(Collected here are three pieces I wrote in 2010 and 2012 assessing the film adaptations of one of my childhood favorites, Spider-man. Part 1 concerns Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN and its first sequel, Part 2 SPIDER-MAN 3, and Part 3 THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN)
PART 1 (August 2010)
My love for Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN is certainly no secret. It’s one of my favorite films, and while nostalgia certainly plays a significant part in that, I’ve seen it as recently as this Spring and I think it holds up. So it was odd realizing about a week ago that I hadn’t seen either of the sequels (the inexplicably titled SPIDER-MAN 2 and SPIDER-MAN 3) since their release. I decided to fix that, and set out to watch them both!
I’ve seen Spider-Man 2 pointed to over and over, on the web and elsewhere, as the quintessential comic book movie — maybe a little moreso before the release of THE DARK KNIGHT. I remember enjoying the film in theaters, but for some reason I hadn’t revisited it. I’ve got to say, I was surprised by how uninteresting I found it in my recent rewatch. The first thing that struck me (or failed to strike me) was the villain. Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock is a fine portrayal of the character…but he really doesn’t get much to do.
I hate to bring Willem Dafoe into every one of my blog posts (no I don’t), but his Green Goblin was far more interesting to me as a villain than what we get in the second film. Norman Osborn is a brilliant scientist who goes nuts after testing his new supersoldier compound on himself. He’s a genetically enhanced insane person who flies around vaporizing whoever gets in the way of his quest for POWER! He’s effectively scary and villainous.
Otto Octavius starts in a similar place. He’s a good guy, brilliant nuclear physicist who gets mind-controlled by his evil robotic claws and gets a little reckless with his research. He robs a bank to fund his obsession, and only makes an enemy of Spider-man because he’s getting in the way. He has a disregard for civilians, sure, and a bit more of a monster-presence than the Green Goblin, but his motivation for all of this is scientific curiosity. He’s trying to make a breakthrough, and turns a little evil thanks to some faulty A.I., but he’s hardly a MAD scientist. More of an angry one.
Let me give an example of the difference between the two villains. Film two’s “Aunt May in peril” scene consists of Aunt May getting snatched up by Doc Ock during his bank robbery and being King-Kong’d at the top of a building. Film one’s AMIP scene is Aunt May saying her prayers only to be interrupted by THE WALL BEHIND HER FUCKING EXPLODING. The Green Goblin appears and orders her to, despite her horror, finish the Our Father. That’s a whole ‘nother level of villainy, guys.
FINISH IT! shiiit
The other thing that struck me was how similar the second film was to the first — to the point of feeling repetitive. Spider-man is the story of Peter Parker gaining superpowers, learning the responsibilities of his new powers, and accepting that responsibility. Spider-man 2 is the story of Peter Parker having superpowers, having doubts about all the responsibilities that come with these powers, and then eventually deciding again to accept the responsibility. Peter really doesn’t grow in the second film…he just questions his choices in the first film and then concedes that they were the right choices. He ends up in the same place at the end of film two that he did at the end of film one.
But no, you’re saying! It’s not the same place! He got the girl! Well, here’s what happens: Mary Jane figures out that he’s Spider-man, and he gives her the same “We can only be friends as long as I’ve got other superheroey stuff to deal with,” position that he did in the first film. And then she tells him to quit making her decisions for her and they totes bang. That conversation could have happened at the end of the first film and we’d get to the same point in the story! Come on, guys. Come on.
I am by no means saying Spider-man 2 isn’t a good film. I was just really surprised how redundant it felt after all those years. But it’s still a Spider-man film, after all. Despite being structurally familiar, it’s full of Sam Raimi goodness and does the comics and franchise in general HELL OF justice. As not-so-thrilled as I was by the end, “Go get ‘em, Tiger,” sure had me smiling.
PART 2 (October 2010)
Of all the movies I’ve enjoyed while others mocked them, SPIDER-MAN 3is probably the one I’ve bothered least to defend. I was grinning through the entire the film the first time I saw it, sure. It was was the end of my freshman year of high school and I had finally made enough friends to go see the next installment of a franchise I held dear in a large — co-ed!! — group of fifteen year olds. But the general consensus afterward was that it sucked. It was goofy, bizarre, and bloated. While I don’t think it’s as bad as some people make it out to be, it’s certainly the weakest of the three films.
Well, after re-watching the second and third films, I’m not sure I think so anymore. As I watched the second film, I was blown away by how many things I noticed were the same things people had been bitching about re: the third film. People have given Spider-man 3 endless shit for the jazz club song and dance number…but there’s a scene in 2 where Peter Parker strolls through the city after giving up bein’ Spider-man / conveniently losing his powers to make giving up the responsibilities of said powers easier. It’s set to “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”, and it’s goofy as shit. Spider-man 2 surprised me in its goofiness — it hardly seems more sober of an effort than 3.
After watching the EVIL DEAD trilogy and last year’s (awesome) DRAG ME TO HELL, 2 could no be more clearly a Sam Raimi film. The scene where Doc Ock’s new tentacle-arms attack the surgical team that’s trying to remove them from his body is remarkably Evil Dead. Raimi is a silly director. I would argue that the campiness of Spider-man 3 is entirely unsurprising, looking at the rest of the trilogy.
But silliness aside, there is another more legitimate complaint about 3 to answer. Speaking in facts, not opinions, Spider-man 3 has three villains. Sandman, Venom, New Goblin. It retcons Uncle Ben’s death in Spider-man 1, and bounces all over the place in tone and focus. Oh, and Harry Osborn gets amnesia. It’s a mess. But frankly, I found the mess ofthe third film to be far more compelling than the familiar second film. 2 is a story of doubt; it is more or less Peter Parker second guessing everything he did in 1. 3 is pretty much about Parker letting Spider-man’s fame get to his head and hurting the people he loves. There might already be three villains in the film, but Parker’s real enemy is HIMSELF. I just blew your mind, didn’t I?
I’m not saying the third is better than the second. I was disappointed with how uninterested I was by both films upon rewatching them for the first time. ButSpider-man 3, to me, is simply the more interesting story, told messily and sillily to the dismay of many fans. Spider-man ain’tBatman.
OR IS HE?
I just did some googling and apparently I was right. I did, however, find this.
PART 3 (July 2012)
SPIDER-MAN is one of my favorite movies. Argue all you’d like about favorite vs. best, the latter is an immeasurable construct for a subjective medium. A movie is a different thing to every viewer, and they don’t always mean nearly as much to some as they do to others. Spider-Man is the first movie I can remember loving, 10 years ago this Spring. Like other movies seen in such formative years (LOTR), it’s a film that’s since helped define the medium and storytelling in general for me. It’s a little silly, and pretty dated visually, but it’s a damn good film.
A favorite scene of mine from Spider-Man goes thusly: Peter Parker and Harry Osborn have just moved in together, and are hosting Thanksgiving for Aunt May, Mary-Jane, and Norman Osborn. Peter shows up bleeding through his shirt, from a wound Osborn inflicted not half an hour earlier as the Green Goblin. As Osborn’s split personalities are all “whaddup”, Aunt May has him carve the turkey. It’s an exploration of one of the most basic conflicts of any superhero story: the secret identity. But it’s a unique setup in that the villain and the hero both are hiding from each other. So when Willem Dafoe becomes aware, despite Peter’s cover-up, that he and his enemy are closer than expected, the tension runs high. If the protagonist is our eyes, we’re seeing into the future by becoming Osborn in this scene. Peter’s fucked, and he has no idea.
There isn’t a single scene in Marc Webb’s THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN that operates on that clearcut level of tension. Peter Parker knows what Curt Connors is up to pretty early on. He’s a smart dude, it makes sense for him to keep up. But it doesn’t necessarily make sense for the movie to avoid readily apparent sources of conflict. Peter’s secret identity is an issue brushed over with little concern. He hardly ever wears his mask, probably with Andrew Garfield’s objective dreaminess to thank. He also has no friends, which is something I didn’t realize until after the movie ended. Their absence is not really portrayed as a conflict in itself, it’s actually more a lack of potential conflict in a film that seems to consciously avoid GOOD THINGS the first film did.
Peter only seems to have his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, who sometimes are mad but pretty much just love him. The first non-Flash “Eugene” Thompson (an early point in the movie where I thought this might just work out) peer Peter seems to meet is Gwen Stacy, who he begins dating as immediately and inevitably as any friendless superdweeb might upon getting beat up in front of Emma Stone. Peter Parker doesn’t seem to work for most things. He doesn’t GOTTA GET THE GIRL! He meets the girl and the rest takes care of itself. At one point, the roof below his feet collapses; he falls into an abandoned wrestling ring, a poster of a luchador-style mask inspiring HIS mask! When he finally shows up an hour into the movie, fully-costumed atop a skyscraper, it doesn’t feel earned. It’s basically…we’ve spent an hour doing stuff we can do without him being Spider-man, now let’s GET HIM IN THAT SUIT!!
The Amazing Spider-Man tries so hard to put its own twist on each detail of the Spider-man origin story that it ends up feeling like a checklist. No J. Jonah Jameson. Yes Parents! No Osborns. Yes Mechanical Webshooters (that never run dry!!)! No Mary Jane. Yes DARK! No “With great power comes great responsibility!” —— and that last one kills the movie. The line drawn connecting Uncle Ben’s death and Spider-man’s turn to crime-fighting is so vague and illustrative of the run-on-sentence writing (no buts, all ands) that pervades the script that the origin of Spider-man is put on the viewers, not the movie. We’re already here for Spider-man. We’re going to watch this Parker kid solve a mystery about his parents (or at least begin to…), and at some point along the way he’s gonna put on a costume.
Rebooting a series that began a decade earlier five years post its last installment is clearly a thankless job. But not an impossible one. If doing a new origin story results in dramatically neutering a story with such INNATE conflict, MAYBE DON’T DO ANOTHER ORIGIN STORY! Now, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2: TURN THE DARK BACK ON could be cool. They’ve gotten the origin out of the way. And I’ll accept it’s probably not hard to fuck up The Lizard. But I don’t know if Mark Webb’s the dude who’s gonna make the next great Spider-man movie.
Prove me wrong, dogg.