Continuing our look back at Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Raimi was always an interesting filmmaker. His early films showed incredible youthful energy that translated into a restlessly exaggerated visual style, often at the expense of the story he was telling. The Evil Dead trilogy is a lot of fun, but no one pretends that they’re good stories on any level, neither well-written nor well-acted. They are memorable for their manic energy, and for Raimi’s boldness, not afraid to veer from George Romero to Tex Avery and back again within seconds. With Darkman, Raimi showed that he could channel that manic energy into a more coherent story to create a superhero worthy of the big screen. And with Spider-Man, he finally got to do the same thing, only now with an iconic hero and a major studio budget for a tentpole action picture.
But it’s still a Raimi film, with all of his strengths and all of his weaknesses. His energy and inventive visual style are present, but he is still sometimes careless about performances, intercutting takes of wildly different tones in order to force in a joke or a specific beat he wants.
We left off last week with Peter discovering his spider-powers and deciding to use them to make money so he can buy a car to date girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson. Cue the training montage, with Peter training with his webs, covering his room in sticky white stuff while Aunt May knocks on the door and wonders why he’s suddenly spending so much time locked in there. I know that people have long equated superheroes with adolescent power fantasies, but thanks for making that masturbation link super-explicit, movie. Oh, and in a nicely subtle bit, Peter’s wallpaper has a vaguely spider-web-like pattern.
So anyway, Peter heads out for his big wrestling debut, but Uncle Ben volunteers to drive him as a pretext for grilling him about what’s going on. And for those who don’t know, Uncle Ben’s huge car, an Olds Delta 88, is a Sam Raimi trademark; the same car had appeared in every Raimi film to that point (including, if Raimi is to be believed, his Western The Quick and the Dead). Ben comes out with the “With great power comes great responsibility” line, but Peter gets defensive and argues with him.
Wrestling time! The gig is to spend three minutes in the ring with the dreaded Bonesaw McGraw, who is crippling people right and left. When Peter’s turn comes, he tells the emcee that his name is The Human Spider, but the emcee says that sucks and introduces him as the Amaaaaaaaaaaaaaazing Spider-Man. And oh, by the way, the emcee is Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell.
And now we get to see Peter’s thrown-together costume as he fights Bonesaw while locked inside a giant steel cage.
I love the cheapness and home-made look of this costume, although the very realism of it makes the super-slick later costume a little harder to buy into. Peter takes a while to get used to his strength and agility (and his ability to take a pounding), but soon enough, he knocks Bonesaw flat out cold. And although the emcee announces Peter as the “new champion,” I don’t get the idea that he ends up taking on all comers for the rest of night. Instead, we just see the promoter toss Peter a hundred dollars and tell him to take off. Peter argues that he is owed $3,000, but the promoter says the $3,000 was explicitly for a three-minute fight, and Peter won in two. So no car for Pete.
And as we’re all hating that guy for being crooked, along comes an agent of justice to punish him. Or, that is, a crook to rob him of the money he refused to share. Peter’s waiting at the elevator and purposely lets the guy get clean away.
When the promoter complains, Peter tosses the guy’s words back at him with a smirk. And if this were a snobs-vs-slobs comedy, seeing that guy get his comeuppance would be our happy ending. But we’re telling a very different story here. When Peter gets back to where Uncle Ben dropped him off, he finds his uncle dying from a gunshot wound. Cliff Robertson plays the death as if Ben has had a stroke, which nicely conveys the horror of the moment.
Peter hears the cops say they found the guy, so Peter decides to claim his own personal justice. He throws his costume back on and leaps up the walls. He learns how to websling and after some initial awkwardness, quickly catches the car, causing it to crash into an abandoned factory. The digital stunt double works much more convincingly when he’s in costume and assuming characteristic poses from the comic book, as opposed to the jerky running and jumping of the digital civilian Peter. The darkness doesn’t hurt either.
Inside the factory, Peter stalks the bad guy, leading to some glimpses of very familiar poses for fans of the comics. When he confronts the man, there’s a brief fight. It’s not bad, but the staging is off, like there’s a bit missing. From one shot to the next, a gun magically appears in the carjacker’s hand, and moments later, he goes from terrified to laughing and triumphant. Oh, and he’s totally the guy that Peter just let rob the wrestling promoter. Irony! Or am I pulling a Morissette here?
Peter freezes in horror, but luckily, the crook is a moron and trips out the window, killing himself before he can shoot Peter.
Meanwhile, a mysterious laughing green figure flying what is obviously the stolen OsCorp glider destroys an exoskeleton undergoing a field test at Quest Aerospace (named for Jonny Quest, perhaps?). The general who decided to kill OsCorp’s performance enhancer project (wish they had a catchier name for that) is himself killed. Now that’s got to be irony, right? Or is it just a pun?
Anyway, because this is a Sam Raimi film, we get a flashy transition as the debris turns to flying hats at graduation. Peter is so busy being chatted up by Norman Osborne (who uses the term “commencement” to let us know they’re starting a new story now; this is going to be a long movie) that he doesn’t notice Mary Jane breaking up with Flash Thompson. But Harry notices.
Later, Aunt May tells Peter he was meant for great things. Peter looks at the costume drawings that inspired his wrestling get-up, and next thing you know, a mysterious figure is foiling robberies all over town, while wearing a familiar-looking costume.
Scenes of Spider-Man webslinging and grabbing criminals are intercut with newspaper articles and man-on-the-street interviews, including a brief bit from Lucy Lawless, who starred as Xena: Warrior Princess in the Raimi-produced syndicated TV series.
In a revealing bit that can only be detected via freeze-frame, the news articles shown on screen repeats bits of text between and even inside the articles, but unlike some films, the text actually does talk about the actual events of the film. Oh, and speaking of newspapers, meet Daily Bugle editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson.
I love J.K. Simmons in this role. The writing is sharp, and Simmons really sells JJJ’s gruff persona while making him smarter, funnier and more appealing than the cartoonish blowhard he too often was in the comics. Jameson wants a front page picture and offers a reward for it. An off-hand reference by city editor Robbie Robertson to “Eddie” failing to get a picture is an Easter Egg for fans, referring to Eddie Brock, about whom we’ll learn more in Spider-Man 3. Also, just for hte sake of thoroughness, Raimi’s brother Ted plays an assistant editor here as well.
Peter meets Mary Jane in the street by coincidence. She moved to the city to be an actress, but is working as a waitress. She asks Peter not to tell Harry, whom she has been dating for a while now (which comes as a surprise to Peter). Back at the apartment Peter and Harry share, Harry tries to deflect questions about his mystery girlfriend by getting Norman to offer Peter a job. Harry is hoping to look like a benefactor to Peter, but it backfires when Peter refuses, prompting Norman to express his respect and goosing Harry’s jealousy. Peter decides to try selling photos of Spider-Man.
Peter photographs himself in costume foiling a robbery, and we finally see all the elements of the Spider-Man we love–the acrobatic fighting style, the wisecracks, the webs–come together.
Jonah calls the pictures crap, then runs one on the front page. Peter meets Betty Brant (though she isn’t explicitly introduced as such), played with charm by Elizabeth Banks. She was a major character in the comics, but she’s pretty much wasted here.
Back at OsCorp, Norman gives a glowing progress report to his board of directors, so they fire him, because business executives are naturally evil and stupid or something. Seriously, this scene makes no damn sense, but like the earlier scene introducing Uncle Ben, we’re just supposed to accept the villainy of business-types on faith. Norman vows revenge.
Cut to a festival in Times Square. I don’t really like this scene, mainly because this huge set-piece was never set up earlier. We’re just suddenly in the middle of billboards (the subject of controversy when the movie was released, because Sony apparently digitally replaced the actual billboards in Times Square with virtual ads they sold themselves), big balloons that look cribbed from Tim Burton’s Batman, and a crowd that appears excited to hear Macy Gray sing. Sorry, I can only suspend disbelief so far.
In the international spirit of the festival, Mary Jane is wearing this really hot red satin Chinese-themed dress, and speaking of the limits of my suspension of disbelief, Harry complains about it. Seriously, Mary Jane as written is not a very interesting character, nor does Kirsten Dunst imbue her with much charm, but she is absolutely a knockout in this dress, and shame on Harry for making her feel bad. And shame on the board of directors for not telling Harry beforehand that, since his father was ousted as CEO, the Osbornes aren’t really welcome at this VIP party. But look out, there’s a crasher.
I don’t hate this interpretation of the Green Goblin, although I don’t love it, either. I know that movies love to convert silly super-costumes into functional armor, but the very functionality of it makes that grinning helmet look superfluous. Also, the mesh in the mouth that allows you to see Osborne’s actual mouth speaking inside is kind of distracting. The Goblin kills the board of directors with a well-placed pumpkin bomb, leading to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Stan Lee.
Finally, we get our first real confrontation between hero and villain as Peter arrives to save the day. The Goblin is tough, but Spider-Man’s quick thinking allows him to disable the glider and send the Goblin packing. Spider-Man then saves Mary Jane, and romantic sparks fly, which makes Harry nervous when he hears about it.
Meanwhile, back at the Osborne mansion, Norman is in his study, full of creepy tribal masks and a weird painting of bug-headed people (a neat background detail that creepily illustrates his inner state) when his evil self speaks to him from the mirror. He says that if Spider-Man won’t be turned, then he must be destroyed, except he gets it all backwards for copyright reasons or something. Oh, and Willem Dafoe can really do a creepy Green Goblin grin, which makes me like the helmet even less for covering it up.
See you next week for the conclusion.