(originally published June 17 2014)
SPOILER WARNING: I spoil pretty much the entire damn movie. Proceed with caution.
I did not really care for the latest Spider-Man movie.
I won’t go into too much detail as to why as I might review that movie itself someday. What I will say, however, is that it made the fact that Sony want so desperately to force a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)-style franchise incredibly apparent to me and I do not think that is the right way you approach a movie. Say what you will about Marvel’s approach (they didn’t exactly go towards this project with “I don’t care if these movies never make money!” on their minds), but story and respect for these characters came first! So far, but again, another discussion.
With all that said, yeah, the rebooted Spider-Man series kind of took a big hit for me. With this newfound disappointment I turned to something I didn’t exactly take seriously or treat with much respect as time went on; the Raimi trilogy.
Why was that? Well, I guess Spider-Man 3 didn’t liven my spirits to the series. Also, time is a fickle thing. I have not watched these movies in years, and so they fade in my memory as ‘goofy’ and ‘silly’ because, hell, that’s what other people called them! Comic books were getting serious and adult and this kitschy, old-fashioned…not even decade decade finished movie series was just not cutting it anymore!
The new movies were dark! Peter made jokes! He had a skateboard, and everything was real! I was totally taking a story about a teenager who got powers from a spider bite going around in a colourful costume and beating up criminals. Absolutely. Positively. Seriously.
But that was the old me. The me from 2 years ago. He’s an idiot who doesn’t know any better. He’s also an idiot who didn’t go through the onslaught of comic book movies that try way too hard to be taken seriously instead of being fun. Like the Raimi movies were! Full circle, people.
So, for the first time in forever, I decided to sit down and watch the Raimi trilogy. Let’s get on with it with the spider-powered teen’s origin story! What did I think of this movie, with the nostalgia goggles off? It’s good. In parts.
If there’s anything Spider-Man has going for it, it’s fun. The movie has such a breezy, light-hearted feel to it that is taken straight from the comic books. You feel Peter’s joy when he swings across the city, when he puts on the costume, when he builds himself up as a hero, etc.
Yet, it feels like it never goes beyond this. Peter Parker simply seems to be in this movie to become Spider-Man, set up his character and not really much else in terms of story concept. Which is fine; it’s an origin movie, that tends to happen. The problem is that it never really rises above that. It really does feel like it’s only there to set up Peter for greater stories ahead, unlike other origin movies like Iron Man or Batman Begins.
A lot of that has to do with the writing. David Koepp can make a fun, entertaining ride of a movie, but dialogue is not exactly his strong suit. Because of this, a lot of the dialogue feels stilted and forced; it just seems to be there to drive home the plot instead of build these characters and this world. The one exception to this is J. Jonah Jameson, played absolutely perfectly by J.K. Simmons. There’s a reason they haven’t tried to recast this guy yet in the new series, and he’s easily the highlight of the movie.
As for the rest of the cast? James Franco is great in his role as Harry Osborn, even if the character is written as a one-note rich asshole with daddy issues. His scenes with his father are some of the best written stuff in the movie, however. Rosemary Harris is great as Aunt May; it’s like the character from the books was brought to life in front of our eyes. Cliff Robertson is really good as Uncle Ben, though he doesn’t get much of a character outside of “dies for tragic motivation”.And the rest of the cast? They all have their strengths and weaknesses.
Toby Maguire gets across the shy, introverted nerdy part perfectly, it’s just second nature to the guy. The scenes where he’s discovering his powers are really well done, as well. They’re well-paced and they get across a sense of fun and adventure. Sadly, we never get the sense that he grows with the character, even though it’s written as such. He’s very stagnant and doesn’t really get across that he’s developing with his experiences, which is an issue that purveys throughout the movies.
Kristen Dunst? Horrible! Even if they didn’t radically alter Mary Jane from the comics into a really dull ‘girl next door’ archetype, there’s no real passion or intrigue that comes from this performance. She really just glides her way through it. Now, I don’t hold Dunst at fault for this; she’s a really competent actress when given the right material (c.f. Melancholia). The fault really is in how she is written. She’s just a love interest and her and Peter have no real chemistry. What’s even worse is that so much of the movie holds on this relationship (“this, like any other story worth telling, is all about a girl.”), so the fact that these two are so boring together and Mary Jane is such a non-character really hurts the film.
And now we get to the villain. Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn, a.k.a. the Green Goblin. Now, the Green Goblin is my favourite Spider-Man villain. Did they get him down right? God, no! Is he seriously, utterly entertaining? Any time he puts on his suit, he’s so egregiously over-the-top that I can’t help but find it funny as hell! Willem Dafoe is so naturally intimidating that the scenes where he’s not wearing the suit do really work in terms of making him a credible, dangerously unhinged threat (the Thanksgiving scene, one of the best in the movie, for example). Any time he has the suit on, however, it’s comedy hour. He’s got amazingly stupid lines, he has the ‘Goblin Ranger’ outfit on (seriously, why would the military want to fit their soldiers in that?!), and he hams it up so much that you can’t help but enjoy it. It doesn’t help that he wants Spider-Man to join him, which is up there with ‘poisoning the town’s water supply’ in terms of cliché villain plots.
One more point I wish to make in terms of the writing: the pacing of this movie can be a little strange. We get a lot, and I mean a lot, of exposition and set-up in the first ten minutes with no breathing space. We slow down a bit after some really clever parallels of Peter and Norman getting their powers (their running storylines are really subtly linked and it’s a nice touch), showing how Peter adapts to his powers and trying them out for the first time. After some decent stuff with Uncle Ben’s death, we rush the ultimate reveal of Spider-Man and setting up the Bugle, Osborn losing his job and all that scene and we slow down again and the pace stays pretty steady until the ending. It’s not a terrible point, and the movie is never boring, it’s just really strange how cobbled up the pace is.
So, I’ve harped on some negatives, so here are some positives! Some of the story beats are really well handled. Despite Uncle Ben clearly not having much in terms of a character outside of dying, the scenes where he does go are really effective. The scene in the car between Peter and him are great, both in terms of writing and the performances from the actors. Ditto the interaction between Harry and Norman. You really get a sense of their history with one another.
The direction is great, and really shows off the talents of Evil Dead director Sam Raimi. Everything feels loose and gives the whole movie a sense of energy. It also looks very comic book-esque, with a lot of colour and bright, recognisable imagery. It’s very clear this movie owes a lot to 1960’s comic books.
While most of the action scenes are pretty forgettable (they’re either effects laden or just not that long), the ones that work the best are the ones that incorporate more realistic fighting. The cage match and especially the final punch up between Spidey and the Green Goblin are masterfully done. The latter in particular is intense, brutal and incorporates a lot of Raimi’s sense of the macabre with the way it ends. The action would get better as the movies progressed, but for this movie it held its own pretty nicely.
The music is amazing (…no pun intended). Danny Elfman just created the definitive Spider-Man score in my mind. It’s what I think about when I think of Spider-Man (that or the 60’s jingle, but the former captures the character better). It’s as iconic to me as John Williams’ Superman score, John Williams’ Star Wars score, John Williams’ Jaws theme…basically anything John Williams writes, I guess. It’s a perfect, whimsical and captivating score and Hans Zimmer’s new one just does not compare.
Before I wrap this up, I want to speak briefly about the effects. They’re awful. Like, really, really dated. They thankfully got better as the series progressed, but some of them are so fake and so obvious that they ruin some otherwise impressive moments. The really cool moment where Peter discovers his ‘Spider sense’ for the first time is utterly ruined by how dated the effects look. That is not how a fly is supposed to look!
So, with all that, does the good outweigh the bad? Well, I think so! Even with a weak script, some poor effects and some weird pacing issues, it’s held up with a fun energy, a pretty decent cast overall and some great Spidey moments. Superhero movies owe a lot to this flick, allowing other studios to take risks with these properties and showing that these movies can be light and fun and turn a profit, unlike the more serious tone that Blade and X-Men took. It’s an extremely flawed movie, but with a visionary genius like Raimi behind the helm and managing to make these issues minimal at best, it’s a hell of a lot of fun and is certainly worth the watch. A good start for a great hero and his long, big-screen career
-Norman: “A bit of a slob, isn’t he?.”
May: “All brilliant men are.”
Must remember to use that the next time people complain about what a mess my room is…
-Why are Harry and Peter friends? It’s implied that it’s due to the fact that they’re both social outcasts (Peter being a nerd and Harry being a rich kid in a public school), but Harry never comes across as someone who can look beyond the surface in a person. Also, he’s kind of a dick to Peter, especially the way the movie implies that he went after Mary Jane because he felt jealous over Norman’s attachment to Peter. It’s not a huge deal (and it could be explained in the later movie that I missed), but it’s weird to me. At least it makes more sense than their friendship in Amazing Spider-Man 2…
-Peter’s nerdisms, from his image to how people treat him, are so hilariously overdone that I’m amazed he didn’t wear pocket protectors and had asthma.
-Probably something I should have highlighted in the review, but it’s long enough as is: Peter and Norman’s relationship is really well done and adds a lot of drama and pathos to the movie.
-Man, how far did Peter run after that bus at the beginning of the movie? I know New York City is infamous for its awful traffic, but Jesus! I think Peter had latent mutant powers of superspeed before the spider bite!
-Bruce Campbell cameo #1: the ring announcer. I freaking love that he’s the one that gave Spider-Man his name.
-The montage revealing Spider-Man, while rushed, was really well done. Raimi has a knack for taking overdone tropes and breathing new life into them.
-Let me lay out what apparently happened offscreen after Norman took the formula to when Harry found him in his office:
–in his delirious, insane haze, he found the lucidity to steal the glider and suit.
–he also managed to evade detection
–go from that lab with all his stuff to his house.
–hide said stuff somewhere.
–go up to his study after changing into his business suit.
–fall unconscious in his study where Harry found him.
–yet he never attempted to hide the body of his associate.
…makes sense to me!
-I’m keeping a “quipping count” for Peter, as I want to know for sure how many times he wise cracks in the suit. So far, I’ve counted three:
–“Nice suit, did your husband make it?” (to Bone Saw in the ring)
–“Well, beats taking the subway! Don’t mind us, she just needed to use the elevator” (to Mary Jane/strangers on roof after he rescued her the first time)
–“Hey, kiddo! Let mom and dad talk for a minute, will ya?” (to Jameson after Goblin crashes into his office)
If I missed any, let me know!
-I wonder if they ever got around to doing “The Night Gwen Stacy died” in the Raimi movies if they’d place it on the bridge. It looks like they used that option up on this movie’s climax!
-also, Peter, Mary Jane, I know Harry’s not the nicest guy, but do you two really have to make out at his dad’s funeral?! I mean, I get the sense that him and MJ were done by then, but it’s still a dick move to kiss your best friend’s ex when he’s just put his father into the ground, s’all I’m saying.
-I thought while watching it that they handled ‘Peter discovering his powers’ a lot better than in Amazing Spider-Man, in terms of how over the top it was and how obvious it is that this guy has, well, powers. Then it got to the lunchroom scene and the fight with Flash where I realised they’re just as bad as each other! I guess it’s easier to swallow in Raimi’s film because it doesn’t take itself as seriously.
Next time: the webhead’s first sequel and what many consider to be one of the best comic book movies ever made.