Once upon a time, in the world of cinema ... comic book movies were very rare, and rarely were any of them good. Sure, we get like twelve- hundred comic book adaption’s a year now, but if you were to look back before the early 2000’s, comic book movies were a dime a dozen, but in time, superhero movies evolved, and got better. If 2000’s “X-Men” proved that we could have great comic book movies, it was 2002’s “Spider-Man” that proved superhero movies were here to stay, because they make bank ... $821 Million to be precise. When this movie dropped in summer of 2002, it wasn’t just another summer popcorn flick ... it was an event. While Spider-Man had always been a celebrated icon, he never got the privilege to grace the silver screen. To see the hero’s trademark web-swinging, and wall crawling in live action was quiet sensational for long time fans. Now regrettably, I wasn’t a part of this event, as I actually didn’t see this movie when it first premiered. In fact, I didn’t see it at all until after “Spider-Man 2” premiered. I remember I didn’t like this movie at all upon first viewing, as it seemed like a drop in the water compared to both its sequel, and everything else I was watching at the time. Thankfully, this film has really grown on my over the years, to the point where I genuinely enjoy watching it, and I even consider “Spider-Man” a classic in its own right.
This is one of the first in the “Super-Hero Origin” category, building our hero from the ground up, showing how he got his powers, and how his heroic direction took shape. In the case of this film, we meet the troubled, nerdy school student Peter Parker, who gets bitten by a mutated spider, and take’s on many of the arachnid’s characteristics. This includes organic web shooting, heightened spider senses, the ability to walk on walls, and enhanced strength. Now with his life turning upside down, he decides to take some desperate action, and maybe get together with the girl he’s loved ever sense he was a kid. After a common crook guns down his uncle, our hero decides to use his new powers for good, and becomes a web-slinging superhero. Through sheer coincidence, a masked super-villain called The Green Goblin is born at the exact same time, and is dead set on squashing our hero like a bug under his boot. In short, this movie follows the basic formula of a super-hero origin story, but it’s all handled with expert craftsmanship. The key components to this film’s success are director Sam Raimi and star Tobey Maguire as our title hero.
While I can’t say I loved Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, he was absolutely perfect as Peter Parker. Sometimes his nerdiness was a little on the nose, but he was genuinely likable and very charismatic in the role. Something about his wide eyed innocents just fit the character, and he conveys the right amount of emotion needed for the audience to feel for him. Tobey Maguire is the beating heart and soul that helps give this film life. He’s also a lot funnier than most people give him credit for. I love that one little scene when he tries to web-shoot for the first time and he starts throwing out random catchphrases like “Go Web”. To be honest, I don’t really care for any of the “characters” in this movie, but I “love” all the actors, and how they bring these roles to life with their own genuine charm and humbleness. We have Spider-Mans love interest Mary Jane, who’s basically a clichéd damsel stereotype, but once again actress Kristen Dunst is just so naturally lovable in the role. She’s an actress I grew-up with in movies like “Little Women”, “Jumanji”, “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “Small Soldiers”, and it was just really cool to see her bring this iconic comic book girl friend to life. I also like the subtlety of her character, as I’m invested in Mary Jane as a girl just trying to make a life for herself, away from her abusive parents, and follow her dreams to be an actress. On a side note, even though Kristen Dunst is a blond, I think she looks much better with red hair. Her relationship with our hero is nothing special, but it’s perfectly fine, and they do have some nice moments. Both Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris are spot on in the roles of Aunt May and Uncle Ben. James Franco plays Peters best friend Harry Osborn, and I like the arch slowly building between the two. We see that Harry’s father Norman idolizes Peter Parker more than his own son, and that subtly builds conflict between the two. Also, select appearances from talents like Bruce Campbell and Octavia Spencer are very welcomed additions.
Our villain for the day is The Green Goblin, who’s only motivation is killing or corrupting our hero. Now most Spider-Man villains, or heck super-villains in general have some kind of ulterior motive that the hero keeps foiling, but The Green Goblin really has no other motivations to speak of. While this doesn’t make him a deep or interesting character, his strait forward plan of defeating Spider-Man dose add to the simplicity of the film. Now obviously The Green Goblin is a mostly stupid, and very cliché villain. His costume is silly, his hammy personality goes way over the top, and every attempt at being scary comes off as unintentionally funny at times, but none of that matters because Willem Dafoe is freaking amazing in the role. Every time Willem Dafoe is on screen, he is clearly having the time of his life, and that always makes for a fun villain. He was also very passionate about this role, as he wasn’t the directors first chose for the part, but Willem Dafoe really pushed for it. He also did the majority of the stunts and fighting, because he didn’t think a stunt man could convey the same level of menace, and I just admire an actor for getting so invested in his character. While the performance is anything but subtle, he’s still consistently entertaining to watch. Plus he has a decent rivalry with our hero, nothing deep mind you, but it’s genuinely exciting when the two characters clash. My only real complaint is that the Green Goblin from the comics and cartoon show is very expressive, but that’s not the case with this film as he’s wearing a mask with a permanent grin.
Now obviously I’ve loved movies my whole life, but I never appreciated the art of film-making until my high school years. So when looking back at this movie, I was quiet impressed with Sam Rami’s directing style, which I completely glossed over as a kid. Sam Rami beautifully transitions Spider-Mans universe from the page of a comic book to the big screen. Of course he proved very creative with his film making and camera skills when he directed “The Evil Dead Trilogy”, and his style cares over to these films with ideal grace. I love his method of editing, how he transitions to different scenes, how he plays with the camera, and it’s all just very artistic. I especially love the opening credit sequence, which become a tradition with all three of the original Spider-Man films. In short, these openings are very colorful, artistic, and really help set the mood. I with more movies, especially superhero movies had openings like these films. The pacing of the movie is also very good, as it’s brisk, but has just enough slow moments to feel submersed in this world with these characters. There’s also a great sense of fun to this movie, which is so refreshing considering that everything is so dark and brooding these days. Now there’s some well placed drama here and there, but it’s just enough to make us care without spoiling the films light hearted tone.
Sam Rami is also a long time fan of the source material, and he puts his all into recreating moments from the classic comic books, while also creating original scenes of his own. There’s a great little moment when Spider-Man returns to his apartment, takes his mask off, and soon discovers he has house guests just outside the door. He hides on the ceiling until they leave, but a little drip of blood is about to drop on one of their heads. Its little scenes like this that keep the film exciting without tones of action. Another terrific original scene is Spider-Man’s upside down kiss in the rain with Mary Jane. Even though I wasn’t 100% invested in their relationship, this moment in of itself is still very memorable, and kind of iconic. Unfortunately, I do have some issues with some of the adapted material, and I think the worst of all comes just after the death of Peters Uncle Ben. After a thrilling chase, Spider-Man catches the criminal responsible for killing his uncle, but during a brief scuffle the crook accidently crashes through a window. Now in both the comics and the TV series, Spider-Man saves the crook from falling to his death, which is a pivotal action that establishes what kind of hero Peter has become. That mutated spider gave him super powers, but it was his choice to spare his uncles killer that made him a hero. In the case of the movie however, when the crook crashes through the window, Peter just lets him fall to his death, and it paints an ugly picture around him. For all the criticism “Spider-Man 3” gets, I think this moment alone is the worst aspect of the original Spider-Man trilogy by far. This isn’t me nit-picking, Spider-Man sparing the life of his Uncles killer is a very important part of his character growth, and in order for this movie to be a perfect telling of his origin, it really needed to show his first steps of being a hero. So, with that said, let’s get back to some of positives.
For one of the first superhero adaption’s of the early 2000’s, the action scenes have held up very well, and in some respects are better then what we get today. When Spider-Man and the Green Goblin battle in a burning building, I genuinely feel the excitement, but I can also admire the practicality of the piece. I like that while special effects are present, there isn’t an over abundance of it. In fact most of the action is very much in camera, but still with a lot of flare and energy. Granted the fighting choreography looks like something from a six flags stunt show, but the battles themselves are still on a big scale, which makes them exciting. For example, the battle over time square isn’t exactly riveting, but it’s very creative with the setting, and feels like something on a large scale. On a side note, I love how this scene builds up the first appearance of the Green Goblin, and it helps draw me into the excitement of the following action scene. Some of the effects on display do look dated, and it’s especially cheesy in that one moment when the Goblins bomb turns those people into skeletons. Other effects like his Spider-Senses, and some shots of him web-swinging still look good. The film did in-fact receive two Oscar Nods for both visual effects and sound design, so it definitely accomplished something for its time.
Another key ingredient to this film is Danny Elfmans outstanding music score. If your familiar with Danny Elfmans work, you’d know he mostly dose music for Tim Burtons films, all of which have a similar loony yet haunting melody. However, his score for “Spider-Man” is very different, and feels like something grand, exciting and larger then life. In short, Danny Elfman can go to his grave knowing he composed two of the greatest superhero themes of all time, the other one being his “Batman” score. Speaking of music, let’s take a moment to look at the soundtrack, as this film came from an age when every action movie had a similar Christian Rock, Boy Band feel. The main song “Hero” performed by Nickelback is the perfect example of what music was like back then. To be honest, while it’s very dated, and I'm by no means a fan of Nickelback, their song “Hero” is something I can't help but enjoy on some level. By contrast, I hated the song “What We’re All About” performed by sum 41. This movie even features the original 1960’s Spider-Man theme song, which I know is iconic, but I just find it annoying.
Now let’s talk about the films Climax, which I have split feelings about, and by that I mean the first half sucks, and the second half is phenomenal. The first half of the battle takes place on the George Washington Bridge, where the Green Goblin is holding Mary Jane and some kids hostage. To be honest, this sequence just felt like a rip-off of the climax from “Batman Forever”, in which a green suited villain forced a superhero hero to rescue one of two things that fall from a deathly height. Also, this was the same setting from the classic comic book, where Spider-Mans first girl friend Gwen Stacy died during a battle with the Goblin. It’s only a visual reference to fans, because while Mary Jane is a hostage, nothing really serious comes of this situation. The girl is rescued, and there’s a painfully forced moment with all the people of New York turning on the Goblin. Once Spider-Man and the Green Goblin are alone, and fighting in that broken down building, this climax suddenly goes from lame rip-off to one of the greatest finales I’ve ever seen. It’s actually quiet suspenseful as the villain just relentlessly beats the crap out of our hero. Once again, the whole fight is in camera, and the lack of music just adds to the tension. Once Spider-man stands his ground, and really starts fighting back, it’s absolutely riveting stuff. It all escalates to a very satisfying, yet kind of tragic villain death. Spider-Man discovers that the goblins real identity was his best friend’s father the whole time, setting the stage for future conflicts. That final shot of the Green Goblins beaten mask is just the perfect icing on the cake.
Looking back, I think 2002’s “Spider-Man” has aged much better than most older comic book adapted films. That’s not to say it’s perfect, as it does still have those problems, like Spider-Man letting his uncles killer fall to his death. Also, for as much as I’ve grown to like this film over the years, I still don’t “love” it. It still feels like an average good superhero movie, but nothing truly amazing. Having said that, there are still lots of things to admire from Sam Rami’s stylish direction, to memorable scenes, to the iconic cast. Plus, it’s very nice to look back at a superhero movie that’s very self contained, and can be viewed as just a movie on its own. Seriously, it wasn’t mandatory for this film to have a sequel. You can watch “Spider-Man” by itself, and be perfectly satisfied, unlike everything else today that’s relying on the audience to watch every film in a series. Whether you like this movie or not, it’s undeniably earned the right to be called a classic for both the superhero and Sci-Fi genera. My only personal problem is that it looms in the shadow of its far superior sequel, which I’ll talk about later this month. Next I’m going to review “The Amazing Spider-Man”, to see how that origin film compares to the original. I’m also very excited for the upcoming “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, and I think it might be the start of a great new series for the web-head. Whether the new films are superior or inferior by comparison, lets never forget the original that started it all.
I give 2002’s “Spider-Man” ... 4 stars out of 5.
To Be Continued ...