Continuing our look back at the film adaptations of Spider-Man. Spider-Man did not enjoy the kind of pop icon status of elder statesmen like Batman and Superman. His first animated series was in 1967, just five years after his introduction, but after that, he got very little love. After the two live action television appearances of the 70’s (discussed last week), he was adapted into an intensely weird Japanese series, in which he controlled a giant Spider-robot that fought giant monsters. Back in the States, he got two animated series in 1981, and then entered a long dry period. Ultra-cheap Cannon Films made a big announcement that they would be making a live-action Spider-Man film in the late 80’s (around the time of their big-budget Masters of the Universe disaster), but the financing fell through and they lost the rights.
Then in the early 90’s, fan favorite James Cameron, hot off of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, was announced to be developing a live-action Spider-Man for Carolco Pictures. You can read the treatment here with storyboard drawings that look to have been done by Neal Adams’s Continuity (or perhaps Michael Netzer). It had some intriguing ideas, but also a lot of objectionable stuff that would be completely out of place in a Spider-Man story and out of character for Peter Parker. It fell through when Carolco went bankrupt, exposing a complicated legal rights nightmare that by the late 90’s looked like it might never be untangled. It eventually was, and in 2002, Spider-Man finally made it to the big screen with Sam Raimi at the helm. So let’s jump in, shall we?
The opening credits feature cartoony webs with computer-animated close-ups of Spider-Man’s costume over Danny Elfman’s rather generic-sounding Spider-Man theme. The credits dissolve into a “real” (probably CG) web in a real street as Peter Parker begins with a voiceover, telling us that “This, like any story worth telling, is all about a girl.” Considering the girl in question, thank God that’s not really true.
But this introduces us to Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), sweaty nerd, who is picked on by pretty much everybody at his school, including the other nerds and even the bus driver.
Everybody, that is, except Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the girl next door, who is kind-hearted enough not to like seeing him picked on, although she is dating Flash Thompson, Peter’s chief tormentor.
Peter’s class takes a field trip to a science lab, where we meet Peter’s best friend, poor little rich boy Harry Osborne (James Franco) and his father Norman (Willem Dafoe).
Harry and his father have issues. Norman is a successful scientist running his own company, while Harry has been thrown out of a number of private schools and feels his father’s disapproval. He feels even worse when his father meets Peter, who is a science whiz like Norman. Oh yeah, and Peter pointedly mentions his aunt and uncle instead of parents, just so we know he’s an orphan.
The lab is doing genetic splicing on spiders, so we get descriptions of all of Spider-Man’s future powers–strength, speed, spider-sense, webs–throughout the lecture. And just so we’re not drowning in exposition here, Harry hits on Mary Jane using spider-trivia he just ridiculed Peter for knowing, setting up a later triangle. And Mary Jane reveals herself as some kind of math whiz, immediately realizing that there’s a genetically engineered super-spider missing from its case. The tour guide dismisses her observation, however.
Peter finally musters the courage to talk to Mary Jane by asking her to pose for pictures for the school newspaper (setting up his later career choice), which puts him in exactly the wrong spot to get bitten by the missing super-spider.
And just so we don’t miss the significance, we see a computer screen in the background displaying the gene splicing sequence, ending with the words “New Species.” The scene overall does a really efficient job of introducing a number of story elements that will become important later–Peter being bullied, Harry’s hitting on Mary Jane knowing that Peter has a crush on her, Peter’s career aspirations, the laundry list of powers he will later develop–and manages to keep a light humorous touch.
Meanwhile, back at OsCorp…
I include this shot only because I’m fascinated at the way they can combine elements to create an entire fantasy location, and also because this is the type of massive factory complex typical of Marvel Comics. You would often see Iron Man fighting in exactly this type of setting in his role as Tony Stark’s “bodyguard,” for instance. But impressive as it is, not a lot of major action occurs here. At the moment, Norman Osborne is making a presentation to a general of his various military tech projects, for instance, this guy.
Cool as this is, the general has seen it before. What he really wants to know about is the human enhancement project. Doctor Strom, one of Osborne’s scientists, warns against human testing because one rat tested became psychotic. The general is unhappy, and Osborne is livid at Strom’s betrayal.
And now we are introduced to Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Rosemary Harris really looks a lot like the comics’ Aunt May. Uncle Ben can’t find a job and blames corporations or computers or something.
The scene is supposed to explain why they’re struggling financially, I guess (Ben has been laid off from his job by a corporation looking to “upsize its profits”), but it doesn’t really work for me. Ben was a senior electrician working at the same company for 35 years in New York, not particularly known as a right-to-work state. Are you telling me that at 68, he doesn’t have a substantial union-negotiated retirement package? It doesn’t ring true and feels more like a screenwriter trying to score some easy sympathy by assuming his audience will automatically equate “company” with “bad guy.” Anyway, Peter returns home feeling sick. The spider bite looks really nasty, but he keeps it secret for some reason.
Back at Oscorp, Osborne decides to test the human enhancement formula on himself, like you do, and for some reason, Strom decides to help him. Once again, the scene doesn’t really ring true, but I guess they felt it was necessary to have Strom there so Osborne, driven to psychosis by the formula, can kill him right away without having to write a separate scene. God knows the movie doesn’t need to be any longer. Oh, and Willem Dafoe does a lot of yoga, so his body is really lean and cut, even in the weirdo psycho poses.
Peter dreams of DNA and spiders and skulls in a signature Raimi montage of superimposed images. He wakes up feeling (and looking) buff.
Maguire famously buffed up for the role, which is a little odd, given that Spider-Man was always more lanky than muscle-bound. But it has the intended effect here, to make you realize that he has gone through an astounding transformation. Oh, and he can totally see right into Mary Jane’s room from his window, the little perv. Also, Mary Jane’s father is an abusive bastard and paper sticks to Peter’s hand. Ew.
Meanwhile, in the enormous Osborne mansion, Harry finds his father unconscious on the floor with no memory of the previous night. An employee arrives to say Strom has been murdered and the glider and high tech flight suit stolen.
At school, Peter discovers he has incredibly fast reflexes and a gooey white discharge from his wrist that turns out to be webbing. Ew again.
This is actually one of the more controversial elements retained from the James Cameron version. In the comics, Spider-Man’s web’s came from wrist-mounted devices he invented himself, but in the context of the movie’s world, I find it a smaller leap of faith to accept that the same genetic alteration that gave him other spider abilities also gave him the ability to shoot webs than to believe that Peter Parker is not only super, but such a genius that he could also invent in his bedroom something that has eluded the efforts of major chemical corporations for years. Plus, there’s the whole sexual metaphor thing, or is that just me?
Anyway, Peter’s web-jaculation ends up spilling a tray of food onto Flash Thompson, who starts a fight with Peter. And so Peter learns more about his spider-senses, his speed, his agility, and his strength, which knocks Thompson twenty feet down the hall when Peter finally bothers to hit him back. And though Peter takes some pleasure in socking it to Thompson, who has tormented him for so long, abuse victim Mary Jane doesn’t look thrilled about his newfound affinity for violence.
Peter ditches school and spends the afternoon exploring his powers further, so in short order, we get our first wall-crawling scene, a brief glimpse of Maguire’s jerkily-animated CG stunt double leaping between rooftops, and Peter learning how to control his webs in a jokey sequence that has him trying different hand poses and catch phrases.
Peter finally returns home after dark to find the kitchen painted (something he was supposed to help with, so guilt) and dinner left in the oven. Peter shares a tender moment over the back fence with Mary Jane, and their relationship just doesn’t make any sense. They seem almost like strangers, and yet they have lived next door, with their houses practically touching, since he was six years old. You mean they never played together or hung out during all that time? They are interrupted by the arrival of Flash with his new car, which gives Peter the idea that he needs a car of his own to impress Mary Jane.
Problem is, to buy a car, he needs money. He sees an ad offering cash for wrestlers, “colorful characters a must.” So he designs a spider-based costume in another montage. There’s a nice touch when we see a glimpse of a black-widow based costume that that looks mighty similar to the black costume from the comics, with a note that says “Needs More Color!” Finally, he designs the iconic Spider-Man costume, inspired by the blue-and-red colors of the genetically-modified super-spider that gave him his powers.
And that’s where we’ll leave it for now. I was thinking of going further into the story, but there were so many screencaps establishing the different characters that I decided to push the final part of Spidey’s origin to next week. See you then.