Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Halloween: The Movie

By the time Rob Zombie's Halloween came out fifteen years ago today on August 31st, 2007, horror fans had learned not to be shocked by remakes of sacred '70s classics. Once the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead had been remade earlier in the decade, to great box office success, it was clear that no film would be exempt from being remade. In the case of Halloween, in particular, the circumstances were ripe for a remake. The series had been creatively adrift since 2002's Halloween: Resurrection and with Jamie Lee Curtis' involvement with the franchise seeming to have come to an end, the next obvious step was to just start over. 

Everything about Zombie's Halloween reflects where horror was at the time, starting with the fact that this remake was entrusted to Rob Zombie to begin with. Being part of a group of hot new Gen-X filmmakers, including Eli Roth, Alexandre Aja and Ti West, who were striving to bring back the hardcore vibe of '70s horror that they had been weaned on, putting Zombie in charge of Halloween automatically gave it a sense of street cred among certain fans. While some took umbrage at the idea of the guy with just two movies to his name - and with those two movies being House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, no less - being put in charge of following so directly in the footsteps of John Carpenter (this was, after all, a remake and not just another Halloween sequel), for many, he was the right guy at the right time. 

The final result both confirmed his critic's worst fears of what a Rob Zombie Halloween would look like while also giving his fans exactly the kind of in-your-face re-do that they were hoping for. A much gnarlier creation than Carpenter's elegant original, Zombie's Halloween gave audiences a Michael Myers that was tailored to the times. Nastier, grittier, more explicitly brutal than not just what Carpenter had done but what anyone else who had contributed to the franchise had done, Zombie's Halloween was, whether for good or bad, unafraid to shake up preconceived notions of what a Halloween movie should feel like. The original was a movie that smoothly glided, Zombie's was one that crudely crashed through walls. 

What I have always personally found most amusing about Zombie's Halloween is how, as a remake of a 1978 classic, it feels directly modeled after another iconic classic from that same year: Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie. Now before you say "what?!", hear me out. I don't believe that this was intentional in any way on Zombie's part and I wouldn't be surprised if he were to say that he's never even seen Donner's film. However, while it may be a long way from Metropolis to Haddonfield, the structural similarities between Zombie's Halloween and Donner's Superman are there just the same. 

Donner's origin story for the Man of Steel has a very pronounced three act structure where each act details distinctly different chapters in the growth of Superman, following him from his youth to his adulthood. There is the opening act set on Krypton, where we are introduced to Kal-El as an infant and we see the beginnings of his journey. 

The second act takes place in Smallville where we see Kal-El now in the heartland of America, living as a teenager under the adopted name of Clark Kent and dealing with both the struggles of adolescence as well as with the responsibilities that come with his great abilities. 

The third act follows him as he moves into adulthood and he takes up shop in bustling Metropolis as the high flying hero Superman. 

Comparatively, in Zombie's Halloween, we have the first act with Michael as a child in Haddonfield and we see where his journey into darkness began, climaxing with his sister's murder. 

In its second act, Michael is seen spending his teen years making new friends within the cheery walls of a mental institution. 

Finally, there is Michael's escape from the institution and his return to Haddonfield as an adult. Just as the third act of Donner's Superman was the big pay off to the first two table setting acts and where audiences finally got the superhero spectacle they had been patiently waiting for, Zombie's third act of Halloween was similarly where we're done with kid Michael and teen Michael and now full blown Michael fucking Myers has arrived on stage with all the fanfare of Superman making his Metropolis debut and Halloween '07 goes into iconic slasher movie mode. With Superman, audiences knew that they had to wait through a long build-up before getting to scenes of Superman hitting the skies over Metropolis and with Halloween '07, Zombie also asked the audience to wait until they could see Michael stalking the streets of Haddonfield. 

Richard Donner's watchword during the production of Superman: The Movie was "verisimilitude," a word that relates to giving something the appearance of being real and Rob Zombie also felt that an insistence on realism was the key to his Halloween. Donner wanted audiences to be able to easily accept the fantasy of Superman while Zombie wanted to demystify Michael Myers and frame his actions in a very believable context, giving psychological explanations for his actions rather than just referring to him as a potentially supernatural boogeyman. Whether or not that was the right way to go with Michael Myers, it was definitely what Zombie was striving for. Just as Donner excluded the more fanciful elements that were common in the comics - such as Lex Luthor's propensity for unleashing giant robots on Metropolis - in an effort to keep things grounded, Zombie jettisoned all the goofy occult baggage that had complicated Michael's story. No talk of Samhain, no Sign of the Thorn, no Druidic cults. The first words spoken in Superman: The Movie are "This is no fantasy" and that is the statement Zombie was making with his Halloween as well.  

With Superman: The Movie, Donner sought to give Superman the kind of respectful treatment he felt the character deserved. It was a statement that said Superman mattered, that he was A-class. Similarly, by the time Rob Zombie took on Michael Myers, the character had been a pop culture mainstay for almost three decades but was sorely in need of restoration. Just as Donner made the case that Superman was more than just disposable comic book fare, that he was the definitive American superhero. Zombie was striving to convey the fact that Michael Myers was more than just a dime a dozen slasher, that he was the one that was supposed to set the standard. 

Fifteen years since its release, I feel like the jury is still somewhat out on Zombie's Halloween. I don't get the sense that its been widely accepted as a classic - or at the very least as a worthy remake in its own right - in the same way that 2003's Texas Chainsaw or Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead have been. It's still kind of its own particular thing with its own particular following and the recent David Gordon Green trilogy seems to have eclipsed it somewhat, even as Green's films have incorporated the same kind of gritty, real world nastiness that Zombie introduced to the series.

The famous tagline for Superman was "You'll Believe a Man Can Fly," a reference not just to the technical wizardry that was involved in depicting the Man of Steel's powers but to the film's goal of making Superman seem like a real person. Zombie had a less daunting hurdle in needing to convince an audience that A Man Can Stab. And Stab. And Keep Stabbing. But both films paired their myth making with a grounded sensibility. One film was about celebrating the virtues of "Truth, Justice and the American Way," the other was about madness in a midwestern town. One was about a character with an extraordinary gift for saving lives, the other about a character with an extraordinary knack for taking them. But both films adopted similar strategies in portraying their subjects. 

For his part, Donner achieved a definitive take on an American pop culture icon. The result in Zombie's case was a super slasher. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Nerd Notes: August 2022

The fifth entry in the main Predator series, or the seventh overall if you count the two AvP movies, Prey has been hailed by some as the best Predator since the original. I say that it's just Another Good Predator Movie. Apparently some viewers have not been as keen on some of the previous Predator installments as I have and to them Prey feels like a big comeback but I didn't watch Prey thinking that the Predator series was in need of rehabilitation or redemption. Sure, some entries have been better than others but I've never been flat out unhappy with any of 'em (not even the AvP's) and so, for me, Prey simply continues the series' winning streak. I loved it, I thought it kicked ass, but I didn't feel that it necessarily ran circles around the rest. That some others did is cool, I love to see the enthusiasm, I'm just here to say that for some of us, this has been a consistently solid franchise all along. Still, Prey was top notch and I'm all for anything that increases the odds of more Predator movies being made. I just hope that the next one goes to the big screen, where Predator belongs. 

Bullet Train got a so-so reaction from critics but I really dug it. I'm not quite sure what critics wanted out of this that they didn't get but, for me, this was exactly the kind of violent, darkly funny, over the top action movie that I was hoping it would be. Admittedly, there was probably zero chance that I wouldn't like this. There has never been a movie set primarily on a train that I haven't enjoyed. Whether it be The Lady Vanishes or Silver Streak or Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, I just have a thing for train movies and Bullet Train is yet one more entry in that sub-genre that I can say I loved. This just felt like perfect late summer action fare to me.  

You could say that this horror/action/comedy could have been better, could have aimed a little higher, but on the other hand, Day Shift is still a lot of fun. So it isn't particularly great, so what? To be fair, I would say the same thing about Tales from the Crypt: Bordello of Blood. If you give me a vampire movie, I'm ready to like it and I will give it a lot of leeway. I went into Day Shift expecting to see Jamie Foxx do some vampire killing and I got a generous helping of that with veteran stuntman turned director J.J. Perry delivering some truly impressive action. It didn't have to do anything more to satisfy me. Bonus points, though, for the soundtrack loaded with old-school '90s rap. I was already firmly on Day Shift's side but having Ice-T's "Body Count" blare as the heroes ride into a climatic battle really clinched the deal. If this ends up being a franchise, I'm game to watch more. 

With certain types of genre films, I don't think it makes for an especially strong recommendation when you have to frame your praise for them by saying they become more interesting after you mull them over. When your immediate reaction as the end credits roll is along the lines of "I really admire what they were going for!" it says that you've got a lukewarm movie on your hands, not a crowd pleaser. You could say that this is a clever satire that mercilessly skewers contemporary attitudes and certain personality types and you'd be right. It definitely does do that. But on the other hand, I don't think it's wrong for people who showed up expecting a slasher movie to want something more along the lines of what they paid to see. I'm not sure that pulling the rug out from under your audience is always 100% the right move. Sometimes it is but not always. I did like Bodies Bodies Bodies and I do acknowledge its cleverness but I also wouldn't begrudge anybody who felt slightly (or a lot) ripped off by it. 

I am a sucker for Nature Attacks movies so I was sold on seeing Beast right from the start. Sadly, the film itself is more Bust than Beast with minimal tension and scares. When I go into a movie like this, I'm not expecting Jaws or The Birds but I do think it's reasonable to think that I might be getting something as satisfying as Anaconda or Crawl. Beast starts off well enough in establishing its premise but once it's past the setting the stage portion of the movie and the characters are put in peril, the situations they're called upon to survive never feel particularly nail biting. No matter how much its CGI lion snarls and attacks, Beast remains a tepid time, with none of the down and dirty B-movie gusto it needed in order to succeed. 

Absolutely better than it had any right to be. It isn't better or even on par with the original but that's fine. It's still a trashy good time. This didn't have to be a masterpiece, it just had to be fun and it more than succeeds on that level. I would have bet against this movie being any good and I'm ecstatic to be proven wrong. Taking this down a notch, though, is a climatic death that needed to be punched up more. It's a moment that needed to be way bigger with Esther having a more direct hand in it but instead it just kind of plays out with a tired shrug. It doesn't deal a fatal blow to First Kill but for a movie that otherwise hits all the right exploitation film notes, it does cause it to stumble just as it's about to cross the finish line. Still, First Kill successfully establishes Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) as a true, franchisable horror icon, rather than just an intriguing one-off character, and it makes the prospect of further installments look extremely inviting. Team Esther all the way! 

If Samaritan had come out in the the mid-to-late '90s, it would have been a big theatrical release and have been totally at home in that time. In 2022, it has a nice throwback feel. With its more street level, gritty take on the superhero genre, it's like Stallone's version of Unbreakable, complete with its own M. Night Shyamalan twist. This film's twist, however, will be obvious to most viewers very early on. Like, almost instantaneously. I don't think that detracts from its entertainment value one bit, though. No one is watching this movie expecting to be challenged. They're watching it to see Stallone refrain from destroying deserving fools for as long as he can until his hand is finally forced. The third act superhero action here is very satisfying, with Stallone's character getting to do plenty of cool shit, like plow through walls. I don't know if Stallone has more Samaritan movies in mind but whether he tries to make a franchise out of this or if it's a one and done affair, it's a solidly entertaining B action movie.  

This seems to be getting slagged but for me it was the most pleasant surprise of the summer. I get that it isn't for everyone and I acknowledge that it does have legitimate flaws but all that said, it scratched a particular itch for me and I fully enjoyed it. Gothic horror movies have been out of style for so long, I found it so refreshing to get this one and to have it be as lavishly mounted as it is. It looks beautiful and it has the kind of scenes and moments that we just don't get in modern horror movies any more, like the sight of an imperiled heroine in their nightgown walking through the dark hallways of a Gothic mansion as they pass by billowing curtains. The Invitation embraces its old-fashioned frights while giving them an appealing modern sheen. As much as some will wave this off as too tepid or generic, I feel like it's really going to be embraced by certain fans as a fun throwback to a style of horror they associate with many happy and formative movie memories.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

The Ultimate Spin: Spider-Man (2002)

Living in a time where there's been three actors to date that have played Peter Parker on the big screen, eight solo Spider-Man films (the latest of which brought all three Spider-Men together in a multiversal free for all) and eleven films appearances altogether for the web-swinger, we tend to take the idea of live action cinematic Spidey for granted. I mean, how could we not? By now, there's a whole generation or two 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 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 believing 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 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 things can go wrong with even the most promising films. But as things 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 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 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 there must also come 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 about 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 fashion 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 that encounter appearing to be this fleeting, inconsequential 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 works well enough, sure, but it's just too soon for it to work quite the way that it really 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 true 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 on a web to the waiting group of cops below.

Having Ben's killer accidentally plunge to his death in the film immediately after Peter recognizes him, however, makes it feel more 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, cameo king of the Raimi-verse!

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 and his performance is cut from the same cloth, indulging in hammy, over-the-top villainy.

Dafoe'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. Dafoe's triumphant, scene-stealing return in Spider-Man: No Way Home was a total vindication of his Goblin and it left no doubt who Spidey's #1 big screen baddie is. I mean, even Thanos seems low-key next to Dafoe's Goblin.

Dafoe'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. 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 town on a jet-powered 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 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.

Twenty years later, Spider-Man still holds up beautifully, 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 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.

The world has changed so dramatically since 2002 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 had schlepped his photos to the Bugle, Instagram and YouTube would already be flooded with pics and videos of Spidey so I'm happy that 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 are the kind of then-current elements that 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 2022!) 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 a moment in time. 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 post-9/11 spirit in America.

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, " 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 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 movement (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 the character as a big screen superhero that could perform on the level of Superman and Batman, Raimi and co. 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 through eternity) but even if subsequent films represent improvements in one way or another, they can never quite duplicate the unique magic of this first film. Just by virtue of having no predecessors, there's a singular purity to Raimi's original. While the character would go on to swing to even greater heights on screen, none of that would have been possible if the original not first succeeded in having Spidey learn to crawl.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Action Is His Reward: Spidey at 60

Peter Parker may have long since left his teen years behind in the comics but as he turns 60 this month, he's still far from showing his actual age. The details of Spider-Man's origin, as first told by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko in the pages of the anthology comic Amazing Fantasy in its fifteenth and final issue, cover dated August 1962, can be recited chapter and verse by generations of fans. Through its many retellings in animation and film, millions who have never read that initial eleven page story in Amazing Fantasy can still accurately recount Peter Parker's transformation from shy teen to costumed hero, including the bitter lesson that has guided him forever after, the most famous words that Stan Lee ever penned: 

"With Great Power, there must also come Great Responsibility." 

The fact that this was conceived as a stand-alone segment of an anthology rather than an intended kick off for an on-going series is what helps it stand out as the single greatest superhero origin. It isn't just a device to get Peter in costume and on his way to colorful adventures, it's a morality tale with a tragic sting in its tail. It would still work today as a complete, self-contained story even if it had been Spider-Man's one and only outing.  

Of course, it was far from the last anyone saw of Spider-Man. The reader reaction to that story might not have been able to save Amazing Fantasy from cancellation but it did lead to Spidey landing his own title, The Amazing Spider-Man, and the rest is pop culture history. In honor of Amazing Fantasy #15, I'm saluting Spidey's debut with a selection of fifteen covers from Amazing Spider-Man's run that celebrate the spirit of the wondrous wall-crawler. 

In the interest of staying away from the over-familiar, I excluded a lot of key issues. No Amazing Spider-Man #50. No death of Gwen Stacy issues (ASM #121 and #122) and no Kraven's Last Hunt (ASM #293 and #294) either. My picks will show my age but that's ok. Unlike Peter, I have to contend with the very real passage of time. 

15. Amazing Spider-Man #151 (1975)

Artist: John Romita Sr. 

Even though Spidey is commonly referred to as "Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man," occasionally we are reminded that he can turn on the intensity when the occasion warrants it. While Spidey isn't a Batman figure that seeks to strike fear in the hearts of criminals, if pushed hard enough, he can quickly drop the jokey banter and go to a darker place. This dramatic cover is one of the best representations of that. 

14. Amazing Spider-Man #160 (1976)

Art by Gil Kane & John Romita Sr.

One of the more gloriously goofy artifacts of Spidey lore is the infamous Spider-Mobile, which made its debut in 1974 (ASM #130). Created with the help of the FF's Johnny Storm, the vehicular monstrosity quickly ended up at the bottom of a river after a battle with Mysterio but OG Spidey foe The Tinkerer recovered it and turned it to deadly use. For me, this cover embodies the (no pun intended) free wheeling fun of Spidey in the '70s.

13. Amazing Spider-Man #75 (1969)

Artist: John Romita Sr.

Tragedy has always been at the heart of Spider-Man and this cover is one of the most dramatic depictions of that. The conclusion to the Stone Tablet Saga that ran from ASM #68 to #75, this issue sees Spidey reckon with the consequences that the use of the ancient tablet have wrought. The actual events don't weight quite as heavily on the Wall Crawler as the cover suggests but John Romita Sr.'s image perfectly encapsulates the side of Spidey that has had to regularly contend with the limits of his powers to avert tragic outcomes.

12. Amazing Spider-Man #124 (1973)

Artist: John Romita Sr.

Beyond my own purely personal affection for this cover (as a kid I owned the Power Records release that adapted the two-part story that this issue began), I would say it merits inclusion here for spotlighting that perennial thorn in Peter's side, crusading newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson. I always consider any adventure that allows for a larger involvement for the irascible JJJ, arguably the most important member of Spidey's stellar supporting cast (friend, mentor, boss, adversary - he fulfills so many different functions!), to be a special occasion. Also, there's a werewolf. 

11. Amazing Spider-Man #112 (1972)

Artist: John Romita Sr.

This cover is one of the great "Spidey's had it" images. As much as he might use his humor as a buffer, we occasionally are reminded that Peter does have a breaking point. His frustrations can boil over and his patience with his fellow man can run out. I like the idea that Peter's devotion to saving others can sometimes be tested, that he can become as fed up as anyone and this cover is a classic depiction of that.

10. Amazing Spider-Man #18 (1964)

Artist: Steve Ditko

As the man who defined Spidey, Steve Ditko's run on Amazing Spider-Man features one classic cover after another but I have a special love of this one because it illustrates how dramatically Spider-Man changed the perception of superheroes and how ground-breaking those early issues were. You would never have seen a cover of another superhero book at the time showing its title character cowering in fear behind some debris in an alley as his adversary runs wild in the streets. While there is a reason given within for Spidey's apparent cowardice, it is still remarkable that this cover image is selling Spidey at his least heroic. 

9. Amazing Spider-Man #100 (1971)

Artist: John Romita Sr. 

John Romita Sr. had faced the daunting task of taking over the art chores on Amazing when Steve Ditko abruptly left after issue #38 but he quickly established himself as one of the greatest to ever depict Spidey. Thanks to the sleek look he brought to the character, Spidey's popularity only soared higher. When it came time to celebrate Amazing's landmark 100th issue, "Jazzy" Johnny created a cover that was worthy of the moment, one of the most striking to ever grace the title's run. 

8. Amazing Spider-Man #178 (1977)

Artist: Ross Andru

This is one of those covers that encapsulates Spidey in a nutshell. Aunt May is in the hospital on the brink of death and MJ is wondering where Peter could be, while outside the window, Spidey is in the grip of battle with the Green Goblin. It's a perfect Spidey snapshot, all the better for being illustrated by Ross Andru, the artist who was the primary artist on Amazing through the '70s. Andru never got anywhere near the same acclaim as other Spidey greats like Ditko and Romita Sr. or even later Spidey artists like Todd McFarlane and Mark Bagley but if you grew up reading Spidey in the '70s, Andru's version of Spider-Man and of his cast of friends and foes embodies that era. 

7. Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 5 #55 (2020)

Artist: Patrick Gleason

This cover from artist Patrick Gleason is an eerily beautiful black and white image that serves as a reminder that, after all these years, and hundreds upon hundreds of covers later, that artists are still able to conjure new images that can instantly weave their way into Spidey's iconography. 

6. Amazing Spider-Man #196 (1979)

Artist: Keith Pollard

Peter's doting Aunt May has died (or seemed to) a few times over the years but this was the first such occasion (don't worry, True Believers, it was all part of a hoax engineered by that wily illusionist Mysterio) and Keith Pollard's wordless cover more than rises to the occasion. It's a dramatic image that immediately seized my attention when I first saw it on the spinner racks.  

5. Amazing Spider-Man #181 (1978)

Artist: Gil Kane

This is yet another cover that embraces the tragic side of Spidey. The story within was a nice recap of Spidey's origin and if you happened to be a new reader looking to get into Spidey's world, this was an ideal jumping on point. Back when comics were only an occasional treat for me, based on the cover I knew this was one issue I had to add to my then-meager collection. Thumbs up, too, to Doctor Doom for muscling his way onto this short selection of Spidey foes. For some reason, there was a weird move back then to link him and Spidey. Sure, they had tangled a time or two but he wasn't a member of his rogue gallery in any way. But yet in the Spider-Man animated series of the early '80s, Doom was featured prominently, right in the opening credits. Why that was, I don't know. But here he is, one of the figures that is tormenting ol' Spidey. Somewhere an outraged Green Goblin is throwing his purple man purse down in disbelief. 

4. Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15 (1981)

Artists: Frank Miller & Klaus Janson

A classic Spidey cover that barely has Spidey on it. Frank Miller didn't do a lot with Spidey back in the day but every time he did, it was notable. This cover just nails the vibe of Spider-Man but in a completely unexpected, unconventional way. 

3. Amazing Spider-Man #600 (2009)

Artist: Alex Ross

Anything that artist Alex Ross does in his realistic, painterly style has the look of an instant classic but this cover that he did for ASM #600 is especially nice. Having it in red and black is such an effective, dramatic touch. Over the years, we've seen hundreds, if not thousands, of illustrations of Spidey tangled in Doc Ock's tentacles but this image still manages to feel singular. 

2. Amazing Spider-Man #655 (2011)

Artist: Marcos Martin

Marcos Martin is one of the greatest modern artists to have worked on Spider-Man and his cover for this gem of an issue illustrated by Martin himself and penned by writer Dan Slott is one of the all-time great Spidey covers, just a strikingly simple instant classic. A model of economy, there's not a single wasted (web) line on it. 

1. Amazing Spider-Man #131 (1974) 

Artist: Gil Kane

While I would say to not take the rankings here seriously at all, and in fact don't even think of them as rankings because they could go in just about any order as far as I'm concerned, I will say that this cover could handily fend off most comers if it had to. It just nails the essence of Spidey so well. You've got action, you've got the trademark Spidey soap opera-style melodrama (Aunt May marrying Doc Ock?!?), you've got Spidey confronting one of his greatest rogues (The Green Goblin gets all the hype but for me, Ock is forever #1), bold cover copy in the Mighty Marvel manner, and it's capped off with a web-related pun. This is upper tier comic greatness to my mind. Since I first saw it on the spinner racks, it looked like a classic to me. 

But no matter which were the covers that first reeled you in or which era you think feels the most like classic Spidey, for sixty years now Spider-Man has remained the gold standard of superheroes. By any measure, that's pretty damn Amazing.