by D.W. Lundberg

Saturday, May 10, 2014


The fun of the Spider-Man comics has always been that Peter Parker is intrinsically One of Us. We just may be too modest to admit it. We all feel the awkwardness of our teenage years, we all dream of greater power and responsibility, we all yearn for the courage and the conviction to swoop in and save the day. Swinging through the spires and the skyscrapers of New York City, Peter's world feels grounded in the everyday (well, as "everyday" as a kid in a red-and-blue leotard fighting crime, anyway), and his quips and his wisecracks give him the edge over his enemies, not only stronger and faster but smarter and wittier than they are too. With skills like that, who wouldn't want to be Spider-Man?

Despite his enormous popularity, however, the concept for Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's iconic creation almost didn't make it off the ground. When pitching his initial ideas for the character, Lee recalls that his publisher, Martin Goodman, asked, "Don't you understand what a hero is?" Goodman felt that the idea of a teen-aged superhero - especially a high school nerd who was unpopular with the ladies - wouldn't appeal to readers, since most teens in comic books (think "Bucky" Barnes or Dick Grayson) served only as sidekicks to more experienced crimefighters. Little did he realize that audiences were clamoring for a character they could call their own; unlike Superman, say, with his godlike powers and chiseled physique, or Batman, with his unlimited gadgets and millions of dollars at his disposal, Peter Parker struggled with more conventional problems, like passing his classes or trying to hold down a job. And comic book fans fell immediately in love with him. Spider-Man debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15 in June 1962 and sold in record numbers (in 2011, a near- mint edition of this issue sold for $1.1 million to a private collector). He has since become Marvel's flagship character and company mascot, appearing in multiple comic titles, cartoons, radio plays, movies, books, video games, even a Broadway musical (with music by U2's Bono and The Edge).

Spidey's first foray outside of comic books was a weekly cartoon series which aired on ABC from 1967-69, and then in syndication through 1970. (It also originated the popular "Spider-Man" theme song, written by Paul Francis Webster and Bob Harris.) Next came his appearances on The Electric Company (1974-77, co-starring Morgan Freeman!), CBS's live-action The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-79, of which several episodes were re-edited and released theatrically overseas), and a second and third cartoon series (airing from 1981-82 and 1981-83, respectively). Plans for a big-screen Spider-Man began to take shape in 1985, when Marvel Comics optioned the rights to the character. But the licensing lapsed from studio to studio after they failed to come up with a satisfactory script.

Then, in 1990, Carolco Pictures snatched up the property and hired James Cameron (Terminator 2) to write and direct. Cameron's "scriptment," as it was called, made some radical changes to the comic, including R-rated curse words and alternate identities for villains Electro and Sandman. Most controversially, he gave Peter organic webshooters - i.e., quarter-inch spinnerets embedded in his wrists, as opposed to concocting the material himself - because Cameron felt it would be easier for audiences to accept. (The scriptment also makes explicit the idea of Peter's burgeoning superpowers as metaphor for sexual awakening.) Legal tangles, however, prevented Cameron's vision from ever coming to fruition, with several parties claiming authorship of all previous incarnations of the screenplay.

Enter Sam Raimi and Columbia Pictures. Columbia finally acquired the licensing to Spider-Man in March of 1999, after wrestling the property away from MGM/United Artists. The studio initially approached Chris Columbus, Tim Burton and David Fincher as potential directors, before settling on Raimi (Darkman, The Evil Dead), whose passion for the project ultimately landed him the job (he claims to own over 25,000 comic books). Raimi worked with screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) to turn Cameron's material into a workable screenplay; the only idea they kept, however, was the organic webshooters. They eliminated Sandman and Electro as the villains and replaced them with the Green Goblin instead - to punch up the father-son dynamic between Peter, Norman Osborn and Harry Osborn. (The script was later rewritten by Scott Rosenberg and Alvin Sargent.) Raimi also worked extensively with visual effects supervisor John Dykstra to create a believable CG Spider-Man.

Tobey Maguire was cast as Peter Parker in July 2000; ironically, studio execs thought he wasn't physically suited for the part, but were impressed by his "newly buff, aerobicized form" during a screen test. Willem Dafoe was cast as Norman Osborn/the Green Goblin later that year, after Nicolas Cage and John Malkovich declined offers; Kirsten Dunst landed the role of Mary Jane Watson in December 2000. And for the first time since his inception in 1962, and after 25 years stuck in litigation, a Spider-Man film entered production in January of 2001, with a $110 million budget.

When Spider-Man debuted on May 3, 2002, the anticipation was so great that its $114 million opening weekend really shouldn't have come as such a surprise. At the time, though, it was unprecedented; I distinctly remember hearing the report on the radio while traveling in Boston, and thinking it must have been some kind of mistake. (By comparison, the previous record holder for biggest opening weekend, Harry Potter And The Sorceror's Stone, grossed $90 million.) The movie broke all sorts of records that summer: highest-grossing opening day ($39.4 million), biggest box office earnings in a single day ($43.6 million, May 4), fastest film to reach $100 million (in three days), biggest opening for a non-sequel, fastest film to gross $300 million (22 days), and the most successful superhero film of all time ($821 million worldwide). Audiences loved it. Critics, too, seemed caught up in its web of action, romance and (sometimes shoddy) special effects. What X-Men (2000) merely hinted at, Spider-Man made abundantly clear: the age of the Comic Book Movie was now in full swing. 

Now a word or two about canon. Your opinion may differ, of course, but the Spider-Man of Raimi's film is pretty much the Spider-Man I remember from my youth. His adventures were always a little cheesy, a little goofy, with an occasional quip or emotional gut punch to remind us that he was just your average kid from Queens. The movie futzes the details a bit, to appeal to modern audiences - Peter's webbing, for one, or the "genetically-altered super spider" that bites him on the hand, rather than a radioactive one. (What is it with Stan Lee and radioactive superpowers anyway? That seems to be his go-to explanation for everything.) But it's the overarching tone of the thing - its respect and admiration for the character - that won audiences over in the end. Spider-Man hits all its requisite marks and moves on, the way any self- respecting comic book spectacular should, and it wasn't until later, when the franchise tried to be all things to everyone, that Raimi and company began to step wrong. Poor Peter Parker. The kid just can't seem to catch a break.


The Original: Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002)

Cast: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson, J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Banks, Ted Raimi, Bill Nunn

Plot: A high school nerd is bitten by a genetically-altered spider during a field trip, and starts to develop superpowers just as a costumed maniac called the Green Goblin threatens New York.

How It Set The Tone: If X-Men opened the door to the modern-day Comic Book Movie, Spider-Man blew the door off its hinges - a rowdy, remarkably faithful adaptation of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's seminal 60's comic, which opened to mammoth box office and general critics' approval. Director Sam Raimi proves himself ideal for the project, mixing the macabre of his Evil Dead films with the eccentricities of Darkman. The screenplay, too, hits all its marks with relative ease - and gives Aunt May, Uncle Ben, J. Jonah Jameson and the rest the proper respect they deserve. (Raimi and company also take care to name-drop some hints at future sequels, including Betty Brant, Eddie Brock and Dr. Curt Connors.) As Peter Parker, Tobey Maguire perfectly captures the character's awkwardness and social ineptitude (something all of us have felt at one time or another), and later, the exhilaration he feels when he straps on the mask and swoops around the city fighting criminals. My favorite arc in the movie, though, might just be Mary Jane's, charting her path to adulthood in terms of the people she dates - from jock ("Flash" Thompson) to rich kid (Harry Osborn) to, finally, the man who loves her, heart and soul (Peter).

Room For Improvement: Spidey's adventures have always been a little cornball (in that red-and-blue leotard, how could they not?), but the cartoon special effects are often deployed at all the wrong moments (Uncle Ben's death, for instance), which takes us out of the movie when we should be emotionally invested in it. And while it's good to have a villain who's a dark mirror of the hero (Willem Dafoe's Norman Osborn spends most of his time fending off his alter ego while Parker embraces his), the Green Goblin's design is silly and not at all cinematic (a rooftop encounter between Spider-Man and the Goblin in which we barely see their mouths move for two minutes borders on the ridiculous). Still, when you consider the characters' long and tortured sojourn to the screen, it could have been a lot worse.

Grade: B

Sequel: Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)

Returning Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Banks, Ted Raimi, Bill Nunn, Cliff Robertson (cameo), Willem Dafoe (cameo)

New Cast: Alfred Molina, Donna Murphy, Dylan Baker, Daniel Gillies, Vanessa Ferlito

Plot: While he struggles to balance his relationships with his life as a superhero, Peter Parker faces the wrath of the evil Dr. Octopus, a former physicist turned rampaging monster.

How It Compares: I included this as part of my "Best of the Noughties" retrospective, and it's a testament to the structure of the film - as elegant and tightly woven as a spider's web - that it continues to inspire all superhero sequels to this day. Bolder and better, exponentially improved over the original yet more of the same, this is an achingly adult Spider-adventure - and I'm not just talking about the "performance issues" that plague our protagonist for the bulk of the plot. Every character has an emotional cross to bear, his/her own existential crisis to solve, and the screenplay by Alvin Sargent (with a co-story credit from Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon) never lets anyone off the hook; even the film's penultimate final shot, of Spidey swinging triumphantly off into the distance, is followed by a forlorn look from Mary Jane - a tantalizing hook (Is she already second-guessing her decision? Or maybe fretting about what their future bouncing spider-babies will look like?) that went frustratingly unanswered in the eventual threequel. The tone, however, is light and frothy throughout, with comedy bits that are sharply observed (i.e., Peter accidentally staining his clothes red and blue in the wash). Kudos, too, to the creative team, for infusing each of Dr. Octopus's mechanical limbs with more wit and personality than they probably had any right to. As played by Alfred Molina, Doc Ock is of a piece with the rest of the movie: soulful, pitiful, and unexpectedly human at his center. In this genre of ever-diminishing returns, that's as close to poetry as you're gonna get.

Grade: A

Sequel: Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007)

Returning Cast: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Banks, Dylan Baker, Ted Raimi, Bill Nunn, Cliff Robertson (cameo), Willem Dafoe (cameo)

New Cast: Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, James Cromwell, Theresa Russell

Plot: An extraterrestrial goo infects Peter Parker and turns him vengeful and arrogant, exposing his darker nature, just as forces begin to conspire against him.

How It Compares: Sam Raimi's second spider-sequel is a bloated, misogynistic mess of a movie, trying to cram too much into its two-hour, twenty-minute run time and tripping over its own ambitions in the process. Call it a case of too many cooks in the kitchen: Raimi originally wanted Sandman and the Vulture to appear as the villains, until Marvel/ Columbia execs lobbied for Venom instead, to appease rabid fans. They also pushed the addition of Gwen Stacy (Peter's first love from the comics), but the problem isn't a surplus of characters, as so many critics complained; it's that the script has no idea how to tie them together thematically. In the comic books, Spider-Man tussled regularly with multiple villains, multiple love interests, multiple crises. Here, though, the bad guys are monotonous, the women are pawns, and the drama is undercooked (the Sandman, especially, gets the short shrift, saddled with a sick daughter as an explanation for his crimes and nothing to show for it). The movie's themes of forgiveness and redemption get lost in the shuffle, too, with plot strands that have no business in a mainstream summer blockbuster:
a nightclub sequence in which Emo Peter Parker (!) shows his darker side by prancing around like Roy Scheider in All That Jazz; a late revelation from a superfluous side character (thanks, Bernard!), which might have helped had he told anyone about it two movies ago; and Harry and Mary Jane making omelets and grooving to Chubby Checker like an outtake from The Big Chill. Speaking of M.J., she still may be played by the effervescent Kirsten Dunst, but even she can't compete with the movie's hackneyed storytelling and herky-jerky special effects. Compromise has always been the crux of Spidey's adventures. But did it have to happen behind the cameras too?

Grade: C

More To Come?: From this bunch? 'Fraid not. Spider- Man 3's $890 million take at the box office was enough to warrant a third sequel from Columbia Pictures, tentatively scheduled for a May 6, 2011, release. Raimi, however, couldn't commit to a quality film in that time, and in January 2010 announced he was stepping away from the franchise. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst soon followed suit. Columbia then decided (for monetary reasons) to reboot the series with a younger, hipper cast and crew, and on July 3, 2012, released The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb ([500] Days Of Summer) and starring Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. A grittier, more "realistic" take on the character, the film grossed $742 million but received mixed reviews. Its sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, fared even worse in the summer of 2014, prompting Sony Pictures to (finally!) broker a deal with Marvel Studios for future Spidey adventures.


Part Four of a superheroic series of Franchise Face-Offs. Up Next: Batman, rebooted. For past entries, feel free to click on the following for previous entries: X-Men, Frankenstein, Batman, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Rush Hour, Men In Black, Paranormal Activity, Lethal Weapon, 48HRS., Harry Potter, Transformers, Leprechaun (you heard me), The Matrix, Halloween, and our introductory segment, starring Alec Baldwin/Harrison Ford/Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan. Please comment! Let me know what other series you'd like to see!

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