We’re all about comics here at Panels on Pages, but a geek cannot live on comics alone. Outside the Longbox is our chance to spotlight something outside our typical four-color realm – be it movies, music, TV or whatever.
For the past several weeks, I’ve been examining the storied history of Spider-Man in other mediums besides comics. I’ve broken down all of his television appearances in both animation and live action. Every few years, there’s a new cartoon, but there was no new live Spidey production for decades. After nearly 25 years of development hell with some legitimate Hollywoodbig guns like James Cameron, Chris Columbus and Tim Burton involved and wrought with false starts, legal battles and all kinds of corporate butthurt, Sony and Columbia Pictures tapped Evil Dead director Sam Raimi to head the wall crawler’s feature film debut. What followed was a film franchise that went on to gross over $2.5 billion worldwide. It was kind of a big deal.
Using James Cameron’s treatment as a starting point, David Koepp wrote the screenplay for Spider-Man. As far as the origin goes, it kept basically everything intact from the classic stories. The only major deviation is the organic webshooters, but really, that makes more sense than the notion that a high school kid could invent mechanical ones. Why wouldn’t he get those along with his other powers? The webshooters and swapping genetics for radiation are the only real changes to Peter’s origin. It’s a testament to how timeless that part of his story is. Uncle Ben’s death, the whole power and responsibility thing and the old Parker luck all translated beautifully to film and Tobey Maguire delivers a great performance as Peter Parker throughout the entire movie. He goes a little cheesy from time to time, but it all fits in tone with the movie.
Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin is equally faithful. There are small changes, but the character of Norman Osborn is the same as the one in the comics. Dafoe nails his performance, especially in the scenes where he acts against his own reflection in a single take, highlighting his split personalities. The movie’s biggest surface flaw is the Green Goblin costume, yes, but Dafoe still acts through it as best as anyone else could. Even when the eyes and mouth retract, the mask isn’t good. The rooftop “join me” scene is awkward because you really can’t see anyone’s face, so it feels stiff and awkward. There’s a lot of ADR here, too, and that doesn’t help matters. It’s good ADR, but it still stunts what is otherwise a good scene on paper. It’s made even worse by the test footage that recently surfaced of some amazing Green Goblin makeup.
The rest of the supporting cast is equally as solid as Dafoe. J.K. Simmons embodies J. Jonah Jameson in every way, as does Rosemary Harris in her role as Aunt May. Kirsten Dunst is probably the weakest link, but even so, she’s not bad (not in this movie, at least). It’s no wonder Spider-Man was a huge hit; it does nearly everything right. The effects are great. The script is solid. It’s got the right visual style without ever going overboard.
That said, Spider-Man is not perfect. Its flaws are few and far between, but they’re there. Along with the weird Goblin costume, some of the sets look a little too fabricated and there are some weird moments in the story and some occasional cheese, especially in the dialogue (looking at you, oddly proud New Yorker guy), despite what really is a tight script. And, of course, every movie has a couple of effects shots that aren’t perfect. None of these small issues are enough to ruin the movie. It holds up even today as a great beginning to one of the most successful film franchises of all time. It’s a good adaptation, but it lacks some of the polish of its sequel.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Two years later, the whole gang returned for one of the most highly anticipated sequels Hollywoodor comic fans had ever seen. What the original did right, Spider-Man 2 did so well it made it look easy. Using Doctor Octopus as a villain we could watch actually emote humanized him, even as he delved into madness thanks to the accident that game his extra appendages. His tweaked origin as a mentor of Peter’s did very much the same thing. His arc in the movie is generally much more powerful than that of the Green Goblin all the way up to his sacrifice at the end. The effects on the arms are great and the battles between Doc Ock and Spider-Man are simply stunning. The train scene is possibly the greatest superhero action sequence I’ve ever seen.
All of the returning characters progress and feel real. Harry could have become a one-note revenge hound, but he didn’t (he saved that for the next movie). Instead, his hatred of Spider-Man feels justified and Franco’s reaction once Spider-Man is unmasked is perfect. The man’s a hell of an actor. Mary Jane is still a bit boring, but she’s given a lot more to do in this movie, so she’s actually got some character. The biggest flaw for me in the story is the spidey impotence through the first and second acts. Peter’s powers randomly cut on and off because of all the stress he’s under. At one point, they’re gone completely until Octavius kidnaps Mary Jane and it’s clobberin’ time. I get the idea, but it’s so random that it takes me out of the movie pretty much every time I see it.
Spider-Man 2 was huge success both critically and commercially. For years, it was the gold standard of superhero movies. Even now, it’s a very good movie. The only hanging points besides the missing powers subplot are really the same as the first movie. It’s got some weird dialogue and the visual style doesn’t always work in the movie’s favor. But make no mistake: this is a really good movie. It seemed at this point that Raimi could do no wrong. Then, almost as if to prove us wrong, Raimi would teach the master class on wrong with the release of Spider-Man 3.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
It’s worth mentioning right off the bat that Spider-Man 3 was a huge box office success. It’s the highest-grossing of the trilogy, having banked over $890 million worldwide. It also has to be said there are moments of greatness in Spider-Man 3. The effects are amazing and the fights are gorgeous. Worst of all, beneath all the crap they piled into the script, there might actually be a decent story at its core somewhere. The notion of Peter having to expand his worldview thanks to a villain who’s not really a bad guy at heart is interesting (Having him kill Uncle Ben? Not so interesting.). Peter and Harry’s story should absolutely come to a violent head in the third installment. These are strong ideas that are unfortunately lost to a second villain, a second love interest, warped character motivations, breakfast and at least two awkward dance scenes (depending on how much you like the aforementioned breakfast).
The producers felt the need to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the movie and it suffered for it. The Venom and Gwen Stacy characters don’t really belong in the movie and their screen time takes away from what could be development to stuff that matters elsewhere. The movie feels longer than Watchmen because the pacing is just awful. It has to cover so many bases to keep all the subplots moving, yet it still manages to plod along in the second act before rushing all the development needed for the third. The Spider-Man films were a license to print money. There was no need to get so greedy with this one. There was always going to be a fourth. It’s hard to say if the reboot is a result of the mess left in the wake of Spider-Man 3, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.
So next year, Sony is going back to school with Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-Man, a Spider-Man movie with a teenage Peter Parker for the first time. Personally, I haven’t seen a single shot of the Spidey suit that doesn’t make it look really silly to me, but the trailer and pretty much everything else surrounding the movie as of now looks really promising. They could have another win on their hands with but one of the many sure-to-be comic book blockbusters hitting the silver screen in 2012.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Spider-Man’s celluloid past. In case you missed it, here’s the rest of the series, starting way back in 1967.