Friday, June 5, 2015

Review: "Spider-Man"

Spider-Man was blending the sillier aspects of the Silver Age with a 21st century sense of verisimilitude before Iron Man turned that into the norm. So a lot of the more groundbreaking parts of this movie won’t really be appreciated by modern viewers. And without that, does this movie still stand on its own merits?

Let’s see….

Plot
Pure. Unadulterated. Spider-Man.

He gets his powers, learns a lesson, fights crime, and defeats the Green Goblin. If you were going to distill the iconic plot beats of the character’s history into the form of a two-hour movie, I dare you to do better.

Even when you discount the must-haves like the death of Uncle Ben, the incidental details are spot-on.

Aunt May gets sick all the time in the comics? She’s hospitalized in the film.

Green Goblin throws Gwen Stacy off a bridge? But Mary Jane is the classic love interest? MJ gets thrown over the side.

The Daily Bugle, Harry Osborn, wrestling, the Goblin’s death; it’s all there, woven together into a tapestry of pure Spider-Man. Is some stuff left out? You bet. But there were over about 40 years of history to sift through. And they had to save some stuff for the sequels.

There are a few holes in the plot here and there, most notably in the Green Goblin’s weak motivation for continuing his evil deeds, but the story is waterproof enough to work.

I actually find the pacing of the story to be very interesting. Usually, in superhero films, our hero has some kind of introductory scene to fully establish what kind of person he is before we even think about starting the origin events in motion.

Tony Stark shows off what an ass he is, then he goes to the desert.

Bruce Banner does some science, then science is done to him.

Captain America spends some time as a skinny dork, then gets pumped full of muscles.

In each of those examples, there’s time passing between the moment of “Okay, I understand the protagonist” and the hero’s origin. Here, as soon as we see an average day in the life of Peter Parker, a spider bites him.

A lot of people dislike origin stories, and I think part of that is because we’re spending so much time getting to know the “Before” picture. We want to see the “After” picture. But Peter gets bitten by that spider less than five minutes after seeing him for the first time, which I think contributes to the film’s brisk pace. Not that the pace of the movie’s a bad thing. It’s always moving, always going forward. Sometimes it takes a breather, but that lets us catch our breath before we launch into the next supervillain attack. It doesn’t have to be constant action all the time. Looking at you, DC.

Themes
With great power comes great responsibility. And a lot of the film’s themes come from that idea.

Spider-Man and Green Goblin both have power. But what they choose to do with that power is what defines them and sets them in opposition to each other. In a way, Green Goblin’s lack of a larger goal mirror’s Peter’s own lack of one. Spider-Man does good because it’s the responsible thing to do. Green Goblin does evil because he can.

Furthering the parallel between them is the fact that Peter lost his amazing father figure while Norman is a pretty terrible one. Ben loved Peter not because he was smart, but simply because Peter was his nephew. Norman neglects his own son to prop up Peter, who succeeds where the fruit of his own loins fails.

Characters
Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire)

Love ‘im or hate ‘im. Back in the day, he was hailed as the perfect choice for the role of Peter Parker. Nowadays, his performance is usually heavily criticized. Personally, I split the difference.

I think Tobey Maguire does an excellent job capturing the social awkwardness of the character overall. But I don’t think he does a very good Spider-Man. Even when the character supposedly gained his new confidence, he still seems as shy as ever, just less of a goober. But some of that is the dialogue; it can be a little clunky at times.

All things considered, I think Tobey Maguire did a fine job, though his take on the character was a little to serial killer-y for my tastes. And that’s only kind of a joke on my part. Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker exhibits several traits that are common to serial killers.

Voyeurism.
Intelligence.
Keeps to himself.
Less-than-stellar home life.
 And the inability to keep a job, as the incident with Dr. Connors shows.

But I’m not going to read anything into that, aside from the jokes I already made. Tobey plays the social outcast well, but it’s the other parts that he struggles with.

Harry Osborn (James Franco)
James Franco, on the other hand, is an excellent Harry Osborn through and through. His performance really captures the sort of struggle the character has in both idolizing and resenting his father. And in the end, Harry has to accept his own responsibility that same way Peter did after Norman dies. In their own ways, each character has to accept a calling after the death of a loved one. But it won’t be easy for either of them.

Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst)
Though Kirsten Dunst was clearly having a ball with the part, the character is a little bland. Her characterization is pretty much solely defined through her interactions with Peter. Outside of being the love interest, she’s really kind of boring.

Let me put it this way.

Lois Lane is a tough-as-nails, intelligent beauty.

Pepper Potts is not only the only person who can truly handle Tony Stark, but can also runs his whole company if it comes to that.

Mary Jane Watson… is a redhead.

She is not a soulmate, a complementary opposite, or even much of a character. She is a prize to be won. And in the end, Peter declines the prize.

Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson)
Cliff Robertson is no stranger to Westerns, which lets him bring the charm of a chivalrous cowboy to the role of Uncle Ben. It’s pretty much perfect.

Aunt May (Rosemary Harris)
And Aunt May is just as good. There’s a kind of grandmotherly sweetness emanating from her, which makes Peter’s devotion to her ring true.

J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons)
Perfect. Gruff, grumpy, comically serious, and as fast-talking as a 1940’s newsman. 'Nuff said.

Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe)
Willem Dafoe is amazing in this role.

For a man who just looks unbalanced, there’s a surprising amount of warmth and kindness to his first scene with Peter, which makes his descent into villainy that much more tragic. And his particular brand of evil hamminess is flamboyantly goofy without aping too much from Nicholson’s Joker or Jim Carrey’s Riddler. The actor is having a lot of fun being evil, and he gets to show it onscreen as the Goblin having fun with being evil. His performance creates the impression that he would just go around and yell “BOO!” for kicks and giggles before throwing more bombs around. Which is exactly what the character would do in the comics if he felt like it.

Props to Willem Dafoe for doing his own stunts, too. Much of the character’s appearances would be in the action scenes, and he wanted to carry over his evil hamminess to even the combat and flying scenes to make the character more believable than if he were suddenly less campy during action bits.

Willem Dafoe is creepy, funny, and tragic. A hero is only as good as the villain, and the Green Goblin delivers.

Music
Danny Elfman does as good of a job as ever, if not better. I’ve always thought his music excelled at creating emotions. One song can be sad as a dead puppy, and another can be unabashedly heroic. And that level of musical emotion elevates webslinging into something beautiful. It turns a spider bite into a moment of destiny. It turns a man talking to himself into a terrifying, tragic descent into madness.

Visuals
Well, the CGI hasn’t aged too well. But the practical effects hold up as well as ever. This movie is filled with filled with them, too. Sam Raimi wanted to do as much as he could with practical effects, but he also wanted to do things that were impossible for humans to do without actual spider-powers. So he decided that they would use as much CGI as they needed, but no shot would be 100% CGI. Because of that, a lot of the CGI effects hold up better than they otherwise would, too.

The architecture of the movie is intentionally unrealistic. They wanted to really have a lot of things going on in the air, so we end up with balconies that are higher up than they could safely be, building tops that are made to have people hanging out on top of them, and so on. This, like the limited CGI, works to the film’s advantage to create the high-up world Spider-Man inhabits. And the architectural stylings add to the timelessness of the movie’s world. A shame that this movie would end up dating itself so much.

As a fun little note, the special effects Spider-Man suit required a green screen, while the Green Goblin suit used a blue screen. When the two of them had to be in the same shot, they did what they could with a blue screen. Speaking of the Green Goblin suit, let’s talk about that.

Spider-Man’s costume was a pretty faithful translation from page to screen, but the Green Goblin suit was infamously altered. In the early stages, they had the famous studios of Stan Winston working on a more traditional mask that had all kinds of mechanical bits inside to alter the mask’s expression. But in the end, they decided to play it simple and safe with a static mask.

Still, you have to wonder what this movie would have been like.
But when I look at some of the concept art on the DVD, I consider us lucky that they didn’t go all-out “realistic” with the Goblin’s design.

Dodged a bullet.
And I’d like to give a shout-out to Kyle Cooper of Imaginary Forces. If not for that man, we wouldn’t have the famous page-flipping Marvel logo.

I hope they gave that man a raise, because he damn well earned one.
Best Character: J. Jonah JamesonNeed I say more?

Best Actor: Willem Dafoe
The man plays a kind, if desperate scientist who becomes a goofy mass murderer. That's range.

Best Line
J. Jonah Jameson:
“Slander is spoken. In print, it's libel.”

Final Thoughts
It’s certainly not for everyone. While it almost perfectly encapsulates the essence of the characters involved, there are parts of it that simply haven’t aged gracefully. The special effects, the lead actors, and a moment or two of distinctly post-9/11 patriotism unavoidably date this film.

Is this a bad film? Not at all. It’s an incredibly genuine portrayal of Spider-Man. But I can definitely see how it wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea. Of course, a few of you are probably wondering what I think of it in comparison to The Amazing Spider-Man. Well, hold your horses, because I’ve got the other two films in the Raimi trilogy to talk about first.

See you this time next year, when I’ll be going over what many consider to be the best Spider-Man film of all time, Spider-Man 2.

8 comments:

  1. Gwen Stacy is way better than MJ, both as a love interest and as a character in general. Just putting my two cents in there.

    Oh, and, y'know, great review too.

    - That One Anon

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    1. I find it interesting to me that so many people prefer Gwen Stacy, seeing as how she was killed off back in the day because audiences preferred Mary Jane. But I guess decades of retconning Gwen Stacy into being interesting has its advantages. Maybe this was Joe Quesada's master plan with One More Day all along?

      Oh, and, y'know, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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    2. It just confuses me that Mary Jane is supposedly Peter's "true love" when, in many incarnations, they have very little in common, what with Peter being a scientist/photographer, and MJ being an actress/model. (Ultimate Universe notwithstanding, though that relationship didn't work out for different reasons...) When was the last time they had a normal conversation about something they were both interested in, that had nothing to do with one ot their careers?

      Gwen, on the other hand, is usually portrayed as being interested in science, much like Peter, and more often than not just has better chemistry (science pun may or may not be intended) with him. Also, Spider-Gwen.

      - That One (totally not biased...) Anon

      Oh, and no problem. Keep up the good work.

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    3. See, that never even crossed my mind. I've mentioned it before, but my own girlfriend and I are very different people. She's a NASCAR-watching marine biologist, and I'm a comic-reading blogger. But we have a lot of similar interests as well as a genuine like of each other as a person.

      I wouldn't be surprised if Peter and MJ just give each other what they need in another person. MJ, who grew up with a family she couldn't exactly rely on, might just need a good, responsible man who can make her laugh. And Mary Jane was a HUGE support for Peter whenever he was at an emotional crossroads.

      And as for the lack of common interests, she's a model. He's a photographer. There are ways for them to share their interests with each other.

      And Gwen, to put it bluntly, slept around. I'm not talking about that retching with Norman Osborn. She once referred to Peter as "the only guy who hasn't given me a tumble."

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    4. And who's to say they don't both love James Bond movies? Or piña coladas and getting caught in the rain? There's a lot of their life we don't see.

      Though the fact that we DON'T see it is a bit of an issue in and of itself....

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    5. And I want to specify that sleeping with a bunch of guys doesn't automatically make you a bad person.

      I'm just saying that Gwen's personality shifted from being a swingin' 60's girl to being a scientifically-interested girl. I wouldn't be surprised if they retconned her into being a virgin, honestly. She's practically been retconned into a saint.

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    6. Fair enough. Your point is made.

      - That One Anon

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    7. But having said all that, I adore Gwen Stacy.

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