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Spider-Man


Thought it was about time I started working through some of my backlog of reviews; reviews that have been sitting around for weeks or months even.


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Year of release
2002

Directed by
Sam Raimi

Written by
David Koepp

Starring
Tobey Maguire
Kirsten Dunst
Willem Dafoe
James Franco
Rosemary Harris
Cliff Robertson
J.K. Simmons

Spider-Man


Plot - Peter Paker (Maguire) is the resident science geek of Midtown High in New York. Orphaned as a child he was taken in by his loving Aunt May (Harris) and Uncle Ben. These days he is the frequent focus of the school's bullies and is unable to act on the massive crush he has for his next door neighbour, Mary Jane Watson (Dunst). Peter's whole life is turned upside down however during a field trip to a genetics library. He is bitten by a radioactive spider that had escapes its confinement. The incident leaves him feeling decidedly groggy, but when he wakes up the next morning not only is that sensation gone, but many other things have also changed. He is stronger, quicker and more agile. He finds himself inexplicably able to climb walls, fire webbing from his own wrists and develops a precognitive warning sense. Initially using his powers for his personal gain Peter's outlook changes when his beloved Uncle Ben is killed by a robber that Peter could have stopped but let go free. From then on Peter resolves to become a hero and fight the type of evil that claimed the life of his Uncle. Peter is not the only one going through a drastic transformation however. Norman Osborn (Dafoe), father of Peter's best friend Harry (Franco), becomes the Green Goblin after an experiment goes horribly wrong. Together these two superhuman individuals find themselves on a collision course, with the people that Peter cares about most caught in the middle.

Returning to Spidey's first foray onto the big screen it's a surprise to find just how cheesy and goofy a film it was. Indeed going back to it feels almost a touch nostalgic. It may be only a little over 10 years old, but already there's a sense of 'they don't make them like that anymore.' When compared with the dozens of superhero films that have followed in its wake Spider-Man now seems rather quaint. Its story and the action now seem rather small and personal compared to some of the more bloated and epic approaches taken since, while its tone is so much lighter than many of its counterparts. It's tough to imagine how two films that both reside in the superhero genre could be more different than Spider-Man and say, The Dark Knight for example. And to be honest I think it's the film that the public wanted and indeed needed at the time. Released less than a year after 9/11 people wanted fun escapism, they wanted a hero to root for, they wanted a clear black and white distinction between good and evil. By delivering such a film I think that's a large reason why Spider-Man was such a massive box office success. After what now looks like the moderate success of X-Men ($296 million), Spider-Man scored a huge $821 million at the box office and proved that superhero films were here to stay. The film even has a very direct shout-out for New Yorkers. With Spidey in a precarious situation at the hands of the Green Goblin, members of the public begin throwing items at Goblin, declaring that “you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” It's an exceptionally hokey moment, but given its subtext you can certainly forgive it.

As I said at the start it does feel rather cheesy and goofy, with Raimi largely responsible for this tone. Indeed Spider-Man feels very much like a film with an almost B-movie sentimentality, but made with a blockbuster budget. The story allows Raimi to tap into his love for horror films, with many staples of old-school horror present. In Norman Osborn/Green Goblin you've got the classic tale of the mad scientist and an experiment which goes horribly wrong and results in a monster which has featured in countless horror tales since the birth of the genre. While later on in the character you have a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde dynamic as the two sides of Norman's psyche battle for control. Then you've got the Goblin's costume and that ridiculous mask which I've never liked. The character has a real demented Power Rangers vibe to him. And his goblin bombs have an effect like something from an old-school 50s sci-fi film, reducing his victims to their skeletons which then crumble to dust. In fact if I remember correctly it's very similar to the effect in Mars Attacks, itself a spoof of those 50s sci-fi flicks. Then there's the extremely daft wrestling match where complete amateurs are allowed into the ring with a muscle-bound goon to get beaten up. Everyone in the world knows that wrestling isn't real, apart from these guys apparently.

Film Trivia Snippets - During the famous upside-down kiss in the rain, a unique problem plagued the scene..Hanging upside down, Tobey Maguire's sinuses kept filling up with water. /// Before Willem Dafoe signed on for the role of the Green Goblin, it had been offered to Nicholas Cage, John Malkovich and Robert de Niro. /// When it comes to big blockbusers few writers have had more success than David Koepp. Spider-Man marked the fourth occasion in which a film he had written broke the record for the highest opening weekend gross at the box office. The others were Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. /// One reason that Sony liked the idea of appointing Sam Raimi as director was his love for the world of comic books. An avid collector, he had amassed a collection totalling over 25,000 comics. That being said though, he was far from their first choice with others considered including Tony Scott, Jan de Bont, James Cameron, Roland Emmerich, Ang Lee and David Fincher. /// Several Spider-Man costumes had to be designed for the production, at a cost of up to $100,000 each. During filimng four of the costumes were stolen off the set. A reward of $25,000 for their return was posted by Columbia Pictures but they were never seen again.
And Raimi's direction certainly attempts to really grasp the look and feel of a comic book; it's a very bright, bold and colourful world that he's created for the characters. And for the most part it's a lot of fun, brining a lot of life and energy to proceedings. I love the montage of Peter attempting to come up with costume designs. With images, words and drawings crashing together its is a very neat, cool little scene. Oh and Peter's attempts at replicating his webslinging is still funny; “Up, up and away webs!” And Raimi does have an eye for a great shot. The upside down kiss in the rain is a very sexy moment, and has remained one of the most iconic images of all superhero films. And a number of the film's characters certainly live up to that colourful world Raimi presented. Top of which would certainly have to be Willem Dafoe who gives an insanely over-the-top performance as the Green Goblin; he sneers, smirks, cackles and glares his way through the movie. It's certainly not a subtle showing from Dafoe, but he gets lots of credit for some terrific 'evil eyebrow' work. Back in the day I don't think I was overly enamoured with him, but now I find it to be a lot of fun watching him go from quite creepy all the way into high camp on occasion. While the other larger-than-life character is to be found in the form of Daily Bugle editor, J. Jonah Jameson. J.K. Simmons seems to be having an absolute blast in the role, and as a result so does the audience. He just blusters his way through the film and dominates everyone who finds themselves in his path.

As our hero, Tobey Maguire was a very smart choice for the role. His Parker may lack some of the charisma and spark of Andrew Garfield's future incarnation but his dorky, loverlorn Peter is a sweet and likeable guy. As his love interest, Mary Jane Watson may not quite have the same character as in the comics; I imagine she lacks the same fire and spunk. She is more of the adorable girl next door, and Dunst fills the role well. With her troubles at home and unfulfilled acting aspirations she is also able to bring a surprising emotion and depth to the character. And as a huge admirer of redheads I personally don't think that Dunst has ever looked better. Both Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson do a fine job of giving Peter's Aunt and Uncle the requisite warmth and endearing nature, with Robertson in particular deserving of credit given his limited screentime and the fact that his death has to have the required impact upon Peter and in turn the viewer. Though some of Peter's scenes with Aunt May do slip into sappiness. The only really weak link of the cast I feel was James Franco's Harry Osborn. I just find him to be a bit bland a presence in the movie, though to be fair to Franco the script doesn't give him a great deal to work with. And his romance with MJ just never convinced whatsoever. No logical reasoning is ever really given for it to make it seem at all believable. It merely feels like a writer's ploy to try and introduce some O.C. style drama to the dynamic between the characters, and as a way of keeping Mary Jane in the picture. And even the romance between Peter and MJ tends more towards the sappy and overwrought on occasion. It certainly wasn't the film's strong suit.

Given that Spider-Man's origin story remains one of the best amongst all superheroes, the film very wisely chose to stick very closely to it. And I imagine it was quite the easy choice. After being gifted with his new powers Peter does what pretty much everyone of his age would do, he has fun with them and then thinks how he can use them for his own personal gain which unsurprisingly takes on the form of impressing Mary Jane. It's only through the death of his beloved uncle, and the guilt he feels due to his unwitting part in it, that Peter feels obligated to use his new-found abilities for a higher, more noble calling. As the iconic staple of Spider-Man goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.” And even with the film's light-hearted, breezy tone I admire the fact that the film shows the truth about heroism. It's not all parades and admiration. It shows the sacrifices that he must make and the pain that it causes him. Once more going back to its relation to 9/11, I imagine it rang a bell for a number of people given the ultimate sacrifice that numerous New York servicemen made that day. Though I do have some problems with the origin here, many of which were corrected in 2012's reboot. Given how important it was in the comics I'd have liked more time spent in high school, I'd have liked them to develop more the fact that Peter is a genius and also Flash Thompson just looks completely wrong! But I realise these are more the complaints of a Spidey fanboy than a movie viewer.

Film Trivia Snippets - During the film Uncle Ben claims to be 68 years old. At the time of filing however Cliff Robertson was actually 75, but this didn't stop the make-up artists from attempting to make him look older. /// When the project was first mooted in the late 1980s a whole host of actresses were considered for the role of Mary Jane Watson. This expansive list of recognisable names included Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ally Sheedy, Jodie Foster, Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Diane Lane, Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooke Shields, Kyra Sedgwick, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Molly Ringwald, Jennifer Aniston, Uma Thurman, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Christina Applegate, Cameron Diaz, Alyssa Milano, Tori Spelling, Neve Campbell, Tiffani Amber Thiessen, Alyson Hannigan and Drew Barrymore. So pretty much every actress who was famous or would ever go on to be. When the film finally went into pre-production however, they were apparently all considered too old for the role. /// Once it did finally go into production Kate Hudson and Tara Reid were in strong contention, with Hudson a heavy favourite until she turned it down to star in The Four Feathers. Other acresses who did audition for the role included Alicia Witt, Mena Suvari, Elisha Cuthbert and Eliza Dushku. In fact Dushku can be seen during Tobey Maguire's screen test on the Spider-Man DVD.
So the film does have some flaws. It's rather silly and sappy at points, with more than one unintentional laugh to be found along the way (Goblin interrupting Aunt May's prayers the most guilty). And I don't think that its score soars the way that the character does, proving to be rather flat and predictable too often I feel. The film's biggest problem however? Macy Gray! I mean really, Macy F*CKING Gray?!!! Who the hell thought her inclusion was a good idea? It's got to be one of the most dated elements of any film ever, right up there with flares in 70s flicks and mullets in the 80s. I mean I honestly don't think I've seen or even heard of her since this film was released.

For the most part the film's special effects still hold up. The only ones that don't work are the same effects which didn't work back then; most notably the scenes of Peter running and jumping across the rooftops. They just lack any depth or sense of reality, very video game looking. And no matter how many Spider-Man films there have now been, or how many times I've seen them, the moments of Spidey swinging through the streets of New York are still a great thrill. Especially for the Spider fanboy, which I most certainly am. And while the film's action may seem quite small and limited by today's standards, I will give the film credit for the fact that every bit of action has a purpose, both to the characters and the story. There's no sense of 'let's just throw these two guys together for a big ass fight' at any point. In fact it takes over an hour before we get our first example of 'costume on costume' combat. And as opposed to many of the huge-scale battles which close out superhero flicks, I really like the personal, brutal beatdown between Spidery and the Goblin at the abandoned building site.

Conclusion - It may now reside a touch in the shadow of both various films which followed in its wake and its own sequel, but the original Spider-Man film remains a very fun experience which helped to set the groundwork for all those films that followed. If I'm honest I've perhaps been a touch generous with my rating in terms of how I feel about this film these days. After numerous rewatches it's perhaps a smidge lower than that now. But still a lot of fun.