Dissecting Sam Raimi’s Spider-Men: Part 1 – Spider-Man

I’ll be honest, I never connected with Raimi’s Spider-Man films. That’s not to say I wasn’t a fan of the comic book movie genre in 2002, sparse as it may have been up to this point, and I have been a proponent of it ever since. I loved the first two X-Men movies, Batman VHS’ were staples in my house in the 90s, Ninja Turtles!, The Rocketeer!, Dick Tracy!, hell, I even liked Stallone’s Judge Dredd. I was a mark for these things. So why didn’t the Web-Head suck me in?

I never read Spider-Man comics, so hold that against me if you wish, but I never read any comics, so, why didn’t these Spider-Man movies fire on the same level its contemporaries did?

I immediately felt on the outside after seeing the first Raimi Spider-Man on opening weekend. At a graduation party (high school), right after coming from the theater having seen the film, I was baffled to hear everyone else who had also caught it to have loved it. I must have carried a confused face that whole night as I tried to debate with friends that the movie was, in fact, bad.

But, my opinions on this introduction to the character didn’t stop me from going out and seeing the other two Raimi films when they were released. And, I got to say, I didn’t like those a lot either. In fact, the almost universal “Masterpiece” praise for Spider-Man 2 probably actively worked against my opinion on the film as the years ticked by. After all three of these films were out, I was the guy who said 3 was the best, and “emo Peter” was the best part.

I promise, I wasn’t trolling.

So, where does that leave me now? Well, I originally tried to write this article with my last re-watch of these films four years ago, and my continued apathy towards them must have knocked that idea out of me? That re-watch was sparked by Spidey’s impending appearance in the MCU (in what turned out to be the second of THREE better interpretations of the Web-Slinger that we’ve gotten in cinema since Raimi’s [yes I like the Andrew Garfield staring Amazing Spider-Man films more than Raimi’s 1-3] {FOUR better adaptations if you count Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4}), so maybe the joy of seeing Tom Holland as Spider-Man tampered the urge to be negative about the character; even if I am probably on the record as saying the Spider-Man diversion was the worst part of that movie (it felt out of place! [man, this, fucking, sentence!]).

With no new comic book movies in sight, and fresh off a play through of the aforementioned PS4 game, I got the itch to give these Raimi films, yet again, another shot. So, let’s see how they hold up, shall we?

For The Other Entries: Part 2: Spider-Man 2, Part 3: Spider-Man 3

Spider-Man (2002)

What Works?
The First Half Of The Movie, Or So: I will give Raimi credit, I think his direction hits the tone he is going for most of the runtime. The film is fast-paced, easy to enjoy and has a visual style that is consistent throughout. The origin portion of the film, both of Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, works quite well, and I really appreciated how Raimi jumps back and forth between the hero and the villain as they both come to fruition. The alternating beats, building towards their first interaction, are pretty masterfully done, culminating in the best set-piece of the film, all set to the tunes of Macy Gray. From there, the movie sort of puts things in fast-forward, the Goblin and Spidey ending up in scenes together so the plot can carry forward more so than any interesting story beats or logic, culminating in the Thanksgiving scene; which is fun, but where the film goes sour from there.

Also built into that first half is Spider-Man figuring out his powers, which is a lot of fun, both at school and when he is running across rooftops. I wish the actors were more human like in these scenes, and that the altruistic side of Spider-Man was driving him instead of rage (which the film goes back to a couple more times), but Raimi keeps things moving in these moments so you don’t worry about those concerns a lot.

Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn/Green Goblin: I would hedge a bet that when this first came out, I didn’t like this performance. Dafoe is SOOO over the top and ridiculous as the Goblin. It is A LOT. Now, it feels like the only lead performance that is tuned into the movie Raimi is trying to make. Dafoe is just straight going for it, having a blast, and is dialed into the film in a batshit way that makes me wish everyone was having this much fun. His mirror conversation with the Goblin is a standout sequence, as is the way he shoves James Franco’s Harry out of the way to glad hand Peter every time they are in a room together, but man, does he feel like the only one who gets it. Raimi might have let him get a bit too over the top by the end though, as I don’t buy his “it wasn’t me, it was the Goblin” gambit at the end one bit. I know the Goblin is supposed to be slowly seeping into Norman’s DNA more and more as we go along, but I feel like we missed a step if we, or Peter, was supposed to buy this tactic in the final fight.

The Daily Bugle: J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson (J.J.J.J.K.) is the obvious standout, he’s excellent and tuned in the way Dafoe is to Raimi’s vision, but the other members of the Daily’s staff all have at least a moment or two to shine. Elizabeth Banks, Bill Nun and Ted Raimi all seize their chances to stand out or bounce off Simmons, who is elevating everyone around him. Stand out stuff.

Joe Manganiello: Hey, it’s Joe Manganiello! He’s fun! He to gets that he is the big dumb high school jock in a Spider-Man movie and it’s a shame he didn’t get to come back and reprise the character in a more important role; as Flash became somebody, at some point in the Spider-Man comics (so I’m told).

Macho Man Randy Savage: Ohhhhh, YEAHHHHHH!

What Doesn’t Work?
The Rest Of The Cast: The three teenage leads of the movie are all, arguably, terrible (or terribly miss cast?) in this movie. I don’t know if we should be blaming the actors, the direction, or the script here, but no one seems to ever be able to figure out how to hit the mark. Nor come close to it. Toby Maguire, especially in comparison to everyone who has played Parker after him, is just a dud. I don’t know if that is Maguire’s fault, as the script doesn’t paint Peter Parker with an ounce of personality, but Maguire doesn’t bring a lot of charisma to the proceedings. And when he does get excited, his screaming and angry faces just come across as funny and ridiculous. Maguire’s Parker is so wooden, and that might be acceptable if his persona modulated as he became Spidey, but there’s just not a lot there. I don’t buy for a second that anyone wants to be this guy’s friend, let alone someone would fall in love with him after three conversations.

Which brings us to those aspects of Peter’s life in Franco and Kirsten Dunst. Franco is like a sad puppy, moping his way through every scene, occasionally throwing us a stoner smile, and while he is underwritten too, Franco also can’t elevate any of the material. He is most believable in his anger over Spider-Man returning his deceased father, but that means we spent the rest of the movie asking why he would be friends with Peter, or why anyone would want to be friends with him either.

Dunst is full of life in this movie, but it also feels like she was set adrift and her performance was cobbled from variations from each scene that have no through line across the whole picture. Mary Jane is the most underwritten character of the big four (damsel, sex object or unconvincingly in love, that’s it!), but Raimi just seems to be lost at the wheel at giving us a consistent character. Dunst gives us a lot of looks, but there are so many instances where she just turns on a dime from being sad to peppy, it’s hard to wrap your head around.

Aunt May and Uncle Ben are also, woefully, under developed (did you know Aunt May cooks, cleans and folds laundry? Because that’s all she’s good for here!), and neither Rosemary Harris nor Cliff Robertson lifts what they get. Harris plays it pretty straight (but almost sells us on Peter’s stalker tendencies being an expression of his true love for MJ), though she’s in the second worst scene of the film and is laughably bad as she finishes her prayer after the Goblin blows a hole in her house. Robertson is probably the worst actor in the film, and there is just something about his vibe that doesn’t gel with anything going on. He’s over the top, and gruff, and weird. I don’t like it. He seems like he’s kind of a jerk? You get why Peter is grumpy with him before he gets out of the car. I don’t know how we are supposed to like this guy, let alone care that he dies?, after three scenes with him and a performance that is actively pushing you away.

What Kills The Movie?
That Script Doesn’t Work: Right from the get go, the movie tips its hat to its fatal flaw. David Koepp’s script says this is a story about a boy and the girl next door. What follows is a story about a girl that lives next to a boy for 14 years of their lives and has next to zero interest in him, except if he wants to take her picture for the school paper. Proceeds to have three or four conversations with him, one of which only happens because the boy is stalking her. Dates his best friend, falls in love with his superhero alter ego after being saved by him, but then decides, OUT OF NOWHERE, that she was actually in love with this boy she barely acknowledges exists every time they interact. MJ, literally, has one foot out the door in every conversation she has with Peter when they aren’t forced into a situation where they are forced to share a meal; and she still finds a way to bail on that hang out too. Where did this love come from? Not the movie, that’s for sure! It’s inexplicable and is the icing on the terrible cake that is the last third of this movie (the action is two fight scenes in crammed settings that look like sets and a set piece revolving around a character slowly lowering a cable).

Then throw in the weird “Join me on the dark side” back and forth between Goblin and Spidey, (which I’m pretty sure might have just been ADR’ed into the movie?) that makes no sense and will obviously never happen, and is also a hat on a hat of the inner turmoil of Norman/Goblin. They don’t even have Spidey be tempted by this, or put in any work to try and sell us on this being an option, so, why?

Add these to all the aforementioned character shortcomings above, a complete lack of any inferiority in the female characters, and some of the most unrealistic and boring high school characters, and welp, we got a problem.

All of this is capped off with the OBSESSION around “With great power…great responsibility”, while giving Peter/Spidey no chance to show it. The film only pays, endless, lip service to the famous motto, while having Spider-Man act out of rage and revenge for much of the film. Yes, he ultimately turns down MJ to protect her, but we don’t believe he should have even been put in the position to do that in the first place so that falls flat. You could argue that the film is the first step towards Peter living up to that motto, but the final fight really lays it on that Uncle Ben taught him something that we haven’t seen implemented.

Also, Pete, give your Aunt some props for raising you, man! Burning that candle bright for the memory of your uncle, who, from as far as I can tell, just wants his wife to make him dinner while he complains about how the world has passed him by. Give the lady some love!

So Where Do I Stand?
Spider-Man isn’t a good movie. It’s got vision and almost gets off the ground, but it ultimately feels like it is paying lip service to what so many people love about this story and characters, without actually giving us an actual functioning story to support it. Also, where the quips!

Onto, Spider-Man 2!

For The Other Entries: Part 2: Spider-Man 2, Part 3: Spider-Man 3

Have Something to Say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s