WARNING: EPIC, NOVEL-LENGTH RANTINGS OF HALF-CRAZED, FAN-BOY MAN-CHILD AHEAD!
I often read how great the first two Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies are great and true to the comics and that praise always gets my blood pressure up a bit.
I hate all three of those Raimi movies equally.
I don’t hate them because they’re the worst movies ever made. I hate them because they’re just so bland and ineffectual.
The beats are there. The adaptation and execution is really weak.
For me, Spider-Man should exist in the echelon of blockbusters like Empire, Aliens and Die Hard instead of sitting squarely in the slow lane of kiddie movies.
And I want to lay out exactly why. Just so you know next time we get into it about these movies.
Spider-Man has always been tops for me. He has a great origin. He has unique powers and there is an emotional investment in nearly all of the characters in the books.
You can bet I wanted a movie of my favorite hero.
And a Spider-Man movie directed by Sam (Evil Dead, Darkman) Raimi seemed to be a can’t-lose proposition.
And yet in mid-2000, an immediate red flag popped up with the casting of:
And let me just state for the record that when I watched American Beauty in 2000 and first saw Wes Bentley I says to myself:
“Boy! This kid looks just like the Romita/Romita Jr. version of Peter Parker come to life! He’d be perfect for Spider-Man! Look no further, Hollywood, you’ve found your Peter Parker!”
Now, of course, I wasn’t aware of Mary Elizabeth Winstead until after the fact when I saw Sky High in 2005, but she was out there doing soaps at age 17 in 2001 and they never even considered her.
News came out in late 2001 that Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were the leads.
Why do directors keep doing this shit? Is it to defy expectations? They won’t have the fans or the studios or basic common sense telling them what to do?
Christmas 2001, before The Fellowship of The Rings we were treated to the first full-length trailer.
It seemed like they got everything right. The tone. The cinematography. It looked gritty and comicbooky at the same time. Tobey Maguire looked to be an acceptable-enough Peter. I thought Ms. Dunst might just pull off Mary Jane.
Willem Dafoe, he should’ve played the Joker, sure, (Remind me to do a rant about all the missed casting opportunities in the history of Hollywood comic book fare) but he seemed like he could do Norman Osborn in his sleep.
Not like anyone outside of comic book conventions had any inkling about who the character was in the first place.
But still, I thought it could be a towering home run in the Superman The Movie vein.
The movie opened and the reviews were unanimous:
“It was a fun-filled, exciting, towering Hollywood Home Run in the Superman The Movie vein! ”
“It’s not just the derring-do! Spider-Man’s got heart!”
I was jazzed.
There I Stood
EVERY. FREAKIN’. MINUTE. OF. IT.
I know what you’re going to say.
I’m a nerd.
Too close to the material.
Expectations were far too high.
But when I saw it, I’d seen a zillion movies. Even some classics. I felt I understood the language of cinema.
And what I still don’t get is why everyone liked the film, fans and non-fans alike. What did it offer them?
For me, as basic filmmaking/storytelling goes, it failed on nearly every level.
It had sit-com quality acting, dialogue and character development. Nowhere in the film did the characters do or say anything that anyone in real life, heck what even a 2-D comicbook characters would do or say.
Way too much exposition that went nowhere and no discernable plot. It’s badly written, executed and edited.
The FX and Spidey-action scenes were slow, muddy and unimpressive. The Matrix came out three years prior and Spider-Man offered nothing with that kind of wow-factor.
Sam Raimi the guy hailed by the Coen Bros. as fearless with a camera, the guy who invented crazy camera moves didn’t do anything remotely crazy with his camera.
Who’d a thunk?
The final battle takes place on a freakin’ sound stage with a crumbled paper mache brick wall and shitty studio lighting.
I’d say nearly all of the choices in the film — 95% at least — were dead wrong.
You can’t hide behind the comic and say, “Oh, grow up, it’s a comic book movie. It’s supposed to be silly,” when the choices the filmmakers made were dumber than a comic written in the 60s for twelve-year-olds!
AND, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, THE @#%ING STORIES WERE ALREADY WRITTEN FOR THEM!
The Light Went Down…
The opening credits started and immediately I got that feeling I was in for a disappointment.
Danny Elfman’s music was Batman meets Men In Black and didn’t seem to have any definition. CG webbing and titles against dark backgrounds read as small, mysterious and quasi-gothic, again, like Batman.
Spider-Man’s vibe should be bright, cheery, epic and metropolitan like Superman’s. I would have expected titles webbed in frame over swooping shots of New York, basically like the last shots of the film without Spider-Man comped in.
Fade Into The Film
Modern day New York. And we’re on a school bus.
Where are they? Nebraska?
Does any urban teen, let alone a high school senior, ride a yellow school district bus to school? Does New York even offer such a thing anymore?
Were Peter and company Special Ed?
Mr. Raimi, how about setting the opening shots of the film at a high school Halloween dance (webs and spiders, ya dig?) and define Peter as Midtown High’s number one professional wallflower.
And right off the bat, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp (one of many, including James Cameron and Alvin Sargent, who worked on this movie’s script but I blame Koepp first, nearly every script he’s involved with is a stinker) get Peter and MJ’s relationship irritatingly wrong.
Next-door neighbors and childhood friends have a familiarity that a subtle director would clue into, but no, Raimi and Koepp are coming from the The Facts of Life / Diff’rent Strokes playbook of character development where no one on-screen ever comes from a place of emotional honesty and conditioning forces so we are treated to a bunch of TV horseshit.
So, sure, MJ can be aloof and not quite nice to Peter, but I imagine MJ would say, “Hey Pete” in any number of ways, none of them enthusiastic, so we can understand that they at least know each other.
The script itself states that Peter first saw her when they were six (and improbably compares her to an angel, like six-year-olds ever think that way outside of the limited imaginations of Hollywood screenwriters) so the implication is they’ve known each other and played together from time to time as kids.
And of course, Peter would at least suspect that her father is abusive.
Which is A HUGE F#%*ING DETAIL!
Meaning, when push comes to shove, MJ can confide in Peter. So what’s with Peter all tongue-tied and talking to himself when he wants to approach her?
Even in the Lee/Ditko origin, Pete has no problem asking out girls who were out of his league.
So since Spidey has a great wit in the comics, start with that around MJ.
She’s the one person he can be himself around.
Then we get Harry and Norman Osborn drawn in huge brushstrokes. Crayons, really.
The writers spew out copious amounts of “Thanks for telling us!” exposition as to why a rich kid is riding in a limo and attending public school.
And just so you’re on the same page, “Thanks for telling us!” dialogue is when characters tell each other shit they already know damn well for the sake of the audience.
If you’re writing a screenplay and your characters are doing that, throw it in the trash and go back to work at Dick’s Sporting Goods, because you’re a no-talent Hollywood hack.
Or turn in your script to a Hollywood agent. Koepp got $4 million to do his polish on Spider-Man. Them’s 2001 dollars.
Simply have Norman drop off Harry in an expensive vintage sports car, see Peter and say:
“Hey, Pete. Saw you took first at the science fair! Ready to skip college and work for me?”
We would’ve gotten all we need to know about Norman Osborn before we get to his lab. And Harry can be just as jealous. Minus all the bull crap introductions and exposition.
The best friend who’s never met his rich industrialist father. Blah.
Okay, so at this point in the film, I’m already nervous. It’s all playing awkward and amateurish. The rhythm’s off.
We get to the spider bite and we learn of fifteen super spiders in a tank. Fifteen spiders that can change a guy into a mutant, super-powered spider person just existing side-by-side?
Just stick with the comic. No one knows about any super spiders! It’s a fluke.
Because if it’s not, wouldn’t someone else become a Spider-Man down the road?
And wouldn’t the lab techs figure out who Peter was, since MJ announces so dramatically that there are only 14 Spiders left in the tank?
“Hey! There was that nerdy kid with a camera! Didn’t he get bitten?! Quick view the security footage!”
And after there’s a guy spinning webs all over New York, wouldn’t the scientists be all:
“Woo! Find that Spider-Man! We’re going to be rich with our military-grade spider man serum!”
I think it would have been much simpler to make the bite happen at Osborn labs in the first place. Yes, I realize that the Amazing Spider-Man movie corrected that big fat plot hole, only to create twenty more, of course.
The admittedly irritating book on screenwriting Save The Cat catalogs the reason why Norman’s lab being across town is stupid, “Double Mumbo Jumbo” is the term in the book. Meaning in one lab Peter gets bitten and becomes Spider-Man and then down the road in ANOTHER lab, Norman is becoming the Goblin.
That’s Considered Lame
I sure thought it was lame.
It’s also widely held in nerd circles that The Green Goblin’s costume looks like a Power Rangers outfit.
Why hire the actor with one of the scariest faces in Hollywood only to hide it with a stupid plastic mask?
But my biggest issue with Dafoe / Raimi’s Green Goblin is he has no plan. What’s his goal? Never once does he state:
“Military leaders! They’ve been nothing but a pain in my ass! When all the military leaders are dead, I’m going to take over the world!”
He just kinda terrorizes people and shit. With no real goal in mind.
There’s No Plot To The Movie!
How can you have a great movie with no plot?
And Dafoe’s descent into madness is all show. His Green Goblin could’ve been truly scary if it was given the proper setup.
He could’ve started as a guy wearing a hastily made Halloween costume and as he takes more serum and goes crazier he could’ve been designing more elaborate face-fitting masks and weaponry and been a Jason or Freddy-level villain mumbling to himself about the military-industrial complex and how it has to be eliminated.
You show a guy in the distance in a wide shot hovering on a glider in a dark alley on a foggy night wearing that costume and it could be legitimately bone-chilling.
Many blamed the character’s weakness on the expressionless mask.
That wasn’t the problem.
For example — Humongous!
You buy Humongous in Road Warrior even though he’s just a buff guy with a hockey mask and a loincloth. You buy him because his threat level is real and immediate.
Darth Vader! You buy Darth Vader as the ultimate evil. Same reasons.
But Green Goblin? Nope. I got no response. He seems stupid because the character is flat and lifeless. You start fixating on his dumb costume.
The comics had it right.
Norman was a psycho and very secretive about his knowledge and his alter ego.
No one was aware of what the hell he was doing.
That seems a lot more realistic than the head of the company going into a chamber in full view of his partner— in that day and age of security cameras and whatnot, even in the early 00s — and passing it off as a convenient plot twist.
Okay, So Back To Peter
He wakes up after his spider bite and he’s sorta muscular and apparently now well-endowed and full of vim and vigor and yet that’s not much of a puzzle to our science whiz.
And now is as good a time as any to bring up Tobey Maguire’s blank performance. He seems neither a total nerd nor the class cut up. Maguire seems fine in roles where he’s a bug-eyed silent observer.
But Peter Parker is not that. He’s supposed to be really smart and FUNNY. Spider-Man is supposed to bring what Tony Stark and Deadpool bring to the party.
It doesn’t read at all.
But even if you can’t bring that, don’t make him such a dope.
After the bite, he goes outside and Oh, gulp… it’s MJ…Oh, do you know me…I’m Peter Parker star of the hit sitcom Saved By The Bell… instead of simply:
Hey, Pete. Where are your glasses?
And you know, she could be staring at his baby blues, noticing them for the first time, and you could have Pete’s spider-sense go off and he pulls her out of the way of an oncoming car and something not too revelatory.
But no, they go to school and Pete WEBS A FREAKIN’ TRAY of food and acrobatically catches MJ’s lunch and then beats the crap out of Flash Thompson in ways that beg the question:
“HEY PETER, ARE YOU SPIDER-MAN?!!”
And by the way, Raimi and KOEPP! You beat up the biggest, toughest guy in school, send him twenty feet across the hallway and kids don’t say:
“I always knew you were a freak, Parker.”
They back off and mumble amongst themselves,
“Damn. Parker can FIGHT!”
And there’s that fantastic scene in Barry Levinson’s The Natural where Redford’s Roy Hobbs strikes out Joe Don Baker’s Babe Ruth-like Whammer and Barbara Hershey who has been on The Whammer’s arm all this time since she thinks he’s the best at baseball, her eyes go from the failed Whammer to Redford’s shiny new wonder boy.
I would’ve stolen that shot for MJ’s reaction.
There he’s been all her life. Her hero.
And cut the ridiculous line in the subsequent scene:
“You really freaked us out, Peter.”
Replacing it with:
“Man! Petey! I never knew you were such a tiger.”
Get it? Tiger? The nickname she always calls him?
Kirsten Dunst! Awful. She tries the hardest in this movie of the three, but in all the movies you get the same sort of blank, phoned-in performances, where it’s clear she thinks she has better things to do.
Party girl? Please!
With Great Stupidity…
So now Peter needs a car to impress MJ and that leads us to the Wrestling Arena.
A whimsical throwaway in the comics becomes an overlong, overblown Wrestlemania set-piece that kills the inherent drama and moral of the comic book origin.
It’s irritating because chiefly it’s way too big. Where do you have arena-sized crowds and venues for amateur night?
In the comics, it’s a neighborhood gym sort of affair and Spidey’s spotted by the talent agent with the panel explaining: “Hmm… this masked character may be just the gimmick I’ve been looking for. “
Not genius, sure, but it works.
Secondly, and this offense spreads to all of the Spider-Man movies, the sequence highlights the filmmaker’s laziness and indecision in defining Spider-Man’s powers.
Peter can send Flash across the floor, can plow into a billboard with nary a scratch yet for some reason he’s facing a Wrestler in cage fight and he’s scared?
And to have Peter kick the guy when he could quite literally kill him is equally reckless. Or worse. It means Peter’s kicks aren’t that powerful when they should send the guy through the cage.
Pure mud. Again. Stick with the comics.
And furthermore, if you’re a wrestling promoter and a little masked marvel just beat your biggest money-maker with a jaw-dropping show of strength and super-powered agility, you’re going to try to cheat him out of a few bucks instead of signing him to a deal?
Who wrote this shit???
Oh, right. The Lost World: Jurassic Park guy.
And that undercuts the entire point of Peter’s life lesson in the comic. The reason why he let the thief get past him was because of hubris, NOT anger.
I was done with the movie at that point.
They Got It All Wrong
The logical progression of scenes based on the comics storyline would be a montage where Peter becomes the cage fighter to beat and starts reaping in the money and is becoming popular, appearing on morning TV shows and the like.
The promoter, as in the comics should’ve stayed in the film, insisted on Spidey keeping the mask on and, as I expected when I saw the previews and noticed the homemade outfit as compared to the legitimate one, as Spider-man makes more money, the more elaborate his costume gets.
Nope. Nothing doing. The fancy costume just appears.
I would’ve traded any number of crap scenes in this movie for a montage like that.
Ideally, Peter would let fame go to his head and you could have a scene where Cliff Robertson warns him of such things, maybe even Peter reveals his secret identity to his uncle and it could follow the same logic of “Aunt May and Uncle Ben are the only ones who’ve ever been good to me. The rest of the world can go hang for all I care.”
Then, of course, Uncle Ben can utter the immortal “power and responsibility” chestnut and get killed.
Not the same day as the wrestling match but flash-forward, when you least expect it.
Why rush that plot point? To get to all the pointless filler like the Thanksgiving scene, or any scene with James Franco?
After Uncle Ben’s death, Raimi and his editors inexplicably launch into a “Man on The Street” montage of everyone’s reaction to Spider-Man even though there has been no proper introduction to the character ala Superman The Movie.
This montage happens BEFORE Spider-Man’s big entrance.
He was never given the chance to be a big TV star. He hasn’t saved MJ yet. Why do people even know who he is?
Any editing teacher would give you a C- for that move.
Another bad move was ignoring the nice bit of retconned comic history in the mid-90s where it was revealed that on the night of Uncle Ben’s murder, MJ, who was staying with her Aunt Anna, noticed Peter across from her bedroom window changing into Spider-Man and springing into action.
Including that moment would’ve made a world of difference in MJ and Peter’s on-screen love story.
The girl with the burning crush knows the truth. The guy doesn’t.
Girl can’t express true feelings.
Girls dig that shit.
Simple. Easy. Clear.
The movie is anything but that.
There is absolutely no clarity or punctuation in Spider-Man’s first fight with Green Goblin where I was completely distracted by both Macy Gray — who? — and the Goblin’s disintegrating bomb capability.
And just the overall sloppiness of the editing.
I mean really watch this scene:
It’s shit stew.
Now compare it to Superman’s superlative entrance scene:
And again, the Goblin has a vaporizing weapon.
That’s the freakin’ movie right there!
There’s no clarity and certainly no logic in the aforementioned Thanksgiving scene where Osborn discovers Pete’s true identity after he had him gassed and tied up on top of a building where he didn’t unmask him nor reveal any sort of purpose.
Really, watch this scene — it’s all boilerplate clichés based on assumed knowledge of each other and the passage of time.
Except… The Goblin has just met Spider-Man and no time has passed on screen!
As I said, the editing in this film is the WORST.
I could go on and on like a loon, from Aunt May in the hospital (Those eyes! Those horrible yellow eyes!) to Peter doing the old, “I know Spider-Man and he says…” baloney.
That’s a superhero staple, though, where the alter ego becomes best friends with the hero and yet no one ever suspects.
I say leave that old chestnut well alone. Except, of course, Koepp and Raimi just can’t!
But I will finish off with my biggest gripe. There is a distinct lack of inventiveness and visual poetry in the finale and resolution where Peter can’t figure out how to beat the Goblin’s “Lady or The Tiger” dilemma and catches both MJ and a tram full of people, crushing the already threadbare logic of a very slapdash film.
“Psst. Spidey. You can shoot webs. Web the Goblin’s hand to the cable and to MJ. Smash Goblin in the face while his hands are tied. Lower Tram and damsel in distress.”
Add to that, there’s no aerial ballet of Peter chasing The Goblin through the Manhattan skyline or anything remotely worth the price of a ticket to watch a Spider-Man movie.
It ends on a crummy 70s Dr. Who-looking set with the Goblin throwing a bomb at Peter, but not a disintegrating bomb — thank God for that — just a regular bomb.
And we’re treated to more time-wasting bullshit where Dafoe tries to convince Peter that he was the father Peter never had even though that never really came up in the story previously.
Peter announces he has a father:
“His name was Ben Parker!”
As if that would mean anything to Osborn. The two men never met.
And we’re also treated to an epilogue where Franco’s Harry blames Spider-Man for his father’s death but as it plays out in the screenplay, it doesn’t make sense in the context in which it’s presented.
In the comics, Harry witnesses the death of his father and basically fabricates a reason to blame Spidey for his father’s death, covering up for the fact that Norman was the Green Goblin.
That makes sense. I won’t go into how many times Harry goes in and out of cognizance in the comics, but it played better over several years than all at once in a trilogy of movies.
To say nothing of Spider-Man just dropping off Norman at the house and not going to the cops, where a coroner could have explained to young Harry that his father died from being impaled by something that resembled a rocket.
Harry would’ve also learned of his father’s superior strength and on and on and found out his father was the Green Goblin.
Remember? The bad guy who kidnapped your ex-girlfriend?
By the time the second and third movies roll around, Harry just seems like a moron who can’t see a nose on his own face.
Now, of course, one will argue that they’re only movies and why am I getting my panties in a twist over something meant for escapist fun?
I say if you can’t improve upon the source material by bringing the characters into a flesh and blood cinematic world, why bother?
Stick with the comics.
Nuff said. I’m finally done. Come at me, Marvel drones.