A Retrospective on the Spider-Man Movies by Matt John
Matt takes us back with a in-depth retrospective on the Spider-Man Movies.
If you haven't noticed lately, TV and movies these days have been all about nostalgia. We're not getting our blast from the past now and again anymore. Instead, we are firmly entrenched in films/shows that capitalize on how much we idolize the past. And so, of course, it was only a matter of time until the Marvel Cinematic Universe got in on the trend.
Okay, to be fair, they already kind of did when they brought back (spoilers) JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jamison. Still, this upcoming Spider-Man installment will have three of the previous villains from previous incarnations of the character - Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, and Electro - with the same actors who played them.
So, in light of Marvel releasing its upcoming Spider-Man movie in the next few months, along with this new movie bringing back some familiar faces - and totally not the previous Spider-Men *wink wink* - it only feels appropriate to take a deep dive into the other Spider-Man movies released theatrically. And yes, this includes the animated one.
For this, we're going to start all the way back to when the first one was released in 2002. Now we have to remember that, at the time, superhero movies were only starting to regain critical traction in Hollywood. Back in the late-90's, movies based on superheroes were either boring, stupid, nonsensical, or a combination of all three. That was until the release of Blade in 1999.
Blade didn't necessarily receive universal acclaim when it came out, but it was a hit, and it was entertaining. Love it or hate it, the people behind it made genuine efforts to make the movie enjoyable for its audience. The following year, X-Men came out, an even bigger hit that received more acclaim and brought surprisingly philosophical depth not seen in previous superhero movies. Again, they put legitimate care into making such a popular franchise look good on the big screen!
At that time, we wondered if Blade and X-Men were just flashes in a pan or if perhaps superhero movies truly were getting better. And since we were about to get a live-action adaptation of Marvel's most popular individual superhero, that question was going to be put to the test. So, needless to say, a lot was riding on this movie.
TLDR: It was a smash hit across the board upon its release. It had the biggest opening box office numbers for a superhero movie ever (at the time). In addition, it was universally praised by critics and fans alike. All in all, it was the confirmation that superhero movies were indeed becoming entertaining blockbusters again. But, almost 20 years later, does Spider-Man hold up? Well, it depends on who you ask.
On the one hand, this movie was a classic tale of a young man who internalizes his uncle's saying about handling great power with the responsibility to help others and become a hero. However, in that time, he goes up against the villain who stands against everything his uncle taught him. The pacing, character arcs, and themes are all expertly handled to accurately depict one of the most well-known origin stories in comic book history on the big screen.
On the other, this movie has a fair amount of awkward dialogue, laughably bad special effects, cheesy acting, and a romance that, looking back at it now, makes about as much sense as the infamous one in the Stars Wars prequels. Given that modern superhero media these days have taken their material much more seriously, the campy tone of this movie could be a little off-putting to anyone who sees it for the first time nowadays.
So, almost 20 years later, does one of the pioneers in superhero media's revolution still hold up? The best way to evaluate is to see what works, what doesn't work, and a few other noteworthy observations.
Oh, and uh, *Spoilers*.
-Sam Raimi approached this movie (and the entire trilogy) like they were case studies on heroism. Because of such, each movie had a particular theme for its main character and the lesson he learned. Hence, these are excellent movies centered around Peter Parker. In the first one, the theme is about doing the right thing. In short, it's executed perfectly. It may be simple, but it's done in a way that even kids could understand what the movie was going for. The pacing and structure are so well-handled that everything, for the most part, feels earned, from Peter evolving into a hero to Norman Osborn descending into madness.
-In doing this case study, they wanted Peter Parker to be a good-hearted, socially awkward nerd who couldn't hold a conversation longer than five seconds. Someone who had the makings of being a hero internally even before the powers came along. In doing so, they nailed the casting of Tobey Maguire. Maguire's softspoken voice and naive persona made him exactly the type of Peter Parker this series was looking for. Some may have a different idea for what Peter Parker should all be about, and that's fair. For what this movie wanted, Maguire was the perfect choice.
-Because this movie is a cut and dry good vs. evil story, they obviously had to give Spider-Man an antithesis, so they gave him Green Goblin. Fun fact: Willem Dafoe badly wanted to be Norman Osborn when this movie was greenlit, and the passion in his performance (love it or hate it) definitely shows. He chews up every scene he is in. Dafoe expertly plays a man who, at the start, is a domineering businessman doing whatever it takes to keep his business afloat that slowly devolves into a dangerous monster who is consumed by his newfound power that comes at the cost of his sanity. Some have a problem with Dafoe's performance, attributing it to his overacting, which he is. However, in a time where we're faulting superhero movies for having forgettable villains, Dafoe's Green Goblin certainly isn't one of them.
-Something this movie doesn't get enough credit for is establishing Harry Osborn as an antihero. From the very get-go too. In his first scene with Peter, Harry has his back when his best friend is being bullied, then in the very next scene uses info the same best friend told him earlier to hit on the girl he knows his best friend is in love with. Bruh... But the film does an excellent job subtly developing his one true motivation as a character: earning his father's respect—everything he does ties back to his daddy issues, including going out with Mary Jane. By the end, he finally feels that he has what he wanted most, just as dear daddy dies. Yeesh. Even though Harry shamelessly violates the bro code, you can't help but feel sorry for him knowing his upbringing and what he loses.
-That final fight... Bloody hell. To this day, there may not be a final mono y mono fight in superhero movies that's come close to capturing the same atmosphere as this one. Even though the special effects in this movie are not great, Sam Raimi's experience directing horror movies really shines in the final fight. Spider-Man. Gets. Wrecked. You really feel like he's pushed to his limit by the Green Goblin. You even worry that he's going to lose. Like Goblin's got him right where he wants him. But, even if Spider-Man ultimately prevails in the end, he had to earn that victory. We haven't had such a fight as exhausting as that one in superhero media since.
-Something that's also gotten a little bland in superhero movies is the soundtracks that go with them. There aren't many iconic soundtracks in superhero movies anymore - one of the few being Guardians of the Galaxy, which makes the Raimi trilogy's soundtrack stand out even more. This soundtrack only accentuates the story of a young man turning into a superhero. The tunes just scream how noble Peter is for doing what he's doing. For how influential this movie (and trilogy) was, why does this uptick in superhero media contain hardly any memorable soundtracks like Spider-Man?!
-The main gripe with Sam Raimi's trilogy as a whole is that because Peter Parker is the main focus, Spider-Man doesn't have much of a personality in any of the three movies. He has a quip now and again in the first installment, but he's not the wise-cracking smart-aleck we're used to seeing him be in the comics or the TV shows he was previously in. The duality between Peter Parker and Spider-Man should make them distinctively different characters. It doesn't feel like we see a completely different character when Spider-Man shows up in this movie. It feels like the dorky Peter Parker we've gotten to know dressed up in a Spider-Man costume. While the execution for Peter Parker is done to perfection in this movie, the execution for Spider-Man is lacking.
-As far as female characters in superhero movies go, we've come a long way since Kirsten Dunst's portrayal as Mary Jane Watson. For the record, none of that is on Dunst. Since these are case studies on Peter Parker, the socially awkward nerd and hopeless romantic, Mary Jane does not do much in this movie besides being the object of his affection and saving on multiple occasions. It's forgivable in the first installment because we're only getting introduced to these characters, and there's only so much screen time for everyone. As a result, she gets the short end of the stick in terms of affecting the plot. You would think she'd get more in the sequels, but… yeah we'll get to that.
-Speaking of Mary Jane, about the romance in this movie. It's… rushed. Let's be honest. Romance in superhero movies has never really been done well. A fair amount of the time, the leads get together because the script says so. It's a big whatever in most cases. But since Mary Jane is one of the driving forces for Peter's motives as both a hero and a person, you'd think they would have built up their romance a little better. Looking back, not really. They share only a few scenes together with actual dialogue where they make googly eyes at each other. It's not enough to buy that MJ reciprocates the same feelings he has for her like she says she does. Now obviously, the point of her arc is that she is the ultimate sacrifice because the right thing in Peter's eyes is not pursuing her. Still, that love confession scene did not feel earned at all in retrospect.
-Oh boy, the special effects. Again, it is somewhat defensible. Back then, superhero movies were just starting to get credibility back as blockbusters. Not many filmmakers knew then how to make their fights look believable with CGI, and it shows here. It was their first try with Spider-Man, and they look noticeably bad in this movie. Note that it doesn't look bad now because this movie is almost 20 years old. It didn't look good for its time too. Remember, we had Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Mummy, and The Matrix movies coming out around the same time as this movie, i.e., movies that benefitted from their CGI. So seeing some of the Spider-Man fights look like they're ripping off 90's Power Rangers is pretty off-putting.
-The dialogue in this movie. Prepare to clench your teeth with this one. Just because you're putting a comic book character on the big screen does not mean you should do the same with comic book dialogue. This movie has got some excruciatingly cheesy lines, such as:
"Are you in, or are you out?- It's you who's out Gobby! Out of your mind!"
"I think I have a superhero stalker."
"Harry's not from a place I like to call earth."
(It sounds worse on screen than it does on a webpage)
Ugh. Saddeningly, that's just to name a few instances. Granted, five years earlier, we had Arnold Schwarzenegger infamously making millions of terrible ice puns ("Let's kick some ice!") in Batman and Robin, so this would technically be considered a step up in 2002. Just not much of one. Again, the cringy dialogue isn't something that stands out because of its age. It was cringy back in 2002. Luckily, they avoided it for the most part in the sequels.
-This movie gives us something that we don't get in superhero movies anymore - opening credits. These days, we usually get thrown into the first scene, and then a title, or that but in reverse order. Not with Spider-Man. First, they excite us that we're getting a Spider-Man movie before seeing any actors on screen. Maybe these particular credits haven't aged gracefully (they got loads better in the next one), but even if they have, it's just a shame that we don't get this style anymore.
-Are we absolutely sure Mary Jane was supposed to be someone we were rooting for? Obviously, she's the object of Peter's affections, so we have to root for her by proxy. However, they never establish why she's dating Harry. Like at all. Even worse, she breaks up with him just as his dad dies, then makes it out with his best friend at his dad's funeral. How much would we really care about her if Peter didn't?
-There are certain movies out there that just make you say, "Look, it was (specified year/era). It meant something back then. Even if it doesn't now." Spider-Man came out only a few months after 9/11 happened, and since it took place in New York, of course, we would see the "New Yorkers band together to help Spider-Man" scene. At the time, we needed that since we were still reeling from such a traumatic day. Two decades later, it only makes the movie look sillier, but knowing the background makes sense why it was in the movie.
Those who enjoy this movie to this day stress the movie's reputation as a classic. Those who don't stress that its silly tone and badly dated special effects hurt its legacy. Honestly, both viewpoints are fair. It depends on what you want when you're watching it.
All in all, this movie wasn't trying to blow anyone's mind with its story. Its goal was to bring one of the most popular superheroes to the big screen. Back then, trying to adapt Spider-Man into a live-action flick alone was a huge deal. The fact that they managed to make a coherent and entertaining movie out of it, given the circumstances, was pretty impressive given the time it came out.
Also, this movie opened up the doors for a lot of the plots and tropes we see in superhero media today. It provided the blueprint for how to make a relatable person morph into a superhero. Spider-Man has noticeable issues, both when it came out and 20 years later, but it's still an enjoyable popcorn flick nearly two decades after its release. And luckily enough, the flaws that plagued this movie were mostly eliminated in the next installment, which we'll get to next time!