The Path of Spider-Man: From Sam Raimi’s Charm to a Disconnected World
With the recent release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 there are now 5 live-action Spider-Man films since 2002, averaging just less than 1 movie every couple of years. Now that pace may not be too uncommon nowadays, but the Spider-man franchise has the unique trait of being “rebooted” within that 12-year span. Many resented The Amazing Spider-Man simply because it existed, a criticism that this writer is unwilling to accept because it is an irrelevant criticism in itself. The movie exists. Judging it with the basis that a film’s existence should be otherwise (joking aside) is unfair and useless.
Before getting too far off track though, this article is meant to be a retrospect of the Spidey franchise, even phenomena if you will and a look into what may be going wrong with the Peter Parker and friends experience. The series has turned itself into a staple in the Marvel universe and the character has gained an amount of ultra-popularity that may now only be rivaled by Bruce Wayne and his Batman alter ego.
There are plenty of questions and observations that are apparent in the path this series has taken in the decade plus of existence, some positive and some not so pleasant, but there is no denying the impact the red and blue suited snark-filled character has had on the superhero universe, so it should be interesting to take a look back at all 4 previous installments, and also share some thoughts on the latest.
While looking back, the goal will not only be to make clear the opinions of this writer as they pertain to the quality of these films, but to determine how this franchise became so popular in the first place and what may be expected from further web-slinging efforts in the film industry. So, without further ado, lets take a look back at this franchise to see where it came from, and what may lie ahead.
It was highly unlikely that a film with so much money and advertising was going to fail, but the massive success that came with the first entry in the Sam Raimi trilogy was not really what anyone expected. However, this type of Spider-Man success is exactly what you get when you spend a lot of money and actually try to… you know… make a good movie.
Re-watching all 4 previous Spider-Man films recently was a reminder of how the finished products (at least of the first 2 films) seemed like labors of love from the director. The first film managed to keep the origin story interesting and charming and developed a tone that would carry on throughout the first two entries. Raimi was also not afraid to link this movie with previous superhero films like Superman (with Christopher Reeves for all you young kids who just got confused) and Tim Burton’s Batman efforts. There’s a clear influence present from those films in this opening film, which shows an appreciation of what makes the superhero genre work.
Making an origin story is not very often an easy task. They tend to be plodding and there are typically too many things that need explanations. Spider-Man stands out as one of the best handled superhero origin stories told on the silver screen, so much so that it’s hard to believe anyone who tries to reboot this series (again) would do anything all that different.
While the success may in part be due to the simplicity of how Spider-Man began, it has been proven that something stupid can be done with the material (but more on that later). Peter Parker’s discovery of powers was something that was nearly flawlessly incorporated into the structure of the film. Showing off superpowers is something with which these films often seem to struggle, specifically pointing to a scene in X-Men: First Class, in which the audience is subjected to a shameless display of teenagers showing off their powers.
Instead with Spider-Man the audience gets a fully thought out experience of Peter’s development into the masked vigilante. He gets bit, gets sick, gets better, finds out he can do some cool things, and tries to use those skills to impress a girl before finding out what type of responsibility he carries when obtaining such powers. This was quite straightforward, and was done very well.
Another benefit of this first entry was the introduction of a cast that, at the time, was just about perfect (even if some weaknesses were revealed after the trilogy somewhat wore out its welcome). The movie had a great mix of younger performers (Tobey Maguire, James Franco) and some savvy veterans (Willem Dafoe, J.K. Simmons) who really helped to ground the movie in some sort of reality and managed to balance it with what may be the most important element in films of this nature… fun.
The only real complaint? The Green Goblin looked like a Power Ranger.
See the resemblance?
The clear pinnacle of the Spidey franchise, and quite possibly the pinnacle of the Marvel experience, was the second entry from Mr. Raimi. This was a film that took everything from the first film and improved upon the work, including the all-important improvement of the main adversary of Spider-Man… Dr. Otto Octavius aka Dr. Octopus.
Spider-Man 2 appears to be one of the exceptions in the Marvel group of films in that it actually cares about the villain, and as far as Marvel movies go, this entry is akin to The Dark Knight’s Joker (please note the qualifier because it’s really not that close. The Joker was absolutely a better villain). Marvel films have tended to ignore the villains (although it may be getting better), and the only villain that may stack up to Doc Oc may be The Ian McKellen/Michael Fassbender Magneto combo.
If a film is aiming to have an adversarial approach to the story, the film must have give some screen time to the villainous side as well as the hero, and that’s exactly what Spider-Man 2 managed to do with Alfred Molina in his eight limbed role. The film provided an efficient arc for the Octavius character, and Molina was about as close to perfect for the role as one could get, particularly for a film that managed to find the perfect balance between ridiculous fun and a certain amount of darkness.
While the first Spider-Man film was very much about Peter Parker discovering his powers, the second film puts those powers to the test and provides a sense of the weight put upon a person for having such a special ability and the feeling of such responsibility. The Peter Parker presented by Tobey Maguire in this entry is a very complex character for this type of movie. On the surface all the audience may see is the fantasy of a nerd who gets superpowers, but Parker is a character who never seems to catch a break. He’s conflicted to say the least, and this second installment does a very effective job in showing his inner conflict with scenes such as the ode to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Parker briefly quits his life as Spider-Man and a scene as simple as a nice girl offering Parker a piece of chocolate cake.
The bottom line with Spider-Man 2 is that it managed to find a perfect balance of everything one expects from the superhero genre and is arguably the Marvel film that set the standard for all future, past and present Marvel efforts. It’s everything a superhero movie should be.
The end of the Sam Raimi trilogy was admittedly and initially a (giant) disappointment. There were many complaints of the film being overloaded with too many villains and the odd vision of an emo version of Peter Parker going to a jazz bar. There was an awful lot of Mary Jane Watson screen time worrying about her career and doubting her relationship with Peter, and lip-syncing to a voice that was very clearly not that of Kirsten Dunst’s. There was a lot of James Franco acting intentionally brain dead after Harry Osborn lost his memory in the process of trying to kill Spider-Man. All of the complaints may very well have been valid. However, calling Spider-Man 3 a “terrible” movie seems to be an exaggeration.
The mistake that many sequels and trilogies tend to make is giving into a preconception that each succeeding film has to be bigger, badder, grander, more action-packed, more… everything than the predecessor. This is a flaw that has been magnified over the years due to the increased popularity in trilogies and sequels. This is exactly the trap that Spider-Man 3 fell upon, and it would probably be a good guess that what happened with this third entry was due to studio pressure, since the original plan from Raimi was to have 5 films.
Instead, Raimi ended up packing this third film with everything possible, and while many of the elements from the previous two entries remained, a reason for which this cannot be considered a complete failure, there was clearly a lack of time available to give to the gluttony of characters. There’s even less time to give the newer characters when the film is giving so many odd things to the main characters to do, especially pertaining to the relationship issues between Peter and Mary Jane. The relationship between the two was very much in tune with sitcoms and was also presented as if it could have been its own musical. While this would have been a welcome distraction in many films of this ilk, it ended up being another distraction in a film already chalk full.
Quite simply put, Spider-Man 3 is a film that has a whole lot of really good things going for it, but when all of those good things were combined at once, they became one bundled up mess of a movie. Overall though, the movie is entertaining enough to not deserve so much hate.
The Amazing Spider-Man
Enter Marc Webb. The reboot of the Spider-Man franchise is really unprecedented in that it was indeed just 10 years after Sam Raimi’s initially outing with the webbed crusader. As previously mentioned, much of the criticism for this film seemed to be due to it simply existing. Now, when one argues that a film like The Amazing Spider-Man was a bad movie because it shouldn’t have been created there is a giant hole left in the middle of the argument. When one argues about a film being necessary, it will inherently bring into question what movie is necessary. Of course The Amazing Spider-Man is an unnecessary reboot of a series that was created just a decade earlier. However, a bad film this does not make.
If there is a true problem with this film pertaining to its predecessor, it should actually be argued that the initial entry in the Amazing round of Spider-Man had difficulty separating itself from Sam Raimi’s vision. By holding onto the “responsibility” approach used in Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man failed in making itself an entity of its own, and essentially turned into the same film as the first Spider-Man, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, when there’s something that has recently been created and the material is being covered again, it is important to differentiate the material to tell the story more effectively. This is something that the FX miniseries Fargo has done a wonderful job in accomplishing.
Although it does fail to separate itself, The Amazing Spider-Man was a good entry into the franchise with a fresh, enjoyable cast and a Spider-Man more in line with the times (although that may not be a good thing, but we’ll get to that for the sequel). Andrew Garfield plays a slick new Spidey, and although Emma Stone should be getting into much better roles, it’s hard to complain about her being in anything.
The film does some things better than the first first Spider-Man, such as the overall performances from the actors, but it also does some things much less effectively. For instance, it’s difficult to imagine there wasn’t a more effective path for Peter testing out his powers than going to an abandoned building and perform some skateboard tricks. Added to that is a heightened sense of cheesiness combined with a film that may have taken itself too seriously.
This is certainly an adequate volume in the Spider-Man library, however it didn’t quite hit the sweet spot the first two Raimi films were able to discover.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
In Marc Webb’s sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man, there seems to be a lack of anything truly amazing. This is a film that adds new problems on top of the issues that plagued Spider-Man 3. It is difficult to say Amazing 2 is an awful movie. In a world where everything is either terrible or amazing, it feels like there should be room somewhere in the middle for something. However, this is a film that comes much closer to echoing the Joel Schumacher Batman films than the Tim Burton Batman films to which the first Spider-Man trilogy seemed indebted.
This movie is not only overloaded, it’s disconnected and from its own world and it feels as though there’s a lack of interest in this particular Spider-Man world from just about everyone involved. Peter is more interested in his relationship with Gwen Stacy and finding out more about his father than dealing with the big blue Dr. Manhattan-like bore of a villain. Harry Osborn is more interested in finding a cure for his disease than figuring out what the heck is going on at Oscorp. Even Gwen Stacy wants to leave New York for London.
Exploring all these personal elements would be great if it weren’t for the obligatory action sequences that are thrown into this film, seemingly without any thought of how they were actually useful. This of course is partially due to the film simply having too much with which to deal. The aforementioned issue with which all sequels struggle definitely come into play in this episode with the “disease of more”. With a 2 hour, 20 minute runtime Amazing 2 barely has enough time for anything that it’s trying to accomplish, and it doesn’t help when it has at least 3 different villains, 3 different Peter Parker personal problems (ALLITERATION!), 1 Gwen Stacy dilemma, and a partridge in a pear tree. That “disease of more” even appears as if it will continue into The Amazing Spider-Man 3 based on what is seen in the background when Harry Osborn is going through his transformation.
Aside from adding more villains and plot lines into Spider-Man’s web, there was another disturbing trend in this film. This is most certainly a version of Spider-Man that is more in line with the current times, but with that trait also comes a certain level of disconnect. In the previous Spider-Man films, including the first Amazing Spider-Man, the city of New York and the people of York have been a fairly significant character. Whether it be people throwing shoes and various objects at Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin or some construction workers giving Spider-Man some cranes to swing on, the city of New York has been crucial to understanding Spider-Man. This new world seems to be one of exclusion, evident in the audience being introduced to Mr. Jameson, formerly played by J.K. Simmons, via an e-mail scene in which all we see is a reply of the editor that states WRONG, hearkening back to the character being someone who yells a lot. There is no personal interaction.
Based on this lackluster sequel, it doesn’t appear audiences will be getting scenes as great as an unmasked Spider-Man being carried through a train by the people of New York after an exhausting act of heroism. Instead it appears the franchise is headed in a direction of immediate gratification and introduction of more of everything, with the exception of what actually makes people care about this sort of experience.
Overall, the path the franchise has taken can almost certainly be described as a metaphorical roller-coaster, however with the almost guaranteed popularity of films like whatever the 4th Transformers movie is called, it doesn’t appear Spider-Man is headed in the right direction. The franchise looks to be primed to suffer from superhero fatigue and instead of balancing Peter Parker’s life with his responsibility as Spider-Man, the films are trending towards sprinkling in action sequences involving Spider-Man as a separate entity from Peter Parker.
This is somewhat disheartening since Spider-Man is one of the more fun characters to keep track of in the marvel universe. However, there are 5 Spider-Man movies and there is plenty about all of them that makes them worth revisiting at times, even if a few of them are messy. With a few characters freed from the Spider-Man realm and a promising cast there is still hope for The Amazing Spider-Man 3 to end up as an improvement. While this may be unlikely, one could treat the bloated reboot sequel as a purge of some sort. And who knows? With all the money this current version is making, maybe another reboot will be on its way sooner rather than later after audiences become tired of this “amazing” (or not so much) reboot.
What do you think? Leave a comment.