Let’s Watch: The Spider-Man Films
The original Spider-Man trilogy has an interesting history. It has went into the hands of several directors (including James Cameron), went around to several studios & several different writers. The first Spider-Man film came at a point when audiences were so surprised with Bryan Singer’s first “X-Men” film, it encouraged studios to try their hands at comic-book films after the miserable failure of “Batman & Robin”. After seeing the box office returns of “X-Men”, Sony immediately hired Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Darkman, etc.) to take on the job of directing the first Spider-Man film. Mind you, these came at a period in which studios were still trying to figure out how to make these films. In reality, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, at least to me, are a trying ground of what works & what doesn’t in comic-book films. Let’s take a look at the original trilogy, and figure out what went right, what went wrong, and how the decisions made in these films inspired the comic-book films of today.
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Willem Dafoe, J.K. Simmons
Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man film is a movie that was, for all intents & purposes, a HUGE success when it opened. It was the first movie EVER to cross $100 Million in a single opening weekend. It was critically well received, and audiences seemed to love it. Well, most audiences except me, I suppose. The first “Spider-Man” is an example of what happens when tones clash, and pacing lurches slowly. The movie has a lot of heart, and it aims to make Peter Parker a relatable character. But, strangely the problems start with Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of Peter Parker. Peter Parker is a shy, unassuming, nice guy. Which works… But, they miss one key aspect. Peter Parker is also a clever, witty, sarcastic guy. This is an element that is IMPORTANT to the character of Spider-Man, especially in battles with opponents much stronger than himself. They play with this idea in the scene in which Peter Parker is wrestling a guy played by Macho Man Randy Savage (RIP). Peter uses his sarcasm to defeat his opponent. This never comes up again.
This Peter Parker is way too wimpy to come off as the badass that Spider-Man becomes. This is just one of the instances of ideas presented that never become anything more than just ideas. Consider the scene in which the Green Goblin is talking to Spider-Man about how the town will betray him. Now, to be honest, this concept was never explored fully, and never introduced prior to that point. For Spider-Man to be betrayed, he must first be fully embraced… Which he never was until the ending sequence in which Spider-Man has to make a choice to save either a car full of kids held hostage, OR Mary Jane. This seems like something that could have some weight to it, but it doesn’t… Speaking of Mary Jane, Kirsten Dunst’s performance felt flat tonally. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to see in her, and why Peter Parker loves her so much. The tone shifts are erratic, they spend too little time on Spider-Man learning to control his powers, and overall it feels like the movie was on fast-forward while being strangely paced way too slowly. These are problems that, for the most part, were addressed in the sequel.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris
Spider-Man 2, from the very beginning, feels considerably more confident than the previous film. Somehow, the movie finds the right balance of humor, action, and heart. The reason why the first film was so lukewarm to me was because it failed to commit to a specific tone. As a result, the attempts at humor, at emotion, at action, et cetera feel inert. But, with this film, right from the start, it feels so alive. Especially with the opening sequence of Peter Parker delivering pizza, and eventually getting fire. It’s fun, and it establishes instantly the deft balance between the action, the comedy, and everything else. It also gives us a more mature Peter Parker, and a more threatening villain than the previous film. The performances are better, the pacing is tight… Really, this film was firing on all cylinders right from the get-go.
One element I felt the filmmakers really took advantage of was Aunt May. She felt so absent in the last film. In this film, they give her a very emotionally complex story arc. Consider the scene in which Peter Parker confesses to Aunt May his involvement with Uncle Ben’s death. That scene is a gut-punch. But, the other great thing is that the relationship between Peter Parker & Mary Jane feels infinitely more interesting than it was in the previous film, mostly because Mary Jane actually has a personality. So does James Franco as Harry Osborn. His story arc is great, and underscores so much of what is going on with Peter Parker emotionally. Not to mention that the action sequences are badass. Alfred Molina as Dr. Octopus makes for an interesting & psychologically unhinged adversary. The key to this film working at all is balance. The balance of the hero, his alter-ego, the villain, the people around him, the action, the emotion, etc. This film was everything I hoped the first film would be. And, with the prospect of a great future for this series, one could hardly wait for the sequel. And, here’s where things go south…
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Hayden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard
Spider-Man 3 had anticipation that reach fever pitch. So many people were so pumped to see it. I know I was. Especially with the prospect of Venom, a fan favorite, being present. But, strangely the main problem that makes this movie so bad IS Venom. This movie is a textbook example of studio meddling. Sam Raimi never wanted to use Venom, but the studio forced him to do it. As a result, you get a film that is just lame. Now, the movie was really good for about half of it. It is immediately when they ret-con Uncle Ben’s death to somehow include Sandman into it that makes it instantly bad. After that point, we get Peter Parker dancing in the street, a strangely out-of-place Bob Fosse dance number, and the lamest appearance from Venom. The movie feels incredibly half-assed from that midway point on. Venom is the main thing that took this movie down.
If it had remained just about Peter Parker dealing with Harry Osborn & Sandman, and maybe the symbiote suit coming in later, you could’ve had a really strong movie. Even the implementation of Venom feels inconsistent with the previous film. I mean, they set up the possibility of Venom by alluding to the fact that John Jameson was going into space, and that the symbiote material could’ve came back on the ship… They had an EASY way to explain it happening, and it could’ve been developed in a way that felt consistent with the previous films. But, this movie suffers from T.M.S.G.O. (which stands for Too Much Sh*t Going On). As a result of the development of Venom being rushed, the story between Mary Jane & Peter Parker feels shortchanged. The interesting storyline of Harry Osborn & Peter Parker is completely thrown away. Aunt May is a non-factor. Sandman, one of your main villains, disappears from the movie until the last 20 minutes. Gwen Stacy is in the movie for no f*cking reason. Eddie Brock is a wimp that isn’t even threatening in the suit. After the symbiotes comes into play, the movie becomes one bad decision after another. It felt like they had something good in the first 45 minutes, and then after that point, it all went to sh*t, singlehandedly destroying ANY interest in a Spider-Man 4, and causing the inevitable reboot.
Spider-Man’s journey as a franchise underscores the evolution of comic book films in general. The first film showed promise of something great, the second film WAS something great, and the third film caused it to come crashing down until the reboot could act as a palette cleanser. These films were courageous in a way. They showed us that superhero films didn’t have to be just action. They could be very involving human stories as well as fun comic book stories. No matter what we think of these films, we owe them a debt of gratitude. They (along with the first two X-Men films, and Blade) laid the groundwork for the new renaissance of comic book films (The Avengers, The Dark Knight, etc.)
Feel free to comment on these films, on the reboot, etc. And, as always, thanks for reading.