“You don’t trust anyone, that’s your problem”
Some people would argue that the modern trend for superhero movies started with Blade (1998) and X-Men (2000). Those people have some good arguments, but I’d argue that the superhero craze properly began with Spider-Man (2002), which is celebrating its 15th birthday this year! Blade and X-Men were modest hits, but Spider-Man hit big. It was the first film to earn over $100 million in its first weekend, among other box office records. Yes, people may have been hyped for the more recognisable superhero (Spider-Man was/is more well known than either the X-Men or Blade), but there’s also another reason for its box office success: it’s a damn fine film, with unfortunate flaws that prevent it from reaching the heights that its sequel would grasp.
I’ll admit it: I was utterly hyped for the release of Spider-Man (my excitement for Spider-Man: Homecoming is tempered…). He was/is my favourite superhero. My web slinger comic book collection was large and I watched the 90s cartoon to death. I bunked off college to watch the film (which was released on a Thursday in the UK if I remember correctly). And I was in awe of what I saw. So in awe, that I went to see it a further three times in the cinema (and asked my dad to find a pirate copy for me). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film so many times in such a short duration of time. At that moment, I couldn’t find a flaw it in. Sure, the Green Goblin’s costume looked a little silly. Tobey Maguire’s version of Peter Parker wasn’t exactly a science buff. But that didn’t matter. I was on the edge of my seat every time I watched it.
“It’s as if you’ve reached the unreachable and you weren’t ready for it.”
In time for the sequel to come out, I rewatched it. Then, and only then, did the flaws become all the more glaring. So I’ll get those out of the way with first. The Green Goblin’s costume looks like something rejected from the Power Rangers TV show. It’s laughable to look at, decreasing the threat of the Green Goblin merely by being on screen. Willem Dafoe is great as Norman Osborne, but the Green Goblin’s costume hamstrings his performance. There’s nothing wrong with the Goblin’s dialogue or story. He’s complex, enthralling, and seduces the viewer with the Jekyll and Hyde performance. See the snippets where he talks to himself for examples of that performance. It’s just a shame about the costume!
Looking back at the story now, it feels a little tired and clichéd. Not only have we seen Spider-Man’s origin story twice on the big screen, but comic book origin stories have become so commonplace that an origin story has to be something very special to stand out. Spider-Man follows closely the origin story template set by 1978’s Superman. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with following a template, especially if it’s Superman. But whenever a new comic book film comes out about a new superhero, it’s typically an origin story. Even the critically acclaimed Wonder Woman followed the superhero origin story template. Watching Spider-Man in 2017, after numerous comic book origin films, feels overly familiar.
The familiarity is, paradoxically, also a positive aspect of Spider-Man. It pays homage to the origin story of Superman and follows similar beats, but plays every beat with such gusto that you can’t help but be swept along with the merriment. Take Peter’s incident with Flash Thompson in the school locker area. Peter’s just received his powers, and the direction slows down to a stop, emphasising Parker’s spider sense. He sees a fly buzz past up close, and dodges Thompson’s fist Matrix-style. When I first saw that scene, I wanted to jump and cheer (for one, it’s always good to see a bully get his comeuppance), and that feeling remains the same today. There’s a level of seriousness and playfulness that the MCU has refined that started with Spider-Man.
“With great power, comes great responsibility”
While the CGI looks dated now, it also looks like a comic book brought to life. The action scenes are still thrilling, with Spider-Man’s interactions with Green Goblin being highlights. Yes, there’s a major final battle between the two nemeses, but it’s neither overblown or destroys an entire city. It’s personal. Even Parker’s early attempts to play superhero are simply fun. It’s a film that knows when to play serious and when to play full stop. It’s also a film that embodies the work of its director, Sam Raimi. The MCU films usually hit the right note, but very few have a stamp of a director on them. They have the stamp of a committee on them. Say what you like about Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, but they are undoubtedly the work of Snyder. If you watched, say a film from Kenneth Brannagh and watched Thor shortly afterwards, without knowing he directed the latter, would you know its Kenneth’s film? I doubt it. But, just like Batman and Tim Burton, you know this is Raimi’s film.
Not only is it Raimi’s film, but the cast make it their film, even down to the bit parts. Bruce Campbell’s cameo is exemplary. Tobey Maguire isn’t the science buff that Parker should be, but he’s eminently geeky and nerdy enough to be Peter Parker. He may be a little too whiny, but what teenager isn’t whiny? When he isn’t the Green Goblin, Willem Dafoe is an intimidating and intriguing villain. Kirsten Dunst actually looks interested, which cannot be said for Spider-Man 3 (and to a lesser degree Spider-Man 2).
In an era where every other film (especially superhero films) want to set up a sequel/universe, but end up feeling like half a story is being told, Spider-Man manages to set up hanging threads to be explored in future films (Harry Osborn’s hatred of Spider-Man, Curt Connors, etc) whilst telling a complete story. Yes, it’s constrained by the limits of an origin story. Yes, the CGI and Green Goblin’s costume look dodgy. But it’s fun, energetic, and enthralling. It may not reach the heights that its sequel does. But it tells a bloody good story and contains more than a few punch-the-air-moments.
VERDICT: 8/10. I probably still see this movie with nostalgia-tinted goggles. It’s true it has its fair share of flaws. But it’s fun and light-heartedness, with enough darkness seeded throughout to give older viewers something to chew it. But, most of all, it’s sense of wonder is inspiring.
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