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Does Whatever a Spider Can: How Sam Raimi “Got” Spider-Man…

This is a post as part of “Raimi-fest”, the event being organised by the always wonderful Bryce over at Things That Don’t Suck.

Watching all three of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy back-to-back, it becomes increasingly obvious that the director harbours an honest and genuine affection for the source material. In fairness, it’s hard to believe that the cult director seemed like a safe option for a multi-million dollar movie franchise, but it worked out remarkably well – just look at the box office figures and the critical acclaim (of at least the first two films). So what is it about Raimi that really “clicks” with Spider-Man? How does the director get the character so well?

Goblin it all up…

There’s something inherently endearing about Peter Parker, something which a lot of people could relate to, and which wasn’t especially common before Stan Lee started churning out superheroes like nobody’s business in the sixties. Peter Parker is human. He fails, he suffers, the world is against him. He doesn’t have a butler, or come from old money. He isn’t a fighter pilot or an astronaut, he didn’t own his own building. He’s just a regular kid. That humanity was a rare commodity when Lee introduced the iconic character, and it continues to define Spider-Man to this day. Sure, his homework was as likely to be eaten by the Hulk as by the dog, but he faced the same problems that regular people did.

Raimi and his lead, Tobey Maguire, instantly got that. Look at the way the universe seems to be constructed as a gigantic device just to mess with him – from racing for the last entrée to failing as a pizza delivery boy. Maguire plays the character with a sort of youthful enthusiasm and optimism that got the core of the character across. Sure, the practicalities of live action cinematography meant Spider-Man didn’t have the chance to get too many witty one-liners across in the heat of battle, but that might not be a bad thing, give we got this gem in the first film:

Well, Spider-Man, what about my proposal? Are you in, or out?

You’re the one who’s out Gobby, out of your mind!

touché, as the French say

Mostly armless…

However, I don’t think Spider-Man’s humanity was distinctive to Raimi. That’s one aspect of the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man that I suspect Marc Webb will knock out of the park. In fact, Spider-Man seems relatively easy to handle because he’s so relatable – it’s hard not to get him, unlike (say) Superman. I think it under-sells Raimi’s contribution to suggest that he merely understands Peter Parker as a suffering everyman (but, at the same time, I don’t think it should be overlooked).

I think that the appeal of Sam Raimi’s version of the title character comes from a deeper-rooted understanding of a particular iteration of the Spider-Man mythos, and the earlier one at that. I think Raimi fundamentally understands the world that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created to feature the web-crawling wonder.  Of course, the world presented by Lee and Ditko in that original run is subtly different than that presented by later writers like, say, Stern and DeFalco, or even Brian Michael Bendis. I’m not arguing that any particular notion of Spider-Man’s world is better or worse than any other, I am just observing that there are clear differences.

Peter’s life is always falling to pieces…

And, to be honest, I think a reason that a lot of people responded to the films is because – despite its corniness and cheesiness – the Stan Lee run presents a view of Spider-Man and his foes which endured in the popular imagination. I’m not talking about people who read comic books, because the fictional universe has shifted and evolved and grown, but I’m talking about a generation of people who grew up with the early-morning reruns of that cheese-tacular seventies cartoon show, or various other multi-media adaptations which are anchored in those original issues. These are people who might have picked up an issue of Stan the Man’s original nearly-decade-long run, not because they were comic book fans, but because kids used to read comics recreationally (rather than fans collecting them compulsively).

Although there are nods to other important writers who worked with the character (for example, Harry Osborn succeeding his father as the Green Goblin like in Gerry Conway’s run – although that Green Goblin does end up suffering from amnesia, like the original does in Stan Lee’s run), there seems to be an especially strong connection between Raimi’s films and the Stan Lee comics. For example, there’s the decision to open with Peter Parker in high school (and have him then graduate) as he did in the original run of issues. There’s also, for example, the rather apparent debt that Spider-Man II owes to Stan Lee’s Amazing Spider-Man #50: Spider-Man No More, right down to the inclusion of that iconic cover in the film (and J. Jonah Jameson acquiring the costume).

Find it in a comic bin…

At the risk of seeming to focus on Lee as a writer at the expense of Ditko’s involvement in those early issues (although Lee did continue writing after Ditko left), Raimi seems to share Ditko’s philosophy that Peter Parker is something of a “bad luck” magnet. When Ditko departed the book after thirty-eight issues, Peter’s luck improved quite noticeably – the artist/plotter liked to believe the kid never caught a break. Based on all the random and small things that repeatedly happen to Peter over the course of the trilogy, it’s easy to suggest that Raimi shares this sort of perspective on the comic book hero.

Indeed, Raimi himself has acknowledged their influence, singling out the original creators of the character:

I think the biggest influence was the forty years of great Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and all those great Marvel artists and writers that have written the books. That really was 90% of what we tried to put on the screen.

Leapin’ Lizards…

What is it about the world of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (who would later be replaced by John Romita) that Sam Raimi just instinctively got? I mean, if you look at the villains that Raimi chose for the franchise (rather than those forced on him), they all hark back to those classic comic books – rather than later additions (like Venom, who was shoe-horned into the final part of the trilogy at relatively short notice, despite the fact Raimi wasn’t really familiar with him as a character).

I think a lot of it stems back to Raimi’s pulp sensibilities. It’s that sort of retro style which underscores his work. Even though movies like The Evil Dead were regarded as quintessentially eighties “video nasties”, you could detect a debt owed to classic horror and comedy – in fact, some of the sequences from the series seem lifted directly from The Three Stooges. They were obviously more gory, more violent and more ridiculous, but one could sense in those original movies an appreciation for trashy popular culture – especially B-movies. Similarly, it seemed oddly appropriate that Darkman opened with a nostalgic 75th anniversary variant of the Universal logo, because it referenced the title cards that would have appeared in front of many of Raimi’s influences.

Always a sting in the tale…

At the risk of annoying any Spider-Man fans (and, keep in mind, I’m one of them), those early comics are pure “trashy popular culture.” They’re classics, exceedingly well made, and they (mostly) stand the test of time, but they are pulp fiction. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you look at Lee’s work in comics – from the creation of characters like the Hulk and the Fantastic Four – you can draw a pretty clear connection between his own work and the atomic-age fear of science gone wild that you’d very frequently see in the movies of the fifties (films like Them!, for example).

Radiation was the go-to cause of any number of bizarre and strange mutations, with gamma rays converting mild-mannered Bruce Banner into the unstoppable Hulk and a radioactive spider transforming nerdy Peter Parker into the heroic Spider-Man. If you wanted a theme for Stan Lee’s eclectic selection of Spider-Man foes, “science gone wild” would be an appropriate one. Consider the sheer volume of Spider-Man foes who pop up in that iconic run who are the result of some crazy experiment or another gone freakishly wrong. Science doesn’t work in that way, except in this sort of story. In Stan Lee’s imagination, radiation doesn’t cause cancer or birth defects – it gives you superpowers!

Winging it…

I think it was an understanding of this particular aspect of those earlier adventures which helped Raimi bring the hero so successfully to the big screen. You can tell a lot about a superhero by looking at the types of foes they typically face. Heroes like the X-Men fight other mutants, Captain America fights fascists, Iron Man fights guys in metal suits, but Spider-Man fights monsters. Not classic or gothic or supernatural monsters (though there are elements of that), but crazy “atomic age science run havoc!” monsters. If you look at the way Raimi handles his villains, you see that he definitely gets this aspect of Lee’s version of Spider-Man.

Whether it’s the theatrical “green mist” that creates the Green Goblin (when you imagine a respirator would be a more effective, if less theatrical, manner of inhaling it), that fantastic monster-movie-inspired scene with the tentacles in the Operating Room in the second, or visual comparisons between the Sandman and King Kong in the third – Raimi understands that what defines Spider-Man’s iconic selection of villains is the fact that they are so deeply rooted in trashy horror movies. Hell, even the best sequences with the Venom symbiote in the third film see the creature crawling along the floor (and Peter Parker’s bed) like something out of a trashy pulp horror.

It’s a knockout…

There’s clearly something of the Universal Horror movie monsters in his villains – at least with Doctor Octopus and the Sandman. Both characters are presented as incredibly violent and powerful… yet also vulnerable. The world can’t, for example, comprehend Otto’s misguided attempts to create “the power of the sun in the palm of my hand”, while nobody seems to really give a damn about Flint Marko’s dying child. Their outsider status and physical deformity almost calls to mind the work that Tim Burton did with the Penguin in Batman Returns – they are all freaks, to one extent or another.

Clive Barker has remarked that it’s this unique audience sympathy with freaks and monsters which defined many of what might be termed the “classic” monster movies:

In the Thirties you felt sympathy for King Kong and the Frankenstein monster, but there haven’t been many movies like King Kong and Freaks and Bride Of Frankenstein lately.

I think it’s easy to spot the influence the traditional old-fashioned monster movie has on Raimi’s version of the Spider-Man mythos.

Mr. Sandman… bring me a dream…

It’s telling, for example, that – despite the damage they cause – we are asked to feel some measure of sympathy for both Flint Marko and Otto Octavius at the end of the two final films. Otto dies saving the city, having come to his sense, and Flint makes his peace with Spider-Man before blowing away in the wind. There’s nothing inherently evil about either of these two characters – Otto wants to make the world a better place, and Flint was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even Norman Osborn was just trying to stop his company from going under when he experimented upon himself, creating the Green Goblin.

These aren’t supervillains. They didn’t make a conscious choice to be evil – they were driven to their actions. Norman and Otto were rendered insane by rogue science experiments, while Marko is driven by a desire to save his daughter. Compare these characteristics to the typical moustache-twirling evil-monologue-ing foes that superhero movies typically pit their heroes against, and you get a sense that Raimi wasn’t putting his central character against evil people – he was setting him against “monsters”, in the classical B-movie sense of the word.

The Doctor is in…

Of course, that’s not to say that this is the only way to look at Spider-Man’s iconic rogues gallery. There are as many different perspectives on the group as there on the web-swinging superhero himself. Consider, for example, J. Michael Straczynski’s attempts to thematically link all of the villains associated with the hero through a system of animal “totems” or Mark Millar’s suggestion that supervillains are merely a smokescreen to prevent heroes from tackling true social evils.

Aside from Raimi and Lee’s science-gone-wild-in-the-Universal-horror-style, I think that my favourite take on these characters may come from Brian Michael Bendis in Ultimate Spider-Man. During the Ultimate Clone Saga, the writer has Nick Fury observe that Peter’s origins and all that he has suffered through make him more likely to be (based on experience) a villain than a hero. According to Bendis’ perspective, Spider-Man’s villains are those who have gone through changes similar to Peter, but weren’t strong enough to remain good people coming out of the other side. It’s an interesting approach, and one markedly different to that proposed by Lee and seconded by Raimi.

Green with envy?

Even beyond the villains, Raimi heavily saturated his colours to create a relatively subtle “feel” of an old-school comic book. Have you watched those movies? They’re really bright. I mean really bright. It’s not really so noticeable that you can’t miss it – it’s not as heavily stylised as, say, Sin City – but there’s definitely a decision to favour bright primary colours. One imagines that this makes some of the CGI particularly conspicuous, but I appreciate Raimi’s commitment to filming during daylight. Raimi understands that it’s these bright colours (and the daytime activity) which make Spider-Man distinctive when compared to, say, Batman. And the colours were definitely at their most saturated during Stan Lee’s tenure on the book.

Even the dialogue harks back to Lee’s scripts for the books. Granted, there are very few direct “Lee-isms” (the writer has his own distinct voice, as you may gather from the screenshots collected here), but Raimi’s style seems conscious of the old-fashioned charm. For example, the movies open with dialogue directly addressing the audience (granted, from Peter himself rather than an almighty narrator). Even Bryan Singer’s X-Men, which features introductory dialogue from the character of Charles Xavier, opens with a more formal and rigid quotation – like it could be taken from a book (possibly one Charlie is embarking on a world tour to promote). Peter pretty much opens the third movie by greeting us as old friends. “It’s me! Peter Parker! Your friendly neighborhood… you know.”

Something Sinister this way comes…

Raimi can’t exactly work thought balloons into a motion picture, so he does the next best thing. Characters frequently talk to themselves in empty rooms, stating their own opinions and perspectives. Sometimes this is facilitated by hallucinations (Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn in the second and third film), but sometimes it just involves Peter staring out a window asking himself, “What am I supposed to do?” If this didn’t fit the tone of the movie Raimi was trying to make, it would seem awkward or stilted. Instead, it just seems natural.

I think, ironically, it was this sort of aesthetic which led to friction with the studio. After all, Venom was forced upon Raimi late into production of the third movie, when executives claimed that Raimi wasn’t really making the movies for “true fans”:

But I had worked on the story with my brother Ivan, and primarily it was a story that featured the Sandman. It was really about Peter, Mary Jane, Harry, and that new character. But when we were done, Avi Arad, my partner and the former president of Marvel at the time, said to me, Sam, you’re so, you’re not paying attention to the fans enough. You need to think about them. You’ve made two movies now with your favorite villains, and now you’re about to make another one with your favorite villains. The fans love Venom, he is the fan favorite. All Spiderman readers love Venom, and even though you came from 70s Spiderman, this is what the kids are thinking about. Please incorporate Venom, listen to the fans now. And so that’s really where I, I realized okay, maybe I don’t have the whole Spiderman universe in my head, I need to learn a little bit more about Spiderman and maybe incorporate this villain to make some of the real diehard fans of Spiderman finally happy.

Shocking…

Here’s the thing: I don’t want a story that’s crafted for “true fans”, at least not in a franchise like this. My little sister, who has never read a Spider-Man comic, has as much ownership over the character as anyone else. I think that Raimi’s iteration of the Spider-Man mythos was far more in line with the mainstream public than the studio would think – it appeals to those who have never encountered a particular villain, but are just familiar with the “spirit” of those stories as filtered through various media. However, that’s an argument for another time.

Anyway, it seems like Marvel will be moving away from this sort of stylised approach to the material for the reboot:

The trade further reported that the film will start a cast of unknowns and take inspiration on the Ultimate Spider-Man comic book series — itself a recent reboot, by writer Brian Michael Bendis — rather than the character’s original, 1960s continuity.

It’s a jungle out there…

I like Ultimate Spider-Man. And, in a way, I’m kinda happy that nobody is trying to continue what Raimi was doing – instead creating a whole new aesthetic. In a way, that leaves the director’s vision to stand on its own. After all, countless writers and artists have tried to distinguish themselves from those classic Lee/Ditko issues over the decades – and, on the whole, I think the comics are the better for it. Nobody likes stagnation, after all. So, I’m actually kinda happy about that – even if The Lizard was made for Raimi’s style of film-making.

What do you think? I’m probably missing quite a bit of what made Raimi’s Peter Parker so appealing, but feel free to sound-off below.

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2 Responses

  1. This was your best piece for Raimifest yet. Thank you so much for contributing it.

  2. They really dropped the ball with Doc Ock in the second film though, in a similar way they dropped the ball with Penguin. They set him up to be a sympathetic monster…then just make him brainwashed by his damn tentacles. He would have been far more engaging if he were consciously doing bad things himself, rather than being driven by his tentacles to do bad things. (Penguin meanwhile had all the setup to be a sympathetic freak eventually driven to revert to a life of crime in the face of societal rejection and humiliation, but they just made him a baby-killing monster from the get-go instead. yawn.)

    Sucks, too, cos Molina turns out a pretty great performance as Doc Ock. The movie deserved a better script.

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