Photo: Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’
The Superhero Movie That Could
There had been successful superhero movies before ‘Spider-Man’, such as Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ from 1978 (to this day still arguably the best film about Superman), along with Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ from 1989. Heck, ‘X-Men’, the first entry in that runaway franchise, came out in 2000, connecting Hugh Jackman inextricably with Wolverine in people’s minds from then on. It should be mentioned, though, that superhero movies were not generally “a thing” in the early 2000s; you could expect one, maybe two releases a year, as opposed to several annually that we have now. Superhero movies at the time were expected to be campy fun, nothing too serious, and nothing too complicated; there was no “extended universe” to keep track of in 2002.
Even so, despite being just one movie, ‘Spider-Man’ proved a seismic hit when it came out in 2002; it had the largest opening weekend in film history up to that point, with over $100 million grossed. I was very young at the time, but I remember seeing ‘Spider-Man’ in a theater, and even as a dumb six-year-old, I knew there was something special about it. What still strikes me as remarkable about this film, rewatching it two decades later, is that it feels like someone normally in charge of B-movies got his hands on a Hollywood budget—which, in a way, is what happened. Director Sam Raimi had done movies with big-name actors before, like Cate Blanchett and Keanu Reeves in the much-neglected ‘The Gift’ from 2000, but he was most known for the ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy of low-budget horror-comedy movies.
‘Spider-Man’ was, for a long time, regarded (unfairly) as goofy, outdated, and not up to the standards of superhero movies that came with the one-two punch of ‘Iron Man’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ back in 2008. True enough, Raimi’s film feels like a product of a different era, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it was made, deliberately, as an ode to the campy excesses of old-school comic books, from the days when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were in their prime. Young moviegoers are now rediscovering ‘Spider-Man’, partly because of the MCU, and hopefully, we’ll see a new wave of appreciation for Raimi’s breakthrough hit.
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A Lesson in Blockbuster Screenwriting
It may sound weird to bring up screenwriting so soon about a superhero movie, but hear me out. There really is an art to writing screenplays for blockbusters—an art that is basically always ignored, as if people think that these things write themselves. Say you want to write a 90-page script for a low-budget, not very demanding indie production; it’s still going to be an arduous process, and that’s assuming your script will get produced. Now take what is probably a 120-page script for ‘Spider-Man’, written by David Koepp, a script that is filled with action sequences, montages, and dozens of speaking roles, and you can perhaps imagine how difficult the writing process must have been. Koepp is not exactly a household name these days, but he was responsible for some of the biggest blockbusters of the ‘90s and 2000s, with his biggest hit (and I would say his masterpiece) being ‘Jurassic Park’, co-written with author Michael Crichton. ‘Jurassic Park’ is itself a masterclass in economic and engaging screenwriting—a thriller where the action doesn’t even start until halfway through the movie, yet the audience doesn’t mind one bit.
‘Spider-Man’ has a similar cadence to ‘Jurassic Park’ in its structuring; Spider-Man and the Green Goblin don’t cross paths until about halfway through the movie. We get a lightning-quick catch-up on Peter Parker’s origin story—what his life is like prior to getting bitten by that darn radioactive spider. We know, within the span of some ten minutes, that Peter lives with his elderly aunt and uncle, that he loves his next-door-neighbor Mary Jane Watson, and that he gets constantly bullied in high school for being a huge dweeb, and that he is kind at heart. We know, due to how nice and timid he is (and also because Tobey Maguire is such a cutie), that he’s a nice guy, so we feel bad when something bad happens to him. Before we know it, we’re introduced to Peter’s super-rich best friend, Harry Osborn, and his demanding father Norman—more on the latter in a moment. The film has a brisk pace, and would be considered (at 121 minutes) a little on the short side compared to modern superhero movies, but its briskness makes it easy watching for basically anyone of any age bracket.
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The Beautiful People: Almost Perfect Casting
Tobey Maguire has always been a somewhat controversial pick as Peter Parker; the actor was already deep into his 20s when he played Peter, who would have been a senior in high school. There is also the question of whether Maguire balances the dweebishness of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, the quipping superhero. Personally, I never took major issue with Maguire in the role; although he can sometimes be a bit over-the-top, he plays a high school nerd quite convincingly (despite the age dissonance), and to this day he remains my favorite live-action rendition of Spider-Man. J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, the grouchy head of the Daily Bugle, is nothing short of perfect; he gets more screentime in ‘Spider-Man 2’, but he still nails the role perfectly in this outing. Kirsten Dunst has gotten flack ever since this movie came out for her rendition of Mary Jane—and yeah, she comes off as weirdly passive here, though that has more to do with how her character is written than with Dunst’s performance. (The weakest link throughout Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ trilogy is, undoubtedly, Mary Jane, and they never quite figured out how to make her a sympathetic or even compelling character. Sad, but true.)
The real ace in the hole for this movie in terms of its casting, though, had to be Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn—the Green Goblin. Dafoe had been a reliable character actor for well over a decade by the time he appeared in ‘Spider-Man’, most famously playing Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ.’ If Dafoe were to die tomorrow (heavens forbid), though, the role that would come first to many people’s mind is the Green Goblin; to say Dafoe plays the dual role of Norman and the Goblin “well” would be an understatement. There is something simultaneously tragic and terrifying about Norman’s descent into madness, spending the first half of the movie basically being kicked around by forces beyond his control, to the point where he is about to be removed from his own company. While I would argue that Alfred Molina’s turn as Doc Ock in ‘Spider-Man 2’ was even better, there’s no mystery as to why old-time fans got really excited when Dafoe’s Goblin was revealed to reappear in ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home.’
Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ – Fun for the Whole Family
What I admire about ‘Spider-Man’, in contrast to a lot of post-MCU superhero movies, is how it manages to appeal to younger audiences without talking down to them. When aiming for emotions, modern superhero movies either simply don’t try, or the impact relies on too convoluted a setup to work on people who haven’t already seen at least half a dozen related movies prior to this one. When Peter arrives at the scene of his uncle’s death here, though, it’s still a powerful moment; it runs the gambit of shock, regret, and revenge in the space of maybe a minute, but it sticks the landing. We understand perfectly why Peter would feel responsible for his uncle’s killing, and why he would want to take vengeance—a complicated relationship with his late uncle that comes to fruition in ‘Spider-Man 2.’ This is not to say that ‘Spider-Man’ is dour, or emotionally overwhelming; quite the contrary, it’s a joyous film, a sort of manic-depressive experience (all of the Raimi ‘Spider-Man’ films are rather melancholic) where we see the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
We then arrive at what tends to be the biggest criticism of Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’: it’s silly. The dialogue often veers into cheesy gosh-wow territory. The visual effects simply do not hold up to modern scrutiny at times. Peter Parker shoots webs out of his wrists. Danny Elfman’s memorable score is theatrical in the extreme, trying to capture the sheer joy and wonder every time Spider-Man swings between the skyscrapers. No superhero movie made today would dare be this over-the-top while also being this sincere; it’s not cynical or self-referential, but rather it has the bright eyes of a child, seeing a dinosaur on the big screen for the first time—or their favorite superhero, in the flesh, saving the day. ‘Spider-Man’ is very much a blockbuster in the classic tradition, which means that in today’s franchise-saturated landscape, it can look out of place, but that only makes it a more unique viewing experience for those who are too young to remember when blockbusters were made like this.
The Chance of a Lifetime
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In hindsight, it’s easy to say that the success of ‘Spider-Man’ was no happy accident, even if its conception seemed to be nothing but happy accidents. Not unlike Peter Jackson, who had made a quantum leap in budget and filmmaking technique with his ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, Sam Raimi was a disciple of the B-movies who had landed the project of a lifetime. For the first time, Spider-Man was realized convincingly in live-action, turning an already well-known superhero into a household name—and, by extension, opening a door for other superhero movies to follow throughout the 2000s, before the dam broke with ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Iron Man.’ While there have been other great superhero movies since then, and I would even say its sequel is the superior film, I’m not sure if any live-action superhero movie gets the zany eccentricities of comic books like ‘Spider-Man.’ Superhero movies usually suffer from being too serious in tone or too bland in aesthetics; meanwhile, Raimi’s first try with the notorious web-slinger feels just right.
Sadly, ‘Spider-Man’ is not currently streaming on any major platforms.
By Brian Collins
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