Marvel Movie Madness! Part 22: Spider-Man
Does what any Marvel movie can, and more?
Part 22: Spider-Man (2002, 89% @ 215 reviews)
Directed by Sam Raimi, starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco
Luke: You know a comic book movie's big when it transcends genre and becomes part of the mainstream pop consciousness. Like Richard Donner's Superman, Burton's Batman and, later, Nolan's Dark Knight, Spider-Man felt like an event; and it was: domestically it was the highest-grossing film of 2002 -- beating Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter -- and helped crown Marvel's movie renaissance begun with Blade and X-Men.
Kinetic horror auteur Sam Raimi was a great choice to direct: he understands the dynamics of action, and he's also got a wicked sense of fun in his films. As a comic book movie, the first hour of this is pretty close to perfect. Peter Parker's teenage introduction and fateful encounter with the radioactive spider is economically and satisfyingly told; again, it makes me wonder why the hell they're rebooting this series in high school, because the scenes here with Maguire -- who couldn't be a more awkward Peter, in a good way -- don't need redoing. Peter's discovery of his powers and his ability to use them is handled fluidly and with a light touch that's also respectful to the source. I feel like Raimi's touchstone might have been Donner's first Superman, with which this shares a similar momentum toward the lead-up to the classic "superhero begins fighting crime" montage that features in both films. (There's also an obvious Lois-Clark vibe going on between Peter and MJ.) Having Bruce Campbell coin Spidey's name was a cute nod from Raimi ("The Human Spider? That sucks..."), and well, what can I say about J.K. Simmons as Jonah Jameson? He couldn't be more comic book; the man is just a work of art. It's nice, too, to have Danny Elfman around doing a score that sounds like it's big and exciting; of course, there are echoes here of his Batman stuff for Burton, which adds to the sense of hero continuity, I guess.
But then there's the Green Goblin. Spider-Man is really enjoyable on the whole, but I thought GG took some of the wind out of the movie's sails by steering parts of it toward corny, cartoon villain stuff. Willem Dafoe was great, and sufficiently menacing, as Osborn, but his Green Goblin was... well, to me he could have been a villain on the Power Rangers. I know he looks kind of goofy at times in the comics but still, this movie version wasn't up to the job of providing a satisfying adversary -- plus, the script makes it worse by having Dafoe shout crappy lines like "It's time to die!", taunt Spider-Man by singing "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider," and cackle like a cheap Halloween toy. I suppose when you have Willem Dafoe as your Dr. Jekyll, how is the Mr. Hyde part gonna top that for scary? And the climactic duel was ordinary. That's probably a result of the filmmakers having to reshoot what I guess was a World Trade Center showdown, so what could they do? The characterization of Green Goblin (and his silly costume) could've been done with more care.
Anyway, apart from that the movie holds together pretty well. Spidey's web-slinging through the Manhattan streets still looks great, and that upside-down kiss deserves its iconic status; it's up there with the most memorable comic book movie moments, for me.
Ryan: I pretty much echo Luke's sentiments here, with one minor difference: I didn't mind Green Goblin. Yes, he was a bit cartoonish, but it worked for me, and Willem Dafoe was just one member of what I thought was a very strong cast. Initially, I had a problem with Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, because nothing I'd seen him in prior to Spider-Man really convinced me he was right for the role. That changed when I eventually watched the film; I actually think Maguire was pretty close to perfect, with his nerdy, boyish charm and occasional smug grin. And yes, J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson was an inspired choice; now I can't picture anyone else in that role.
The one casting choice I did have a problem with, however, was Mary Jane. Kirsten Dunst is cute in an odd, Muppet pug sort of way, but Mary Jane is supposed to be a knockout. I realize this is just a matter of personal taste, and Mary Jane's allure is probably pretty far down on the list of elements crucial to the story, but I was disappointed when I found out who Peter Parker would be pining for.
Tim: This remains one of my favorite comic book adaptations for many of the reasons you outlined, Luke. The kiss has indeed entered the lexicon of iconic movie scenes, and the movie shows that you can maintain the flavor of the comics while adding a few nice wrinkles. One thing that always bugged me about Spidey's origin story was the idea that Peter Parker would be able to manufacture web-slinging devices; the movie handles this unlikelihood by just giving him wrist webs, a switcheroo that I'm sure few comic geeks really objected to. I love the scenes at the Daily Bugle -- J.K. Simmons and Bill Nunn look and act exactly like I'd imagined J. Jonah Jameson and Robbie Robertson to be, and unlike most superhero movie workplaces, the newspaper really hums with the buzz of activity; it feels lived in. And Peter Parker's exuberance in trying out his new superpowers is just infectious -- to take your Superman comparison one more step, Luke, you really do believe this kid can fly (or at least swing). Overall, this is one of the best examples of how to put an iconic character to the big screen and really bring the world of the comics to vivid life.
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