Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Ultimate Spin

Living in a time where there's been three actors to date that have played Peter Parker on the big screen, seven solo Spider-Man films and ten films appearances altogether for the web-swinger, we tend to take the idea of cinematic Spidey for granted (and I'm talking strictly live-action here, not including 2018's Oscar winning animated insta-classic Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse). I mean, how could we not? There's a whole generation or two by now who have never known a world without Spider-Man movies.

Older fans will remember, though, that bringing Spidey to the screen was once a web too far for Hollywood. For many years, a Spider-Man movie was just a frequently frustrated dream as one attempt after another failed to get off the ground.

In the '80s, directors like Tobe Hooper and Joe Zito were associated with attempts to bring Spidey to life for Cannon Films and in the '90s, we nearly got to see James Cameron's Spider-Man. But while I would love to know what those adaptations would have been like I think it was ultimately worth the wait for Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man. It's hard to imagine any other adaptation getting it quite as right as Raimi did. Certainly, based on what we know about them, none of the projects that fell through previously would have been anywhere near as reverent to the material as Raimi's film was.

Raimi's first Spidey film is a classic case of the right people on the right project at the right time. In our current superhero saturated cinematic age, where comic book-based films are not just a regular occurrence but (to the chagrin of some) a seemingly permanent fixture of modern cinema, it's hard now to remember the thrilling wave of anticipation that the first Spider-Man rode in on, coming as it did at a time when comic book films were still relative novelties and when the long term viability of the sub-genre was still in question - with many people expecting that the boom in comic book films that began with 2000's X-Men was due to burst .

The fact that this project was in the hands of a fan favorite filmmaker like Raimi, a director with impeccable nerd cred, only made Spider-Man seem all the more like a sure thing. But, you know, nothing's ever guaranteed and many things can go wrong with even the most promising films. But as the film came together and details were announced, like the casting of Tobey Maquire as Peter and the involvement of the legendary John Dykstra as Visual Effects Supervisor, it only became more and more evident how well Spider-Man was shaping up.

The only nagging issue was reports that Spidey would sport organic (eww!) webbing in this rather than the classic home-grown formula that science nerd Peter Parker famously whipped up for himself in the comics, along with building his own mechanical web-shooters. This concept of organic webbing was an idea that Raimi poached from James Cameron's detailed treatment for his aborted Spidey film and it struck fans as a sacrilegious change to the character, one that undermined Peter's scientific ingenuity.

Raimi's rationale at the time - that he believed it would simply be too hard for audiences to accept that a kid like Peter would be so brilliant as to invent his own webbing - seems like a quaint concern now, given that the subsequent Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland Spideys have both had artificial webbing and no one blinked at it.

It also seems absurd, by the way, that artificial webbing of all things was perceived as being a bridge too far when it's way more of a strain on suspension of disbelief that Peter is magically able to create a costume for himself that we know that in the real world costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and was put together by the most skilled designers in Hollywood. We see Peter drawing his Spidey costume and in the next scene, ta-daaah!, he's wearing it.

I mean, come on.

I can totally believe that he made this costume:

But I can't believe this cash-strapped kid, with no apparent skill in any of the many facets of design that would be required to pull this off, went from the sad, bargain outfit above to this slick number:

Nope, don't buy it! Now, I'm not complaining - far better to get something that looks like the comic than not but, if we're talking about "hey, let's keep things within the ballpark of what a regular teenager could pull off," this costume with its sophisticated design and array of highly expensive, complex components (it's got raised webbing!) is way more of an ask for the audience than "oh, this scientifically gifted kid cooked up some webbing for himself!"

But anyhow, organic webbing it was, and as much as it caused some consternation among fans, eventually they came to accept it.

Which, of course, was easy to do when the film came out and proved to be pretty much everything that fans wanted it to be. Raimi had read the original Spider-Man comics as a kid in the '60s and his adaptation is an unabashed love letter to the early Lee/Ditko/Romita Sr. days of The Amazing Spider-Man as well as introducing imagery of its own (like the upside down kiss with MJ) that would instantly become a part of the character's iconography.

David Koepp's screenplay successfully captures the familiar soap opera melodramatics of the comics in which teenage outcast Peter Parker gains the proportionate strength and abilities of a spider after being bit by a radioactive arachnid at a science demonstration and then must find a way to navigate all the complications that brings, even as he has to also look after his elderly aunt, struggle with his love life, and make ends meet as a part-time news photographer - all the while being guided by the hard learned lesson that "with great power comes great responsibility."

Speaking of which, while Cliff Robertson as Peter's beloved-but-doomed Uncle Ben can be credited as being one of this film's many spot-on bits of casting, the moment where he says that famous line to Peter has always rubbed me the wrong way. It's nothing to do with his delivery, which is just fine, but rather with the fact that I don't feel like Ben should be saying these lines in the first place.

"With great power comes great responsibility" is nothing that Uncle Ben ever says to Peter in Amazing Fantasy #15. Those immortal words only appear in the closing caption boxes of the story, courtesy of Stan Lee's omniscient narrator. In the years since, as that phrase has become part of the popular lexicon, comic writers have, in flashbacks, had Ben utter those words to Peter but I've always felt it was awkward. Specifically in this movie, what "great power" is Ben talking about here? He's scolding Peter for roughing up a bully at school but there's certainly no "great power" at work here as far as he knows. The phrase feels unnaturally shoe-horned in and I maintain that having Ben utter those actual words is just goofy. But hey, it's one of those things that one must accept.

And I do. If only kind of.

In adapting Spidey's iconic origin there are a couple of other decisions Raimi and Keopp make that I also think were missteps. Not catastrophic ones by any means but ones that I wish had been re-thought.

I really feel that they should have followed the comic in having Peter enjoy a brief career as a celebrity before Uncle Ben's murder causes him to forsake fame for crime-fighting. In the film, Peter goes to cash in on the wrestling challenge and that same night the burglar robs the promoter and kills Uncle Ben outside the venue. Everything's over and done with in, like, an hour. In the comics, however, Spider-Man becomes a media sensation after beating wrestler Crusher Hogan, going on to appear on TV and cultivating a fanbase.

In the comic, Spidey appears to packed houses, wins showbiz awards, and even has a possible TV series lined up - according to newspaper headlines seen in the issue. This all fuels Peter's cockiness and his indifference to anyone other than his beloved Aunt and Uncle. While I know that this is a movie and that there's a running time to consider, I feel like this angle could have been explored - even if it was just relegated to a montage of Spidey making his various TV appearances and being hailed as a big deal.

Eliminating Spider-Man's brief career as a celebrity feels like a mistake to me as that rise to the top that Peter experiences, all the new attention that comes with it and Peter's belief that he can enjoy it free of guilt or consequence, is part of the hubris that makes his fall that much more profound. In the movie, the karmic wheel hasn't had enough time to turn in order for the impact of Ben's death and Peter's part in it to hit the way it should. It should be a bitter comeuppance for Peter. Instead, it occurs in such a whirlwind way that it's more like, well, just a thing that happened.

In the comics, because it was some time after Peter originally let the burglar get away that Ben was killed there was an important aspect of it appearing to be this forgotten, fleeting moment that would later came back to crush Peter. In the movie, Peter lets the burglar go - and Raimi and Keopp wrongly let him feel almost justified in doing so, due to the fact that the promoter just screwed Peter out of his full payday - and Ben is killed immediately after.

It's just too soon for it to work quite the way that it should.

I'm also not crazy about the decision to have the burglar die (and yes, I know that in the film he would be more correctly described as "the thief" or "the carjacker" but in the comics this character is just always known as "the burglar" so we're just going with that!).

Going back to Peter learning that "with great power comes great responsibility," I feel that it is a key element of the origin that Peter hand the burglar over to the cops. It was part of the lesson that he learned and the birth of his career as a crime-fighter. In the comic, it's clear that he goes to the warehouse where the burglar is holed up with revenge on his mind. He goes there in a righteous rage, ready to tear the man who killed his uncle apart but the shock of recognizing the burglar's face stops him cold. It's then that he feels the weight of his own accountability in this tragedy and he does the responsible thing by delivering his uncle's killer to the authorities - lowering him down to the waiting group of cops below on a web.

Having Ben's killer accidentally plunge to his death in the film immediately after Peter recognizes him, however, makes it feel like a case of "justice was served."

It becomes more about the burglar getting what's coming to him rather than about Peter learning a real lesson (Spider-Man 3 goes on to screw even that up with its ret-con of the whole scenario). The burglar getting away and Peter not paying the moment any mind (in the comics, he's scolded for his inaction by an elderly security guard who Peter rudely brushes off as opposed to being accosted by the unscrupulous promoter who just ripped Peter off) and going on to enjoy a brief period of fame is what puts a cruel ticking clock in the background on the bitter lesson he's going to learn. And if Ben was ever going to say to Peter "with great power comes great responsibility," and make it sound natural, it should have been when the two are talking (over Aunt May's wheatcakes, of course!) about the feats of this mysterious new Spider-Man who is appearing on TV using his powers simply for money and fame.

I also think that having Ben die at home, protecting May from an intruder, is much more impactful than having him die keeping his car out of a crook's hands (even if it is the classic Oldsmobile Delta 88!).

So as much as this movie was lauded by many fans as getting it right, I actually don't think that Raimi and Keopp nail the origin quite as well as they could have. The basic beats are there but they're just a little off and some key notes are missing entirely. But hey, it's still a mostly admirable effort and at least, unlike the live action Nicholas Hammond TV series from the late '70s, it actually includes Uncle Ben and shows how his death puts Spider-Man on a heroic path. Bottom line is that you can see they tried. The pains taken to honor the overall spirit of the comic, even when the particulars arguably could have been handled better, are apparent.

Beginning with the punishments he cheerfully inflicted on Ash in the original Evil Dead, Raimi has showed a sadistic glee in making his protagonists suffer both physically and mentally, which makes the perpetually downtrodden Peter Parker the perfect hero for Raimi. Peter's chronic misfortunes in regards to his love life, his job, his superhero identity, and his academic career, have been dubbed in the comics as a result of "The Ol' Parker Luck" and Raimi embraces Peter's cursed condition with relish. Sometimes Peter's bad breaks are played for laughs, other times for poignancy but all these moments spring from Raimi recognizing that Peter Parker is the Charlie Brown of the superhero world, forever having the football pulled away at the last second and landing on his back.

Besides doing right by Peter, Raimi, Koepp, and the cast all nail the supporting cast that has always been so important in the comics.

No comic character has such a well-loved supporting cast as Spidey and his extended universe of friends, family, and co-workers are all brought to life here in fine form.

Rosemary Harris and J.K. Simmons are ripped right from the '60s comics, embodying the classic versions of Aunt May and J. Jonah Jameson respectively. The late Bill Nunn (Do The Right Thing) is an excellent pick as Daily Bugle editor Robbie Robertson, although I wish he'd been given more to do - not just in this first film but in the whole Raimi trilogy. Kristen Dunst's MJ is literally the girl next door and while I don't think she quite matches the glamorous image of MJ from the comics, her chemistry with Maguire - especially in this first film - is undeniable. And James Franco as Harry Osborn adeptly walks the line between being a believable best bud to Peter and as well as being Norman Osborn's spoiled son.

As Norman himself, Willem Dafoe is every bit as good as Jack Nicholson was as The Joker in Batman (by the way, how great would Dafoe himself been as The Joker?) and his performance is cut from the same cloth, indulging in hammy, over-the-top villainy.

Defoe's Goblin cheerfully cackles at his own wicked deeds and mercilessly taunts those he has at his mercy, whether it be Aunt May or a bunch of helpless school kids. I wish this type of scenery chewing arch-villainy hadn't gone out of fashion because, well, it's just fun to watch.

I mean, even Thanos seems low-key next to Defoe's Goblin.

Defoe's performance aside, some complained about the design of his Green Goblin outfit, comparing it to a Power Rangers uniform but I think it's totally fine.

Even though the Green Goblin is Spider-Man's #1 foe (as much as Doc Ock might object!) he's kind of problematic to translate to the screen. For starters, the costume doesn't really lend itself to being realized to the letter.

I mean, when it comes to trying to dress a real person like this...

...You've got to cut anyone charged with that task some slack.

More difficult, though, is that when the Goblin was introduced in Amazing Spider-Man #14, his identity was a secret. It remained so until way down the road in Amazing Spider-Man #39 and once it was revealed that wealthy business man Norman Osborn was behind the Goblin mask, Stan Lee had to figure out how to explain exactly why this member of high society chose to dress up in a goofy Halloween costume, hurl pumpkin bombs that he stored in his purple purse, and zip around on a mechanical broom or bat.

As it turns out, Stan didn't really have much of an explanation to give on that count. Sure, he explained how a chemical accident gave Norman his powers but as for why he concocted the Green Goblin identity specifically, about as close he comes to giving a reason is that, well, Norman's favorite color was green. So let's just say that Norman reason for being the Goblin was always kind of thin. That puts a burden on anyone adapting the Goblin to other media in that they don't have much of an actual base from the comics to go on.

Given that, I think Keopp and Raimi did a perfectly fine job of giving us a Green Goblin that is as close as can be to the image of the character that readers have from the comics while coming up with a semi-plausible rationale for him to dress as he does, just through planting the background detail of showing the collection of tribal masks that Norman displays in his home that all echo the fear-instilling visage of the Goblin.

With its combination of action (which, by the way, still holds up great here - Raimi delivers some top-shelf fights between Spidey and the Goblin, particularly their brutal final showdown), humor and pathos, Spider-Man proved to be a culmination of everything that Raimi had learned as a director up to that point. It marked his graduation from cult favorite to a true blockbuster filmmaker.

While he'd made a comic book style film in 1990 with Darkman it wasn't until afterwards that Raimi started to really focus on developing his skills as a director of actors and on incorporating more genuine emotion and depth in his films with movies like A Simple Plan (1998). Had Raimi made Spider-Man years earlier, it would have been a much different film than the one we got in 2002. I don't think the Raimi of the Evil Dead II/Darkman era would have been as ready to take on the emotional aspects of Peter Parker.

Eighteen years later (how crazy is it that we're now within shouting distance of this film's twentieth anniversary?), Spider-Man still holds up well, even though the comic book genre has evolved dramatically since then. To be sure, there's a lot that's dated in Spider-Man. In most ways, that's not a bad thing (the only negative would be how shockingly white this movie looks to today's eyes - no big film now would be so lacking in diversity). Primarily, it should be considered a happy blessing that this movie got made when it did as it got in just under the wire as far as being able to do a Spider-Man movie that takes place in a world where newspapers are still a big deal and where a young Peter Parker can believably make money selling exclusive photos of Spidey to the Daily Bugle.

To watch Spider-Man today is to be reminded of a world where newspapers rather than Twitter feeds were still the way that most people received their info and where taking pictures was something that people still had to do with cameras with actual film in them.

Even though it's from 2002, which on paper doesn't seem so long ago, the world has changed so dramatically since then that much of Spider-Man seems downright old-timey. I mean, Peter webbing his automatic camera to a light pole to snap pictures? It's so out of date with the way things are now it's hard to believe that it was even in this century. Today, by the time Peter schlepped his photos to the Bugle, Instagram and YouTube would already be flooded with pics and videos of Spidey so I'm happy a movie portraying the Bugle as a central facet of the comic book's mythos was able to get made before that aspect became, if not obsolete, then noticeably dated.

Also marking Spider-Man as a product of its era would be the kind of then-current elements that now tie it to its particular cultural moment, like Macy Gray performing in Times Square (if only they could have gotten J Lo - it would still seem right at home in 2020!) or the blatant nod to post-9/11 sentiment with New Yorkers pitching in to help Spidey in his battle with the Green Goblin, hurling garbage at the flying menace ("You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!") which was well-intended but now seems a bit on the nose, a snapshot of its era. Even the final shot of Spidey with the American flag waving behind him (a shot much more naturally suited to Superman than to Spider-Man) also seems clearly informed by the then-fresh sense of post-9/11 spirit.

These dated elements, though, aren't a detriment to the film. Unlike Bryan Singer's X-Men, which was hailed as a benchmark comic book adaptation upon its release in 2000 but now has dated to the point where it's borderline unwatchable, Raimi's Spider-Man has, in most ways, held up remarkably well. Its dated aspects generate nostalgia more than derision. Most importantly, Raimi's love of the material always shines through. Spider-Man isn't perfect but it reflects a love of the character and a determination to do right by him. Throughout the film, Peter suffers moments of doubt, angst and disappointment that feel lifted directly from panels of the original comics, where the burden of his double life often prompts Peter to ask, in a thought balloon hanging over his head, "...is this the price I must always pay for being Spider-Man? 

I do wish that Maquire had been funnier in the role. He and Raimi nail the melancholy side of Peter (better than other adaptations have) but aren't quite as successful in translating the character's trademark humor to the screen. Maquire's Spidey typically comes across as morose rather than as quippy and wisecracking. And that organic webbing thing, well, it's still a slight bummer. Also, while I applaud that this first film established that sticking to the original costume design was important, there's a stiffness to this version of the suit, with its underlying sculpted musculature that prohibits much acting (Danny Seagren was more successful in conveying a "spider-y" body language in The Electric Company). But in most every key aspect, this feels like the quintessential Spider-Man. As the first cinematic venture for Spidey, the one that had the most to prove and the one that had to establish his validity as a big screen superhero on the level of Superman and Batman, Raimi crushed it.

Sony's ad campaign touted Spider-Man as being "the ultimate spin," and in the summer of 2002, for the legions of fans who had waited years to see the web-head on the big screen, it really was.

Most critics and fans hail Raimi's sequel as being the high point of his Spidey trilogy but, as good as that film is, my affection remains strongest for the original. It simply has something that no other Spider-Man film can ever usurp or lay claim to - it will forever be the first. There can be any number of reboots and recastings (and to be sure, there will be those on into eternity) but even if subsequent films represent improvements in one way or another, they can never quite capture the particular magic this first film delivered. Just by virtue of having no predecessors, there's a purity to Raimi's original Spidey. Better Spidey installments, by Raimi and Jon Watts, would follow but none of them would be possible without this first film accomplishing what it did. While the character would go on to swing to even greater heights, none of that happens without this first film being so successful in making Spidey learn how to crawl.