Spider-Man (2002) & Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Comics & Superheroes | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Spidey’s web catches a few flying swears, snags a tad bit of violence, and nets Peter Parker in some sticky sex life predicaments (not literally).

For the past eight years or so – because I no longer fit into costumes and adults no longer tolerate persons my age going door to door – I’ve collected candy into a large bowl, accentuated my creepy facial hair, and put on a properly stained T-shirt to give children (and their parents) a good reason to be frightened on Halloween. Every year when kids greet me with an enthusiastic “trick or treat,” I’ve seen more than half the boys wear the same costume. Maybe it’s a sign of parents getting lazy and merely purchasing an already-made costume – when I was a kid I was always excited for my mother’s clever costume creations – but a far more likely explanation is the powerful cinematic grasp that the Spider-Man franchise had on children for nearly a decade.

Crafted from the Marvel Comic penned by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the franchise cost nearly $600 million to create and raked in more than $1 billion, setting several box office records along the way. The films were helmed by Sam Raimi, the man behind the Evil Dead trilogy (and Spidey includes cameos by his brother and Bruce Campbell, plus has the same sly sense of humor), an unusual choice at the surface but a suitable one considering his collection of more than 25,000 comics.

Spider-Man is one of the great superheroes. Not so much for his powers, which make him more than human, but for his “normal” traits, which make him recognizable. Peter Parker is socially inoperable; a nerd who wears glasses and lives with his working class aunt and uncle. He’s the kid everyone makes fun of (we first see him chasing the school bus). A field trip to Columbia University’s science department – the genetically engineered spider exhibit to be exact – leads to Parker’s transformation when he’s bit by one of the eight-legged pests. When Peter wakes up the next day, he gains newfound muscles, improved eyesight, and agility that allows him to scale buildings, jump huge distances, and use the webs that shoot from his wrists to travel in style. It isn’t until Peter enters a wrestling competition that leads to his uncle’s death, however, that Spider-Man is truly born. “These are the years when a man changes into the man he’s going to become,” his philosophizing uncle (Cliff Robertson) says. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The always bra-less Mary Jane Spidey3(Kirsten Dunst), or MJ, is the object of Peter’s affection and the girl next door, literally. She comes from a poor home environment and dates men above her class, suggesting she wants to escape (plus she aspires to be an actress). Harry Osborn (James Franco), Peter’s best friend, is the product of a wealthy scientist father, who pushes him to succeed despite failing loads of private schools. Though he’s spoiled and rich, Harry would prefer to blend in. His father is Norman Osborn, head of Oscorp, a leading nifty gadget supplier for the military. His newest creation, human performance enhancers, has yielded negative results as patients turned aggressive and violent. Of course, he uses himself as a test subject and becomes the schizophrenic Green Goblin, a hovercraft-gliding bombardier with superstrength.

The choices Raimi makes in deviating from the comics are entirely reasonable, and superfans are likely glad, though three villains in the third installment – no matter how badass Topher Grace’s Venom and Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman were – was a bit much. Perhaps fans’ biggest qualms with Raimi occurred before the film was released as he cast the scrawny Tobey Maguire to play the web-slinging title character. Those concerns were quickly extinguished, however, as Maguire brought a perfect amount of empathy and depth to the character, not to mention he bulked up quite a bit. With his perfectly evil facial combination of eyebrows and sneer (perhaps more frightening than the mask he wears), Willem Dafoe exudes pure evil as the giggling Green Goblin. Dafoe’s wonderful performance peaks with a one-man show in the mirror, innocently asking questions as Osborn and terrifyingly responding as Goblin.

Almost immediately after spidey2completing the first film, Raimi signed on for the sequel. Author Michael Chabon came in during the early stages of the script and, thankfully, cut down Spidey’s villain count from four to just one. As the film unfolds, we see the busy Peter lose his pizza delivery job and position at the Daily Bugle (JK Simmons plays the crooked tabloid editor). He’s missing classes at Columbia, his aunt’s (Rosemary Harris) home is threatened with foreclosure, and MJ is engaged to an astronaut. In short, his life is in shambles – a fact that soon reflects on his powers. Meanwhile, Harry has partnered with Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who looks to revolutionize fusion and create renewable energy for the whole world (“the power of the sun in the palm of my hand”). He’s a kind man who tells Peter that “intelligence is a privilege; it’s a gift you use for the good of mankind.” But when a slight mishap in his experiment fuses four mechanical arms to his spinal cord, leaving the impervious devils in control of his brain, Otto becomes the monstrous Doctor Octopus or Doc Ock.

Peter’s biggest struggle doesn’t involve Ock, but himself. Since his enemies would harm MJ, he can’t be with her, but he also can’t muster up the courage to tell her the truth. To better his personal life and win over MJ, Peter quits the hero game. He thinks he’s changed, but finds it increasingly harder to ignore crimes happening in front of his eyes. “Am I not supposed to have what I want? What I need? What am I supposed to do?” he asks. A small child who idolizes Spidey and lives next to Peter’s aunt makes him realize his true calling. “Too few characters out there like that, saving old girls like me,” she says. “Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero: courageous, self-sacrificing. People setting examples for all of us.”

The film has unexpected depth, which partly led to Roger Ebert’s declaration of “the best superhero movie since the modern genre was launched with Superman. … It’s a superhero movie for people who don’t go to superhero movies, and for those that do, it’s the one they’ve been yearning for.” And though a few viewers may think the drama makes the film lag (which I’d find hard to believe), it doesn’t bring the action element down at all. The sequel has the best action sequences of the series including a botched surgery, bank robbery, and an interruption during a romantic lunch. But none of them beat the unmasked train rescue, which introduces a little Christ archetype.

Raimi and effects specialist John Dykstra spent about $30 million to create Spidey’s traveling sequences, which have him whizzing past cabs and between buildings to ultimately land on an unlikely surface such as a flagpole. Raimi described them as “ballet in the sky.” A much more interesting use of effects, at least in my mind, was the demonstration of Parker’s “spidey sense” (in the first film) as a fight looms in the hallway and time momentarily stands still. Dykstra later went on to enjoy an Oscar nomination for the visual effects and the sequel went on to win the category. Throughout the series I really enjoyed the clever editing, which would appear to be cartoonish and kitschy in most films, but is a welcomed and suitable fit for a comic book movie.

Though a high schooler at the time, the first film tracks Peter Parker’s period of adolescence or infancy, since he’s new at the whole superhero thing. By the second film, a mere two years later, he says, “There are bigger things going on here.” Spidey’s web spins into adulthood and maturity, dealing with moral and ethical dilemmas. For the sake of this analogy, the disappointing third film is Spidey’s reign as a senior citizen, who develops Alzheimer’s and forgets who he is.

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