Marvel’s continuity shtick, one where various comic book characters and stories exist in one universe, used to be confined within comic book realms. In the early 2000s, there was no such universe and comic book movies were one-shot deals. Sequels were never planned and if a movie isn’t successful enough, then it joins the ranks of those one-off comic book movies: Hulk, Daredevil, The Punisher, Elektra, LXG and Fantastic—fuck wait—that movie actually had a sequel. Rise of the Silver Surfer, anyone?
Lucky for us, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man “hit the jackpot” on its first swing and eventually put Marvel on the movie map the same way Superman did for DC three decades earlier. X-Men, though really the first Marvel movie of this era, always felt like a half-hearted attempt, never fully embracing the silliness of weirdos in colorful outfits. Imagine Batman without the bat on his chest—that’s what Bryan Singer’s X-Men feels like. Five years after Batman & Robin killed it, Spider-Man reignited interest in superhero movies.
More or less ten years in the making, the first Spider-Man underwent many iterations. It was passed from one studio to another, was subject to legal battles, and even had inputs from James Cameron, whose Terminator 2 set up the kind advance digital effects that would help realize the Spider-swing on the big screen, before it superhero-landed on Sam Raimi’s lap.
As far deviations go, the most significant in Spider-Man were 1) forgoing the Gwen Stacy storyline for Mary Jane’s and 2) making the web-shooters “biological.” Making MJ Peter’s first (and only) love interest is actually a wise move, since having Gwen Stacy in the story seems to be a death knell in Spider-Man movies. Switching Spidey’s web-shooters for something biological was not as wise, but it works. Not to mention, it made way for a few pubescent jokes (i.e., Peter: I’m naked Aunt May). Both were probably big deal for the most hardcore fans then, but most were probably able to ignore the fact, because finally, here’s a live-action Spider-Man movie and it’s awesome.
How awesome? Well, awesome may not be the best word to describe Spider-Man now. It WAS awesome for its time but not as awesome now that Mavel Studios has just celebrated their tenth year anniversary with a monolith that is Avengers: Infinity War.
Spider-Man looks and feels antiquated now and the CG effects may look wonky in more than a few scenes. The story is a little too straightforward the moment you think about the interconnected stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Compared with other superhero movies with more complex plot (e.g., The Dark Knight, Captain America: Civil War), Spider-Man plays out like a primer, a one-shot.
Of course, one doesn’t compare, say, Star Wars and The Phantom Menace in terms of look and visual effects alone. The latter is definitely better if you only consider how the movie looks. Spider-Man surely doesn’t look as cool and fresh when put side by side with Iron Man, which is still awesome now as it was back 2008. But it’s also because it was intentionally nostalgic for old superhero movies (i.e., it borrowed beats from Superman, theme from Batman) while also being the first modern comic book movie for its extensive use of CGI.
Spider-Man is among the first comic book films in an era that was started by Bryan Singer’s X-Men, and probably ended with either The Dark Knight or Iron Man. It may be situated in the lower rung of superhero movies’ evolutionary ladder, but it’s also its most successful prototype, which later movies would be modeled after (i.e., Kick-Ass, The Amazing Spider-Man, Deadpool, Guardians of the Galaxy).
Kick-Ass, with its highly stylized fight scenes, does fare slightly better as an action movie. Deadpool, with all the sex and violence, is actually funnier. But still, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, where Peter Parker learns that “with great power comes great responsibility”, remains the all around better origin movie.
Amazing is probably the right word for Spider-Man. It may be just a pretty basic origin story, but it gets the things most comic book movies fail at. It has a memorable villain, a clear-cut conflict, thrilling setpieces, and unforced character drama that’s fast becoming rare in this kind of movies.
Outside of Heath Ledger’s Joker, Mark Strong’s Frank D’Amico, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, very few villains are as memorable as Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osbourne/Green Goblin. He’s a villain with a clear motivation, made whimsically evil but understandably human by Dafoe’s menacing performance. Add to that a measure of camp (i.e., Green Goblin urging Aunt May to say the word “evil” to “finish” her prayer) that further strengthens the movie’s dark but not dead-serious tone.
Narrative-wise, Spider-Man (and its sequels) is some 40 years of comics (and a few seasons of the ’90s animated series) condensed, amalgamated and adapted for the big screen. Tobey Maguire’s dorky Peter Parker is said to be closer to the original Steve Ditko creation while the movie’s soap opera elements are from the fabled Lee-Romita run. Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane takes bits from almost everyone in Peter’s long list of girlfriends in the comics while Ben and May Parker were kept like their old 60’s comic book selves.
Spider-Man gives us a superhero origin, a coming of age story, and an excellent action movie without sacrificing one for the other. If you add to those the updated comic book science (genetically enhanced spiders, nano-tech) and anachronistic technology (silly body armor, awesome glider)—it’s mixed bag, and it’s like one pair of Bat-nipples short to being a complete recipe for disaster. And yet, it works.
You know what else is amazing? In the first twenty minutes, it is able to introduce all the key characters, establish the dynamics between Peter, MJ and Harry and tell two separate origin stories—Spider-Man’s and Green Goblin’s—without feeling rushed or boring.
And more amazing, the movie’s one tough balancing act: between drama and comedy, romance and adventure, a character-driven story and blockbuster cinema. It mixes lighthearted beats (i.e., Peter learning his new powers, JJ Jameson, the iconic upside-down kiss) with even darker themes—y’know, power, responsibility, Peter’s guilt over Uncle Ben’s death, Norman and Harry’s relationship or MJ’s abusive father contrasting with Peter’s loving family. Sure, it couldn’t get more detailed, more elaborate like in the comics or the first Spider-Man reboot, but then, it’s movie, not a book or a TV series.
And once all is set and ready, Willem Dafoe’s maniacal villain with terrifyingly funny looking mask answers Spider-Man’s rejection with a plan: threaten the people he loves then kill Spider-Man. It’s quite a little simple but the execution, the action, the brutal fights, the tension—it’s all there.
You may gush at the 360-degrees wonder of Joss Whedon’s climactic mayhem in The Avengers, but it never has quite the same effect as having a more focused, more tense, more brutal, edge-of-your-seat fight with crystal clear stakes. Green Goblin is determined to kill to prove his point, while Spider-Man fights for the kids, MJ, his life, while his friendship with Harry is also at stake.
You never get the same sense of danger when The Avengers face an army of nameless aliens whose most threatening characteristic is that they’re just “too many” (An aside: Bruce Banner had say that during the battle in Wakanda to imply they’re outnumbered–that’s just lazy writing). You never get the same thrill when Dormammu’s gonna eat up our world (whatever that really means), or when Vulture hijacks an unmanned Avengers airplane, or when Loki uses the Bifrost to destroy Jotunheim (the inhabitants of which, we don’t really care about), or when suddenly there were like a dozen Iron Man robots fighting the bad guys, or when… You get the point.
Said big climactic battle in MCU movies, which involves destruction of cities, planets, even galaxies, has now become the go-to mode for many Marvel and other superhero movies that small scale battles like those in Ant-Man and Deadpool movies are outright refreshing by default.
How about the earlier movies? Well, the fight scenes in X-Men were unintentionally silly. Daredevil‘s was badly melodramatic. The Punisher? Ridiculously sterile. The big CGI battle in Hulk was like watching water color dissolve in a glass of water. In comparison to all of those, Spider-Man was like perfection, even though it wasn’t perfect i.e., the cable car sequence looked like something from a B-movie thriller. But the final confrontation between Green Goblin and Spider-Man more than makes up for it.
The video essay below breaks down what makes said final fight in Spider-Man work so well. And it’s not only in Spider-Man that the fight sequence is great, but in Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3 as well. The fight scenes in these movies—the train sequence in the second, Sandman/Venom vs. Goblin/Spidey in the third—are brilliant blockbuster moments that are hardly matched, even by the best from the MCU.
Spider-Man is a terrifically well-balanced movie. It’s one that doesn’t try to move beyond the four corners of a comic book movie. It also doesn’t have the burdens of trying to be cool, prescient, topical or relevant. And by doing so, it resonates even more: an unpretentious and wildly entertaining blockbuster that tugs at your heartstrings as much as it thrills.
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