Focus on a Franchise – Spider-Man


Super hero movies dominate our movie landscape right now, with Marvel Comics clearly leading the charge.  And if there was a character in the Marvel stable that has truly achieved iconic status both on the page and on the screen, it would be Spider-Man.  Created in 1962 by the great writer/editor Stan Lee and fellow artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man has since become Marvel’s most prolific character, and has even challenged DC comics’ Superman and Batman in terms of international popularity.  Naturally, with a character as popular in comic book form as Spider-Man is, it seems natural that he would also make an impact on the big screen as well.  The task of bringing the web-slinger to the big screen was given to director Sam Raimi in the early 2000’s and his first attempt was not only a success, but it even shattered box office records, becoming the first movie ever to make over $100 million in it’s opening weekend.  Raimi would go on to make two more Spider-Man movies, with mixed results.  Although Raimi is no longer behind the reigns of the Spider-Man franchise, the impact of his trilogy can still be felt today in the recent crop of superhero movies.  This week, I will be looking at the Sam Raimi directed films in the Spider-Man franchise, and how they work individually as movies and as part of the whole Spider-Man mythos.
First of all, one has to look at what makes a Spider-Man movie work in the first place.  It has to center around the coming-of-age story of it’s main protagonist and Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker.  Parker is unlike most other super hero characters in that he’s still not a fully matured man yet in his story-line.  He’s a fresh out of high school teenager who’s still trying to balance a normal social life while at the same time fighting crime, thanks to his extraordinary abilities.  His powers are also not genetically inherent like they are for other superheros like Superman and Wolverine.  They come to him after a genetic mutation he receives due to a bite from a radioactive spider.  These are the fundamental aspects that each Spider-Man story-line must follow, and for the most part, each Spider-Man film has stayed true to the origin.  The varying degrees of success come from whether or not the movies are able to let an audience buy into the believe-ability of the character.
Casting also matters, especially when it comes to Spider-Man himself, and Sam Raimi gave those honors to actor Tobey Maguire.  While I’m mixed on Mr. Maguire as an actor on the whole, and I think he may have been a bit too bulky to play the slimmer looking Spider-Man that I remember in the comics, I do think he brought out the charm in the character, and he definitely nailed the socially awkward and nerdy aspects of Peter Parker in his performance.  The same care with the casting also factors in with the many foes that Spider-Man faces, and some of those characters are what really makes or breaks these kinds of movies.  Each film does take the character seriously, mostly, and you can tell that Raimi set out to make genuinely fun movies.  So, let’s take a look at how they work individually.
The triumphant arrival of Spider-Man to the big screen.  After years of trying to get this film off the ground, Marvel finally brought their beloved character to cinemas in a movie that was not only ambitious, but unique.  It follows the comic origin pretty effectively, perhaps even a bit too much so.  Peter Parker visits a science exhibition with his classmates Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and Harry Osborn (James Franco), and unexpectedly runs into contact with that fateful spider bite.  The next morning, he discovers that he has gained extra-ordinary abilities like super strength, the ability to stick to walls and shoot webbing from his wrists, and most importantly something called his “Spider Sense,” which alerts him to oncoming danger.  Peter selfishly uses his powers for financial gain at first, until his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) is killed by a criminal that Peter unknowingly ignored.  From that point on, he vows to use his powers to fight crime, while hiding his identity to protect those he loves, particularly his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who helped raise him.  Things get complicated when Harry’s father, a corporate tycoon and mad scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) gains powers of his own and becomes the supervillain, The Green Goblin.
It’s clear to see why this movie became such a success when it first came out.  It was colorful, action packed, and had a unique sense of humor.  The action sequences hold up and the look of the characters is particularly well done.  Spider-Man’s costume, in particular, is perfect.  Practical and iconic, and yet still something that you could believe was put together by a teenager, it’s a costume that instantly makes the character pop on the screen.  The Green Goblin’s costume is even more spectacular, departing a bit from the look in the comics, while still feeling right for the character.  The helmet itself even becomes a character in the movie, with Norman Osborn’s inner monologue taking on a life of it’s own through the helmet.  Sam Raimi’s inventiveness with his camera work has become his trademark, and the film hits it’s high marks whenever the director lets loose and has a little fun with any particular angle or set-up.
Unfortunately, the movie feels a little flat apart from these aspects.  It’s not a bad movie by any means; it’s just underwhelming.  I always thought that this first Spider-Man felt a little hollow; like it hadn’t found it’s footing yet.  Sam Raimi certainly made a pretty film, but his grasp on the story feels a little routine.  Remember how I mentioned that the movie followed the origin a little too closely; that’s because the movie feels like it’s going through the paces as you watch it.  It’s a problem that most origin story-lines have in superhero franchises, given all the heavy exposition that each has to deal with.  This film unfortunately succumbs to this as well.  The performances are also sort of lackluster, because no one in the film seems to understand their roles yet.  Dafoe especially suffers in this movie, playing over-the-top as the Green Goblin in a way that doesn’t quite work.  He actually is more effective without the mask as Norman Osborn.  The scenes where he speaks to himself through a schizophrenic conversation do work well, and they are some of the movie’s highlights.  Overall, the first Spider-Man is a noble beginning for the character, but one that is too flawed to be considered one of the all-time greats.
SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
Sam Raimi’s follow-up sequel is a whole different story.  Spider-Man 2 is far and away the best movie to date in the whole franchise, and a text book example of how to make a great superhero movie.  Not only that, it probably stands as one of my all-time favorite superhero movies ever; right alongside The Avengers (2012) and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.  Quite a step up from the disappointing first film.  In this movie, Peter Parker struggles in his new life as a crime fighter.  Unfortunately, he’s lost the friendship he had with Harry Osborn, who is vowing revenge against Spider-Man for the death of his father.  Mary Jane’s budding career as an actress is also creating friction between her and Peter.  On top of this, Peter is beginning to lose control over his powers, which seem to be decreasing.  He seeks help from a mentoring scientist named Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who unfortunately succumbs to a failed experiment that causes metallic tentacles to be fused to his spine.  Overcome with vengeance and obsession, Dr. Octavius becomes Spider-Man’s new nemesis, Doctor Octopus, and he unfortunately begins causing mayhem around town at a time when Peter is unsure whether he still has it in him to be the hero.
This movie works in almost every way.  It’s well written, well acted, and the action scenes are phenomenally staged.  Sam Raimi even changed the screen size for his franchise, from the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the first film to the 2:40:1 widescreen for the sequel, knowing that this movie was going to be much bigger than before.  First of all, let me highlight the performances, particularly Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus, or Doc Ock as he’s commonly known.  His performance as the villain works in every aspect where Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin failed.  Doc Ock has a couple over-the-top moments, but they are balanced by many other scenes where the character is cold and menacing.  Not only that, but the character has a fully developed arc that helps carry the film along.  The special effects team also did an amazing job complimenting Molina’s standout performance with their animation of Doc’s mechanical arms, which become characters in their own right.  A stronger villain also helps to elevate the effectiveness of the hero as well, and Tobey Maguire’s performance as Spider-Man is infinitely better in this movie.  Supporting characters also shine, especially J.K. Simmons as Peter Parker’s blusterous boss at the Daily Bugle newspaper.
And, of course, there are the exceptional action scenes.  An extended sequence on top of an elevated train car is an especially memorable part of the movie, and probably one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed.  If the movie has any flaw, it’s that the final act loses steam towards the end.  It’s not a bad ending, but it kind of lacks punch after that amazing train sequence.  Otherwise, everything else is done perfectly.  Spider-Man 2 holds together mainly because it finally lets Sam Raimi tell the Spider-Man story that he’s always wanted to do, and not have to be burdened by cumbersome exposition.  He also brought on board a veteran screenwriter, Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Paper Moon), to refine the dramatic aspects of the story, and this move helped to make the movie not only exciting, but poignant as well.  Best of all, it certified that the Spider-Man franchise wasn’t just popcorn-faire, but also a landmark series with at least one genuine classic to define it as such.  Unfortunately, this achievement would be short-lived.
SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)
Spiderman 2‘s reception was so positive that it made many people excited for what was to come next.  Unfortunately Spider-Man 3 proved to be a big letdown.  I wrote an article last year about “Second Sequels,” and how many of them usually don’t work.  This movie would be a perfect example of that, and the reasons are very fascinating.  Apparently Sam Raimi and Columbia Pictures, the company financing the movies, were never on the same page when it came to how the next Spider-Man movie should go; particularly when it came to the choices of the villains.  Sam Raimi wanted a more classic villain like Sandman, while Columbia executives wanted to use the fan favorite villain Venom.  What we got in the final film was both, both awkwardly shoe-horned together into a story-line that would have worked better with just one of the two.  Not only that, but the movie also wraps up the Harry Osborn plot that’s been building over the entire series, so you have a film with three different villains.  Sufficed to say, the movie suffers from having to cram in too much into too little time.  Not only that, but it takes away from Peter Parker’s development, which could have had an interesting arc centered around him finding the alien symbiote virus.
Where does the movie falter?  There are too many things to count.  Perhaps the biggest blunder of the movie is the way it handles the character of Venom.  Never mind the horrible miscasting of Topher Grace as the villain and his alter ego Eddie Brock.  What should have been one of the most iconic villains in the whole franchise is given just 10 short minutes of screen-time towards the end of the movie, and has little significance to the plot as a whole.  It’s clear that Sam Raimi didn’t want the character in the movie at all and was just fulfilling an obligation to the studio.  Unfortunately, by promising to use the character, he sabotages any real attempt to make the story work as a whole.  It’s clear that Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church) was the character that Raimi wanted at the center of the movie, and his purpose in the plot makes no sense once Venom starts to become a factor.  Many of the other problems within the film are all pretty notorious (Emo Peter Parker, the omelette making scene, the dreaded dance number), but the fundamental problems with the movie stem pretty much from the compromised nature of the story-line.  The movie would’ve benefited greatly from having a central villain in the movie, like Spider-Man 2‘s Doc Ock.
As flawed and schizophrenic as the movie is, it’s not the worst superhero movie ever made however.  There are some things that do work.  When Sam Raimi is on his game, he can still deliver some memorable moments, particularly a scene where Sandman first comes to life.  Done entirely without dialogue, the scene shows the character slowly pulling himself together from millions of grains of sand.  It’s a poignant and captivating scene that shows effectively the kind of movie that Raimi was going for.  Church’s performance is also effective, if a little too underplayed.  Oddly enough, the performances from the leads in this movie are the lackluster ones.  It’s seems that Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst lost interest in the series at this point in their careers and are just sleep-walking through their roles.  That or they just didn’t believe in this particular plot.  The only actor who seems to be having fun while making this movie ironically enough is James Franco, who was probably the weakest actor in the other films.  Here, he’s actually fun to watch.  This is probably because it came at a time when Franco was starting to move away from the matinee idol persona and into the bohemian weirdo that we know him as today; and oddly enough it works here.  Spider-Man 3 is a bad movie, but it’s flawed in a way that makes it oddly fascinating and watchable.  I actually view this movie more often than the blander first film.  Still, it is a disappointing follow-up to the genuinely great second film.
So, while the Spider-Man franchise is a little disjointed, it’s nevertheless has done it’s job and has helped to turn the iconic comic book character into a true force at the box-office.  This weekend, Spider-Man makes his fifth appearance on the big screen; surpassed only by Batman, Superman, and Wolverine in total number of films.  I only wanted to focus on the Sam Raimi trilogy for this article, because I consider the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man series as an entirely different franchise.  Upon re-watching all these movies again, I was actually struck by how much they have influenced today’s recent batch of superhero movies; particularly the one’s made by Marvel.  It could be said that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man contributed to what we know now as the Marvel house style of film-making, with it’s colorful cinematography and emphasis on humor within the action scenes; similar in how Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies are now influencing the darker, grittier style of DC’s recent film adaptations.  Unfortunately, Columbia Pictures’ parent company Sony still holds the film rights to the character of Spider-Man, so we won’t see the web-slinger joining his Marvel comrades at Disney any time soon for one of the upcoming Avengers movies.  Still, I do admire what director Sam Raimi did with the character during his tenure in the franchise.  Not only did he make the hero fly off the page, but he also set the trend for everything that would come afterward.