Monday, 25 June 2012

With Great Power...: "Spider-Man"

With The Amazing Spider-Man swinging in to theatres pretty soon, what better time to revisit the series that brought the webslinger to the big screen in the first place, the first movie of which, along with Bryan Singer's first X-Men filmled the charge for the superhero films of the last decade. Today, it's easy to take a film like Spider-Man for granted- especially the younger generation. We live in a world where cinema seems to be dominated by superhero films. We have three Spider-Man films and a fourth is on the way. Heck, we got The Avengers this year, which is more than any comic book fan could ask for. But back in 2002, getting a Spider-Man movie was a big deal. I remember being so excited to see it and when I did I absolutely loved it. There's been a lot of criticism directed towards Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man trilogy with Marc Webb's new film coming. I knew watching the first film again after several years, I'd be affected by those criticisms and admittedly I was worried I would have to admit that the film wasn't very good.

I was pleasantly surprised that I still enjoy this film. While it's not as strong as it's sequel, Spider-Man 2, and feels a little too boxed in by being an origin story, it's still a funny, humane and visually exciting film that does a good job of embracing its comic book origins while still trying to tell a down to earth romance.

The film is essentially a origin story- two to be exact. The primary origin is that of Spider-Man- Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), a smart but shy high school student who gets bitten by a genetically enhanced spider, which gives him spider like  powers. The second origin belongs to the film's antagonist, the Green Goblin. Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) is the CEO of the manufacturing company Oscorp, who, after testing a performance enhancing chemical on himself, becomes a Jekyll/Hyde character, the Green Goblin being his Hyde.

Having these origins play out simultaneously, albeit with a stronger focus on Peter, emphasizes an important archetype of not just the superhero genre but literature itself, which is that the hero and antagonist are mirror images of each other. Both Peter and Norman are brillant men who have something freakish happen to them. In Peter's case, he uses his powers to help people after being responsible for his Uncle Ben's (Cliff Robertson) murder. In Norman's case, the Goblin wants to help Norman by taking revenge on Norman's enemies. Norman's relationship to Peter and the Goblin's to Spider-Man are also similar. Norman is the father of Peter's friend Harry (James Franco) but treats Peter like the son he never had. Goblin wants Spider-Man to join forces with him. I would have like for them to've played up the surrogate father angle between Peter and Norman. When Norman tells Peter at the end "I've been like a father to you, be a son to me," it's kind of a bizarre line because there aren't enough scenes between Norman and Peter. Maybe it's just a ruse by the Goblin to throw Peter off but I still would have liked that angle fleshed out.

On this recent viewing I actually found a lot of the Norman stuff was shoved in to the background, particularly when he starts becoming aware of the Goblin personality inside of him. I wish more scenes were dedicated to this transformation as well as his relationship with Harry.

The real focus of the film is the romance between Peter and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Spider-Man is essentially a love story-Peter even sets this up in his opening narration, telling us "it all started with a girl," which looking back at it now makes me think, "No Peter, it started with a spider bite." The romance is very sweet and Maguire and Dunst make you feel there's a connection between these two people that can't quite be spoken. What's interesting about the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane is while it's Peter who's always been in love with her, the movie is secretly about Mary Jane falling in love with Peter. The irony is by the time she learns she loves him, Peter feels he has to push her away in order to protect her. It was quite a bold move to end the film on such a bittersweet note- but it's the right one for Peter Parker- a guy who has to sacrifice a lot in order to be a hero.     
One element of this film, and the Raimi films in general, fans are disappointed by is that Spider-Man isn't as sarcastic and snarky as he is in the comics. I think this is because Raimi is homaging the 1960s era of Spider-Man and by my memory of recently reading those early comics, wasn't as sarcastic as we usually think of him. Also, he's still jokey and goofy in the film.  During the wrestling match he tells his opponent "That''s a cute outfit. Did your husband give it to you?" I also like when the Goblin asks him if he's in or out, regarding joining forces, and Spider-Man with "It's you who's out Gobby. Out of your mind."

In the comics Peter builds mechanical webshooters but some people prefer the organic webshooters and feel it makes sense they'd be part of Peter's powers. It's actually a pretty funny debate and I don't mean that in a mocking way. I like the old school webshooters and am looking forward to seeing them in the new film.

Maguire seems to get a lot of hate which is unfortunate because he gives a pretty solid performance. He goes from the shy outsider who only wants to get with Mary Jane to the man who walks away from her at the end with a stoicism that suggests a man who has accepted he can never go back to living a completely normal life. Dafoe and J.K. Simmons, who plays J. Jonah Jameson are the actors who are clearly having the most fun, especially since they get the most "comic-booky" roles. Dafoe, even behind a big greeb helmet creates a wonderfully sinister voice and attitude and I love the scene where Norman is having a conversation with the Goblin personality through a mirror. Simmons is one of the most spot on castings in a superhero film. Simmons gets the insufferable blowhard known as J.J.J down to a tee. I also liked Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May. I wished there was a few more scenes between Uncle Ben and Peter but I think Robertson exudes the warmth and wisdom needed to show why his death matters so much to Peter and haunts him when he realizes he's responsible.

Visually, it creates wonderful comic book visuals like Spider-Man's first fight with the Goblin and Spider-Man's dodging of Goblin's razors. I think my favourite shot in the film is when Peter climbs a wall for the first time and the camera tilts as he's climbing, making him look horizontal on the wall.

The movie does try to condense a lot in to its running time. As I mentioned before I would've liked more Uncle Ben and more Norman leading up to his transformation. The film's also held back by being an origin story, meaning that much of the film is going over stuff we already know from the comics. It's only when we get to the sequel can we jump right in to story about Peter Parker being Spider-Man. Still, I can't undervalue how important this movie was in my life- and to the decade of costume crimefighters it was part of.   

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