R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Spider-Man

It seems as though Superhero movies take longer to get to the screen than most projects do. Where most movies would just die off in “development hell”, the faithful fanboys of Comic Book properties usually keep enough interest in a project to at least keep it on life support, while the Hollywood machine works out its kinks. Some projects take decades to get off the ground, as directors and writers come and go while the movies morph into their particular vision while hopefully still resembling the source material.

For one example, this year’s Superman Returns seemed like it would never come to the screen. Bringing the Man of Steel back to the big screen has been the aim of different studios since the late 80’s. Even though millions of dollars were spent in pre-production of some projects, none of them ever panned out. The most notable of these was the infamously aborted Superman Lives version which had Tim Burton directing Nicholas Cage as Superman and featured Big Blue fighting a huge spider and Brainiac taking on a couple of polar bears while trying to break into the Fortress of Solitude. Thank God Supes seems to finally be on the right track.

Another example of a Comic Book property taking forever to get to the big screen is Spider-Man. Stan Lee’s original 1962 creation is perhaps the greatest superhero to ever come out of Marvel Comics. Peter Parker is the ultimate “everyman” hero; a kid who is bullied around until an accident gives him incredible powers. The death of his father figure, Uncle Ben, inspires him to fight for the everyday people, hounded by criminals and the corrupt.

What makes Spidey so great is his humanity. This is not an alien who can move worlds or a billionaire who can use his fortune to fight crime. Peter has to hold down part time jobs and long for girls from afar. He didn’t fly like a god; he’s swung from building to building in a very real New York City instead of a made up Metropolis. This is part of the key to his success. People can relate to him, making him the most accessible hero in the history of Comic Book mythology.

I’m sure it is this popularity that kept the Wall Crawler’s hopes of making it in Hollywood alive, even as a revolving door of studios, producers and directors left the project. Because of the tremendous success of the film and its tremendous sequel, it’s hard to imagine a time when Spider-Man was in limbo, but for over a decade, the picture remained in “development hell”. According to imdb.com, interest in a big budget Spidey movie started with Cannon Films in 1986. It’s quite possibly a blessing that Spider-Man never happened under their banner, looking at another Cannon project, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which is undoubtedly the worst of the Superman franchise.

As the picture’s rights went from Cannon to Carolco and then from Carolco to Sony, a myriad of directors came and went including heavyweights Jan de Bont, James Cameron, Ang Lee and David Fincher. Finally, when Director Sam Raimi came on board, Spider-Man finally started to take off. And take off is exactly what it did. When the dust settled, Spider-Man was the highest grossing film of 2002 and started a franchise that will surely stay strong for years to come.

Spider-Man Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco and J.K. Simmons. Directed by Sam Raimi

When Raimi was announced as the director of this film, there was a moment where elation and fear struck at the same time. While I love Raimi’s Evil Dead Trilogy, to me the man had never proven himself as a big time Hollywood director. I loved the energy of Army of Darkness and Darkman, but both seemed to be Cult favorites at best. In fact, the director’s first real foray into big budget films with star power, the Kevin Costner vehicle For Love of the Game, was awful.

What really gave me confidence in this choice of director was his love for Spider-Man as a character. Raimi loves not only Spider-Man, but also old school 1960’s Spider-Man when the character was still in its infancy. He has such a great respect for the character that he would not dream of making a film that would besmirch Spidey’s legacy.

With the film’s opening credits, you can see this love on display. Marvel’s new film logo of images flashing as if you were turning pages made its first appearance, which struck just the right note as Danny Elfman’s score started ringing in your ears. Images of webbing and spiders give way to a high-schooler chasing after a bus. This is the image of Peter Parker that should be sticking in your mind. The loser, disrespected by his peers at every turn, and putting great energy toward simply fighting to survive through every day of this formative time.

To say that Tobey Maguire is able to pull off this part of Peter Parker is an understatement. Shades of Christopher Reeve’s buffoonish Clark Kent can be seen as Peter is an oafish, clumsy young man, yearning for the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) from afar, but how many of us that love this character haven’t been there? For a beginning to this saga, Spider-Man starts out as perfectly as Richard Donner was able to do with his version of the Man of Steel’s origin in 1978.

It is at this point that Raimi decides to take liberties. The first big break from continuity occurs as instead of a radioactive spider, a genetically engineered arachnid is responsible for giving Peter his new powers. This update is actually quite welcome, as it at least breaks from the traditional “radiated” origin that Stan Lee was apparently very fond of. The second break occurs as Parker discovers he has webshooters growing out of his arms. Now these “organic webshooters” are probably the most controversial break from Marvel’s original continuity found in the entire movie.

Originally, the brainy Peter constructed his own formula for webbing and constructed the shooters himself. While this showed Parker’s ingenuity, it was also a bit ridiculous. Raimi stated that is was more credible to have Peter shoot web this way than for a high school boy “to be able to produce a wonder adhesive in his spare time that 3M could not make.” It’s hard to disagree with him.

What was more important was keeping the spirit of this character alive. He was still Peter Parker, and seeing him “wall crawl” and swing through New York City was absolutely exhilarating. When Uncle Ben (a wonderful Cliff Robertson) dies, we feel Peter’s pain as greatly as any who read the original story back in 1962. Changes or no, this Spider-Man is near perfection.

Where I feel Raimi doesn’t do quite as well is with the film’s heavy, The Green Goblin. First of all, I feel the character was probably very a difficult one to translate to the screen, but was also too important to not include as he was probably Spider-Man’s single greatest villain. The Goblin is to Spider-Man as Lex Luthor is to Superman or the Joker to Batman. It is the Green Goblin that was present at Spider-Man’s greatest triumphs and his greatest downfall. Folks disappointed about Venom or Carnage not being present in this first film would have disregarded a great amount of the character’s mythos to get a “cooler” villain.

But while this Green Goblin comes close, it doesn’t quite reach the tortured soul that Norman Osborn was on the page. Played by Willem Dafoe, the character is quite menacing and over the top, but I wish they would have had his descent into madness physically transform him. I believe Dafoe’s performance would have been helped immensely by allowing him to show his face, but instead a bulky mask hampers him. As it is, it seems he has to overact in places to be able to make up for this handicap, hurting his Jekyll/Hyde routine.

It’s sad that with virtually every other important character coming off with such subtlety, we get a villain that doesn’t quite measure up. I realize that in this type of role, it is difficult to avoid comparisons with Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Batman. Unfortunately, Defoe, while entertaining, comes off as a bit of a pale comparison. Also, while I’m nitpicking, it bugs me that instead of Spider-Man trying to track down this heinous villain, it is the Goblin desperately trying to track down our hero, but again I’m just nitpicking.

For the other roles in the film, everyone else seems to be inspired. I’ll admit to not looking forward to Kirsten Dunst becoming the dream girl of every fan boy, Mary Jane Watson. I was not a fan of her work at all, but when she shows up here, she’s absolutely lovely. She has a grace about her, but she never seems completely unobtainable for our hero. She’s exactly who she should be in this picture, without hamming it up. It also helps that in the action sequences, where she needs to be the “damsel in distress”, she never comes off as annoying, which is a tightrope that many heroines must face in these types of movies. While her work since this point has been really good, it was the role of Mary Jane that really turned me around on Dunst.

For other roles in the film, they all come off very well. Cliff Robertson is the picture of what Uncle Ben should be, bestowing knowledge and love on Peter before his death. Rosemary Harris has a quiet strength as his Aunt May, giving you hope that Peter’s woes will turn out for the best. Comic Book fans may have been the happiest when talking about J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson. The notorious “Daily Bugle” Editor has always been a wonderful foe for Spider-Man and here he’s no different and he’s hilarious as he does it. Simmons’ dry delivery is no less than hysterical. Other cameos in the film, such as Bruce Campbell and Macho Man Randy Savage are great fun and infuse a level of comedy that help with this film’s run up to greatness.

While successful on so many levels this film is still not perfect. Most notably is that the film’s effects have not aged well. While moments still reach a point of exhilaration, too many sequences don’t seem to have the weight needed to make it look realistic. This is something that was greatly improved in the film’s sequel, but here it’s kind of glaring. The worst sequence has Mary Jane falling from the Brooklyn Bridge. As she falls she looks’ horribly flat, taking away from the film’s tension. Still, as a building block, this is an important step in visual effects.

Past the “origin” portion of the film, the movie kind of loses steam plot wise. That is to say, there isn’t much plot at all. The villain doesn’t even seem to have a really evil scheme, other than “kill Spider-Man” which is pretty disappointing. Again, like the effects, there are moments of greatness such as the Superman-like montage of Spidey stopping criminals and saving babies, plus there’s the film’s exhilarating finale, but as a whole the movie could be stronger in this department.

This seemed to matter none when the movie hit theaters. Spider-Man shattered box office records, and even though it faced stiff competition from a Star Wars episode and a great Spielberg film in Minority Report, the film went on to leave all others in the dust. There are several factors that lead to Spider-Man being so well received by audiences, such as just being able to see Spider-Man on screen for the first time, but I like to believe there was a deeper reason for Spidey’s big victory at the box office.

In the summer of 2001, a really clever teaser trailer hit theaters, as a bunch of criminals and their helicopter were snagged in a huge web between the twin towers of New York City. This trailer was short lived after the events of September 11th that year, as it was immediately pulled, but I think 9/11 was still deep in the consciousness of American moviegoers when the next summer rolled around.

Looking for a hero, audiences found one with the boy from New York City in the red long-johns, who brought hope to those who needed it. Here was a film about the people of that city rallying around a hero from their streets, who find strength and unity as they come to his aid at the film’s climax. Perhaps the delays in bringing this hero to theaters were simply meant to happen, as not only did the people in New York rally around him, but audiences all over the world followed suit. We all needed a hero, and Spider-Man gave us one at just the right time.