The Spider-Man that was ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Spider-Man that was

Yeah, let's do this! It's been ages since I last posted a Retro Review, even though I enjoy doing them. And a retrospective look at the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy is in order, since a reboot of the entire franchise has just come our way. The initial news of which was greeted with, in our uniquely Malaysian vernacular, "aiyoo, whaffor?" Indeed, it seems like a very short five years between Spider-Man 3 and this new The Amazing Spider-Man; it took seven years after the much-(and justly-)maligned Batman & Robin before the much better-received (and just plain better) Batman Begins came out. Thing is, despite the fan backlash towards the last installment, no one really thought the Spider-Man series went off the rails the way the Batman franchise did under Joel Schumacher. All its elements - from director to every cast member - seemed solid enough to deliver a much better Spider-Man 4, which was what we were all hoping for. Yet here we are, with a total reboot and a completely new creative vision, with all the uncertainty that brings. So before we check out what Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone hath wrought, let's see what baggage they have to contend with.

Spider-Man (2002)
My rating:

This is the only one I watched in cinemas, and I wasn't that hot about it at the time. I went with a friend who's a Spider-Man fanboy and he was pretty ecstatic about it (then again, he doesn't have the greatest taste in movies - sorry Ray), but I just thought it was alright. My opinion hasn't changed much watching it 10 years later. In fact, the opening scenes seemed terribly contrived in making Peter Parker the world's most put-upon high school student, beleaguered by everything from evil jock bullies to a school bus driver who drives past him for no good reason. But thing is, Raimi is going for a deliberate tonality here: a broad, purposefully corny approach that faithfully adapts the original Silver Age Spider-Man comics of the early 1960s, in all their wide-eyed earnestness and trademark Stan Lee bombast. It takes a bit of getting used to, which I eventually did - but those early high school scenes are still annoyingly on-the-nose.

It got better after Peter gets bitten by that famous radioactive genetically-engineered spider, and starts being a superhero movie. Watching him explore his newfound powers is fun, as are his initial exploits at superheroing; the circa 2002 CGI effects look a little cartoony when it comes to animating human figures, but there's a palpable sense of joy in the web-slinging and crime-busting. In between, there's the death of Uncle Ben, the tragic event that defines Peter's destiny - which didn't really affect me much. Much more effective are the Daily Bugle scenes with a pitch-perfect J. Jonah Jameson in J.K. Simmons, perhaps the entire series' greatest asset. Raimi's cornball tone works better at broad comedy than broad drama, and that includes the somewhat soppy romance between Peter and Mary Jane Watson. The romance factor is a big part of the film (as well as the other two), with MJ portrayed as the one great love of Peter's life. Yeah, and she goes through no less than three guys in one movie.

Kirsten Dunst gets flack for being the weakest member of the recurring cast; although she's not great, the fault lies more in how the character was written - needy, shallow, and ever the shrieking damsel in distress. Tobey Maguire fares better, and he earned quite a bit of acclaim for his performance - although I found him a little inconsistent. He, along with James Franco as Harry Osborn, seem like they don't quite get Raimi's precise tone, though both would improve in the next two movies. But the one actor who got it off the bat is Willem Dafoe, as a sneering, cackling, deliciously scenery-chewing Norman Osborne/Green Goblin. Now that's how you do a broad comicbook movie villain; I enjoyed him more than any other member of the cast (aside from Simmons). And I enjoyed this movie just fine, up to and including the fun superpowered action/fight scenes. But ten years ago, it didn't make me keen to watch its inevitable sequels - and which I didn't, not in cinemas. I only like it just a little bit more now.

Spider-Man 2 (2004)
My rating:

Widely regarded as the best of the trilogy, as agreed upon by fans, RottenTomatoes (93% approval, although the first film also garnered a respectable 89%) and even Roger Ebert (who gave it a perfect 4 stars over the first one's 2-½). I agree it's an improvement over its predecessor, but in subtle ways. The cornball dialogue remains, as does the cartoonishly heightened world it's set in; we have here a genius scientist working on a fantastic, world-changing piece of technology, and oh by the way, he also has this other fantastic, world-changing piece of technology lying around that he just uses to work on the first fantastic, world-changing piece of technology. The scene in which both are introduced would induce eye-rolls in most discerning viewers, if it weren't for the fact that what preceded it carefully laid the foundation for suspending your disbelief for it. Raimi is asking - nicely - that you just go with it, and most people did.

Because there are plenty of rewards in store once you do. The action scenes for one, including one of the best superpowered fight scenes ever filmed in live-action. Dr. Octopus is a marvellous work of character design and special effects, and never once do his mechanical arms not look real. And Alfred Molina's performance doesn't imitate Dafoe's, but matches him in essaying another pitch-perfect comicbook villain - one that engenders real sympathy and pathos. But it is in its portrayal of Peter Parker that this movie succeeds best as the definitive cinematic Spider-Man, capturing his angst, his dire financial straits, and his difficulties in balancing an ordinary life with his superheroing exploits. Spider-Man has always been hailed as the first costumed superhero to deal with ordinary true-to-life concerns in addition to fighting supervillains, and Spider-Man 2 captures it superbly.

Of course, the corniness and on-the-noseness is still there, as seen in a scene where Peter debates his life choices with a fantasy figure of Uncle Ben in what looks like a vision of heaven - and it isn't even a dream sequence. But the tone succeeds at endearing us to our hero rather than making us roll our eyes. Somewhat less successful is MJ who ends up the damsel in distress for Spidey to rescue again. Still, even when she spends the entire movie pining after Peter whilst engaged to another man, she comes off better than in the last one. (Can't blame a girl for moving on after the guy she gave her heart to turned her down.) The grand romance between Peter and MJ is another thing this sequel does well, and ends the film on an anticipatory note of big changes in both their lives. And yes, since this is the one that left me wanting more of Spidey, I'd definitely agree to putting it among the best superhero movies of all time.

Spider-Man 3 (2007)
My rating:

And this is the one that spoiled it all. Although, as you can probably tell from my rating, I don't think it's the trainwreck that everyone says it is - but before we get to the good parts, the bad parts are pretty bad. It starts off with Peter being popular and well-liked, in a relationship with MJ, and on top of the world for once - a nice development from the status quo of the first two movies. But this quickly turns into both of them becoming remarkably unlikable. Even before Peter starts strutting down the street like an idiot, he's already insensitive and inconsiderate of his girlfriend - who doesn't earn our sympathies either, being all whiny and petulant. (And who then sucks face with her ex. Seriously, can this woman ever stay faithful?) And here's the thing: this is all Raimi. It's all in the same vein with his broad, cornball tone. He can blame the studio for forcing Venom into the movie, but emo hair Peter, jazz-dancing Peter, and a Peter who flaunts a new girl in front of his recently-broken-up girlfriend - all the most hated parts of Spider-Man 3 - are definitely Raimi's ideas.

Of course, the inclusion of Venom is another huge problem - namely, there's too much going on. Bad enough that Flint Marko a.k.a. Sandman turns out to be Uncle Ben's real killer - an unwise retread of Peter's origin story, methinks - there's also the alien symbiote that at first infects our hero, then finds a more welcoming host in Peter's photographer rival, Eddie Brock, Jr. And while Raimi and his writers valiantly attempt to tie it all together, both Marko/Sandman and Brock/Venom are reduced to sadly underdeveloped characters and poorly-resolved subplots. (Despite Thomas Haden Church's and Topher Grace's performances; the series has never lacked for great casting.) The seams are stretched to breaking point when Brock just happens to be where Peter is while the latter is getting rid of his black costume, thus allowing it to jump from hero to villain; you know the plot is in trouble when it has to resort to such a wild coincidence. And that's not even mentioning the movie's third villain: Harry Osborne, Peter's best friend-turned New Goblin.

Which is actually one of the things it does well, largely because it's the third act of a storyline that had been building since the first movie. Their teamup in the climactic battle is fun, and the well-choreographed action scenes benefit from the series' biggest budget to date. (Unfortunately, MJ gets kidnapped by the villain yet again; seriously, can you guys ever find something else for her to do?) Which ends the movie on a not-entirely-unsatisfying note - hence 3 stars - but it's a movie that gets worse the more you think about it. The damage it does to the character of one of comics' most beloved superheroes is galling, as is the waste of one of his most popular villains from the '90s. Which Raimi, being a fan of the Silver Age Spider-Man, has no love for, and it shows; even Venom's design is a simple recolouring of Spidey's usual digs, and doesn't even look like the strikingly matte black costume from the comics. No, I didn't hate it, but I can understand all too well why the fans did.


Despite fan disapproval, Spider-Man 3 is actually the most financially successful of the trilogy and Sony/Columbia's highest-grossing film to date. Which clearly indicates that the split between the studio and Raimi had to have been acrimonious; why would they fire him after he delivered such a huge hit? But fire him they did, and with him went Maguire and Dunst and therefore the entire franchise - or at least, this iteration of it. How successful Webb's reboot remains to be seen (and by the time you read this, I will already have seen it and be writing my review), but having seen the entire Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, it's definitely a shame that he wasn't allowed to keep helming the series. No matter how bad the last one was, I don't think any Spider-fan was angry enough to not give him another chance, or who wasn't eager to see his Spider-Man 4. But that's one for the Movies That Could've Been Awesome (But Never Got Made) list now.