The Rise and Fall of Spider-Man
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) was the make-or-break film that propelled the superhero movie to the top of the food chain in American contemporary cinema. Yes, Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) came out two years prior and was still a success, but the X-Men were a superhero conglomerate rather than a singular classic comic-book character. Certainly, in the comic book world, the X-Men are bigshots; they’re 1991 volume is still the highest selling superhero comic of all time. That does not change the fact that Spider-Man has always been more of an American Icon than any of the X-Men. Peter Parker is an unintimidating, caring, and low income high-schooler from Queens, NY (remind you of anyone else from the Avengers that literally has “America” in their name?). He’s the face of innocence and the moral compass for the Avengers, you can always count on him to do the “right” thing (not necessarily the “best” or “smart” thing). It’s much easier for Americans to get behind Peter than it is for them to get behind the X-Men, whose sole purpose is to remind America of its painful history of injustice against social minorities. Spider-Man is happy-go-lucky and almost always has a happy ending. The X-Men… not so much. I’m starting to ramble, so I’ll just say that one of these two comics lends itself to better storytelling, and I’ll let you pick which one I think that is.
So, let’s get back on track. I recently re-watched the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films in preparation for Marvel/Sony’s upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming. I didn’t watch these films a whole lot as a kid because I much preferred the Singer X-Men movies (still do), but I gotta say that they weren’t as average as I remember them being. In the next section of this post, I’m going to give each film an overall score and provide a few quick takeaways.
Spider-Man (2002): 6.9/10
The keyword for this film is going to be “experimental.” Singer’s film was a movie adaptation of a series that was already uncomfortably gritty. Raimi’s film is taking on a series that is much more “cartoony.” Could they make a superhero movie out of one of the more “comical” characters and make it feel more like an action film than a cartoon? The first film rides the fence between film and comic. There are plenty of outlandish plot elements and cheesy dialogue, but enough serious emotion and raw action to balance the two out. To Tobey Maguire’s credit, I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a superhero display more emotion in a film than he does in this one. In fact, most of the casting is excellent for this film, which is something I was impressed by while re-watching it. The only person that is obviously lacking in the acting department is a young James Franco, who eventually finds his character by the third installment, but is pretty far from finding his niche. As far as visuals are concerned, Raimi again tries to ride the fence between comic and film by using a good deal of practical effects, but resorting to CGI when necessary. For the early 2000’s, this film shows a magnificent understanding of when and how CGI should be used. Also, the fight scenes are very well done, namely the finale between Spidey and Goblin. The only thing I must point out about these fights is that, as far as the film is concerned, Norman Osborn is of equal (or possibly greater) strength to Peter, and he also wears a literal suite of armor. With that in mind, how are Peter’s punches and kicks actually effective against him?
Spider-Man 2 (2004): 7.2/10
If the last keyword was “experimental,” this one is going to be “improvement.” While the previous film wasn’t met with even mixed reviews (it has an 89% on RT), Raimi still adapted to constructive criticism like a true professional. What he learned from the previous film is that audiences actually didn’t connect well with the more comical plot elements. Though Willem Dafoe played Norman excellently, he was still the main source of these comical elements because he was a cartoonish villain. Dr. Octavius, on the other hand, is much less of a cartoon. He’s a somewhat sympathetic villain whose motivations are clear from the very beginning of the film, even though he hasn’t even become a villain yet. The only thing left over from the first movie is that the villain still has some kind of schizophrenic thing going on where they talk to something that’s not themselves and get advice from it, like they’re puppets of some kind. Moving on though, we see a lot more of Peter’s emotional arc in this film, because that’s what people want to see even if they don’t know it. Another thing that was brought back and expanded is how much the citizens of NYC play a part in Peter’s story. Using the setting to its fullest extent is something that these films have done better than any other superhero film.
And it’s right here that I want to pause for a second. These are two things that have plagued not just superhero movies, but blockbusters in general. For some reason, writers and filmmakers seemed to forget about these essential elements to storytelling post-2004. Having protagonists that audiences don’t want to see win will cause your story to fall flat for a lot of people. Even Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) is somewhat lacking in this area; Bruce Wayne has a pretty narrow emotional arc, the only reason we root for him is because he is up against Nolan’s Joker, who is arguably the greatest movie villain of the past twenty years. And as far as setting is concerned, Marvel movies do a horrendous job of integrating their settings into their plot. I made a video essay about this subject, so go watch it if you want to know more.
Spider-Man 3 (2007): 5.4/10
I guess it comes as no surprise that the keyword here is going to be “no.” Put simply, there is too much happening in this film. No, we did not want to see two half-assed villains instead of a single decent one. No, we do not care about the sudden love-triangle. In fact, no, we don’t even care about Mary Jane. Their relationship was weird in the first movie, but by this point, she has become an insufferable brat. The only thing good about this movie is Tobey Maguire’s dedication to the characters of Peter Parker and Venom. Tobey makes the transition from Peter to Venom-Peter well because he understands the two characters and how they work. The film, however, decides to take this and make a joke of it rather than make the point that the person we are seeing is not Peter Parker, rather it’s a parasite that only seeks to destroy everything it comes across, including its host. That was something again lost on the transition from Peter to Eddie Brock. Eddie was already an evil little shit. I mean, the guy literally prays for God to kill Spider-Man. We don’t see how Venom changes him other than giving him power to do what he already wants. Hence why comic fans absolutely loathe this film; it made Venom a source of power rather than a character on its own.
While I’m not an avid supporter of the “stay true to the comics” mindset, I do see where their concerns are valid. When a team of executives and “writers” start creating these adaptations, the fear is that the original meaning or value of certain elements might be stripped from the source material. Meanings and values are fluid, so they can be changed, but they are what give stories their artistry. Like with Venom in Spider-Man 3, Venom does not work as a compelling antagonist because it was stripped of its meaning: corruption can make a monster of anyone. It was boiled down to a glop of black goop that gave people more power.
This is the best case I can make for comic-book fanboys/girls when it comes to complaining about staying true to the source material, because the two Amazing Spider-Man movies are prime examples of why this should not be the aim of the filmmakers.
The Amazing Spiderman (2012): 5.7/10
I’m not saying that fans are to blame for this film’s mediocrity. What I am saying is that fans did not help by adamantly talking about what the Raimi films did wrong because the third film left a bad taste in their mouth, they should have kept quiet and been happy with the first two. Both this film and its sequel’s failures can be chalked up to a little thing I like to call “fan service.”
Complaint #1: Spidey wasn’t funny enough in the Raimi films
I get it. You want a hero that can make you laugh at the same time he’s punching bad guys in the face. But do you really? How much would be taken away of Peter threw in a couple of one-liners during that showdown with Norman? Would anything be added if he made a few jokes while he tried to save MJ and Doc-Oc from certain death? Yeah, I didn’t think so. What happens is you end up with a finale that has no stakes. It makes it seem like Peter is never scared, and that he’s confident to the point where he comes off as arrogant.
Complaint #2: Peter was too old in the Raimi films
Upon hearing the first complaint combined with this one, a studio executive is going to give you something you didn’t actually ask for: a high-schooler that is a witty skater-type who is way too attractive for their own good. Peter Parker is not the popular kid at school, he does not get MJ or Gwen by sheer gravitational force, he has to work for them just like the average high-school guy would.
I have nothing against Andrew Garfield, his work as of late has been outstanding and he has really proved himself to be a rising star, but his performance is rather confusing, especially since he so publicly shared his love for the character. Tobey’s awkwardness made him Peter for me. Andrew was too confident and cocky for me to get behind him as the hero.
Complaint #3: Don’t use a heavy-hitter like Goblin in the first movie
I don’t think this complaint is even valid to begin with. If you’re going to do an origin story right, you have to start off with a bang. Rhys Ifans as The Lizard is not where you want to begin unless you’ve transformed that character in a way that makes them feel like a heavy-hitter. The reason they thought the first film needed a lower tier antagonist is because the film is split into two halves in their mind: one being the origin, and one being the conflict. This is not how origin stories should work. At the very least, the two should be happening simultaneously. Take Batman Begins (2005) for example; the conflict between Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul is set in motion long before Bruce becomes Batman, and Nolan showcased Ra’s Al Ghul in a way that made him seem like an A-list Batman villain despite the general public not being aware of his existence. Also, because the origin and conflict are so closely linked to one another, it makes them both all the more endearing.
Complaint #4: Spider-Man isn’t a member of the Avengers
“Well, we’re not going to hand the rights to Spider-Man over to Disney… and we don’t own any other superheroes… Oh, I’ve got it! We’ll make our own version of the Avengers using only Spider-Man Characters” – A Sony Executive (probably)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014): 4.5/10
There is literally nothing in this film that is not used to promote their Sinister-Six series of Spider-Man movies, which can’t even happen now. If there was too much going on in Spider-Man 3, then this film is a friggin tsunami of plots. You have Electro as one major antagonist, Goblin as another, Rhino as a minor antagonist, Harry’s feud with his dying father, Peter and Gwen’s relationship, Peter and Aunt May’s relationship, the mystery of Peter’s parents’ death (which I hope isn’t canon, because it was just stupid), a weird conspiracy thing at Oscorp, and the planning of the Sinister Six. Not only is this too much, most of it is just plain dumb. The only thing that is at least mediocre is the conflict between Peter and Gwen… so this would have made a better rom-com/rom-drama than it would a superhero action movie.
In case you didn’t already guess, I’m not excited about Marvel’s first go at a “stand-alone” Spider-Man movie. Rather than speculating about what I think will be its downfall, I think it is much simpler to just say that Spider-Man is exhausted. He was a pleasant addition to Civil War, sure, but I don’t think audiences are ready for another Spider-Man movie. That’s why Zac Snyder skipped on the Batman movie, he thought it was too soon to reboot Batman again – he was right, but it didn’t make his movie any better. Spider-Man is going to undergo two reboots within a span of five years… and that’s a lot of pressure to put on a high-schooler.