Movie Review: Spider-Man (2002)
WARNING: RADIOACTIVE SPOILERS
Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” which, in 2002, became the first film to break the $100-million opening-weekend barrier, and thus ushered in the frantic age of superhero moviemaking we’re all stuck in, owes a lot to a movie that set an earlier opening-weekend record ($40 million) back in June 1989: Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
There are a lot of similarities. Just as Burton filmed a scene in which the hero is viewed as a figure of horror (the opening rooftop scene), so does Raimi (the warehouse/burglar scene). In “Batman,” a city-wide celebration with parade balloons and the popular R&B singer of the day (Prince), is ruined by an attack from the hero’s grinning, insane arch-nemesis (the Joker); same with “Spider-Man” (Macy Gray; the Green Goblin). Raimi uses the same composer, Danny Elfman, who scores the movie in a similarly ominous manner. “What are you?” the petty crook asks in the beginning of “Batman.” “I’m Batman,” Batman replies. “Who am I?” Peter Parker asks us at the end of “Spider-Man.” “I’m Spider-Man,” he answers.
Both superheroes also fit our dictionary definition of a superhero: They: 1) have a secret identity, 2) prowl the night in search of crime, in order to 3) cleanse themselves of a past tragedy.
The similarities end there. Spider-Man fights out of guilt, Batman out of revenge. Spider-Man is colorful and glib, Batman dark, silent and brooding. Spider-Man has the proportionate strength of a spider, Batman … um … knows martial arts and stuff. Peter Parker is poor and struggling to survive; Bruce Wayne is rich and struggling to remember where things are in his house.
I’ll take both Spider-Man and “Spider-Man.” But then, I’ve always been a Marvel guy.
Improving the origin
This is a fairly faithful adaptation of the comic book. It’s bright, colorful, quick. It has a Stan Lee ethos as opposed to a Frank Miller ethos. It doesn’t lose its sense of humor. It doesn’t lose itself in the dark.
Tobey Maguire is your Steve Ditko-era Peter Parker, though a little sweeter, a little less mopey, and with the ability to shoot webs out of his wrists rather than out of web shooters attached to his wrists. He webslings through the high-rises of Manhattan and trash-talks the crooks and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) calls Peter “Tiger” even though it’s 2002 and not 1966. In MJ’s fall from the Queensboro Bridge we get echoes of Gwen Stacey’s fall in Spider-Man #121, and in the Green Goblin’s death by glider we get echoes of Gobby’s death by glider in Spider-Man #122. Spidey calls him Gobby. Our hero is happy as Spider-Man and unhappy as Peter Parker, and he learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and that’s pretty much how it works.
Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp even improve upon the origin. In Amazing Fantasy #15, when the petty thief (forever known as “The Burglar”) runs past Spider-Man, we recognize that Spider-Man’s refusal to help is the act of a selfish jerk. “From now on I just look out for number one—that means—me,” he tells the cop, then swaggers away. Peter’s not us here; he’s other. In the movie, the petty thief rips off the wrestling promoter who has just ripped off Peter Parker. “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” the promoter tells Peter when Peter complains. This allows Peter, 30 seconds later, to throw the words back at him. “You coulda stopped that guy easy,” the promoter complains. “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” Peter tells him.
Here’s how brilliant that is. When I saw “Spider-Man” in a crowded movie theater in 2002, moviegoers, who obviously didn’t know where the story was going, who didn’t know this was going to be the saddest moment of Peter Parker’s life, actually laughed. They’d been trained to expect put-down quips from their action heroes, and this was a better quip than most. Haw! Told him! The laughter was indicative. We identify with Peter here. He’s not other; he’s us. Thus when the horrible lesson is imparted, it’s imparted to us, too. With great power comes great responsibility. It’s a lesson our popular culture doesn’t deliver much.
And yet ....
Testing around the fix
OK, here’s the difficulty in improving upon stories, and allow me a quick metaphor. For a number of years I was a software test engineer at Microsoft’s Xbox Studio, and whenever we, in Test, filed a bug, and the developers fixed it, we had to test around the fix. Because whenever anything is fixed in computer coding, something else can easily get broken—it’s all so intertwined. I would argue this is true beyond coding. I would argue it’s true in storytelling as well, and it’s certainly true in telling Spider-Man’s origin. Koepp and Raimi fixed one problem, the problem of “otherness,” but in the process what gets broken? The street smarts of everyone around Peter Parker.
This guy is ripping off a wrestling promoter and his escape route relies upon … an elevator? Really? And what to make of the promoter? He has a fan-favorite wrestler, Bonesaw (Randy Savage, who died in 2011 at the age of 58), and this little pipsqueak with the arachnid fixation defeats him. Pipsqueak not only stays in the ring with Bonesaw, he beats him. He knocks him out. What a godsend! If you’re a wrestling promoter, this is the guy you’ve been waiting for all your life. And what does our guy do? Find out who he is? Sign him to a contract? No. He cheats him. He relies upon a technicality to save himself $2900. He makes an enemy out of the kid who could be his goldmine.
And, hey, just how long is Bonesaw in that ring anyway? There’s a line of guys waiting to fight him. That doesn’t seem fair. And if the point is to stay in the ring with Bonesaw (to earn the $3,000), and it’s thus in the promoter’s interest to have Bonesaw throw combatants out of the ring (so they don’t pay the $3,000), what’s the point of a cage match? You can’t throw anyone out of the ring in a cage match. And when Peter shows up, and is introduced as “the terrifying ... the deadly ... the amazing Spider Man!” why do boos rain down on him? He’s this scrawny thing in a silly mask. Shouldn’t everyone laugh? Wouldn’t that have made for a better scene? He shows up, they laugh, and he beats Bonesaw quickly in a non-cage match. Wouldn’t that have been a better way to handle it?
And when Spider-Man later appears as a crime fighter, doesn’t the promoter, who saw Peter’s face, connect the dots? Doesn’t he track him down? And do the kids at Midvale do the same? Hey, remember how Parker beat Flash that one day? Doing flips and shit? Then punching Flash like right across the hallway? Like with one punch? And, hey, didn’t that happen right after we went to the science museum and saw all those freaky spiders? And ... right! ... wasn’t one of them like totally missing? Like tour-chick said there were 15 and MJ goes, dude, 14, and tour-chick goes like whatever? I bet something freaky happened with that spider and Parker is totally Spider-Man!
Yeah, the tour chick. All in all, there’s entirely too much shrugging going on in the movie. “Here are 15 genetically designed superspiders.” Nope, 14. “Huh. I guess the researchers are working on that one.” Then Peter wakes up with perfect eyesight and simply goes: “Weird.” He wakes up totally buff and just flexes in the mirror. Then checks out his package? Where’d that come from? Who thought that was a good idea? And when this heretofor nerdy kid beats up the toughest bully in school with moves that Jackie Chan couldn’t make in his dreams, how do the other kids react? “Jesus, Parker, you are a freak.” Or go this route: Imagine you’re an 18-year old kid who gets bit by a spider and wakes up the next day superstrong and superagile And you look down at your hands and see black things, like tiny black razors, coming out of your skin; and you flex your wrists and out comes superstrong web filaments, meaning these things are being produced inside your body. At what point do you begin to freak out? At what point isn’t your reaction simply “Wahoooooo!”
For my final problem with “Spider-Man,” I have to return to Batman for a second.
“The Dark Knight,” for me, has the same problem that every other “Batman” movie has. It’s not about Batman. I think Heath Ledger is just phenomenal and the character of the Joker is beautifully written. He has a particular philosophy that he carries throughout the movie. He has one of the best bad guy schemes. Bad guy schemes are actually very hard to come up with. I love his movie, but I always feel like Batman gets short shrift. In “Batman Begins,” the pathological, unbalanced, needy, scary person in the movie is Batman. That’s what every “Batman” movie should be.
I add this not only because I’m not a huge fan of “The Dark Knight,” but because bad guy schemes are something most moviegoers don’t look at. The villain leads us all on a chase, and it’s fun, but most moviegoers don’t stop to ask: Wait, what was the point of the chase? Why is he doing this? What does the guy want?
What does Norman Osborne, a.ka., the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) want? He starts out just wanting to save his company, Oscorp, from losing a big military contract. General Slocum (Stanley Anderson), who apparently can speak for the entire Pentagon, acts as if creating a genetically superior man is like inventing a better brand of pistol and is ready to pull funding. He acts, to be honest, like a studio exec ready to mothball his predecessor’s projects. “I never supported your program,” he tells Norman. “We have my predecessor to thank for that.”
So Norman does what he does and becomes the Green Goblin. Then he kills Slocum and the competition. As a result, at the next board meeting, he announces, “Costs are down, revenues are up, and our stock has never been higher.” The board’s reaction? “We’re selling the company ... The board expects your resignation in 30 days.” Instead they get theirs at World Unity Day.
Now up to this point the Green Goblin’s schemes have been pretty straightforward. He even annunciates what they are to his more timid alter ego: “To say what you won’t. To do what you can’t. To remove those in your way.” So why go after Spider-Man? Sure, he encounters him at World Unity Day, and Spider-Man is trouble for him—rescuing that doofy kid from the balloon, as well as MJ from the balcony—but he hardly keeps him from his goal. Gobby still kills the members of the board who would sell Oscorp. Yet for the rest of the movie, the Goblin’s bad guy scheme involves Spider-Man. This is how he puts it:
There’s only one who can stop us. Or—imagine if he joined us.
So for the rest of the movie he offers a hand to Spider-Man; and when it’s rejected, he tries to kill him. He tries to kill those Peter loves. What remains unanswered in the above quote is this: Stop us from what? Join us TO what? The Goblin has no goal, no scheme, other than to recruit and/or kill Spider-Man. But that is supposedly a means to an end. We just don’t know what the end is.
Here’s a question: If the Pentagon had a more far-sighted general, or if Oscorp had a less greedy board of directors, would the Green Goblin have even been necessary?
Guilt > Revenge
There are other problems. Even at the age of 12, the J.Jonah Jameson/Peter Parker dynamic never made much sense to me. Peter has something everyone wants (photos of Spider-Man), but he sells them for a pittance to J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), who uses them to turn the city against Spider-Man. What the hell, dude? C’mon, Brainiac, act like a Brainiac.
And do we need some explanation for why our guy is quiet/polite as Peter and glib/bratty as Spider-Man? Or do we just make the assumption that the mask allows him to finally let out what he’s held back all these years?
But for all that, and for all the complaints above, “Spider-Man” still works. For starters, it’s expertly cast by Lynn Kressel and Francine Maisler. A few years ago, shilling for MSNBC, I wrote a top 5 list of the best superhero casting and put Maguire second, after Christopher Reeve and before Hugh Jackman. I mean, casting handsome leading men to play heroes is a no-brainer. But casting a nerd to play a nerd? That’s refreshing. Dafoe is a bit undone by the “Alien”-like Goblin mask but Franco makes a good, believable son for him. And Dunst? Cliff Robertson? Rosemarie Harris? J.K. Simmons? Perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect. Simmons provides levity and Robertson provides heart and pathos. He provides the lesson. Or The Lesson.
A year before that top 5 list, I did another list, the 10 great superhero scenes (circa 2007), and the death of Uncle Ben was no. 8 on my list. I wrote this:
Outside there’s a crowd and flashing lights. Then something pulls Peter toward the crowd and he sees what everyone is rubber-necking: Uncle Ben lying bleeding to death. In the comic book, Peter is simply told his Uncle Ben is dead. Here he gets to speak to him. At first this worried me. “Oh crap,” I thought, “He’s gonna blah blah blah and then die. It’s gonna stink.” But Cliff Robertson delivers. Peter’s voice seems to call him from a faraway place and he looks confused and scared to be where he is, then grateful, grateful to see the face of his nephew. He says his name once, twice, a gurgle in his voice. Then he slips away.
At that point, as the cops talk up the carjacker/Burglar, Peter’s eyes fill with rage and he’s this close to becoming Batman. But then he tracks the guy, captures him, holds him high; and in the spotlight he sees the dude’s doofy hair and stupid face, and his eyes fill with something besides revenge. He knows now. He knows he’s partly to blame. He was given this gift, this power, and it allowed him to act less than noble—less noble than his Uncle Ben would have wanted; and in the act of squandering this gift, his Uncle Ben died, and he’ll carry that knowledge and that guilt with him for the rest of his life.
This is why Spider-Man resonates more than Batman. Revenge is a loutish emotion, a wish-fulfillment fantasy emotion, which is why it’s so popular at the movies and in the comic books. Revenge suggests that there’s something wrong with the world but not with us, but Peter Parker, all of 17, knows better now. Guilt is not only more complex, it’s more universal. Few of us walk around every day with revenge in our hearts; but all of us are guilty.