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Non-Review Review: Spider-Man

It’s hard to believe in retrospect, but the movie that kick started the whole superhero movie subgenre is nothing but a gigantic, big budget B-movie. And, trust me, that’s a compliment.

I guess this is a web review (geddit?)...

I wrote a piece earlier today on how Sam Raimi’s take on everyone’s favourite web-slinger impacted the way we produce blockbusters in the twenty-first century. It didn’t seem particularly fair to do that without at least going back and looking at the film which kicked everything into overdrive. To give it a fair hearing, of sorts.

Raimi’s Spider-Man still holds up mostly, particularly as a template of a superhero origin story. It lays the template that pretty much every subsequent big screen hero has followed. Sure, movies like Iron Man or Batman Begins may have changed the ratio of certain ingredients (amping up the fun, toning down the camp, so on), but the basic blueprint is contained here.

The origin element of the film is somewhat weighed down by Spidey’s status as an iconic character – we all know the story, regardless of whether we’ve ever picked up a comic book. Raimi manages it quite well, and it never seems like something awkward or repetitive. It just doesn’t seem anything particularly special. If Peter Parker’s transformation into Spider-Man didn’t manage to seem exceptional even the first time around, I’m even more worried about the proposed reboot. That said, the script finds enough charm and humour in the particulars of the origin to engage with the audience – it’s fun to watch Peter practice his webbing and leaping, for example (and the wrestling scene is pretty awesome – and not just because of Bruce Campbell).

What really works to the movie’s favour is Raimi’s wonderful ability to frame modern monster movies. Much like Tim Burton’s Batman worked best when it embraced the idea of the inhabitants of Gotham as the kinds of freaks the director is comfortable with, Raimi’s Spider-Man works because it recognises the inherent (yet oddly humourous) ‘strange-ness’ of Spider-Man and his core rogues. Particularly aptly handled is Norman Osbourne’s split and sinister multiple personality, but the film handles notions like “crawling” up the side of a building with ease and feels at home amid brightly coloured gothic set pieces. This is the kinda thing which just shouldn’t feel right, and Raimi – despite seeming an odd choice at the outset – proves the perfect choice to offer this sort of off-kilter fun. The movie breezes by, by virtue of the fact that it never takes itself too seriously.

I was never really sold on Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. He’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, and does have the necessary nerdy charm. But he never leaps off the screen in the style of other leading actors in comic book adaptations – and he’s not great with the one-liners the character is famous for (“Are you in or out?” the Goblin demands at one point, only for Spidey to reply in the most stilted manner that “It’s you that’s out, Gobby – out of your mind!”). The rest of the cast do better, running the gauntlet from perfectly adequate to downright exceptional. Of particular note is J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, the newspaper editor with a grudge against the web-slinger. Simmons delivers rapid-fire dialogue that could easily sound corny but makes it downright incredible.

And then there’s Willem Dafoe, who is perhaps the movie’s biggest selling point. His portrayal of Norman Osborn (and the “Green Goblin” – not, disappointingly enough, the “Green Meanie”) isn’t brilliant or Oscar-winning, but it’s damn entertaining to watch. There’s just such energy in the performance – take for example the scene where Norman and the Green Goblin have a discussion via a mirror, complete with shifting tone and expression from Dafoe. He looks quite frankly ridiculous in that green body stocking and mask, but Dafoe isn’t going to let that stop him from stealing the show as he delivers lines like “We’ll meet again, Spider-Man!” or sprays knockout gas from convenient points in his suit or leans against a railing to lay some life advice on a captive Spider-Man or offers some fatherly advice on romance (“Do what you need to and broom her, fast!”). Dafoe takes big lumps out of the scenery, borrowing heavily from the Jack Nicholson school of supervillainry, but the movie’s the richer for it. He reportedly had such a good time he asked to be written into the sequel. Such joy is pretty contagious.

The movie is a long way from perfect. The ending (without spoiling too much) – seemingly concocted in that understandable post-9/11 sense of solidarity in the face of evil – is a little on the nose, with New York uniting in a “we’re all in it together” sort of way (“You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!”). It’s exactly as forced as it sounds. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that wasn’t the only disconcerting display of solidarity Spider-Man indulged in the period following the atrocity – comic book nerds will remember the post-9/11 comic book special which featured a variety of supervillains appearing in the wreckage of the World Trade Centre, some of them even crying (yes, even the genocidal ones). The movie has some difficulties figuring out how to balance camp with its action movie roots, but mostly succeeds.

Spider-Man is a good movie. Perhaps even a very good movie. The sequel is a high point in the genre, and manages to do just about everything better than the original, but it should be borne in mind that this was the movie which pretty much mapped out the modern superhero film. Perhaps its most enduring legacy is that the blueprint it put in place is still in use even today.

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6 Responses

  1. Good review, I like the shout out to Burton’s work on Batman which will always stand out as my favourite incarnaton of that superhero, but I’m not a comic person so my opinion probably doesn’t count.

    A reason this film (and the others) work for me is that if you take away Peter’s idiosyncrasy of being Spiderman it’s still a good film, and that’s as it should be. Spiderman is steeped in his normalcy and that’s what makes this film *click* with me, it’s also why I completely buy Maguire here. He’s an extremely subtle actor, and I’ve always been fond of his work but he’s extra especial (while all the while being completely NOT special in characterising Peter).

    And yeah, Daniel Dafoe is excellent, as always.

    • I think you made me appreciate Maguire a bit more, there. And Burton’s Batman is underrated, particularly as a wonderful synthesis of the character with Burton’s particular style, which works really well.

  2. disagree with you on Dafoe – too hammy. like he thought he was in a Joel Schumacher Batman film.
    the first hour of this film is great and then it tails off badly. the finale wasnt very good as you say, but then its easy to understand if they did have to change it in light of september 11.
    just watched the teaser trailer with world trade center that got pulled, am sure youve seen in daz – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjtXUULtH4E

    • Yep, I’ve seen it – I also remember there being a debate as to whether to digitally erase the Twin Towers from the film’s backgrounds. Which is a shame, because that teaser was pretty damn effective (and clever), in my opinion.

  3. Have you ever seen Spectacular Spider-Man? I would hope you have, as everyone agrees it’s the best adaptation of the comics and only rivaled by Batman: The Animated Series in terms of best superhero cartoon.

    • I haven’t actually. I watched the nineties Spider-Man comic, and remember liking that a bit less than the equivalent X-Men comic, which in turn I liked a lot less than BTAS.

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