Live-Action Spider-Man Retrospective Review: SPIDER-MAN (2002)

( INTRODUCTION, SPIDER-MAN 2, SPIDER-MAN 3,
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 1, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2,
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME)

We begin our Live-Action Retrospective Review with 2002’s Spider-Man. The following is my review of this film. I am making my own observations and subjective impressions here. I am not remotely commenting on everything inside the film or making any final word here.

Here’s a fun bit of trivia: Do you know how many years separate Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1(1938) and Richard Donner’s Superman (1978)? And how many years separate Spider-Man’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002)? For both it’s 40 Years.

Is there something to be made out of all that? The gap for Batman (1939-1989) is 50 years. The Avengers made it to 49 (1963-2012). So no consistency in numbers. Trivia such as this presumes significance simply because it’s expected that a first adaptation of a comic with deep continuity will automatically be a big deal. But there are contrary examples: Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), Fantastic Four (2005), Green Lantern (2011). It’s never been a guarantee that the first movie adaptation of the character be an event equivalent to the first appearance of the character in comics.

And yet that is true of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man.

FIRST ADAPTATIONS

1978-1989-2002

That the first adaptations of the three most famous and culturally influential superheroes all resulted in major live-action first adaptations was no inevitability. Credit for Superman (1978), Batman (1989), Spider-Man (2002) belongs to its cast and crew. These films succeeded not merely on the strength of material alone or preexisting popularity. It succeeded because of the collaboration and specific choices made in adapting the material. The way that its creative teams realized that the longevity of the property provided them a deep pool of story content to tap into, distilling images across the multiple decades of each characters’ publication:

  • Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) tapped into images going back to the 1930s Siegel and Shuster era, the 1950s Weisinger era, and the contemporary 1970s.

  • Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) alludes to the original Finger/Kane Batman comics as well as the Englehart run in the 1970s, Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s more recent-to-its-release stories.

Likewise Spider-Man provided a 40 year pool of stories between AF#15 and Spider-Man 1. Sam Raimi tapped into the depths of that pool for his first adaptation. Not only the Lee-Ditko era, but also the comic book runs that followed. The result is a Spider-Man film that’s essentially timeless, a Spider-Man that is all things to all people.

SELECTIVE ADAPTATION

There’s a certain truism that Raimi’s Spider-Man films represents the “classical” Spider-Man. A direct adaptation of the Lee-Ditko run. In fact, Raimi’s film draws on stories and images across 40 years of publication history:

  • We have Peter in high school for the first half but MJ and Harry are his classmates when in fact he met both when he entered college.

  • Spider-Man only fights one supervillain in his first film when in reality he fought a full gauntlet of seven iconic rogues before Goblin’s debut in ASM#14.

  • Spider-Man had a major relationship with Betty Brant, and a one-sided crush by Liz Allan before coming in the orbit of Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane. In the movie, he only ever has eyes for Mary Jane Watson.

  • In the comics, Peter Parker created web shooters and web fluid. In Raimi’s film, he has “organic webbing” secreting it from his wrists.

  • Jameson is one of Spider-Man’s two major supporting characters, making nearly as many appearances in continuity as MJ, and yet Jonah has a fairly minor role in the first Spider-Man movie. He was the most important supporting character of the Lee-Ditko era and you would never tell it from the first film.
ASM#350 (Erik Larsen) Left/Finale of SM1 Right

The comics of the “classical era” (say the 1960s and 1970s) were generally mild in terms of action and violence. Spider-Man 1 is by far the most violent of the live-action Spider-Man movies (pre-release of No Way Home) with Dafoe’s Green Goblin holding the record for highest body count. The violence is far closer to the 80s-90s (Kraven’s Last Hunt, The Michelinie-McFarlane-Larsen run). In fact, Steve Ditko in the testimony of one visitor to his studio, admitted to seeing Raimi’s film, and voiced mixed feelings; his chief objection was the portrayal of the military and its violence [1].

SURVEY OF BORROWINGS

Some scenes directly quote images across comics history but in a way that makes it clear that the imagery is being borrowed out of its original purpose:

ASM#7 (left-Ditko)
  • Green Goblin’s attack on the Daily Bugle and Jameson refusing to give up the photographer borrows from Amazing Spider-Man #7 where the Vulture attacks the Bugle and tries to rob the safe but Jameson stalls him not for heroic reasons but because “he’d rather get shot than part with dough” as Peter thinks. Spider-Man saves the Bugle and webs him up. This scene is echoed in the Goblin’s attack on Jameson’s office, where Jameson refuses to yield the photographer’s name and Spider-Man arrives and webs up Jameson because, “Mommy and Daddy are talking”.
ASM#121 (Gil Kane-Left)
  • The finale of the film obviously quotes from The Night Gwen Stacy Died but uses the imagery of a bridge setting and the Goblin being impaled without Gwen Stacy or anyone dying.

  • Likewise, when Goblin drags Spider-Man away from the flight, Raimi directly quotes the famous cover by John Romita Sr. of Goblin tying up Spider-Man around the waist and dragging him away by glider.

Kraven’s Last Hunt (Mike Zeck-Left)
  • The scene of Mary Jane being attacked in the alley echoes a scene from Kraven’s Last Hunt. Kirsten Dunst is wearing a pink dress much like MJ in that scene from KLH but where in the comics she was saved from a mugging by Kraven posing as Spider-Man and is repulsed by his brutality, here that same context is converted into a heroic moment of Spider-Man rushing to save the love of his life (so angry that he forgets to wear his mask while quickly dressing up and only barely puts it on). This leads to a rather famous scene (we’ll get to later). Spider-Man doesn’t treat the thugs as brutally as Kraven-Spider-Man does of course.

Spider-Man: Revenge of the Green Goblin (2000) | Comic Series | Marvel
  • We have testimony from Paul Jenkins that Raimi or the production staff used Revenge of the Green Goblin, a 2000 miniseries plotted by Roger Stern but scripted mostly by Jenkins as a referent [2]. That comic introduced the idea, hitherto never seen in continuity, that Green Goblin sees Peter Parker as his true heir and not his son Harry. This idea made into the film.

  • Likewise, the film’s retelling of the origin of Spider-Man, namely that Peter and Uncle Ben have a fight before his death comes from Ultimate Spider-Man (2000) as does the idea of Peter, MJ, Harry being high school class-mates.
USM #5 (Mark Bagley-Top)

This is only a few example of the film’s borrowings. The first film compresses elements over 40 years into what on story terms is the character’s first few years of being Spider-Man; ideas from comics as late as 2000. Raimi’s Spider-Man is not a 1:1 translation from any period of Spider-Man. Rather it’s selection is compliant with the overall trajectory of the characters at the time the film was produced and released.

STORY STRUCTURE: PARALLEL ORIGINS

Spider-Man (2002) is a ground-up introduction. For the first half, we don’t see the iconic red and blue costume design and face mask. The first half is entirely taken with the origin of Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. The second half of the film is a distillation of the entire rivalry between these two super-powered beings going from their first confrontation all the way to a brutal final battle. Spider-Man is essentially two movies joined together rather than a three-act story. It has two protagonists whose POV it follows: Peter Parker and Norman Osborn. We usually see scenes from Peter’s POV or from Norman’s POV. The exception is the montage showing Spider-Man’s crime-fighting making a splash and Jameson’s introduction.

For most of the film, their stories happen in parallel to each other.

  • They meet for the first time outside the building where Peter gets bit by the spider. Right after Peter gets bit by the spider, the film cuts to Oscorp where military generals are threatening to cut government funding until “human trials” to Oscorp’s serum.
  • Then the film cuts to Peter returning home sick and with a swelling on his hand from his spider-bite and he falls asleep to jarring nightmarish imagery as he transforms into Spider-Man. This is cut to Norman injecting the serum and transforming into the Green Goblin.
  • A scene of Peter accidentally adhering to poster on the bus is cross-cut with Harry coming across his unconscious father and an assistant informing Norman about Stromm’s death and the stolen glider.
  • Right after Peter decides to go wrestling by reading up a notice on the classifieds, we cut to Norman reading a report about Quest Aerospace and then having an aural illusion of “laughter”.

The elegance with which Goblin and Spider-Man’s stories are intercut is an example of the lessons left in Raimi’s film which have yet to be learned. One of the big problems with supervillains in movies, is explaining their motivations and psychologies without overshadowing that of the heroic protagonist. The usual economical solution is connecting the villain to the hero, whereby the story driving the villain is also driving the hero. In the case of Spider-Man 1 we have two characters on separate trajectories who just happen to be connected in their civilian identities.

Spider-Man’s first Swing (Left)/ Goblin’s First Flight (Right)

Had Peter not become Spider-Man, Dafoe’s Norman would still have become Green Goblin and of course had Norman never become Goblin, Peter would still be Spider-Man. Neither are factors on each other’s origin stories and reasons for being. So the origin stories and their rivalry become distinct and separate story arcs that organically collide into one another. I mentioned above that Raimi’s Spider-Man borrowed from Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man comics. That comic did in fact have Norman and Spider-Man’s origins tied to each other, an innovation which the film-makers ignored.

The parallel origin structure of Spider-Man 1 is interesting for the strange linkages. Peter’s accidental but slow transformation is implicitly contrasted to Norman’s self-experimentation, creating an association between them without spelling things out overtly. How the same wish-fulfillment yearning for power in two different characters leads them down a different path. The story of a poor young man on his quest for love and career, is contrasted to a rich guy in a mid-life crisis disappointed with the outward trappings of success (wealth, fame, hot wife, handsome son) and desperately making up for lost time. Peter starts out seeking what Norman has, and Norman starts out realizing that what he has hasn’t made him happy.

The internal structure is solid: Peter and Norman Osborn meet each three times out of costume before either learns the other’s identity (the Meeting at the start outside the Science Exhibition, Graduation Day, a short scene where Norman visits Harry and Peter at their loft), likewise Spider-Man and Green Goblin have three confrontations in costume (the Unity Fair attack, the Daily Bugle kidnapping, the attack in the burning building). This all leads to the centerpiece of the film — the Thanksgiving Scene where Norman learns that Peter, the boy he has taken a liking to over his own real son, is in fact Spider-Man.

In terms of organically representing Spider-Man and his villains as independent actors and then come to conflict with one another, Raimi’s film is highly faithful to Lee-Ditko’s Spider-Man. The structure of Spider-Man 1 has a deft clarity in merging multiple serialized developments in a single 2 hour film, representing not just Spider-Man’s first fight with Green Goblin, but an entire hero-villain rivalry in all its major beats.

CASTING IN SUPERHERO MOVIES

There’s a saying among film directors: “directing is 90% casting” [3].

Casting is different when one compares an original screenplay to an adaptation from pre-existing sources (“based on true story”, literature etc). Adapting material invites comparisons with the source. It makes casting a matter of interpretation. How you interpret the material is revealed by who’s cast. The challenges of casting serialized comics in general, and Spider-Man in particular is more analogous to a biopic of historical figures, than to adapting literature. For Example: The Lord of the Rings has a cast who exist in one incarnation over a unified timeline of the story’s plot. In a biopic, if you make an Elvis movie transpiring across his life, you have to think of casting an actor who can play the young sexy Elvis of the 1950s who ages into the overweight flabby Elvis of the 1960s and 1970s. While superhero comics are typified for its agelessness, in practice there’s an accumulation of layers over extended serialized continuity.

Superman and Lois Lane are introduced as fully formed adults in Siegel and Shuster’s original comic. In the 1940s and 1950s, a backstory was developed for Superman in retrospect: Superman was raised in Smallville by Ma and Pa Kent and spent his teenage years there and came to Metropolis as an adult. When Donner adapted Superman in 1978, he started the film at Krypton, and then followed Baby Kal-El crashing on Earth followed by Jeff East as teenage Clark Kent. The first half of the film passes before we meet Christopher Reeve as both Clark and Superman. Donner didn’t adapt Superman as he originally started out in comics, he consolidated the backstory that came later to generate a progressive development towards the inaugural status-quo. He didn’t cast a single actor to play Teenage and Adult Clark, he cast two separate actors to play different ages.

The Three Ages of Superman in Richard Donner’s 1978 Film. Baby-Teenage-Adult Clark Kent (Top-Bottom)

With Spider-Man, you have a character who started out in high school at Age 15, graduates by Issue 28, enters college and more slowly enters his 20s, graduating from college in Amazing Spider-Man #185. In addition to the aging there’s the changes in design: Peter in AF#15 was scrawny, plain looking and bespectacled. Over the course of the Ditko run he became more good-looking, and then when John Romita Sr. took over, he became handsome. To reiterate something I mentioned before, it was as if Sal Mineo’s character in Rebel Without A Cause aged up to look like James Dean. Platonically, the ideal actor to cast as Peter Parker in a literally accurate adaptation would be to cast an actor who can believably age from Ditko’s Peter in AF#15 to Ditko’s Peter in ASM#28, then Romita’s Peter in ASM#40-41, and subsequently into Gil Kane’s, Ross Andru’s, JRJR’s, Ron Frenz’s, Todd McFarlane’s Peter Parker.

The other members of the Spider-Man cast are somewhat easier to cast. The adult supporting cast and villains debuted fully formed. You only ever have to cast one version of Jameson, Aunt May, Joe “Robbie” Robertson, Norman Osborn, Otto Octavius and not have to worry about them changing too substantially in incarnation.

In the case of Mary Jane Watson, you have a similar situation with Superman in that she was originally introduced fully formed in ASM#42, but later developments introduced a backstory that added layers to characterization. If you cast the Mary Jane of ASM#42, her only characteristics would be jaw-dropping beauty, an odd sense of humor, and flirtatiousness. The Mary Jane that ultimately developed had a troubled backstory, a more complicated psychology, and who was revealed to have great depths of compassion and courage. To believably cast Mary Jane, you would need to cast an impossibly beautiful woman with comedic timing (say, early Marilyn Monroe) who would become a capable dramatic lead with emotional interior growth comparable to say Jessica Chastain.

Hence, both Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson are deceptively tricky roles to cast. You cast their roles based not only on their introduction but on an interpretation of how they will subsequently develop.

CASTING AND CHARACTERIZATION

With these issues in mind, the casting of Spider-Man reflected distinct interpretations made by Raimi:

  • Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire): Tobey Maguire’s boxy square head makes him look a bit like Peter Parker in Amazing Fantasy#15 if he never aged out to become the Late-Ditko and Early-Romita Peter. His eyes are a little too big and expressive compared to the character in the comics. Peter in the comics has brown eyes and not blue eyes like Maguire’s. At the time of filming, Maguire was 26-27, and Raimi works this into the film by implying that Peter didn’t get bit by the spider at age 15 (as in 616) but in his high school senior year. The graduation sequence takes place in the same year Uncle Ben died, so Raimi’s Peter is 17 when he gets bit by the Spider and something like a year or so passes in the course of Spider-Man 1. Maguire’s Peter ages into college over the first film and hovers around his late-teens and early twenties for the rest of the trilogy. So the actor was cast to interpret a Peter Parker who aged and grew up. Maguire reflects the awkward social isolation and need for warmth very well and he’s at ease in comedic and dramatic scenes and has excellent romantic chemistry.
ASM#259 by Ron Frenz/Kirsten Dunst
  • Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst): At the age of 19 years of old at the time of production, Kirsten Dunst is the young actor closest to the age of her comics character at time of introduction. Yet she’s introduced as a high school senior, next door to Peter, living with her abusive parents, rather than a college-age runaway living at her Aunt Anna’s and then making a living by herself. Dunst had a career as a child actor (Interview with a Vampire, Jumanji) as well as cult films like Small Soldiers where she plays a teenage romantic fixation for a male lead. She also won attention for her performance in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides where she’s the beautiful popular girl who’s fixated on by all the boys. Her performance as Mary Jane is a variation on the role in those films, allowing an essentially dramatic performance. In effect, Kirsten Dunst is the Mary Jane of ASM#259 by Ron Frenz and Tom Defalco who interpreted the character with a dramatic core.
ASM#37 (Ditko) and Dafoe.
  • Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe): For Norman Osborn, the film avoided entirely the look of the character in the comics but nonetheless made an inspired casting choice. Willem Dafoe gives an incredible performance that sells absolutely the subtext of the character, a man living in a mid-life crisis. His life’s work, his company, is being subverted from within and on the last legs of a valuable defense contract. He had a failed marriage and the offspring of that union is Harry Osborn, a failson who’s a constant disappointment. Dafoe sells two versions of Norman, a disappointed jaded sad sack who’s passive-aggressively snubbing Harry in favor of Peter, and the Goblin a murderous egomaniac. The sublime Thanksgiving scene where Dafoe sells Goblin’s frustration of pretending to be Norman and trying to be normal when he isn’t is an incredible example of tonal shifts, and cringe comedy, that only an actor like Dafoe could truly navigate.

Uncle Ben (Ditko-AF#15)
  • Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson): By his nature, Uncle Ben is a character who isn’t very well defined. He’s meant as a paragon of a loving father figure and good husband who dies early. Still, Cliff Robertson’s performance as Ben is often underrated for how well he sold Ben as a real person, a working-class guy who despite his struggles, is content with his quiet life without coming across as unrealistically saintlike. The first half gives Ben many scenes showing the tension of Peter’s powers drives him to neglect spending time with him, such as missing out on painting together. This drives home the poignance of his death.

ASM#18 (Ditko-Left)
  • Aunt May (Rosemary Harris): Rosemary Harris, along with J. K. Simmons, had previously worked with Raimi on The Gift. Her Aunt May in her scenes in Spider-Man 1 and Spider-Man 2 greatly illustrates the ideal of materal love and support for her offspring that is true to her character in the story. As much as I’ve questioned seeing Raimi’s Spider-Man as “classic Spidey”, Harris’ Aunt May is classic Aunt May.
ASM#4 (Ditko) and Simmons
  • J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons): There’s not much to say about Simmons as Jameson. The consensus about him is true. In the history of comic books adaptations there are only two instances of absolutely perfect casting: Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) and Simmons as Jameson. It’s borderline uncanny how much he looks like Jameson as Steve Ditko designed him. Simmons’ vocal and physical performance uncannily matches the “voice-in-the-head” of multiple readers of Jameson in the comics.

ASM#37 (Ditko-Left)
  • Harry Osborn (James Franco): I will say more about Harry when I cover the later films. In terms of casting, Franco can be described as who 616 Harry Osborn would cast to play him rather than an accurate visual and personality match. Outwardly, Franco’s Harry is coded as more handsome than Peter and more popular and charismatic which isn’t true of the Harry Osborn in the comics or the Harry-Peter dynamic in the Lee-Romita era.

There are minor roles such as Elizabeth Banks as Betty Brant, Joe Manganiello as Flash Thompson, Spike Lee veteran Bill Nunn as Joe “Robbie” Robertson who hardly get time to do anything. In general the casting of Raimi’s Spider-Man reflects a desire on the part of the film-makers to get as close as possible to a “classic” version of the characters. The result is that the casting is fairly white and lacking in diversity.

VISUAL DESIGN

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man transpires in a New York City of an eternal summer. When one thinks of the Raimi films, yellow color and its variations comes to mind. Amber gold is the background of the posters of the first two films. Throughout the film we see shots of the character in blazing summer and much of the films transpire during daylight with only a few important scenes taking place at night. Raimi’s Spider-Man 1 is ostensibly set during the late 90s and early 2000s. But the film’s production design favors anachronism.

Left – Uncle Ben provides more sarcasm than his Nephew does in Raimi’s film.
Right – The only computer monitors on-screen in the film.

Our first scene with Uncle Ben as he talks to May has him complaining about computers and how many jobs require him to use computers. But aside from a shot of a monitor at the Oscorp lab, we hardly ever see computers in the first film. This aesthetic choice reflects Raimi’s decision to favor a merge between the 1960s and 1970s and the late-90s and early 2000s. The movie uses prominent NYC locations — the Moondance Diner (which closed in 2012, where MJ works as a waitress), the Flatiron Building (which in Raimi-verse houses the Daily Bugle), Times Square (for the Unity Day parade), the Queensboro Bridge and the Roosevelt Island Tram Car. But much of the time the film portrays a post-card touristy NYC.

The Flatiron Building: With Daily Bugle Sign vertically along the spine. Say what you will about Jameson but dude’s style game is rad.

The movie opens and closes with Tobey Maguire’s voiceover but the main body of the film doesn’t use it, preferring instead POV shot-reverse shot, close-ups, and editing to communicate story and ideas. This means that the entire film is anchored around the actor’s performances and their responses and reactions.

Harry sees and the captions narrate dialogue off-screen. He sees and acts without saying or thinking aloud.

So for instance, Harry Osborn starting a relationship with Mary Jane begins when we see the graduation scene of Norman praising Peter and showing concern over him, and as they are talking we see Harry looking at MJ breaking up with Flash, we can infer that he started a relationship with MJ mostly as a way to get back at Peter for earning his father’s kudos. This is the tenets of associative film editing and Raimi uses it to economically convey important parts of the character’s motivations, shown rather than told.

In a few scenes, Raimi uses impressionistic montage where we have superimposition and layering of images. We see this when Peter decides to enter a wrestling competition to win money to buy a car to impress MJ. Tobey’s Peter doesn’t voice this aloud but a montage showing him picturing a smiling Mary Jane next to a car imposed next to him conveys the effect in a manner that’s not unlike the various daydream thought bubbles featured by Ditko in his original run. This kind of impressionistic montage doesn’t show up in the Raimi sequels.

More obvious examples of Raimi’s touches are the visions and nightmares we see afflicting the characters many times.

After Peter gets bit and enters his room and sleeps on his floor, there’s an entire montage of spliced frames and nightmarish images to convey his body being altered with superpowers. We see similar images afflict Norman Osborn. Similar moments come throughout, including late in the film after Goblin’s attack on Aunt May and Peter holding vigil.

On the whole I would say the film’s CGI is maybe too distracting and hasn’t aged well. It’s impossible to do Spider-Man swinging and moving around skyscrapers without CGI and green-screen so this is a necessary compromise. But that also means that when Spider-Man moves around, the action doesn’t have too much weight attached to it. The Green Goblin’s action and violence has a grotesque and darkly comic aspect such as dropping a pumpkin bomb that instantly reduces the Oscorp Board of Directors to charred skeletons. Raimi doesn’t use realistic looking burnt out skeletons or charred corpses but effects closer to 50s and 60s B-Movies.

On the other hand this makes the final fight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin at the warehouse with its bloody violence and fists, and injuries all the more stark in contrast. After an entire film showing violence with various dimensions of theatricality and exaggeration, the film ends on a dark brooding confrontation of two super-powered dudes beating the stuffing out of each other. The physicality of this fight and the brutality of it is surprising because it bursts out of the exaggerated costumes both characters wear, and it has a sense of realism leaking out of fantasy towards horror.


SENTIMENTAL MELODRAMA

The emotional center of the first two Raimi films is the Peter-MJ love story and romance. Spider-Man 1 opens with the voiceover saying “this it a story about a girl” and presents Mary Jane Watson as the peerless object of Peter’s affection. In Spider-Man 1, we only ever see MJ from Peter’s POV and never entirely by herself.

Throughout the film she’s constantly presented as struggling under the viewpoint of male perceptions and projections. In the sequels we do get scenes of the character by herself apart from Peter but here it’s entirely from his POV. We get glimpses of our family home, our abusive upbringing happening next door to Peter and while this conveys that some part of Mary Jane’s seeking of popularity at school and social favor is to get away from her upbringing, we don’t really see her act on it or reflect on that. The early scene where she and Peter talk about moving out of Queens and heading to Manhattan is an example of them relating to each other as friends on their working-class upbringing and the different pathways available to them.

Spider-Man 1 is structured on a “boy meets girl” motif, of the loser guy with the crush on the most popular girl, but always struggling to say how he feels. Tobey’s Peter expresses the anguish of someone who values MJ so much as a friend, that he wouldn’t want to jeopardise the friendship by making the first move. Although he doesn’t voice it outright, there’s an implicit expectation that eventually Mary Jane would notice and value Peter’s kindness . This kind of old-fashioned romance has fallen by the wayside lately for good reasons since it frames women as rewards for not-being-a-jerk rather than as co-equal partners. It’s also needless to say nothing like how the romance transpired in the 616 comics. In effect, the film-makers have imposed the trappings of romantic melodrama on to their comics counterparts.

The movie frames Mary Jane as attracted to Spider-Man first before Peter Parker. Spider-Man saves her from Green Goblin at the Unity Day parade and then from a bunch of thugs. She admits to Peter at the hospital after she and Harry break up that she might be love in with Spider-Man but isn’t sure. This aspect of a two-person love triangle has always had a sexist undercurrent that somehow women are wrong to be drawn to the more charismatic version. The film however deftly handles the trope.

We see Mary Jane herself constantly encouraging Peter to be less passive and more open. Early in the film she remarks that Peter’s taller than she assumed, and Peter says “I hunch” to which she says “Don’t”. Later, when Peter runs at her at night right after her audition and before she encounters the thugs, she talks about having dinner with Harry and invites him over. Peter demurs saying he doesn’t want to interfere and Dunst’s MJ teases and flirts with Peter and then she walks away calling Peter “tiger” for the only time in the first film and as she does she flashes a brilliant smile. In this scene and that moment, Dunst comes closest to the personality of ASM#42 MJ and looks uncannily like the comics’ character.

So Raimi’s film acknowledges the two-person triangle and has MJ reflect on it. Her interactions with Peter hint at a desire to get him to loosen up and be more open to her. Likewise her attraction to Spider-Man hints at her depth rather than the reverse. In the comics, the fact that Spider-Man had his reputation raked over the coals by the Daily Bugle meant that many of Peter’s girlfriends usually favored Peter over Spider-Man (Betty, Gwen) and for Peter them accepting Spider-Man was the problem. Mary Jane though right from the Lee-Romita era was introduced as always liking Spider-Man. She liked Spider-Man when he was unpopular and controversial so that meant that on a deeper level, she liked the real Peter. We see this in the film, where Green Goblin warns Spider-Man that the public will turn against him. This is followed by the Daily Bugle raking him on the coals and we see Peter think of Goblin’s words (replayed by VO). Right after this scene he confronts the muggers and rescues Mary Jane and that leads to the famous kiss. In the film, MJ values Spider-Man when the public turns against him and this gives Spider-Man resolve to continue even when the public isn’t always on his side. So Mary Jane becomes Spider-Man’s conscience and reminder of faith in people, and the promise of acceptance. So that nuance helps the film.

At the end of the film, she expresses her feelings for Peter telling him that on the bridge when she was about to die all she could think was Peter who was always there for her and then he kisses him. Peter Parker gets the girl as reward but he walks away insisting that there’s “so much to tell her” and being worried about involving her in his double life. On a character level, Peter absolutely wasn’t ready to start a relationship with her in that scene. And at the same time as Peter walks away, we see Mary Jane hold her hands to her lips clearly reacting to the familiarity of the kiss from her meeting with Spider-Man and then looking at Peter as he walks away. The film hints at the possibility of a more open relationship in the future, with Peter underestimating Mary Jane. The dynamic of the Raimi love story is to have the characters in the mold of popular romantic melodrama eventually reaching a place of understanding, whereas in the comics the characters started in a more realistic place of serialized development and change.

In the film the romantic drama of the Peter/MJ story intersects with the Spider-Man/Goblin rivalry in all kinds of unexpected ways, not only in the direct plot of Goblin kidnapping MJ and using her as bait but also in terms of emotional beats and connections. A good example is when Peter meets MJ and discovers she works as a waitress, noting she hides it from Harry who doesn’t seem to accept the idea of people working for a living. As she walks away she tells Peter, “Don’t tell Harry”. This scene unexpectedly rhymes with the end where Norman on dying, blurts out “Don’t tell Harry”. The connection between these two scenes is kind of interesting for how Peter is teased into confidences and keeping secrets, and how that secret keeping despite the best of intentions, ultimately leads to Harry’s bad turn.

SERIALIZATION: ‘PART ONE DECISIONMAKING’

During Spider-Man‘s production, the producers might have been reasonably confident about making a sequel. At the same time, the film was made just a few years after Batman and Robin. Superhero films made afterwards such as Blade (1998) and X-Men (2000) scored moderate successes at the box-office. So the film-makers made a film assuming that this was their one and only shot.

As such that explains a great deal of what I’d like to call “Part One Decisionmaking”. The film’s producers incorporated choices and decisions in the first part of the film that made things a little harder for the sequels.

Examples of Part One Decisionmaking:

  • Having Peter Parker generate organic webbing. This decision can be traced to James Cameron’s unmade Spider-Man film. The producers retained it because they didn’t think they’d be able to explain how Peter developed the web-fluid and web-shooters in a quick shorthand. If one were making a Spider-Man film without full expectations of a sequel, such a decision makes sense but the infinite web supply created problems in the sequels.

  • James Franco’s Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man comics was mostly a character connected to his father and it makes all the sense for him to feature in a film centering on Norman an antagonist. However by giving him a prominent place as a co-lead in the first film, the films which followed were struck with Franco even in stories, such as Spider-Man 2 where he didn’t have a great deal to do. In the Spider-Man comics, Harry was able to sift in and out of the background as and when necessary but this option isn’t there in the film, where retaining Franco on contract would necessitate a certain prominence in screen-time. The prominence ofHarry arguably came at the expense of the other supporting cast.

  • The decision to start the film with Spider-Man facing his arch-nemesis is a superhero movie convention that didn’t end until Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight introduced the idea of saving the big villain for the sequel. Superman faced Luthor in Donner’s film, Batman faced Joker in 1989, the X-Men faced Magneto in 2000, so Spider-Man faced Green Goblin in 2002. The problem is that once you start with the archnemesis, each of the following films inherently has lowered stakes since the hero started his career seeing off his biggest threat. This leaves the sequels with reduced stakes.

COMMITMENT TO ITS FICTION

One of the problems with adapting Spider-Man is that he’s not just a character in comics. He’s also a cultural icon, a mascot of New York City, a float on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. There are moments throughout Raimi’s trilogy and all the live-action Spider-Man films that are filled with schmaltz, cloying crowdpleasing moments that comes at the expense of the film’s worldbuilding.

The example of schmaltz that most struck out to me is the scene at the bridge where Goblin attacks Spider-Man while he’s saving Mary Jane and a bunch of kids. As Norman is about to attack again on the glider, a bunch of New Yorkers throw trash at him from above and calling him out saying “You mess with him you mess with all of us”. This scene speaks of 9/11 solidarity and it’s intended to be a big crowd-pleasing moment but it also undercuts the film’s fiction. If J. Jonah Jameson is intended to be an effective mainstream editor of a mainstream publication as he was in the Lee-Ditko era, scenes such as this undercut the impact of his actions and his efficacy as a publisher and it also lowers the stakes if deep down at critical moments, extras will performatively make “Remember 9/11” gestures.

Spider-Man wears his mask for most of Spider-Man 1 but there are scenes where we see the character without mask, most notable when he’s at the fight promoter’s office and asks for extra money but gets stiffed. A maskless Peter lets the Burglar go and pass him by with the officer on duty also seeing him. Peter also fights the thugs in the alleyway without mask. The context of the scene is Peter rushing to save MJ before he has time to change a mask and the sudden moves of Spider-Man in that scene and the darkness of the street lighting covers his face. But even so Mary Jane goes to the maskless Spider-Man at too close a distance before he jumps away and comes back with his mask on.

Spider-Man 1 is fairly cohesive, but moments such as this proves that the first live-action film isn’t blameless for innovating schmaltz and a downplaying of masks.

CONCLUSION OF SPIDER-MAN 1 REVIEW

In a certain sense, Spider-Man 1 has become underrated. People assume that it’s value comes from putting the vision of the character across for the first time but Spider-Man 1 does plenty of things uniquely and differently. It deserves to be appreciated on its merits.

While not without flaws, it’s perhaps the most dynamic of the Spider-Man films. Far more time passes over the course of Spider-Man 1 than ever again, the characters age and grow to a greater extent, we see them in high school and then in their early college years. The portrayal of a hero-villain rivalry between Spider-Man and Green Goblin has an intensity and escalation whose only comparison is the duel between Joker and Batman in The Dark Knight: a rivalry without need for a grand plot to “destroy the world” building organically on previous conflicts with incremental cat and mouse moves. Tobey’s Peter and Kirsten Dunst’s MJ is perhaps the most iconic screen romance after Titanic around the early 21st Century. For a film to do one or the other by itself would be an accomplishment, but Spider-Man 1 did both!

Next, we’ll look at the film’s sequel and see where it picks up.

REFERENCES

  1. “Steve Ditko Inside His Studio Sanatorium”. Russ Maheras. March 16, 2019. https://popculturesquad.com/2019/03/16/steve-ditko-inside-his-studio-sanatorium/

  2. “Paul Jenkins Interview: Fairy Quest, Wolverine, The Inhumans, Spider-Man, The Hulk, and More” The Comics Cube. Sep 28, 2020. 53:00-54:00.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5NB67bvQnw

  3. Rachel Mahrle. “12 Great Directors on Working with Actors – Infographic”. June 7, 2017.
    https://www.zacuto.com/blogs/blog/12-directors-on-working-with-actors

 

3 thoughts on “Live-Action Spider-Man Retrospective Review: SPIDER-MAN (2002)

  1. Oh, Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy. It’s a series I’ve grown quite sour towards as the years have gone by. To me their like the Burton Batman movies. They’re important from a historical perspective of paving the way for future comic book movies, but they have a lot of flaws people ignore. The series also gets worse as it goes on with the first installment being the least bad.

    1 Tobey Maguire is frankly a terrible Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Tobey’s Peter was a loser who was so pathetic that even the other nerds and the freaking bus driver picked on him. It continues even in college in which he’s pretty much invisible and with other students going out of their way to smash him with their bags after his books are dumped. He feels more along the lines of George McFly or as I once heard him described as a Twilight version of Christopher Reeves’ Clark Kent. Why did this movie series make Peter such a loser and such a caricature of a nerd? He feels more like a joke and a walking punchline than an actual person.

    Even Tobey’s Spider-Man lacks the punch and the “oomph” the comics version did. When he tries to exploit his powers for personal use, he legitimately enters the competition with the name “The Human Spider.” Peter wouldn’t choose something so geeky. He would have chosen something cooler which is what his comic book counterpart did. Furthermore, Spider-Man quips quite often when he fights, and when he doesn’t, it’s a sign that something is wrong and that you’ve really ticked him off. This Spider-Man really doesn’t quip that much and removes a notable aspect from the source material for no reason apparently.

    Also, this movie makes some big changes with the origin that I feel undermines it. In the comics, Peter let’s the robber who later kills his Uncle get away because he feels like it isn’t his problem, and he was only looking out for himself. Here, they make the odd decision to attempt to justify his decision by having the manager screw Peter over and when the robber steals the manager’s money, Peter echoes the manager’s words back. While in both cases Peter is still responsible for his Uncle’s death, attempting to justify Peter’s decision removes the biblical weight the moral had in the original comic origin. Having the manager screw Peter over and then have Peter give the manager a taste of his own medicine only to backfire on him feels more like the universe screwing him over for not being a perfect saint.

    Another change with the origin is that the person who kills Uncle Ben is killed by Peter’s hand as well or at least accidentally so. When Mary Jane brings up his Uncle’s killer in Spider-Man 3, Peter sounds like he’s in denial for the part he played in his death. It doesn’t help that the series largely brushes off this death. What was even the point of having him die with Spider-Man playing a hand in it, and yet nothing is really done with this aside from that moment in the third movie? Shouldn’t the police have connected his death to Spider-Man? Jameson would have loved to hear that which would give him some merit to the general public that Spider-Man is a menace. That’s another aspect that’s downplayed compared to the source material. People don’t really mixed reactions to Spider-Man. Aside from criminals, the only people who really don’t like Spider-Man are Jameson and one guy in a montage sequence who only really has a few seconds of screen time.

    Furthermore, the decisions Peter makes in this movie can make him across as more selfish and dumber than what the people behind this movie intended. For example, in the scene where Green Goblin forces Spider-Man to make a sadistic choice between Mary Jane and the rail car full of children, the first thing Spider-Man does is go after Mary Jane to save her first. Pardon my reaction, but ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME! Peter decides to save Mary Jane over a bunch of innocent children first! If you made a mistake in saving Mary Jane you would have gotten everyone killed! Peter is supposed to be the hero yet he chooses the person that means more to him first than over the lives of multiple innocents. This seems like such a selfish decision. Our hero ladies and gentlemen! I understand it’s a very painful one, but I don’t see comic book Peter doing this. He would have gone after the kids first and then Mary Jane.

    The other decision that he makes that’s really dumb is the one where he decides to honor Norman’s dying wish! Why would you do this! Norman’s a freaking scumbag whose murdered multiple people and attempted to kill children just to satisfy his selfish desires! Peter should have just led the police to his body. The general public and Harry need to know just how evil Norman is! Otherwise, a good majority of people are going to be mourning a man who doesn’t deserve an ounce of sympathy!

    It gets even worse when Harry sees Peter bring Norman’s body to his home which leads to his quest for vengeance and his downward spiral and eventual death in the later entries in this series. I bet he is kicking himself for deciding to honor Norman’s last request! Also, why is Harry the only person who blames Spider-Man for his father’s death? You mean to tell me that the police wouldn’t have been able to link Norman’s death to Spider-Man? There’s DNA evidence for the police to examine since Peter brought back Norman while his costume was still damaged and he still has fresh wounds. Heck, this is another death that should have attributed to Spider-Man and probably would have made the general public wary of him. Jameson would be having a field day with his view being furthered pushed towards the menace narrative that he keeps trying to push. The only reason this doesn’t seem to happen is because the people in charge didn’t want to go in this direction.

    2 The series really undermined Harry’s path to villainy with the decisions they made in this movie. Harry believes that his father was good man who Spider-Man murdered. However, when he later discovers that his father was the Green Goblin, he completely seems to forget that his father had murdered multiple people at the festival which almost included Harry himself as well as putting the lives of multiple innocent children and Mary Jane in danger. So why does Harry still have any sense of sympathy for this man? It should have made Harry consider that perhaps the world is better off without Norman. In the comics, Harry was under the effects of drugs and making awful judgments, but that doesn’t apply to this version of the character. They really should have planned Harry’s character arc better.

    3 Mary Jane Watson isn’t really treated that well as a character and makes decisions to make her quite unlikeable as well. She’s kind of treated as a trophy for one thing. She’s first with Flash Thompson despite not really liking the guy and then later she’s with Harry since Peter didn’t make a move which gets even worse later when the iconic upside down kiss scene one realizes that she’s still dating Harry at the time. Not only does she cheat on her relationship with another person, but it’s someone whose true identity she doesn’t even know. This really just pushes people into not liking her as a character. It also doesn’t help that aspects that would make her more sympathetic like the poor relationship she has with her father isn’t really explored. Why is this so underutilized?

    4 This take on Norman Osborn isn’t that great either. He’s reduced to a victim of a split personality. When he talks to his Goblin persona who is a manifestation of everything he wanted to do but was too afraid to do so, Norman gives in and takes out everyone who was opposing or went against him like the general and the men who took his company from him. The problem arises is that what is this version of Norman’s motivation after killing all of them. This Norman did not previously express a desire to take over New York just his company. Heck, he could have stopped his villain activities after killing the board and get away Scot-free. If he really was that concerned that Spider-Man would stop him, he would have just killed as decisively as he did with his previous victims. Why would a megalomaniac give the only person who by his own admission could stop him the option to join him? That would require him to share his power on some level with someone else! This movie keeps fluctuating from one extreme to the other on the level of Norman’s desires for power. It’s just a contrivance for him to still be in the plot and give some faux moral choice to Spider-Man. Whatever possible negative reactions the general public would have had is undermined when you have the people of New York assist Spider-Man when the Green Goblin is trying to kill him.

    Also, the Green Goblin has some notable weapons in this movie that he uses only once and nowhere else. One of his pumpkin bombs is apparently so powerful it turns the OsCorp board of directors into skeletons and then they turn to ashes. Why doesn’t he use it at any other point in the movie? It certainly would have helped in his his last battle against Spider-Man. Why give your villain such a powerful weapon and not even have him use anywhere else without any explanation whatsoever? I think a regular pumpkin bomb would have sufficed for that scene. The knockout gas that he had earlier could have been used in his last fight against Spider-Man as well.

    Furthermore, there’s also an unintentionally embarrassing change in Norman’s death than how it was in the source material. In the comics, his glider stabbed him in the chest and kills him, but in this movie it stabs him in the groin area. Why did the people behind this movie make a change like this? It gets even stranger when one realizes that in order to carry Norman’s body to his home, Peter had to yank out the glider and had to web Norman’s groin area to stop the bleeding. This is just disgusting. How did the people behind this movie not realize that this change makes such an emotional scene unintentionally hilarious?

    As you can tell from my comment, I think this movie is horrible. It also helped popularize a lot of misconceptions about Spider-Man. This series gets far too much credit, and I hate seeing such an awful adaptation get so much reverence.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have given me a lot to puzzle and think over. Thanks for your response.

      As I said the first movie is not without flaws, it’s not a totally faithful adaptation of the material. I try and look at it from their problem and perspective.

      Like

  2. I did notice and dislike from the beginning that the Green Goblin had weapons he could have/should have used more, I thought that was a notable flaw. Otherwise I didn’t even notice who Spider-Man went after first, it felt like he was going after both of them at the same time, and I think Peter not revealing Norman’s identity and crimes was at the least OK, in-character with the comic book character and what the film had shown before, and in the sequels Harry’s still backing Norman despite knowing his identity was just like the comics.

    The Peter kept the secret being a criticism strikes me as really harsh and really ignoring that Peter didn’t want to hurt Harry which revealing the truth very much would do.

    I didn’t really like that Mary Jane was going around from Flash to Harry (not really liking them) to Spider-Man (though just a crush) to Peter but that, while it could have been better developed, was understandable.

    Liked by 1 person

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