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Some Superhero Legacy: How Spider-Man Changed the Movies…

This is one of my entries on the latest cross-blogging event, tracking down some of the most overrated movies of all time. It’s being run by Mike over at You Talking to Me. I can’t spoil the list by giving you any of the other titles, but I can tell you another entry will be appearing on this very blog before the week is out.

Let me pitch you a scene. It’s early 2002. There’s a whole rank of huge blockbusters looming. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; Star Wars: Episode II; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; Austin Powers in Goldmember; Men in Black II; Ice Age. And then there’s a strange one. Spider-Man, from that guy who made The Evil Dead. Really? Sure, Richard Donner’s Superman was great, but that was decades ago. Joel Schumacher had killed the Batman franchise only a few years back. That Bryan Singer fella had proved he wasn’t a one-hit wonder with X-Men, but it wasn’t exactly box office gold (only the eighth biggest film of 2000). Comic book movies were a strange proposition – transitioning the characters to the big screen just didn’t work naturally. Somethings aren’t meant to be adapted.

Has Spider-Man Blackened the Name of all Superhero Films?

Somehow, Spider-Man worked. Really worked. Sam Raimi somehow found himself the director of the most successful box office property of 2002. It trumped all the movies I listed above – even beating Lord of the Rings by $64m domestically. I think everyone was a bit surprised. I know I was, certainly.

Of course, some things come with box office success naturally. Sequels, for example. Spider-Man offered two huge sequels. One was a classic of the genre, the other an example of the bloated self-importance that came with success. Even as you read this a reboot is the works. It’s somewhat fitting that Spider-Man, heralding (as it did) the golden age of superhero films, should be the first of this particular age of movies to be rebooted – (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb is handling a reboot due in 2012, a decade after the original arrived.

But most successful movies inspire more than just sequels. They shape the movie industry itself. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all. Queue knock-offs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not decrying the whole era of superhero movies that Spider-Man gave us. I enjoyed a fair amount of these movies. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are great movies, regardless of genre. I’m intrigued by the notion of the emerging shared “Marvel universe” heralded by Iron Man.

However, the problem is that rather than inspiring a genre, it seems to have led to its dominance. Did we really need a Ghost Rider film? Or two Punisher films in so many years? Watchmen offers perhaps the best example of the danger of this “film every possible comic book” mentallity – Alan Moore’s masterpiece is simply nigh impossible to adapt to film. Why couldn’t we leave it as simply a literary classic?

Arguably the bigger problem is that rather than promoting adaptations from an emerging medium (as graphic story telling – if you’ll allow me some pretension – is still in the process of evolving and growing) is that it codified exact what to expect from these adaptations. Rather than proving that adaptations from the medium could encompass films like A History of Violence, Ghost World and The Road to Perdition, the word “comic book movie” became synonymous with “superhero movie”. One might suggest that it’s a problem with comic books in general, the dominance of superheroes within that medium, but Hollywood seems intent to convince audience members that the only films that come from the graphic medium are those featuring arcrobats in tights. Where are our bigh-profile adaptations of Y: The Last Man or Asterios Polyp, sold to audiences as “based on the acclaimed graphic novels”? You can be sure that if Hollywood does get around to adapting them, they’ll downplay the origins, and cinema-goers will go on believing that comic books are those ones featuring superheroes.

Is there any part of this film which doesn’t scream “We couldn’t afford the rights to Spider-Man”?

But all this comes from the emergence of the superhero movie in general, and could arguably be traced back to X-Men or even Superman. What precisely did Spider-Man do that was so bad? I think I can answer that question by identifying a single film: Daredevil. Daredevil is a fascinating comic book character – one who has arguably had the most consistent ten-year-run in modern comics under Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker – and one ho is relatively unique. He’s a character whose central premise is one of guilt and failure – he is anchored in angst, driven by the simple fact that he keeps getting knocked down by the world and has to keep rebuilding himself (he’s had more than a couple mental breakdowns, all entirely deserved – to be honest). However, the movie isn’t at all interested in this fascinating angle of the character. Instead, it looks like Fox pointed to Spider-Man, said “We want something like that!” and locked a writer in the room with no natural sunlight. The result is a mess of a movie, which is ruined by stuntwork, camera work and storytelling clearly inspired by Raimi’s take on Spider-Man.

That’s the real damage of a huge movie like Spider-Man. It provided an outline of what a superhero movie should look like. As a result, movies like The Fantastic Four and Daredevil and others couldn’t help but feel like cheap knock-offs of everyone’s favourite webslinger, rather than adaptations of properties beloved for their own reasons. In fairness, it looks like The Dark Knight may be doing the same thing, with studios now demanding “darker and edgier” takes on heroes like The Green Hornet or Captain Marvel, rather than seeking each character’s own voice.

Still, I’m not sure I’d take it back. We got two good movies out of Spider-Man and an above-average string of summer blockbusters. It’s just hard not to rewatch Sam Raimi’s original works without thinking back on it.

Thanks again to Mike for organising this event. I can’t spoil the list be teasing you as to who is up tomorrow, but I think we’ve got a very neat little group assembled.

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10 Responses

  1. Nice article Darren. The impact of Spiderman has definitely shaped the dozens of comic book adaptations since and it will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The vulnerable hero with inner struggles, trying to reconcile his superhero responsibilities with his normal life obligations. We have seen those themes in just about every one of them since Spidey came back in 2002.

  2. I just wish that every studio didn’t take the success of one film and apply the rule across the board to all comic book films. I.E. when a “dark” Superman film was being considered; that’s not who Superman is.

    • Yep, but they’ve arguably always done that with any successful breakout hit. Silence of the Lambs gave us a decade of sadistic serial killer vs. cops films; The Blair Witch Project gave us a “handheld” subgenre. It’s just the way that Hollywood works – if an idea hits paydirt, just keep recycling it, over and over and over.

  3. Nice article, even if Spiderman is not a film that would have occurred to me for this series…but I like the series. To be honest, I like the third entry too – even though I know I’m often alone on that. I’m still particularly annoyed that it’s getting rebooted.

    • Yep – a reboot within ten years, what the hell’s the point? I love Marc Webb, but this can’t help but feel like a disaster waiting to happen.

      • It kinda is. Fox sold the rights back to Marvel. No Amazing Spiderman 3. He will be a supporting character in Captain America: Civil War. Everyone else is excited over the coolness factor, but if there’s anything you’ve taught me, it’s that film is art. Not something you mindlessly earn money from. I hope it does worse reviews than Spider-Man 3 (a film that actually got me into comics).

  4. I think what studios didn’t understand was that Spider-Man was due to be a big hit no matter what. It had been hanging in legal limbo for years so there was a huge anticipation for it and it already had a huge built in fan base. The reason it seems to be so popular is because Peter Parker is just an average, likable kid trying to get by and that’s the element that has made these films (even the third one to a degree) so likable. I still think the part in 2 where he needs to deliver his pizzas shows exactly what was always so special about Spider-Man.

    So when it came time to make movies like Daredevil, it was assumed that it would succeed because it was based on a comic book but, like you said, there was very little attention given to what makes the Daredevil story unique and special.

    Andrew- I think there will be at least a few more suprises to come from this list yet.

    • Yep – I love that sequence in Spider-Man 2.

      Well done on putting the list together – congratulations on your hard work, it’s pretty damn nifty.

  5. I don’t say this unless I mean it, but your entry was brilliant — articulate and thoughtful and thorough. Bravo!

    The best line is: “That’s the real damage of a huge movie like Spider-Man. It provided an outline of what a superhero movie should look like.” I couldn’t agree more. The movie was a game-changer.

    However, I’m still partial to “Spider-Man 2” because it dared to show the repercussions of being a hero. These kinds of movies rarely show us that.

    • Thanks M, that really means a lot.

      I loved Spider-Man II as well. I need to rewatch it, actually – I thought it was way ahead of its time and it was great that they didn’t really escalate the threat. We got one villain, which meant that there was still room for some Peter Parker in there. It was the only non-Batman superhero movie to make my top 50 of the decade list.

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