Tobey McGuire is Peter Parker, the prototypical high school geek granted great power from the bite of a genetically altered spider. But when he fails to understand the meaning of, “With great power, must also come great responsibility,” it will take the tragic death of his Uncle Ben for Peter to become the hero he was destined to be.
And along the way, he’ll struggle to keep his loved ones safe from the phenomenal Willem Dafoe’s menacing and crazed Green Goblin in Sam Raim’s classic 2002 feature film, Spider-Man.
It was the spring of 1989. I was nearly 4-years old. And it was–for reasons that I am forever unsure of–call it fate, call it karma–but issue 313 of Amazing Spider-Man made it into my hands during a family vacation to beautiful Santa Cruz, California.
Jump forward over 13 years later. It’s now the spring of 2002. I was a 16-year old high school junior, and summer vacation was only a few weeks away. But it wasn’t summer vacation or my impending semester finals that were on my mind. No, I was fixated on counting down the weeks, days, and hours until the upcoming release of Sony and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
GOOD WITH THE BAD
I grew up reading Spider-Man. In fact, I still have my original copy of that comic my parents bought me nearly 30 years ago now. I even have a framed copy on my wall, a birthday gift from my wife–and one in much better condition than my dog-eared, tattered-edged original.
As a child of the 90s, I grew up playing as Spider-Man on my Nintendo Entertainment System and watching Spider-Man every weekday afternoon and Saturday morning on FOX 11. My friends and I would talk about that day’s episode the next day, every day at school.
The animation–and the show’s distinct lack of any punching or kicking–a demand made by the executives at FOX Kid’s–taints any nostalgia I may have once had for it. However, it did give me–as I’m sure it did so many other children back then–a look into many of Spider-Man’s most riveting storylines from the then-30 year publication history of my favorite superhero.
I learned about old foes like Doctor Octopus and the Chameleon–Spider-Man’s very first supervillain! I learned about newer threats like the alien symbiote, Venom. I learned of Venom’s origins as the infamous black suit first seen in the 80s, which in turn taught me all about Marvel Comic’s Secret Wars–the company’s (and the industry’s) first major inter-company crossover event.
So while the show fails in many ways to hold up to the passage of time, it’s legacy is in the way the creative team compressed an in-depth summary of the character’s history into an all-too brief 65 episodes.
I remember going to the first screening, early in the morning at my local movie theater, for Spider-Man. I sat in my
favorite seat. I came out singing Chad Kroeger’s “Hero”, the movie’s official theme song, which was a solid song back then but also a stark contrast to Danny Elfman’s even better original composition.
But just as much then as it is now, it’s very clear to me that the movie has number of flaws.
The most glaring of which remains a regular thorn in the sides of those who watch Raimi’s movies in anticipation of the next Spider-Man feature film: the Power Ranger-esque outfit that DaFoe dons for his role as The Green Goblin.
The suit itself symbolized a distinct lack of budget a movie of this scale required. The special effects have aged even worse than DaFoe’s green jumpsuit and helmet. It’s almost as if the intent were for the sets to look artificial. And much of the fun action sequences we expected to leap out of the panels of the comic and onto the big-screen turned out to be framed in Raimi’s budget-conscious style. Many things happened off-screen, such as Spidey’s webbing-up of criminals. He leaps into frame from just off-camera instead of swinging, twirling in the air, and then landing with grace.
Much of this was greatly improved come the somehow superior sequel, of course. And that movie holds up very well today, even in direct comparison to Marvel Studio’s impressive and ever-expanding catalog. But Raimi’s first remains flawed and hindered by many aspects of its visuals.
Much like FOX’s cartoon from the 90s, Raimi’s original Spider-Man film remains both entertaining and important for a number of reasons despite it’s visual flaws. Not the least of which was proving, without a shadow of a doubt, that general audiences were absolutely ready once more for colorful, comic-accurate superhero movies–a risk that Bryan Singer’s X-Men was unable to take more than a year earlier.
More so, the movie’s visuals–which absolutely scream, “Sam Raimi made this!”–give it an almost timeless feel. Aside from the heavily dated CGI, which was still a bit wonky even back in 2002. But the sets, costumes, and visual shortcuts feel as if they were pulled from the movies of the same era of comic books that inspired Raimi’s film–Marvel’s “Silver Age.”
As with the classic horror movies that inspired Raimi’s vision for his Evil Dead movies, the visual aesthetic of the TV shows, movies, and comic books of the 60s and 70s would influence his vision for Spider-Man.
The intentionally melodramatic performances from McGuire, DaFoe, Kirsten Dunst, and even professional wrestler Randy “Macho Man” Savage–“pontificating” might even be a better word at times, especially during DaFoe’s mesmerizing monologues that range from terrifying to heart-breakingly psychotic to some hybrid of Shakespearean and Saturday-morning cartoon.
The bright colors, comicbook panel-styled framing, the soap opera-inspired love-triangle between Peter, Mary Jane, and James Franco’s Harry Osborn. The hokey but classic Hollywood–and still iconic–image of Spider-Man kissing the literal girl next-door upside down in the rain.
ENHANCE, NOT DETRACT
And while some critics might feel as if such things have aged the movie as much, if not more than it’s CGI, I stand by the opinion that they enhance the viewing experience.
Spider-Man maintains the same spirit and camp of Adam West’s classic Batman TV show. Both comic-accurate to the era that inspired them. Entertaining and engaging for viewers of all ages. And a sincere honesty to them that can be found lacking in some modern adaptations of our favorite superheroes.
It is a movie unafraid to be as true to what it is: an adaptation of a comic book that remains a staple of American pop-culture after more than 50 years. It is not a dark or mature reinterpretation. It is not a general audience-friendly approach that minimizes or sacrifices core aspects of the material to be more believable. It is a melodramatic soap opera involving a young man in colorful tights trying to save the girl he loves.
Spider-Man is whimsical, charming, funny, exciting, griping, heartwarming, and heartbreaking. It will leave you in love with Kirsten Dunst’s adorkable redhead, an admittedly drastic departure from the comics, but also one that gives us a budding relationship you want to see blossom on-screen with McGuire’s boy next-door. It will leave a lingering sense of sorrow somewhere deep inside you after Peter spends those final moments with his loving Uncle Ben. And it will fill you with glee when Peter swings through the New York skyline for the first time.
The movie is far from perfect. Its special effects didn’t hold up all that well back then, and are hurting much more now. And the tone of the movie can leave you questioning if this is a movie from 15-years ago or 50.
But it makes you feel everything you should feel from watching a Spider-Man movie by presenting a story and characters that are true to the spirit of then-40 years worth of comic book lore loved by millions.
Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve had the world believing a man could fly when Superman debuted nearly 40-years ago. And 15 years ago, Raimi and McGuire’s Spider-Man had us all believing in a hero who can do whatever it is a spider can.
Spider-Man remains, true believer, a big CHILL.