It's been ten years since Sam Raimi showed us a man could swing. How does the original Spider-Man hold up? Quite well, thank you for asking.
Has it really only been ten years since the first Spider-Man movie swinged into theaters? At the time of its release, its existence seemed like something of a miracle; I still remember heading into the theater for my first viewing amazed that I was actually going to be seeing Spider-Man swing through the urban canyons of Manhattan on the big screen. Those feelings might sound strange to the younger generation of geeks, who have been fortunate to grow up accustomed to seeing a new Spidey movie every three or four years. Prior to 2002, there was no such guarantee. For decades, the screen rights to Spider-Man had been tied up in a variety of legal battles, which short-circuited several planned movies most famously one that would have been directed by James Cameron from his own scriptment. (In the late '70s, overseas audiences did get a chance to see Spidey invade their cinemas: the pilot episode of the TV show was released abroad as a feature film.)
That complicated legal web finally untangled itself in 2000, just in time for Sony -- which had emerged victorious from the courtroom fight -- to seize upon the renewed excitement in comic book movies generated first by the success of Blade and then by Bryan Singer's X-Men. In a move that delighted (and, it must be said, surprised) many comics fans at the time, the studio entrusted this lucrative property to a director who was a cult favorite, but had not guaranteed track record of mainstream success: Sam Raimi. It was a bold move that paid off in a big way at the box office: Spider-Man became the first movie in history to gross $100 million in its opening weekend and went on to make $400 million in the U.S. alone. Raimi's two sequels performed equally well and the trilogy as a whole eventually earned $2.5 billion worldwide.
Now, Spider-Man is back for his fourth movie, but Raimi is long gone and Sony is rebooting the series from the ground-up, complete with what purports to be a new take on the wall-crawler's familiar origin story. With the arrival of The Amazing Spider-Man, it seems appropriate to take a look back and celebrate Raimi's achievement with the first movie. Especially in the wake of Spider-Man 3 -- a film that even its defenders will admit is deeply, deeply problematic (I'm one of them by the way; the first hour of that movie really works... it's the second half where it flies off the rails and explodes in a giant fireball of symbiote-fueled awfulness) -- which seemed to sour folks on Raimi's trilogy in general, it's worth remembering the director and self-confessed Spider-Man fanboy demonstrated great power when tasked with the responsibility of introducing the iconic character to the mass moviegoing audience. Here are the five reasons why the first Spider-Man still holds up ten years on:
With over 50 years of adventures to choose from, everyone has their own favorite version of Spider-Man. Raimi was a vocal champion of the "original" Spidey, i.e. the teen hero created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962. Those comics had their serious side (Peter Parker's status as a put-upon outcast for one), but they were also bright, colorful and filled with visual humor, all elements that became part of Raimi's directorial vision. At the time (and still today) Spider-Man's vibrant visual palette stood in marked contrast to the trend towards hard-edged, earthbound realism in comic book movies that was seen in Singer's X-Men and reached its apotheosis in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. That cartoonish quality didn't please everyone, but it's the right fit for Raimi's specific talents and adds back some of the levity that's all too often left out of the genre. As The Avengers recently showed, there's a reason why the most successful superhero movies (Dark Knight being the most obvious exception) are those in which the heroes actually seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience.
The Origin Story
In the realm of comic book movies, Spider-Man is a model for how to introduce a hero's origin with maximum efficiency and entertainment value. The important character beats (Peter's attraction to MJ, his friendship with Harry Osborne, Norman Osborne's self-absorption) are all clearly established within the first five minutes and Pete gets his spider bite at the ten-minute mark and immediately begins his transformation. We arrive at the emotional crux of his origin thirty minutes after that and he's fully suited up as the movie reaches the end of its first hour. It's all expertly paced; quick without being confusing and comprehensive without getting bogged down in extraneous details. In fact, the first hour is so economical, the rest of the movie suffers somewhat as a result, primarily because Spider-Man's conflict with the Green Goblin is never as clearly realized as the tale of who he is and how he came to be. Raimi would solve that problem in Spider-Man 2, giving his hero a villain with his own compelling personal journey and thus building a narrative that feels all of one piece instead of two separate stories jammed together.
Then and now, Tobey Maguire was something of a divisive choice for Spider-Man and it's true that he doesn't capture some of the aspects of Peter Parker that make him such a resonate character for five decades. (Chief among them, his sharp wit and his cleverness in battle and in the classroom; we're not saying his Spidey was stupid, but his victories often seemed to be achieved through sheer luck rather than skill. ) On the other hand, Maguire did effectively embody two of Peter's defining characteristics: his eternal optimism in the face of seemingly impossible odds and his New York-sized heart. There's something immediately endearing about the actor's wide-eyed, slightly goofy stare that immediately makes you want to root for Pete and that connection to a hero is key. No one cared if George Clooney's Batman lived or died, but most of us damn sure wanted to see Maguire's Spider-Man kick the Goblin's green behind.
Few things date faster than computer effects and it's true that much of the CGI-Spidey action in Spider-Man hasn't aged particularly well. (The Times Square battle contains some of the most egregiously dated effects work.) That said, I still get a thrill out of the extended sequences of Spider-Man swinging around Manhattan, both due to the fact that I had waited so long to see it in the first place and because it's just so much damn fun to watch. Those scenes capture the sheer exhilaration of web-slinging that makes kids dream of being Spider-Man in the first place.
While I'll always stick up for Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker, I tend to side with those who consider Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane a major piece of miscasting, which is especially unfortunate since the trilogy comes to hinge so much on their romance. (There's a reason why the last shot of Raimi's third and final Spider-Man movie isn't Maguire in costume, but rather the image of Peter and MJ embracing. That's ultimately the story that comes to matter most to him.) But even if their relationship is one of the weaker parts of Spider-Man, the upside-down kiss in the rain remains a fantastic moment in Spidey lore, communicating all the pent-up passion and wish-fulfillment that's otherwise mostly missing from their romance.
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