Evil Dead trilogy itself—Sam Raimi has never more obviously loved what he's doing than in Spider-Man (and Spider-Man 2, and even Spider-Man 3, but that's for another review).
No, Spider-Man's largest problem is foundational: Spider-Man is, foremost, an adaptation of The Night Gwen Stacy Died... starring Mary Jane Watson.
In this regard, Spider-Man is a step backward in terms of superhero adaptations as we know them, falling into the Burton-era Batman mold of leading with its very strongest concepts, instead of showing the patience that would later define Chris Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, as well as all the Marvel Studios films (Loki notwithstanding, we're still waiting for the really good villains), and, as we'll see, Marc Webb's own reboot of this very franchise.
In fairness, this worked in Batman '89. Unfortunately, by clumsily frontloading the Spider-Man trilogy like this, Sam Raimi and David Koepp betray the object of their affections in the midst of pledging their devotion, and what we get is a positively antediluvian damsel-in-distress story with a preordained ending, which would have outright killed any movie that didn't have so much else to offer.
And it does offer quite a lot. Firstly, is poor, derided Tobey Maguire. In these latter days, Maguire is barely even considered a good actor—and I cannot understand why. Maguire has a limited range, that much is true, but there is nothing terribly exciting about an actor who can play many characters competently in comparison to an actor who can play variations on one character perfectly.
Who else combines the same naivete and absent-mindedness bordering on some kind of mild cognitive failing with Maguire's awkard, open-faced, emotionally-pleading friendliness? From Pleasantville to Wonder Boys to The Great Gatsby—to, hell, his cameo in Fear and Loathing—Maguire has specialized in characters that an audience can sympathize with while at the same time understanding fully why no one in the film seems to remotely respect them. I submit that to find a more perfect Peter Parker, you would probably have to create him in a lab.
A horror even the maddest scientist would balk at.
If he lacks—and on this most recent watch, I find he does only in comparison to his successor—that sheer impish cocksuckery which is synonymous with Spider-Man in his headiest flights of power-drunk fancy, it is a trade-off I think any rational economic actor should be willing to make. And when you look at some of the people they were considering—Leonardo DiCaprio?—you're forced to wonder aloud if they were insane.
Set against young Maguire is Willem Dafoe, whom everyone recognizes as a great actor. Like Maguire, he too is at his best in his own niche: as an infinitely smug asshole with a streak of barely-restrained crazy. Usually, though, Dafoe's two favorite modes aren't as literal as they are in Spider-Man; and rarely has any actor been allowed to go as nuts as Dafoe gets to here. He doesn't just devour the scenery, he regurgitates the scenery and feeds the scenery to his young.
And it's a shame this isn't more common, because it's terrifically entertaining. Osborn's struggle with the cartoon multiple personality disorder he contracted from his ill-advised ingestion of a super-serum is the absolute highlight of the film, represented at its most freakishly wonderful by a pair of conversations with himself in two sequences so truly balls-out that I'm surprised they let Raimi do them. Then again, if they let him use that costume, surely the sky itself was the limit.
Pictured: Willem Dafoe's most famous scene that doesn't involve him ejaculating blood.
The good in Spider-Man really does accumulate. Spider-Man's origin, essentially a short film that runs before the movie proper, is essentially perfect (I especially like the part where Peter manslaughters his uncle's slayer without a hint of remorse, instead evincing something more like slightly bemused satisfaction).
In the supporting parts, Kirsten Dunst does a creditable job of infusing M.J. with humanity even though her role is diminished to that of attractive functionality, and James Franco certainly services Harry Osborn as the disappointing son and envious friend. Plus, Rosemary Harris succeeded in making me sad by virtue of being brutally old. (P.S.: you'll save me the trouble of copying and pasting these remarks if you can just remember them for the succeeding two films—which isn't necessarily an insult but it sure does sound like one.)
The miniature thriller movie that Raimi indulges in, involving all five of our principals, is my favorite scene that doesn't involve someone talking to himself in a mirror. Osborn begins to suspect his foe's true identity over a Thanksgiving dinner at Peter's apartment. Not only is the tension expertly played by any standards, and not only does it integrate Spider-Man's powers in ingenious ways, but the warped family dynamic at the center of the conflict shines.
(And the line that closes that scene is, in Dafoe's reading, one of the single most dehumanizing things I've ever heard anyone say about a woman, so flamboyantly cruel it reads at once as both genuinely shattering and kind of hilarious.)
Oh, and let's not forget—how could I? and yet I almost did, to my eternal shame—J.K. Simmons' truly indelible contribution, as one J. Jonah Jameson. I mean, really: 'nuff said.
Am I right?
Finally, the climactic fight between Spider-Man and the Goblin infuses pure Evil Dead 2 into the action, but with Osborn's pathetic death, brings the emotional payoff that the preceding confrontation involving Mary Jane was never, ever going to give us.
So: twelve years and four films later, is Spider-Man still as great as eight hundred million bucks and an enduring reputation would suggest? It is a hard question and my attempts to reconcile what I loved about it with what I sort of despised about it haven't helped as much as I thought they would.
Spider-Man's weaknesses are a product of its time—and here I don't mean something as cosmetic as spotty CGI, but rather a lack of faith in the superhero genre, a lack of faith that forced Mary Jane and the Green Goblin into the picture at the expense of Gwen Stacy and a commitment to a longer game. And these weaknesses are grave indeed, especially in the harsh light of 2014.
Yet its intrinsic strengths—and loath as I am to use this as a meaningful metric, its place in film history—do more than balance the scales. Ultimately, the sense of joy and wonder, hardly obscured at all by twelve subsequent years of superheroic spectacle, tip them decisively. Sure, it's a great movie. Why the hell not?
Other reviews in this series:
Spider-Man 2: Not the superior Spider-Man
Spider-Man 3: "Dear God... kill Peter Parker"
The Amazing Spider-Man: The clone saga
The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Electro Max likes electro music