Looking back at Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man

Andrew takes a look back at Sam Raimi’s big-screen treatment of Spider-Man, and finds a superhero movie that still stands up almost a decade on…

The X-Men films came pounding on our door, dressed in smart suits and offering us an inroad into worlds of violent nutcases in spandex saving the world, remaining nothing less than admirable despite their inherent silliness. Spider-Man, by contrast, knocked politely and meekly, introduced itself and then turned out to have been our best friend all along.

Where Spider-Man succeeds is in its characterisations. Yes, we’ve got American teenagers played by actors in their late 20s, but they’ve been well cast. For a mass market, the key to superheroes is a version of realism that allows for the miraculous and ridiculous to occur. The balance is everything. Then, once a semblance of normality has been introduced, we can go a bit nuts. The first film can go nuts, sure, but it has to hide it beneath a veneer of pseudo-reality.

So, we see old people gratuitously using the word ‘ass’. We like them immediately. Then Aunt May talks about muddling through and everyone loving each other, and she is immediately and forever set in her ways of dispensing homespun mimsy twee-on-a-stick. Why couldn’t she die instead of Uncle Ben? Why?

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Twenty minutes in, and the Green Goblin is already born. Peter Parker is now Spider-Man in all but costume. The film picks and chooses from the compacted rush of the Ditko and Lee origin story, and the decompressed slow-build of Bendis and Bagley’s Ultimate Universe. A lot of the best bits of this film are down to the foundations it builds on.

The origin story, while initially short and to the point, has within it all the necessary qualities that you’d expect of any modern superhero. A geek who fancies someone is easy to relate to, the fantastic abilities he gains and the freedoms he earns from them are something the audience can completely put themselves into. Then, rather than immediately rush out and fight crime, he tries to earn money.

The whole story seems scientifically designed to appeal to a comic book audience, but also with universal appeal. Peter Parker is a teenager. He doodles, he’s unashamedly enthusiastic about science and nature, he says and does entirely the wrong things. He’s us, basically. Even people who don’t consider themselves geeks can put themselves in his shoes.

What the film adds is the character development that Ultimate Spider-Man‘s slower pace affords. The cinematic medium is ideally suited to a fast pace and character moments. The script is on the Stan Lee side of economical, but does its job perfectly. Why add extra dialogue if what you’ve got tells you everything you need to know about these people?

What the film does add, as mentioned, is its inspired choices of cast and production team.

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Tobey Maguire is excellent, playing three different variations on the same person. The rest of the cast, with the exception of Willem Dafoe and the relentlessly entertaining JK Simmons, are playing non-showy, grounded characters and act accordingly.

James Franco does a lot of non-verbal acting that makes Harry Osborn more interesting than his father. Norman Osborn is more interesting than the Green Goblin, who are noticeably distinct characters. The bad guy, ultimately, is poorly sketched and the weak link of the movie. The Green Goblin just rants – Norman Osborn displays more character in his transformation sequence as he reacts to the touch of cold metal.

The other, comparatively minor weak point is that Spider-Man the film is funny, but Spider-Man the character is not. Certainly when you compare him to the comics, Bendis’ ceaselessly quippy dialogue was one of the best things about Ultimate Spider-man, as he traded banter and dispensed one-liners while he fought. For someone whose only experience of the character is from these films, it might come as some surprise to find out that Spider-Man is actually really funny.

Fortunately the direction of Sam Raimi is both determinedly in the real world and in another kinetic hyper-reality, part Tim-Burton-Gotham, part pulpy noir, complete with flickering neon and stylised goons.

There are plenty of other elements to compensate. The love story, the hairstyles and good-natured humour have a real matinee feel to them, as timeless as Indiana Jones and Back To The Future at their best. This all intermingles casually, effortlessly, with Raimi bringing non-gory horror and violence that alternates between cartoony and thumpingly solid. Sometimes this happens in the same scene, such as when the Green Goblin destroys Aunt May’s room while she is praying, the grand guignol of the Devil reference mingling with the sudden and unexpected splintering of wood and plaster.

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The set pieces and the characters’ motivations dovetail into the massive explosions and moral dilemmas of the Queensboro Bridge sequence, and the final, brutal and slow motion fight sequence between Spider and Goblin. While the big set pieces perhaps lack spectacle, they are at least all, unusually, character motivated. Everything happens because of the relationships between the lead characters. Harry Osborn is jealous and angry, his father wants a different son and chooses Peter Parker, and attacks Mary-Jane and Aunt May because of their association.

Everything happens because of the way these people are, not just because stuff has to blow up. The storyline and characterisation stemming from Stan Lee’s original story are expanded enough to tell a contemporary version that absolutely nails the balance between the demented and the realistic, while making the most of the fact that the medium has changed.

It lasts two hours, but they’re hardly bum numbing. We don’t have anything as convoluted, hollow and disregarding of the audience as the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise turned out. Spider-Man has been crafted and maintains its grip on the viewer throughout, even if its final third is weaker than the prior two. It starts off so well that this is no terrible thing, however. My tea went cold, and then I forgot to put my lunch in the oven.

I had forgotten how good this film is, you see. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly in the four star rating category, an above average romp with depth.

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It strikes me now, but this is the kind of film that Captain America was aiming for, but couldn’t quite manage. It’s also, by and large, pitched exactly right for the family audience. It’s scary, sure, but this is not one of those films where you feel they had to cut things out to make it fit in with a desired rating, and so nothing feels compromised as a result.

The Amazing Spider-Man has a lot to live up to. There’s a reason this origin story is barely tampered with, and to do it again with a different (but undeniably promising) cast and different villain is a risky strategy. Focusing on character over action is the rumoured direction the franchise is heading in, but arguably a near perfect blend of this has already been achieved. Character-based-action, in fact.